A View from the Top: Michelle Mone, founder of lingerie company Ultimo

Maggie Pagano
Friday 30 June 2017 13:43
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Baroness Mone of Mayfair is tall and imposing – 5 ft 9½in, plus a few inches for her heels. She’s deeply tanned, wearing a skin-tight white sleeveless dress and is as delightfully big-bosomed as you would expect from the woman behind the Ultimo silicon-padded cleavage bra. And as sweet as pie.

You can see why Mone was told to tone down when she first arrived at the House of Lords. The sight of her dressed like this must have sent a few of those peers into cardiac arrest.

Perhaps David Cameron - who nominated her for the peerage – had a better sense of humour than we knew. Maybe letting this Glaswegian belle loose among the beasts was part of his cunning plan to cut down the Lords?

Who knows, but Mone tells me she nearly didn’t take up his offer. “When David called to say, ‘How would you like to be a baroness for life,’ I said I didn’t think I could do it. It would take me out of my comfort zone.”

“I told him ‘I’m a businesswoman, an entrepreneur. I don’t have the education, the background or the qualifications to do this.”

And Cameron’s response? “Well, he said: ‘You will grow into it.’” She laughs: “He was right. I have grown into it. Looking back, what’s funny is that when I go around the world with Tony Robbins [the US motivational author] giving speeches, I tell people to do just that – get out of your comfort zone. Take risks.”

That was nearly two years ago, and now the 46-year-old from the city’s East End tenements, who left school at 15, loves being with her peers. “I have settled down, met so many different and interesting people who I never thought would be friends. I've learned about so many new things I never thought I would, like the recent energy bill. I am here for life now, and I don’t want to run out of the door any more.”

Today she is holding court in the cool of the Dorchester Suite at the Dorchester Hotel, on one of the hottest days of the year. She is running late for our lunch date and is tucking into a salad when we meet, so offers me a sandwich; only the kitchen needs 40 minutes to make one.

Too long: the interview is scheduled for precisely that. And she’s under pressure – there is a queue of press waiting, from rival newspapers to Hello magazine – to hear about her latest business venture, Michelle Mone Interiors, or MMI Global, which she has set up with the new love of her life, Doug Barrowman, the man she says is “her match”. Her very public and bitter divorce from her ex-husband, and father of her three children, was the “best thing that ever happened to me”.

How come she knows Barrowman is the one? “Well, I know lots of businessmen. Great men like John Caldwell (Phones4Us billionaire), Tom Hunter (Scottish billionaire) and Stelios (Haji-Ionnou) and they are all mates, good friends. But I have never been attracted to them - I mean to other businessmen - but there is something special about Doug, he is my mate. He’s my match.’’

Barrowman is a fellow Glaswegian who grew up three miles away from her home. He studied as an accountant at Glasgow University, going on to set up paintball sites. He moved into private equity, built up one of the world's biggest cable companies and is now a billionaire property developer with six homes, spectacular superyachts, a stable full of Ferraris as well as paintings by Picasso. He’s also a generous philanthropist, donating to the Prince’s Trust as well as funding schools in Africa.

He may have met his match too. “Doug likes to work under the radar, prefers to be in the background. But I’m persuading him to come out in the open a bit more. He’s even agreed to do the shoot with Hello. And wear make-up for the photos.” She smiles: “I don't think he liked it much.”

Being a businesswoman was always her aim. “From the age of about nine or 10, I was always watching the news, interested in current affairs and was amazed that a woman, Margaret Thatcher, could be Prime Minister.”

“She was inspiring. Even then wanted to go into business but when I told my careers teacher at school, she said wouldn’t be able to as I was dyslexic.”

But needs must. She dropped out of school to earn money when her father – who mixed inks for the Glasgow newspapers – became seriously ill, and wheelchair bound. Taking several jobs, including modelling, she worked her way up to become marketing director of Labatts brewery at the age of 24. She had married young to her childhood sweetheart, a Catholic with a bishop in the family so converted, and together they went on to set up the Ultimo brand.

That was her first conversion. Her second was switching from Labour to the Tories, ahead of the Scottish independence referendum. “I had been Labour all my life but the potential break-up of the union changed that. I had to get involved even though I was warned not to by my parents. They are very quiet, thoughtful people and always told me never get involved in religion, football or politics.”

They were right. “It was a horrible campaign, one of violence and threats from the SNP who tried to claim that I didn’t love Scotland. But I stuck to my guns, pointing out what would happen to the Scottish economy if the oil price kept falling. Do you remember? Oil was then $113 a barrel, then came down to $52 and then $24. Well, I was right. Imagine what would have happen if we had independence.”

She came to Cameron’s attention during the campaign, and was invited to visit No 10 and join a small lobbying group. “As I said to David before the referendum, you have to connect with wee Mary from Govan, and get to her level. If you do that, you will have everyone.”

Ruth Davidson is terrific, she says, “What a woman.” Mone also supported Remain at the EU vote but reckons that Theresa May will last longer than people think: “We are were we are. We need to get on with Brexit. Everyone needs to calm down.”

The PR lady reminds us we haven’t talked about her new business. So here goes: MMI is for those with zillions to spend on their homes, from underground spas to water on the walls, and someone to project manage for them. That’s Mone. “My taste is classical British but I am doing some interesting things with wallpaper. At heart I am a designer. That’s what I did at Ultimo – 17 inventions to get the right shapes.”

With offices in Park Lane, Chelsea, Dubai and on the Isle of Man where she lives with Barrowman, Mone already has wealthy clients on the books – one with a £22m house to refurbish in London, with a basement spa – and a £40m newbuild house on St Barts. “I don’t need to work. But I love designing. It’s what I do best,” she says, showing off a sparkling diamante ring which she designed and sells on the QVC shopping channel. Our time is up.

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