Thrills, spills & Heather Mills
My marriage to Paul McCartney, being banned from the Olympics and why I can have any man I desire…
According to popular myth, there is only one Heather Mills. A mad, very bad, wild-eyed harpy who married and divorced the universal ly beloved Paul McCartney, turning her – for a substantial chunk of the Noughties – into ‘Lady Mucca’.
But from an upside- down perspective in the blinding white glare of the morning sunlight on the icy slopes of Kuhtai, Austria, Mills is nothing short of an Alpine goddess as (for the tenth time in 80 minutes) she hauls all 8st 2oz of my dead-weight body back onto my skis, tells me I’m ‘doing great’ and lines me up (‘Get very tight between my legs’) for another attempted hill turn.
Mills, who is ranked 28th in world slalom by the International Paralympic Committee, has offered to teach me to ski. It’s a clever move in turning the tables. But in an attempt to prolong my breathers in between falling, we talk about, well, everything: her marriage to the ex-Beatle (‘I was completely in love with him; he was like a cross between Peter Pan and Captain Hook’), the daughter she shares with McCartney, Beatrice (‘She’s very smart, very loyal... I can’t deny she’s privileged but she’s definitely not spoilt’); her sex appeal (‘I’m very sexy, there isn’t a part of my body I’m not happy with’), her leg (she lost the lower half of her left leg when she was knocked down by a police motorcycle in 1993 but reveals that losing a limb was easier to deal with than the fallout from her divorce – ‘I became poison, I felt I lost everything’) as well as her controversial departure from last year’s British Paralympic skiing team.
Mills is nothing if not frank. And funny. ‘First time I got back to skiing after my accident, I got on a ski lift. I was talking to my friend when I felt this “whoosh” from my trousers. Then there was a scream from behind with a kid shouting, “Her leg has dropped off!” I was hopping around at the top of the lift and a snowboarder emerged carrying my leg shouting, “Whoa! Is this yours? That is so cool!” ’
But first, there is the question of why on earth she has agreed to take part in the Channel 4 show, The Jump, alongside a slew of celebrities including former cricketer Phil Tufnell, rugby star Mike Tindall, TOWIE’s Joey Essex, Dom Parker from Gogglebox, heptathlete Louise Hazel, Jodie Kidd, Chloe Madeley and Paralympian Jon-Allan Butterworth.
‘ I haven’t done TV in four years,’ she says with a lyrical Geordie lilt. ‘And I decided I wanted to do somet h i ng I ’d enjoy, something that shows other people with disabilities you can get out there and do stuff. I also wanted to do something th a t wou ld challenge me, something I could push mysel f with and something I’d get to learn from.’
It is a show so riven with danger (contestants have to bobsled, skeleton, slalom and snowboard as well as jump) that already two of this year’s contestants – Sally Bercow and Strictly dancer Ola Jor- dan – have limped out of the running. ‘That doesn’t scare me,’ grins Mills ruefully. ‘I’ve been through a lot, lot worse. Broken bones always mend.’ Did she have to ask McCartney’s permission? She raises her eyebrows. ‘No. Why would I? I can do what I want.’
And viewers love to see celebrities face a hellish ordeal – ironically it is through doing this that Mills hopes for redemption, for people to see her as she really is.
The training is full- on. The previous day she set a record as the first lower-leg amputee to attempt a ski jump. It turned out to be a problematic affair as she was unable to sit on the jump chair (‘It was too low for my leg, it stuck out, I couldn’t move it back’) but she still managed to complete the jump.
‘I bloody loved it,’ she says. She is unbelievably competitive. In the skeleton, the bobsled and the jump itself her disability puts her at a significant disadvantage. Undeterred, Mills is out to win.
But then this is a woman who threw a jug of water over McCartney’s divorce lawyer, Fiona Shackleton, in the midst of the multimillion-pound court case in 2008.
Later we prepare to move to another mountain, the ominously named Mut ters. This involves me taking off my snow gear, Mills taking off her leg and me massaging her stump because the specially designed prosthetic leg she uses to ski cuts off her circulation and can cause regular haematomas. I carry it to the car. It is unbelievably heavy, about 13lb in weight.
