Michelle Mone has always been an awkward bundle of contradictions. She is a working-class girl from the rough end of Glasgow who grew up to become Baroness Mone of Mayfair. She is intelligent enough to make millions by inventing a revolutionary type of bra but needy enough to model it herself. More pressingly, she is a woman possessed of enough ego to write an autobiography titled My Fight to the Top but not quite enough foresight to realize how silly the title would look when it all came crashing down around her. And, God, has it come crashing down.
For Mone, or Baroness Bra as the tabloids would have it, currently finds herself at the center of a huge and grubby corruption scandal that could very well spell the end for her. We’ll get to the nitty-gritty of it soon enough, but in summary: Mone has been accused of lobbying the British government to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars on shoddy coronavirus P.P.E., from a company she did not disclose any financial interest in, only to secretly profit from the deal to the tune of $35 million.
Her reputation now in tatters, Mone faces calls to return the money and be expelled from the House of Lords. By anyone’s standards, this is an incredibly miserly, embarrassing thing to be caught up in. However, for Mone—a woman who has never strayed very far from drama—you get the sense that it is just another day.
Mone’s official biography states that she is a “shining example of how flair and true grit can lead to global success”; it presents her as a scrappy girl who grew up in the slums of 1970s Glasgow (in a tenement that lacked its own bathroom) and left school at the age of 15 without a single qualification. When she was 10, her baby brother died of spina bifida. Her father was disabled. But Mone had bigger dreams. With a photo of Richard Branson above her bed, she started delivering papers for a local convenience store, then subcontracted a team of 17 teenagers to do the job for her.
After school she got a job at Labatt Breweries and quickly became its head of marketing. She was then laid off but used the $20,000 payoff to invent the Ultimo bra—with patented cleavage-boosting silicon inserts—which quickly made her a millionaire. The bra was such a sensation that Julia Roberts wore one, with eye-popping results, in her movie Erin Brockovich. In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron was so helpless against the tidal wave of Michelle Mone’s flair and true grit that he made her a life peer, and the rest is history.
Mone faces calls to return the money and be expelled from the House of Lords.
The unofficial version is a little more knotty. That brewery job? She lied on her résumé to get it. The catchy Erin Brockovich claim? Several of the film’s production employees have since denied outright that Roberts ever wore an Ultimo. The bras? Reportedly made in China by workers who earned just $40 a month.
Indeed, some have claimed that the real secret behind the Ultimo wasn’t the bra at all but Mone’s relentless desire for attention. Rather than use traditional models for her products, she hired well-known personalities to pose in them, knowing that the shots would be instantly picked up by the newspapers.
One of those individuals was Penny Lancaster, wife of Rod Stewart. However, in a move she has since referred to as a “masterstroke,” Mone fired Lancaster and replaced her with Stewart’s ex-wife Rachel Hunter. Stewart replied by telling the press that Mone was variously a “nasty piece of work,” a “manipulative cow,” and a “devious, conniving, publicity-seeking son of a bitch,” whose “entire skeleton reeks of self-interest.” As a final (some would argue gratuitous) flourish, Stewart then stated, “I hope she chokes on her profits.” Given the acres of press it generated, it’s fair to assume that the profits were substantial.
Michelle Mone launched Ultimo in 1999 with her then husband, Michael Mone. The marriage ended badly when Michael was caught cheating on Mone with her head designer, Samantha Bunn. “I could see what was going on because of the design of our headquarters,” Mone wrote in her memoir, adding inexplicably that this was because her headquarters were “built in the shape of a breast.” Things came to a head, and Michael left on Christmas Day 2011.
The film’s costume designer has since denied outright that Roberts ever wore an Ultimo.
Mone reacted by attacking his Porsche with a kitchen knife, flinging his possessions out of their house, throwing away his shirts, cutting holes in his underwear, soaking his bed with water, and spiking his coffee with laxatives. During this time, Mone was profiled by The Sunday Times. At one point she wailed, “Why did I want to be Michelle Mone?,” at her interviewer, Camilla Long, who has subsequently called Mone “the most chaotic person I’d ever met.”
Mone left Ultimo two years later, and it ceased trading in the U.K. in 2018. Which isn’t to say that things calmed down after that. She started tweeting about the TrimSecrets diet pills that helped her lose 84 pounds, falsely claiming their efficacy had been proven in clinical trials. A spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association described them as “one of the worst diets of the year.” It might be worth pointing out that Mone was the product’s majority shareholder.
