Baroness Bra. The Countess of Crypto. The Layabout Lady. The Duchess of D-Cups. Or, if we’re being (slightly more) accurate: the Right Honorable Baroness Mone O.B.E. of Mayfair in the City of Westminster. Whatever she goes by, one thing’s for sure: Michelle Mone—the model turned underwear tycoon turned Tory peer turned … well, we’ll see—is British start-up royalty. It’s just that, at this very moment, she’s a little more Prince Andrew than Queen Mum.
Let’s start with the résumé, because the baroness always does. Michelle Mone was born in Glasgow in 1971 and left school at 15. She set up the Ultimo lingerie company in her 20s (maker, most notably, of the “Boob Job Bra,” which Mone claimed Julia Roberts wore in Erin Brockovich), and sold 80 percent of it to a Sri Lankan company in 2014. (It was shuttered completely just a few years later.)
David Cameron rated Mone so highly he made her a government “entrepreneurship tsar” in 2015, leading one executive to tell The Telegraph he feared Cameron had “lost his marbles,” and another Scottish business leader to write to the former prime minister and decry Mone as a “small-time businesswoman with PR exposure far in excess of any success.” But that didn’t stop Cameron from minting Mone as a life peer—whereupon she took on the rather grand title of “Mayfair” instead of one named for a locale closer to her Glasgow birthplace, as is convention. (Mone has made just five speeches in her six or so years in the House of Lords—a piffling record that earned her the nickname “the Layabout Lady” from one cantankerous Scottish M.P.)
Nonetheless, Mone has remained cozy with the Tory top brass, and last year she was spotted hobnobbing with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in an excruciating series of Zoom interviews about the economy. (Gordon Ramsay also came along for the ride, so you know they picked some doozies.)
But even a government so apparently fond of misconduct and ignominy might want to distance itself from Mone this week—as the entrepreneur has become entangled in a double-headed scandal that makes a Christmas tea party look like … well, a Christmas tea party.
The trouble started in Monaco, as trouble tends to do. In the summer of 2019, Mone and some friends were bobbing merrily along off the Côte d’Azur when two of their yachts collided, resulting in the death of a crew member.
David Cameron rated Mone so highly he made her a government “entrepreneurship tsar.”
In the months that followed, Mone ignited a WhatsApp feud with businessman Richard Lynton-Jones, among the party that day, after Mone allegedly questioned the mental impact of the crash on his girlfriend, according to The Guardian. (A sample: “OMG what a pile of crap!! You are talking to me, a smart, bright individual who doesn’t get taken in by your shit! In fact my bullshit detector was on you from day 1. You & your mental loony of a girlfriend have been parting [sic] like mad!.. Now you deal with the police enquiries including your nut case bird… ” etc., etc.)
But one message in particular has now sparked a Metropolitan Police investigation into racism, with Lynton-Jones alleging that Mone called him “a waste of a man’s white skin”—and and now suing her in the High Court for “unlimited damages.”
In response to the original accusations, Mone has claimed that she had no idea that Lynton-Jones was “anything other than white British, as his appearance is 100% white, with a cut-glass English accent,” and has questioned the authenticity of the messages themselves. (Last year, her spokespeople told The Guardian that “Baroness Mone is 100% not a racist. Baroness Mone and her husband have built over 15 schools in Africa in the past three years,” which ought to settle the matter.) Her lawyers then provided another statement attesting that Mone had “no access” to the messages and no “detailed memory of them.”
In August, meanwhile, an anonymous complainant referred Mone to Martin Jelley, the House of Lords commissioner for standards, arguing that the messages she sent were “derogatory and racist”—only for Jelley to reply that he couldn’t really do anything about them as the standards committee only cares how peers behave “in the course of their parliamentary duties and activities,” reported The Guardian, and not, say, on the tipsy deck of a super-yacht.
Not every charge, however, will be so easy to duck. Mone will continue to be aggrieved by the government-procurement scandal that now engulfs her. Leaked files seen by The Guardian this week appear to suggest that she and the Tory peer (and, in fact, her husband) Douglas Barrowman were intimately involved in a P.P.E. business that benefited from more than $275 million in government contracts at the start of the pandemic—just a few days after she shunted the proposal into the Cabinet Office’s “VIP lane” for procurement (the very existence of which was deemed illegal by a High Court judge this week.)
The web that allegedly connects Mone and Barrowman to this fast-tracked payday is byzantine, to say the least, and probably requires a whiteboard diagram and a lawyer present to explain in full. (Mone’s circle likes to threaten litigation—promising, for example, to unleash their “definition [sic] lawyers” on the Financial Times after a skewering.) But a lot of the arrows point to one Anthony Page—a director of PPE Medpro who is closely linked to a suspicious number of businesses owned by Barrowman and Mone (one of which he quit on the exact day PPE Medpro was incorporated.) Add to that, PPE Medpro just happens to be registered to the same London address as several of Mone’s companies.
Against this array of cozy coincidences, the charge is simple: that Mone used her soapy links with the Tory high command and her position in the House of Lords to lobby her way into a hugely lucrative procurement deal at a time of national crisis. It doesn’t look particularly great, either, that PPE Medpro was incorporated just five days before Mone personally endorsed it. Or that, of the $275 million contract, almost $170 million was spent on Chinese-made medical gowns that, according to the BBC, were never used.
Now Mone is staring down the barrel of an upper-house inquiry over the deal, while Lord Foulkes of Cumnock has written to the House of Lords standards commissioner requesting that they dig into “whether Mone may have breached the Lords code of conduct.” (Mone and Barrowman have consistently denied that they are “connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity.”)
Should an inquiry gain momentum, Mone might well argue that, as the successful founder of a multi-million-dollar bra empire, she was indeed well placed to hustle the nation out of a historic P.P.E. shortage. But her track record is less than stellar. At the peak Bitcoin’s mania, in early 2018, freed from the constraints of a brassiere, Mone deftly rebranded herself as “one of the biggest experts in Cryptocurrency and Blockchain” in a feat of near Trumpian modesty. (The claim has since vanished from her Twitter feed.)
She then announced the float of an initial coin offering alongside Barrowman via a vehicle called Equi—and even dusted off Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak as her unlikely “business partner.” (Mone said at the time that “the Woz” had been her idol since she was a teenager—despite the fact that she had appeared never to have heard of him at a previous event.) In the end, Equi never got beyond the hype-and-bluster stage, offering a refund to all its backers by 2019, while a “viral” campaign involving 1,000 bloggers generated only $2,000 in sales—and its Web link now diverts to an eerie, blank white space.
Mone has claimed that she had no idea that Lynton-Jones was “anything other than white British, as his appearance is 100% white, with a cut-glass English accent.”
A year earlier, in fact, Mone had sought her fortune in that other bastion of due diligence and financial accountability: the Dubai property market. Aston Plaza & Residences, luxury apartments in the $350 million range, were to be paid for in Bitcoin, Mone noisily proclaimed in the press—a world first, and definitely not just a publicity stunt. But the development faltered at some 25 percent of completion—and its Web site currently estimates that construction will be finished by “Q2- 2020.”
Later, Mone could be seen flogging five-star, $20k-a-pop business retreats for aspiring Mini Mones—including a “personalized well-being assessment,” “style tips on how to dress to empower the boardroom,” and a “goody bag.” And all this, lest we forget, while partnering with the shopping channel QVC to hawk a line of “simulated diamond”–encrusted watches, priced at an unbeatable $75 each. It is the baroness’s brand on a mesh metal strap: glitzy, eye-catching, and superficially convincing—but prone to fall apart, one imagines, under closer investigation.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London