Mills is remarkably easy about her leg. She looks shocked when I ask her if she thinks losing a leg affected her sex appeal. ‘Not for a minute,’ she says. ‘I think I am very sexy. I’m very confident as a woman and there isn’t a part of my body I’m not happy with.
‘I never saw that by losing a leg I was in any way losing my femininity. Even now, I’m 47 and if I see a hot man I know I can have him. I might not want him but I can have him. I’m not embarrassed about my leg – in fact a good chat-up line from me is: “How do you fancy massaging my stump?” Sex appeal is about confidence. Confidence is about knowing who you are and being happy with that. Thank God I have my confidence.’
But back to the beginning. Even before Mills met McCartney (at an awards ceremony in 1999) her life story read like something from a Dickensian novel. Her father, John, was a handsome paratrooper who, Mills claims, was violently abusive to his wife Beatrice and three children Shane, Heather and Fiona. Beatrice left home when Mills was nine years old and the three children regularly stole food, she says, to evade more thrashings from their father.
At school in Washington, Tyne and Wear, Mills was told she would never amount to anything. This still rankles. She says: ‘I think it’s part of the reason I’ve always been so driven. I’d fall asleep in class, as my father would make me and my siblings work all night. My homework wasn’t done, I was incredibly skinny. I displayed all the signs of a child who had severe problems at home, yet my teacher never picked up on that and I got attacked again. It made me always want to fight back, fight for people with no voice.
Even then I thought something special would happen to me. Years later I saw that teacher when I’d invited all my old mates to the best hotel in town. I told her right to her face how wrong she was.’
By 15, she came to London to live with her mother. Rather inexplicably, she never stopped loving the woman who abandoned her ( Mills named her only child after her) and directs her anger only at her father. Both her parents are now dead. ‘I understand why my mother left, I always did. I was happy she got away from him,’ she says. She can only remember her mother hugging her once. ‘She just wasn’t a very emotional woman.’
Yet she looks close to tears as she tells how she missed being with her mother when she died because she had ran out to buy the red pyjamas she’d asked for in hospital.
She was just 46, Mills has just turned 47. ‘I’m now older than my mother was when she died – that is surreal.’
So much of her life has been surreal. After moving to London, there followed a wild period: running away to join a funfair, living under the arches in Waterloo and more shoplifting and modelling. She drove across landmine-ridden areas of Croatia to deliver donations, all of which was detailed in a book she wrote soon after losing her leg called Out On A Limb.
The book was a bestseller when it was published in 1995 (all the proceeds went to fund limb prosthetics in Croatia) and Mills became the darling of the media, commanding £50,000 an hour for inspirational speaking and setting up charities to supply prosthetic legs to war zones.
After she married McCartney, her revelations came back to haunt her. Many of her stories were said to have been fabrications. She nods at this. ‘My stepfather [Charles Stapley, a sometime Crossroads actor] said I was a fantasist. He was an emotional bully but that stuck and that was it. I never understood it because one minute I had a great relationship with the media and the next I was just vilified. My mistake was not defending myself at the time. I didn’t say anything because I was advised [by McCartney] to say nothing.’
Perhaps the biggest mistake of all, however, was marrying McCartney. Yoko Ono once said, ‘Marrying a Beatle turns the whole world against you.’ Mills nods: ‘I like Yoko. She’s a very wise, very lovely woman. And yes, for some reason it’s very hard to be married to a Beatle. Linda had it tough, Yoko had it tough and what happened to me after the divorce… losing my leg was easier to cope with.’
Does she regret it? She shakes her head. ‘I married Paul because I was completely in love with him. He had so much energy – he was a cross between Peter Pan and Captain Hook. I wasn’t even a Beatles fan. I barely even knew any of the songs. I liked one song by Wings but that was it. He loved that.
‘But anyone who thinks marrying a rock legend is going to be paradise… it just isn’t.’ She cannot – for legal reasons – say much about McCartney. In their divorce settlement, Mills, the mother of his 11-year-old daughter Beatrice, received a lump sum of £16.5 million and assets of £7.8 million, which included the properties she owned before she met
him. She was, as she points out, independently very wealthy when they met. It was her, she says, who insisted they keep the relationship secret for six months.
Ask her why she thinks it went wrong and she says: ‘I say what I think. If I think something is wrong I’ll say it. If I wasn’t that type of person we’d still be married now. But for years I was attracted to these very strong, powerful men who think they want a strong woman but actually they want someone who does what they want.
‘The men who seem the strongest are usually the most insecure. But I’ve finally broken that cycle. My last boyfriend, Jamie Walker [a holiday rep], was the opposite, but he is the most lovely, secure, honourable man.’ They split two years ago after six years together.
Mills has been married twice; first to businessman Alfie Karmal in 1989 (they divorced two years later). Her marriage to McCartney – who she met in 1999 and married in 2002 – lasted four years before they separated and then finally divorced in 2008.
Before McCartney she was engaged three times (documentary film-maker Chris Terrill, media executive Marcus Stapleton, and bond dealer Raffaele Mincione).
‘Every man, bar two, I’ve been out with, has asked me to marry him,’ she says.
There is no question, in her mind, about whether she will marry again. ‘Never, never, never,’ she says firmly. ‘I’m single, I want to have fun but I don’t want to be married. It’s one thing I’m absolutely sure about.’
During her acrimonious split from McCartney, Mills was held in the eye of a media storm. Some of his children made no secret of their dislike. She was branded a liar, a gold digger, a porn star in the press. She famously broke down on television in 2007. Today, it makes uncomfortable viewing.
Sitting beside her in the car is her friend of 25 years, Ruth Matthews. Like her sister Fiona, 45, brother Shane, 49 and half-sister Claire, 31, Matthews is part of Mills’s ring of supporters. ‘I don’t think many people could have gone through what she did. The only time I worried was when she went quiet after the divorce. I was really worried because that’s not her. She’s a fighter. She always fights.’
Iask whether at any point she felt she had lost the plot. She says: ‘I felt I lost everything. I spent my whole life raising money for charities and
was asked to leave every charity [from PETA to Adopt a Minefield] because became poison. That was who I was – when I met Paul the money I earned from doing talks all went to charity, I was offered a job with Larry King in America but couldn’t take it. Everything I was was taken away.’ But her divorce settlement left her an extraordinarily wealthy woman. ‘You know what,’ she says, ‘I’ve given 80 per cent of it away. I haven’t stopped doing work with land mines in war zones, except now I pay for my own mine sweepers, I take in prosthetic limbs, I pay for things myself.
‘I’m not interested in money. I fly easyJet, Ryanair, British Airways – always economy. I do my own hair and make-up, I buy clothes from TopShop and H&M. My life is pretty simple. I have my restaurant VBites [a vegan restaurant in Brighton – Mills is a committed vegan], I do a lot of skiing and when I’m skiing I live out of a campervan. I don’t have security, I don’t live a celebrity lifestyle.
‘I’m not interested. When I was married to Paul we toured the world after I had Beatrice. I hated it. I went on private planes and then I went through the restaurant of a hotel up to a private suite which I couldn’t leave because of all the fans. I just wanted a simple life with my daughter.’
But still she retains her flair for controversy. I have to admit this is part of her appeal. A lot of the time you spend with Mills your mouth is left more than ever so slightly agape. The downfall of the celebrity publicist, Max Clifford, was sparked, she says, in part by her. ‘When I married Paul I got a call on my mobile phone from Max Clifford. I never gave him my number, no one did. But he was on the phone telling me I needed him to represent me. I told him no. He then told me he was going to make sure I was ruined.
‘When anything happened, he would go on television and talk about me, saying a lot of negative things. At one point during the divorce, he went on television and blasted me. The same day I got two messages on my website, both from women, both independent of each other, telling me how sorry they felt for me and how much they hated him because he had abused them when they were teenagers.
‘I put them in touch with Scotland Yard and that was the start of the inquiry into Max Clifford. In the end, karma comes around.’
