After leaving school aged 15, Michelle Mone went on to found lingerie brand Ultimo and made millions. She tells Jonathan Whiley about her latest venture – a global interior design business
Perched on the edge of a squishy sofa in a suite at The Dorchester, Baroness Michelle Mone, in a sleek cream gown with one perfectly tanned leg crossed over another, means business.
Her eyes, as arresting as shiny marbles, fix me with a steely gaze. “My dad used to teach me that if people come up to you and they want your pocket money, you just stare them in the eye and don’t blink,” she says in a Scottish burr as warm and homely as freshly baked shortbread.
“I always communicate with my eyes. I can’t stand it when we go to this fancy yacht parties – which I do quite a lot now – and someone asks me a question and I’m answering them and they look away to see who is coming in the room.
“Oh my god! That is it! If they look away from me I actually walk away from them. They don’t deserve my time.”
No-nonsense and refreshingly outspoken, it’s easy to see how Lady Mone has become a business powerhouse. There were signs of her acumen at an early age; at 11 she had 17 teenagers working for her, carrying out paper rounds.
Now 45, the latest string to the Baroness’s bow is the launch of a new global interior design business aimed at “delivering British-inspired elegance.”
“I have developed two of my own homes and I’m passionate about interiors,” she says. “We’re a different design company… we have architects in-house, the fabric designers are in-house for bespoke fabrics and the furniture designers are in-house to make custom-made furniture.”
High net worth individuals are the target audience with a seven storey home in Belgravia among her first projects.
“I can’t say too much at the moment but it’s very typical of our signature style,” she says. “It’s incredibly luxurious and has a strong British element when it comes to the design and materials. It’s also the cutting edge of technological advancement and has some one of-a-kind interiors features.”
There is also the small matter of a £40m property in St Barths and two towers in Dubai. “I don’t do anything small,” she says. “It’s a global business…we stand for high-quality, glamorous but sophisticated design, bespoke for the individual.”
Michelle says it’s a passion project and a venture that will be among her last, admitting she will retire from the ‘business and speaking world’ in three years time. “I don’t think I’ll be doing anything else,” she says. “This will be my focus now.”
Entering the world of interior design is a natural move for a woman who created a £50m business by founding lingerie company Ultimo, the brand which rocketed to fame when Julia Roberts wore one of their bras to play Erin Brockovich.
Lady Mone has since become a government start-up czar under David Cameron and a member of the House of Lords.
Her achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider her life story is boomarked by difficult chapters. Born in the gritty East End of Glasgow, she had contend with the death of her nine-year-old brother from spina bifida and at 15, left school to support her family as her father confronted life in a wheelchair.
The boardroom has been no less challenging. A distributor nearly bankrupted Ultimo in its infancy by running off with £1.4 million – “that was the biggest lesson of my life,” she tells me – and a bitter divorce from the father of her three children in 2011 cost her millions.
Michelle moved into The Dorchester for a year in the aftermath and once the tears had subsided, began piecing her life back together again. “Every time I’ve fallen and crashed down – which is many, many times – I’ve always go on to bigger things,” she says.
Now she wakes up with a positive mindset and a strict routine; a shot of ginger, a shot of cider vinegar, a cup of hot water with lemon, followed by training, yoga and juices.
She credits yoga with keeping her calm if things do go wrong. “Now I’m cool as a cucumber,” she says. “But 10 years ago I would have been freaking out.”
While Michelle may be bullish on big issues such as women in business or opportunities for young people, on personal matters there is a vulnerability. She eminates a relatable, nervous energy; occasionally fidgeting or nibbling at her nails.
A very shy child, she admits she has always lacked in confidence. “I struggle even now,” she says. “I have to work on it all the time. When it comes to business I will always win. When it comes to me personally, I lack confidence in a big way.”
What fazes her? “Nothing really,” she says, pausing. “When I wake up the morning I do have a fear of failure. Although I’ve bagged my fortune with Ultimo, I think that is just the start of it. I don’t think I’ve made it yet.”
Entering the House of Lords in 2015 really pushed her out of her comfort zone; at first she felt she didn’t deserve to be there. “I’m not an academic – I left school at 15 – and the house is full of incredibly intelligent academics,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t contribute, but after 18 months I will.”
It’s quite the achievement for a woman who recalls playing Monopoly with her parents on the lounge floor; a child with dreams of one day opening a business in Mayfair.
“I always used to land on Mayfair,” she says. “I used to say ‘I’m going to own a place in Mayfair one day’. I used to say that I would be a real success if I was there one day.”
She still seems flattered to receive letters from people who find her story inspirational and hopes it will help others realise a can-do attitude can go a long way.
Having a media profile hasn’t always been easy though; during the fight for Scottish independence she had had to contend with death threats as an advocate to save the Union and tabloid newspapers haven’t always been kind.
“My media relationship is love-hate,” she says. “I’ve had horrific things happen and I’ve had amazing things happen. Horrific during the divorce and everything else. Unfortunately in this life when you become successful, there is a lot of jealously.”
She still finds it strange that fans ask her to sign pictures or the paparazzi chase her down the street. “You think ‘I’m not a pop star or an actress, I’m just a businesswoman’. I’ve been a bit different than maybe traditional-style business women… I’ve not been afraid to show off my cleavage and not scared to wear what I want to wear.”
Right now, she says, is the most content she has ever felt. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove any more,” she says.
There is a new man in her life too; billionaire boyfriend, Doug Barrowman. “He’s from Glasgow, three miles apart from me!,” she says. “We just hit it off.”
Previously under-the-radar, Michelle managed to persuade him to take part in a photoshoot for Hello! magazine and eagle-eyed viewers watching slick Sky Atlantic series Riveria may have spotted Doug in a cameo appearance in the opening episode.
“His boat gets digitally blown up in it,” says Michelle. “He was in it as a walk-on part, just as a laugh.”
Michelle says they are not short of red carpet invitations but value private family time. If she does want to party, she doesn’t have to travel too far; she has a nightclub and karaoke room in her own home.
What’s her go-to karoake classic? She laughs. “Whitney Houston – Greatest Love Of All,” she says. “I would say I’m amazing but my friends would say I sound like a cat.”
She shoots me another Julia Roberts smile; she’s in a good place in her life but says she will never be complacent with her happiness. “Things can change in a heartbeat,” she says. “I’ve been there far too many times. I never take anything for granted.”