Sarah Sands: Know thyself - it's the only way to avoid being a figure of fun

We try to see ourselves as others do, but celebrities have no such hang-up

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According to Heather Mills – who has been taken to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal by her former nanny Sara Trumble – the campaigner for organic food and land mines presides over her household with Portia-like sweetness and dignity. The former Lady McCartney said through wounded tears that she was an "understanding" boss in a "supportive" environment.

"I would never raise my voice to her and I have never been bad tempered to her, ever, ever, ever."

Far be it for me to come between a mother and her nanny. Heather Mills may have been running a House of Prayer and be the victim of the cruellest slander. On the other hand, the words of the High Court judge Sir Hugh Bennett come back to me. Even as he granted her a £24m divorce settlement, he reproached Mills for being "less than candid" and "overall a less than impressive witness". After Mills had chucked water over Sir Paul McCartney's divorce lawyer, Fiona Shackleton, the judge ventured that the ex-Lady McCartney exhibited "an explosive and volatile character".

She seems to conform to Hume's theory of self as a mixed old bundle of perceptions. There is an ever-present discrepancy between Heather Mills's view of herself and the one the rest of the world holds. What must madden her is that it used to be reconciled. When she first appeared on the public scene, we agreed that she was a warm hearted, plucky young woman who impressively triumphed over her disability. Now, we approach each interview with a sense of dread.

Like Mohamed al-Fayed, Heather Mills believes in a conspiracy of powerful enemies: the media and lawyers. She is the honest outsider with only £24m to make her case.

Impulsive and suspicious, she surrounds herself with unorthodox companions. Her troublesome nanny was talent-spotted by Heather Mills working as a local beauty therapist. "I like to take people and try to help them better themselves," said Heather Mills, modestly.

I fear that Channel 4's Supernanny would accuse her of lacking "boundaries", however. Miss Trumble's duties included spraying her naked boss with fake tan, and Ms Mills has said her nanny was "like a daughter" to her (Stella McCartney might argue that this did not imply a benign relationship). Her only offence was to refuse to pay for her employee's breast implants, as she feared that the young woman was making a mistake. Ms Mills's six-year-old daughter, Beatrice, for whom Ms Trumble was caring, has not so far got a mention at the employment tribunal.

Ms Mills's public relations used to be run by the former News of the World editor Phil Hall. Then she turned to her "worldwide spokesperson", an American called Michele Elyzabeth, who spoke of her client's good-heartedness and high-mindedness. Later, after a dramatic falling out, Ms Elyzabeth changed her mind. She described Heather Mills instead as "a calculating, pathological liar and the biggest bitch on the planet". Perhaps with good reason, Ms Mills is now her own worldwide spokesperson.

Despite her deep conviction, her self-advocacy does not seem to persuade the public. She proclaims that she has been treated "worse than a paedophile", by which she means that the press suspects her of being greedy and unbalanced. She demands recognition for her charity work, which starts to look like a form of egotism. The point of charity work is that it should be selfless, not a purchased form of celebrity immunity from criticism. Meanwhile, her self-narrative becomes shriller and more demanding. Why can't the world see her for the heroic and beautiful woman that she is?

At its best, the press is a mirror. The powerful and the famous mostly believe themselves to be fabulously handsome and virtuous, and employ expensive public relations teams to impart this simple message to the papers. Sometimes the papers can be hoodwinked, but rarely for ever. The truth tumbles out, the mirror finally catches the genuine reflection.

The shock of an unflattering perception is often devastating for the subject. Members of Parliament are still reeling from the jeering over their expenses. As a judge for the Sony radio awards, I recently had the pleasure of listening all over again to the interviews with MPs at the start of the expenses scandal. They believed that the public had simply failed to understand the complexity of their lives and the dogged sacrifice of the very many family members who worked for them. Within months, all defences had dried up. They had encountered an objective reality. The public were not stupid or envious, after all. They just applied an external test. How would it wash in their own lives?

The latest lesson in political self-knowledge was delivered mercilessly by Channel 4's Dispatches. The programme was so much worse than the newspaper preview of it, because of the tone and appearance of the offending ministers. Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon basked in their sense of self-worth and importance. It is why Hoon's subsequent apology was so satisfying. Dispatches was as brilliant and cruel as the unmasking of Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Hoon said miserably: "I accept that some of the things, in the cold light of day, when they appear in print and are broadcast nationally on television, don't look good... I recognise that I was guilty of showing off... I think that is the best expression I could use."

Heather Mills cannot yet accept that some of her actions, "in the cold light of day", don't look good. She still rages against the light and everything else. She is intelligent enough to construct arguments for herself, but blind to an alternative view. By nature bright and hot-headed, she has been driven a little bonkers by fame and money. A woman who regards herself as heroic should stay clear of television and the courts. Ms Mills has spent too long with both.

In almost every divorce, there are two sides. Yet spouses who split up usually want all the high ground for themselves. Heather Mills believes, in the manner of George Bush, that the world is with her or against her. There is no such thing as a candid friend. She could not bear sceptical glances at home or in court. Seeing herself under observation from her stepdaughter Stella McCartney, she immediately accused her of jealously trying to wreck the marriage.

Floundering under the cool indictment by Fiona Shackleton, she flung water at her. Later she accused Shackleton of "calling me many, many names before meeting me when I was in a wheelchair". Her distorted view of reality is striking. Shackleton is meticulously polite and professional. It is not believable that she would indulge in fish-wife expletives about a disabled woman. And even that disability is inconsistent. Sometimes she bases her identity on her refusal to give in to the limitations of her prosthetic leg: she can dance on ice. At other times, she plays the helpless victim.

Heather Mills is a woman of the world who understands little about herself. It is the difference between experience and enlightenment. The wisdom we all try to teach our children is to imagine what it is like to be somebody else. Once you can master empathy, you can acquire self-knowledge. The most contented people I know are those whose view of themselves is no higher than the esteem of others. If you begin to have an inflated sense of yourself, you will find yourself correspondingly disappointed in the way you are perceived by your colleagues, family or the public.

Novelists such as Jane Austen and George Eliot understood that the comedy and tragedy of human nature is based on self-knowledge or lack of it. Middlemarch is the great work on self-delusion. Edward Casaubon believes that his epic book, The Key to All Mythologies, is a work of towering significance. His wife Dorothea comes to know that her husband is not up to writing anything great. The tension is heartbreaking.

To avoid self-knowledge, it helps to be isolated by power. The very rich and famous suspect, rightly, that no one they employ is going to risk telling the truth. Stalin used to lure comrades into intimacy or drunkenness and then savagely punish them. Do you remember how elaborately admired was the poetry of Saddam Hussein?

The natural response to unbridled power is obsequiousness. That is why tyrants in all fields are so taken aback when acquaintances or staff tell a different story, once they get their liberty. "Why didn't you tell me you felt like that?" asked the aggrieved dictators. "I thought we were friends." It is why Roman generals awarded triumphs are said to have entered Rome with a slave at their shoulder to remind them of their mortality.

Heather Mills, like other great egotists divorced not only from their spouses but also from reality, should bear in the mind the inscription at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: "Know thyself."

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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