She says part of the reason for doing The Jump was for her daughter. She shares custody of Beatrice with McCartney (it is their only source of contact) but it was Beatrice she asked about doing the show. ‘She wanted me to do it because she’s really proud of me. She’s always telling me I’m wonderful, which is amazing for me. I never thought I could have children – I had so many miscarriages and in the end I had her. We are incredibly close. She’s very smart, very loyal and she wants to be a marine biologist. We spent two weeks in the Arctic recently looking for Narwhals [rare tusked whales]. She’d asked to go two years ago and I told her she could go when she was ten but only if she worked really hard in science at school. She said nothing for two years then came up and said: “I’m ten and I got straight As in school – can we go and see the Narwhals?”
‘She is the most incredible kid. I can’t say she isn’t privileged but she is definitely not spoilt. Every morning she makes her own breakfast, she makes me tea, she sorts out her things for school. She’s a really special girl and despite everything I wouldn’t have had her without her dad.’
As she talks we arrive at Mutters and she prepares to strap on the prosthetic leg and boot she has had made for skiing. It was this boot that was behind her dramatic withdrawal from the Paralympic team. She began training four years ago and won four gold medals at the Adaptive Alpine Skiing National Championships World Cup despite a broken shoulder and arm. The following year she won silver at the 2013 Winter Games.
‘I love skiing and I wanted to show that anyone with a disability can be bloody good,’ she says. ‘It’s my absolute passion to put it out there to people who think “my life is over” and I want them to know you can get up and fight and turn your life around. I worked incredibly hard. I broke every bone in my body and I went through issue after issue with my stump with haematomas, blisters, swelling and a lot of pain. I had a boot specially made to fit exactly my requirements. The dream was competing at Sochi [for the 2014 Paralympics] but it was wrenched away. I was a team player, I helped a lot of the other competitors, as a lot of the organisation was terrible.
‘Then there was this issue about my boot.’ Mills says she was disqualified at the last minute from the British Paralympic team by official Sylvana Mestre for wearing the ‘wrong boot’, one not approved for competi- tion. The International Paralympic Committee disputes Mills’s version of events, insisting she was never formally disqualified and in fact resigned her place on the team.
The complex controversy revolved around the special cut- down ski boot Mills wears which enables her prosthetic to be ejected.
‘On the day we were supposed to be leaving with the team I was called in by Sylvana and told I was disqualified. She told me, “The rules are the rules.” It’s insane to say everyone has to wear a specific boot when each amputee is individual. I was completely devastated. No one stuck up for me because they feared they’d be off the team if they did.’
She tells me a story about being hit on by a
guy in New York. ‘I was with a group of my friends and he came over and I knew all the time he was talking to them he wanted to talk to me. He finally made his way round but these days I’m a very good judge of character and I knew what he was all about. I told him I liked a man who could suck my toes.
‘I was wearing open-toed heels. He looked delighted and said he would do it right there. I offered him my left leg and he started sucking my toes and within a couple of minutes he was looking very confused. My friends were roaring with laughter and I said to him: “Have you never sucked prosthetic toes before?” That was the end of him.
So far Mills is proving a hit with her fellow contestants on the show. These are stories that go down well in the hotel bar in Innsbruck where they gather most evenings. That night she has organised a vegan feast to celebrate their birthday, and all to a man are going.
Does she ever miss Paul McCartney? She shakes her head. ‘When I got married I thought I’d be protected but I wasn’t, I was hung out to dry. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever gone through and now I’m over it.
‘People I meet in the streets have always been lovely, people in Austria don’t even know me because of Paul, they know me because of skiing. I’ve got a life I love, I’ve got an incredible daughter and I’m happy.’
The Jump starts on C4 on February 1
Above: Mills on the slopes. Opposite: with McCartney in 2004
Mills gears up to hit the slopes and, right, from top: McCartney and lawyer Fiona Shackleton arrive at the High Court in 2008; an artist’s impression of Mills throwing water over Shackleton; Mills on GM-TV in 2007; her late father