There have been other bumps along the way. Mone has since married Doug Barrowman, a Scottish businessman who ran a wealth-management firm on the Isle of Man. Together they launched a crypto-currency that has since failed and in 2017 announced a $326 million residential development in Dubai—the first development to be priced in Bitcoin—that has subsequently come to nothing.
And then, in 2018, the couple’s yacht was involved in a crash with another boat, resulting in the death of a crew member. In a WhatsApp conversation with Richard Lynton-Jones, a passenger of Indian heritage who was on board the other boat at the time, Mone wrote, “OMG what a pile of crap!! You are talking to me, a smart, bright individual who doesn’t get taken in by your shit! … You need to get a grip and have respect for a guy that was killed!!! Your [sic] a low life, a waste of a mans [sic] white skin.” The Metropolitan Police launched an investigation into Mone’s alleged “racially aggravated malicious communication,” and Lynton-Jones sued her for libel. She settled this summer for $62,000.
At the time, this last scandal was the biggest that Mone had ever encountered, but it was soon to be eclipsed by her current troubles. These began in 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the British government, in a blind panic, began hurling colossal taxpayer-funded contracts at anyone who promised to supply the country with P.P.E. Early on, Mone is said to have aggressively lobbied ministers to acquire face masks and medical gowns for the N.H.S. from a company called P.P.E. Medpro.
A hint of this tone can be seen in former health secretary Matt Hancock’s otherwise lifeless coronavirus diaries. “Baroness Michelle Mone has sent me an extraordinarily aggressive email complaining that a company she’s helping isn’t getting the multi-million-pound contracts it deserves,” he wrote. “By the end of the message, she seemed to have worked herself into a complete frenzy and was throwing around wild accusations. ‘I smell a rat here. It is more than the usual red tape, incompetence and bureaucracy. That’s expected! I believe there is corruption here at the highest levels.’” Meanwhile, more succinctly, then Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove described Mone as “a right pain in the arse.”
Nevertheless, the government relented, handing contracts worth $248 million to PPE Medpro without competitive bidding or vetting.
This is where things really unravel. First, it has emerged that Mone began lobbying for PPE Medpro five days before it was even registered as a company. Second, PPE Medpro’s sole director was a man who had previously acted as the company secretary to Mone’s image-rights firm and a director for a trust owned by Barrowman. Third, PPE Medpro sold face masks to the government for 47 cents, while identical masks made by the same company were provided by other suppliers for 18 cents. Fourth, Mone failed to mention any of this to the government.
By September 2020—even though none of the masks and gowns acquired by PPE Medpro were ever used by the N.H.S., thanks to their terrible quality—Barrowman had received at least $79 million in profits originating from PPE Medpro’s work. On top of that, according to The Times of London, an offshore company with ties to Mone and Barrowman bought a $9 million private jet just months after the money reached their accounts.
From there, money started bouncing around various accounts—pinging backwards and forwards between different offshore trusts and personal accounts, including $36 million deposited into an account of which Mone was a beneficiary—with such speed that HSBC demanded an audit. Worried that the movement “may be attempting to conceal the true origins of the funds through multiple layers of transactions, creating a distance between the receipt of PPE funds and the final beneficiaries,” HSBC contacted the National Crime Agency. As a result, the National Crime Agency conducted dawn raids on several of Mone’s properties, and, depending on their outcome, Mone and Barrowman could face charges under bribery or fraud laws.
The U.K. traditionally doesn’t take well to people who abuse a public-health crisis for their own gain. Coronavirus-related scandals have already taken down a prime minister and a health secretary—and it’s fair to say that this is also true of Mone. Her sole public statement on the matter, an Instagram post reading, “Don’t believe everything you read, or everything you think,” has been saturated with comments from people openly anticipating a jail sentence. Meanwhile, a petition demanding that Mone be expelled from the House of Lords has been signed (at time of writing) by more than 160,000 people.
There is no word as to whether Mone intends to pay back the $36 million. That said, it might be telling that she has just listed her six-bedroom Belgravia town house for $24.5 million, and her yacht for $12.5 million. Either way, it is very, very hard to see how Mone can possibly bounce back from this. How appropriate for a woman who made her name by artificially boosting her assets.
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Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals