A few years ago when the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton was announced, Michelle Mone jumped at the chance to capitalize on the once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity.
Without anyone (least of all the palace) asking her, the co-founder of Scottish underwear label Ultimo declared she was designing the bridal lingerie for the wedding of the century. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t been hired for the job, or that Kate ultimately shopped elsewhere; Mone’s rather indiscreet presumption made headlines across the country — and gave Ultimo yet another jolt of free publicity.
That anecdote didn’t make it into My Fight To The Top, Mone’s new autobiography, but it illustrates a couple of important aspects of her character: Michelle Mone doesn’t wait to be invited; and there’s nothing she won’t do to promote her brand, regardless of how gauche her behaviour might sometimes appear.
Anyone hoping for a nuts-and-bolts primer on how to build a lingerie empire from scratch will be disappointed by Mone’s juicy tell-all autobiography, which has been a bestseller in Britain since its release two weeks ago. But if you’re looking for behind-the-scenes perspective on the tumultuous, headline-filled life of the UK lingerie industry’s most polarizing figure, My Fight To The Top will more than satisfy.
The 43-year-old Mone has always inspired conflicting opinions from those who encounter her. She was awarded an OBE from Buckingham Palace for her contributions to the British fashion industry, and also called a “manipulative cow” by rocker Rod Stewart. Ultimo was named Britain’s favorite designer label at last year’s UK Lingerie Awards, but Mone had to hire security guards after receiving death threats for her high-profile activism during the Scottish independence referendum just two months earlier. On more than one occasion, and for more than one reason, she’s been labelled “the most hated woman in Scotland”.
The love-hate thing has played itself out repeatedly in Britain’s grimy tabloids, which have feasted on Mone since she first stepped into the spotlight 15 years ago. Whether intentional or not, she’s probably sold a lot more newspapers than bras.
When Mone was the victim of a violent carjacking in 2003, some in the media implied she had staged the crime to drum up publicity for Ultimo. When she was spotted in the company of Elizabeth Hurley‘s fiancée, the press invented salacious details and amplified the episode into a feud between two of Britain’s most fetching cougars. And when her marriage crumbled, it did so in the glare of an unrelenting spotlight as newspapers gobbled up and spewed out every tiny, tawdry detail.
But for countless women who look up to her, Michelle Mone has always represented something else: guts, determination, ambition and an absolute refusal to be crushed by circumstance. It’s that audience that Mone is writing for here. It’s that audience that nods approvingly when the attractive, buxom blonde confesses that she needed “balls of steel” to make it in the bra business.
“It’s taken my fight to the top to realize that my real passion lies in inspiring people,” she writes. “My trials and tribulations have taught me how I can help others.”
No one in the lingerie industry (other than a few supermodels) has Michelle Mone’s outsized personality and public profile. A school dropout at 15 who had early success as a sales rep for a beer company, Mone famously got her start in lingerie when she sewed silicone gel “chicken fillets” into the bodice of a dress — and immediately recognized a business opportunity.
She hunted down the manufacturer and later the inventor of the bust-boosting pads, and secured the UK retail distribution rights. Later, she found a Portuguese factory that could sew them into bra cups, and launched a brand that would eventually trigger an international race for supremacy in push-up bra technology.
Ultimo debuted in the UK marketplace in 1999 after Mone — pregnant and in tears — bulldozed her way into the office of Selfridges‘ lingerie buyer, refusing to leave until the buyer tried her garments (she did, and bought a six-month supply on the spot).
Ultimo’s history makes for a compelling story, but regrettably Mone offers very little perspective on the business climate in which the brand grew and ultimately prospered. There’s no discussion of the competitive landscape, the hollowing out of Britain’s manufacturing sector, the challenges of offshore contracting, the crushing recession in the late 2000s or the battles to preserve Ultimo’s intellectual property (Mone claims credit for 15 “inventions”) in the face of foreign and domestic copycats.
Similarly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s no reflection on the ethics of peddling artificial cleavage enhancement to women and its effect on body image and beauty standards. (When Ultimo unveiled the latest in a series of boob-lifting advances in 2010, Mone at the time called it “one giant leap for womankind.”)
Instead, what readers get is a gossipy but not totally self-serving account of a company built on the kind of high-profile, headline-grabbing marketing stunts that would make elite brands cringe.
A huge amount of Ultimo’s success can be attributed to Mone’s controversial — some say exploitative — use of celebrity models. TV presenters, actresses and pop music royalty have figured prominently among the 40+ models who have fronted the brand, with a peculiar focus on celebrity progeny. Mone hired Mick Jagger‘s daughter, two of Rod Stewart‘s kids (plus his girlfriend and his ex-wife) and Bob Geldof‘s doomed child Peaches, not to mention one Spice Girl and even Michael Bublé‘s wife.
Mone spends a lot of time discussing her most famous models, and most of the stories are already well-known given their widespread coverage in the UK press. One untold tidbit emerges, though: Mone waiting for 10 hours in Mariah Carey‘s hotel room to interview the U.S. diva, only to have her finally emerge naked at 5 a.m. and asking Mone to admire her curves. She fled.
Mone is nothing if not a fascinating study in contradictory personality traits, and MFTTT offers plenty for amateur psychologists to chew on.
Her Trump-size ego (and fondness for ridiculous hyperbole) is routinely undercut by Bridget Jones-style insecurities, and the book becomes a seesaw between self-aggrandizement and withering self-deprecation. Example: Although she calls herself “the most sought-after speaker in the country”, she reminds readers that she still vomits backstage before every public appearance.
Raised in a working class family in east end Glasgow, Mone’s career is fueled by a familiar (and crippling) British class consciousness. Memories of her family’s early struggles are never far from mind, and she is driven by both a fear of ending up back there if she fails and a gnawing guilt at having succeeded and moved on to posher digs. One Christmas, she writes, Mone buys a load of gifts and delivers them to an unsuspecting East End family of strangers — an act of drive-by charity that is the book’s most touching and revealing moment.
But that’s just the start of Mone’s detailed catalogue of psychic torments. She chronicles in embarrassing detail her battles with OCD, junk food addiction (up to four visits a day to McDonald’s between meals), and ostentatious spending binges once the money from Ultimo started rolling in.
The blurred lines between Mone’s home and work life gave her little respite from her growing miseries. Mone’s husband Michael, who co-founded Ultimo and ran its finance and production side, became increasingly cold and unsupportive, and the couple’s workplace routine was punctuated by innumerable screaming matches and emotional meltdowns.
When the marriage collapsed, Mone exacted vengeful retaliation on Michael after learning he had hooked up with Ultimo’s head designer, who was living in the couple’s carriage house. Mone’s detailed confessions about her behaviour at the time — which triggered another ferocious media feeding frenzy — will make anyone who has gone through a marital breakdown cringe with shock and recognition.
Most people, especially celebrities, would think twice about revealing so much lurid and unflattering detail about their lives outside the spotlight, and MFTTT suffers from recurring instances of oversharing. But all of it supports the book’s principal (and oft-repeated) theme — the triumph over adversity, even the self-inflicted kind.
Mone seems to view herself like a plucky heroine from a Hardy novel, a kind of proto-feminist whose sacrifice and resilience can serve as inspiration for generations of women to come. Many of the anecdotes in MFTTT have the same underlying narrative: the story of an overachiever who repeatedly pushes herself to the point of collapse, and unable to see how damaging that can be except in hindsight.
“Over and over again in my life I’ve had to sink to rock bottom before I can reach the top,” she writes. “But every time I come back I reach even higher; I bounce back bigger than I’ve ever been.” The “bounce” is commendable, but the repetitiveness of the self-destructive pattern is deeply troubling.
It’s when discussing her familiar weight-loss battle that the purpose of this book (and its author’s life) finally comes into focus. As Ultimo grew, so did its founder and Mone reveals she reached a point where she was buying her knickers at Marks & Spencer because Ultimo didn’t stock a size large enough to fit her.
Trapped in a toxic spiral of marital conflict and binge eating, Mone hit the brakes in 2005 when Ultimo model Rachel Hunter advised her to “treat her body like her business”. That epiphany prompted Mone to turn her own weight-loss battle, and her looks in general, into a marketing hook for the Ultimo.
“I was to be an inspiration for all those unhappy women out there,” she writes.
By 2010 she had dropped 90 pounds and posed (against Michael’s violent objections) for her first lingerie photo campaign, and in the process rebranded both Ultimo and herself.
My Fight To The Top can be an uncomfortable reading experience. It’s filled with feel-good clichés and greeting-card aphorisms and, like many celebrity biographies, it suffers from some egregious myth-making that makes the subject appear a bit more substantive than she really is. For example, when she hires Rod Stewart’s ex-wife to model for Ultimo, Mone says the coup made the “front page of every newspaper in the world.” Umm, not so much, Michelle.
Mone has earned the right to look back on her unforeseeable life story and accomplishments with some pride. But MFTTT begs the question: What is her real legacy, beyond her ability to survive all this dysfunction? What really makes her an inspiring figure for so many?
She’s not the greatest role model for aspiring entrepreneurs, having twice pushed Ultimo to the brink of bankruptcy. Likewise, her credentials as a domestic abuse survivor are muddied by her violent response when her marriage ended. She’s not even a convincing weight-loss icon, having used a dubious herbal formula to melt the pounds away, and then admittedly swapping her eating addiction for a designer clothes addiction.
What Mone really has to offer the world, or at least the thousands of women who show up for her speeches and book signings, is an example of how to find value in yourself apart from your spouse, your job, your material accumulations and your press clippings.
That’s a story worth telling, and worth reading. And for Michelle Mone, who seems to have spent much of her life overcompensating for a sense of her own unworthiness, that’s a victory worth celebrating.