Juliet Gellatley talks to an extraordinary woman who refuses to acknowledge defeat in any sphere of her life, has battled her way to the top and has done it….
One Step at a Time
Heather Mills - exclusive Viva! interview
Some say that Heather Mills’s life is a rags to riches fairy tale - but there’s much more to it than luck. She is an inspirational and gritty go-getter who has carved out her own destiny from difficult times. Reading her autobiography, A Single Step, I felt huge empathy with this determined woman – Heather is a born campaigner!
Talking to her, she immediately puts you at ease. There’s no sniff of arrogance – instead she’s down to earth and has a wicked sense of fun. When she called me at Viva! for info on hunting prior to an appearance on Question Time earlier this year, she joked about putting her artificial leg up the backside of one of the pro-hunter’s on the panel. At that point, I knew we’d get on!
To understand Heather, her weaknesses and strengths, her compassion and convictions, you have to look at her troubled childhood. Born in 1968, her early years were spent in Libanus, near Brecon, in rural mid-Wales. There where lots of animals around, including a goat, a goose and their beloved dog Ben, and her love of animals started here. At six, they moved near to Newcastle - hence her irresistible Geordie accent.
Reading Heather’s autobiography, it’s striking how much of it is taken up by her dad, Mark Mills, as she tries to understand this unloving, selfish, uncommunicative, violent man with a short fuse but who also had streaks of artistic wizardry and a passion for opera. Amazingly, she didn’t even know what his job was.
Heather’s relationship with her mum, Beatrice, was also a struggle – someone, she says, who was not a natural mother and was almost Victorian in her lack of emotional and physical connection with her children. “She was never one for cuddling”, recalls Heather, but still she saw her as a “good mother” when the children were young. Heather’s father constantly criticized and bullied Beatrice – insisting the house be kept spick and span but always looking for a reason to explode and when he did, it terrified the three children:
“He’d yell, throw things and belt Mum around the head and it didn’t matter that we were there. Sometimes, I really believed he was going to murder her”.
Not surprisingly, Beatrice walked out but the awful thing was, she didn’t take the children with her. Heather was nine, sister Fiona seven and brother, Shane, 12. It wasn’t until four years after her mother’s tragic death, when Heather was 25, that she was able to face the stark truth – her mum had abandoned her children to a violent man because her boyfriend, who she’d known only a few months, didn’t want them. Heather finally accepted that she was allowed to feel angry about it. In typical Heather fashion, she used that emotional release to move forward – to forgive her mum and feel relief that her childhood wasn’t her fault.
And what a childhood! As Heather’s sister Fiona says: “Our father was a bully and a coward and when our mother finally left him, he turned his violence on us. He used us like slaves from a very young age to help him realise his dream of staging an animated version of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. We were often forced to stay up well into the night, cutting up slides, preparing presentations and writing correspondence for him. Instead of finding out why we were always falling asleep in class, our teachers handed out detentions for lateness”.
“Our family were always short of money and our father demanded that we find food and clothes so we turned to shoplifting, learnt to hide from the bailiffs and became experts at domestic duties. I’m not ashamed to say that we were forced to steal because when you are a young child, you’d rather do that than face a beating from your father.”
When Heather was 15 her father was sent to prison for fraud and she and Fiona went to live with their mother and partner Charles in London; while Shane escaped to Brighton to live with his grandparents. Again it didn’t work out and again Beatrice chose between Heather and Charles. She chose Charles and Heather moved out to live in a caravan on a Clapham fairground. Ironically, it was a relatively happy time, where she imbibed the strong community spirit. But it didn’t last and she was made homeless and for a few months faced the daunting prospect of living on the street at London’s Arches. Again the generosity of those who have nothing to give made a lasting impact.
Throughout all this, neither Heather nor her siblings lost their spirit – in fact the opposite happened! Talking to Heather, you’re struck by her vivacious and confident personality; her strength and compassion. She has used her experiences to help others. She fights for the underdog – a kind warrior!
From the age of 15 Heather has almost always worked – anywhere that helped her pay her way. Cocktail bar, casino, sunbed salon - until she used her stunning looks to become a model. The jobs, however, were erratic and so the vision and entrepreneurship Heather had learned from her father came into play. With her own creativity and astuteness, she set up her first business at the age of 19, importing Jolibust - a stick under the bust jobbie so big breasted women could wear backless tops, without, as Heather smiles, “bouncing around giving everyone black eyes”.
The company went well but with her bright personality and life’s-for-the-taking attitude, Heather got bored once the initial challenge was over. She sold Jolibust for a neat profit. Her next venture was importing frozen yogurt and again she sold up when the excitement fizzled out.
The modelling jobs kept coming and she landed a contract to become the face of a French cosmetics company and at 20 moved to Paris. For the first time in her life, Heather had money to play with and her horizons started to widen.
At 21 there was another life change and Heather married. It lasted four years during which time she had two ectopic pregnancies. With grit and bravery she chose not to have an operation each time and risk her fertility, rather allowing the foetus in the fallopian tube to be absorbed – causing excruciating pain that most couldn’t endure.
Heather clearly doesn’t agonise over decisions and while on holiday in Yugoslavia, she fell in love with the country and a man who had nothing to offer materially but everything emotionally and upped roots to be with him. The following months were, she says, some of the happiest in her life. The war began and the fighting ripped apart her beautiful new homeland and her relationship eventually ended.
Back in the UK, Heather’s modelling career was surging ahead but in London, in the August of 1993, her life was to change forever. As she stepped into a road by Kensington Palace Hotel, a police motorcycle hit her. Her body was flung in one direction, her left leg in another and she suffered severe injuries to her head, pelvis, ribs and lungs. Remarkably, there was a doctor near the scene who saved her from bleeding to death. She was helicoptered with severed leg to Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood, but it could not be reattached. This, Heather says, was the first time she asked herself “Why me?”Her modelling had really taken off but now what? But, she says, she loathes self-pity and quickly ordered herself to be positive. “Don’t let life beat you now – come on be positive.” I guess that’s Heather! She decided she had to change direction, but she’d done that before, she was a risk-taker – so instead of thinking about her loss as a disaster she told herself to think of it as an adventure. It was the start of a new world – of helping thousands of people around the world who’d had their lives torn apart by minefields; of becoming vegetarian and fighting for animals; becoming a patron of Viva!; and of course, meeting and marrying the love of her life, Paul McCartney.
It was Heather losing her leg that made her become almost vegan. Once discharged from hospital she could not get her leg to heal. She had to change “disgusting dressings” every day but the infection in her stump just wouldn’t go away. She tried everything - antibiotics, homeopathy, acupuncture – but in vain. The infection spread to the bone and Heather had to endure a second amputation of a further two inches from her leg. She explained to me: “In hospital they fed me junk as do all hospitals, and people were bringing me chocolate because I’ve always been a chocoholic – and I was just feeding the bacteria. I find out much later that sugar helps bacteria grow and I couldn’t get rid of the infection and it was creeping further up my leg.
“My girlfriend said she’d cured herself of breast cancer at the Hippocrates Institute in Florida and I should discharge myself and get out of the hospital. I took the risk, went over to the US and they basically said, ‘You’ve got to come off all antibiotics and medication,’ which was pretty daunting after three and a half months in hospital.” The Institute is based on holistic healing and they put Heather on a raw food vegan diet and used wheat grass and garlic poultices on her wound:
“It was frightening to put all my faith in them. I’d always worked out and taken vitamin supplements but I’d never really understood the effects of food on your body but we had lectures on that. The wheat grass tasted of saccharin, it was horrible! I had to have vegetable juices every day and things like raw mushroom and pepper loaf with avocado sauce. They used an amino acid spray called Braggs which was the saviour of this initially bland diet. I had such a sweet tooth that being taken off all sugar was a bit like going cold turkey for me!”
I asked Heather how quickly her leg healed under this regime. “In one week my infection cleared up and then my wound started to heal! It was unbelievable. The cavity I’d been fruitlessly cleaning for over three months suddenly healed over with pink skin. It literally healed enough for me to get a leg fitted while I was out there”.
The understandable enthusiasm for wheatgrass juice Heather developed was dismissed by the British media: “I tried to tell them about its amazing healing effects but everyone thought it was just completely nuts!” Obviously ahead of her time!
But what about when she came home – did she stay on the same diet? “I stuck with it for a year and a half. And it was very difficult – I grew my own wheatgrass. My whole house looked like an indoor garden centre! I brought a wheatgrass juicer back from the US because we didn’t have anything like that here back then. After that time I introduced cooked foods back into my diet.” I told Heather she must a lot of willpower to stick to a raw food wheatgrass based diet for that length of time but as she pointed out: “Yeah, it was difficult, but when you’ve nearly died and your leg’s been amputated more and more you’re willing to just try anything and stick with it when it works!” Also there were other benefits: “I looked the best I’ve ever looked in my life. It’s the best diet, really healthy but it’s not realistic in everyday life if you want to eat out and have romantic dinners with your partner!”
So what about Heather’s diet today? She smiles enthusiastically and tells me: “I’m vegetarian now – it’s definitely a healthy diet and saves animals, which is very important to me as I detest cruelty. It’s only since I met Paul that I really got to understand how vegetarianism not only benefits your health massively but also makes a huge difference to the planet, to animals and to feeding the world. And being veggie makes you feel great!
“I could never go back to eating meat or fish and I’m moving towards being vegan. When I crack an egg now, I look and think, ‘Could that have become a baby?’ All that stuff goes through my head but then I think, ‘Oh well, how could I make my cakes without eggs and what if I wanted to have an omelette?’. But I’ve found there are egg replacers and I make scrambled tofu and drink soya milk. I really admire people who are vegan but it’s hard with our lifestyle. Maybe when we’re settled in one place and our baby’s in school and I can really get focused on creating some fantastic vegan dishes, then I might go for it.”
Warming to her theme, she continues: “I hate the cruelty of factory farming. Cruelty in any area of life to is bad enough, but to animals, who have no voice, it’s just disgusting. The growth promoters and antibiotics they mete out daily in those places have created superbugs. Factory farming is cruel and dangerous and it’s all done for people who don’t care enough about animals and who don’t care what they’re putting in their bodies. It’s the way animals are treated that most horrifies me and I have less pity for anyone who wants to fill their body with diseased flesh and chemicals. Factory farming should be ended now by the Government.”
Heather and Paul had a baby girl, Beatrice (named after her mum) in October 2003. I have twin sons a year older than Beatrice and I know how your thinking changes so I ask Heather if her desire for a better world has become more intense - what’s her hope for the future?
She answers with infectious optimism: “My hope is in continuing to put the message out there - and my excitement is that more and more people are going vegetarian. I try and convince my friends because it’s about awareness, awareness, awareness. Two have become vegetarian. Whenever anyone comes to our house and I cook, they taste all these great things and they say if only they could eat like that every day. I say ‘Well you can! Why can’t you?’ but they often say they’re not very good cooks or eat a lot of takeaways. I think it’s coming up with solutions for the TV dinner people that’s the answer”
“There are more and more great convenience foods making it easy for people to change – and so many people are. I don’t really care how we manage to get them to go vegetarian – if it’s for health like it was for me, they can then be educated about saving the animals. I think it’s wonderful that you run a health charity (Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation) and Viva! for the animals because it means you reach people from different perspectives. Sometimes I think you have you have to lead people slowly and coerce them into trying lots of different veggie foods so they know what to eat when they give up meat and fish.”
I wonder if anyone has made negative comments about Beatrice being veggie?
“Because Paul and Linda did such a great job with their kids - living proof that veggie children are really happy and healthy - we haven’t had any comments about her not getting her protein, and so on. But to be honest, we don’t mix with people who would be that ignorant! If it happened, I’d use my little shock tactics I learned at Hippocrates. ‘OK, you kill a pig that’s likely to have been diseased and full of antibiotics. And anyway, animal protein causes cancer” and they’re like, ‘Eugh, god, I don’t even like taking antibiotics when I’ve been to the doctor’s!’”
And if that story doesn’t work, she tells one much more gross!: “Luckily it’s going out of fashion now but when people who’ve been on the Atkins Diet complain about stomach and colon problems, I tell them, ‘No wonder, meat – even if it’s organic - just sits in the colon for years and years. After I came out of hospital - before I went vegetarian, just before I went to Hippocrates - I had to have colonic irrigation because I hadn’t been to the loo for about six weeks. They said that meat was coming out from five or six years ago! Putrefied meat just sticks in the crevices. I go into all the gory details!”
If that imagery doesn’t work, nothing will!!
I turn to a more personal (if there is anything more personal than that!) question – it’s about Paul’s first wife, Linda, who cared so passionately for animals and did so much for vegetarianism. I wondered if Heather worries about standing up for animals because the media may distort and twist her motives and accuse her of trying to step into Linda’s shoes?
As usual, Heather is open and honest: “Yes, I did initially have concerns and at first I turned down work with animal charities telling them that I had to stick to landmines and disability campaigns because ‘that’s what I do and I don’t really want to cross that line’. Sadly, even when I stuck to my own charity, I was still slated so getting involved in vegetarianism and animal rights is inviting the media to compare me with Linda. I was wary but then a video came to me about the dog and cat fur issue and seeing Alsatian puppies being skinned alive made me think who gives a toss what they think, I’ve got to do something.”
If you’ve ever been in doubt about Heather’s commitment to vegetarianism, forget it! She is a passionate and determined fighter for animals who becomes animated and captivating about her subject:
“I decided that I’m a campaigner so can actually put the animals’ voice out there and I couldn’t care less what some media may say. If they slag me off for my charity work, they’ll slag me off whatever I do!”
I asked Heather if she would honour Viva! by becoming a Patron? She talked to Paul and quickly came back to me: “YES! I’m the one being honoured.”
For Viva! it is fantastic to have a world renowned charity worker on board – someone who can never be accused of caring only for animals, not people. Through Heather’s landmine work, she has seen atrocities that most of us couldn’t imagine. She’s met children with shrapnel lodged in their head causing excruciating headaches; infants who have had their hands chopped off deliberately by soldiers; mothers whose legs have been torn off as they planted food for their family. She has vigorously campaigned to ban landmines and set up a charity to help the victims – organising convoys to amputees in war torn zones bringing life-changing prostheses to men, women, and children around the world. To date over 400,000 people have been helped. She is now focusing her energies on Adopt-A-Minefield, a campaign that raises awareness and funds to clear landmines and rehabilitates landmine survivors.
And Heather intends to use her position as ‘wife of a Beatle’ to full effect for both people and animals! Completely unabashed when asked about using her status as Paul’s wife to campaign, she replies: “Oh yeah, both me and Paul have to use his fame to focus on what’s important – because you can get in any door when you’re with a Beatle! It just means we can make things happen so that side of fame is very positive.”
That side?, I push! “You have to put up with the other side too and it’s a huge other side, but I’m managing to come to terms with it. I found it difficult at the beginning having lies about me repeated over and over but now I can see the bigger picture. I try not to get so devastated when people are cruel – no, not people, the media because the public are great, and very supportive but it’s not like it used to be.”
“At least now I can use my position to help Viva! and other important causes. I love Viva!’s energy. Every time I contact you and I need some information to push something forward, you’re just so informed and you do such great work - you’re making such a difference. Often Paul and I hear about ways that you’ve changed people that you don’t even know about, that’s why we love to support Viva!.”
And believe me, we appreciate it. What a team!