'Retail queen' Mary Portas on divorce, the pandemic and her new book Rebuild

The brand and retail guru Mary Portas talks to Hannah Stephenson about divorce, rebuilding her life and how the pandemic has made her more grounded.

Mary Portas after losing her trademark bob. Picture: Josh Shinner/PA.

The striking red bob has gone, grown out and replaced with her natural colour lifted with blonde highlights, but retail queen Mary Portas has rebuilt more than just her hairstyle during lockdown.

Much has been made of the transformation because, until recently, TV’s queen of shops was instantly recognisable for her edgy red bob. Now, she looks much more natural, more mellow, calmer.

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“I loved it when I had my bob but that was me then and this is me now. I’m a calmer, more grounded, more centred person who’s very clear with what they want from the world,” Portas, 61, says.

Mary Portas talking to the Duchess of Cornwall at a Women of the World festival reception in 2019. Picture: Stuart C Wilson/PA.

The hair change began in lockdown when she was asked to go on BBC News.

“My hair had been bleached in the sun last summer and then the grey had started to come through and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get my stylist’ who said she could do me in the garden – and I thought, ‘All this palaver’ and it really went against the grain of this new space that I was in.”

This new calmer space followed a period of turmoil – splitting from her wife, Melanie Rickey, the sale of their marital home and a resultant house move, as well as fearing for the future of her Portas Agency business, which advises big brands, when Covid hit.

And then there was trying to home-school her eight-year-old son, Horatio, in one room while her two grown-up children, Mylo and Verity, were working in other rooms.

The guiding light of Portas’ whole career had been a sense of what would be the next big thing, where people were going. For the first time, she was at a loss and was completely consumed by fear, feeling “like a pilot holding white-knuckled to the airplane controls as I try to stop it crashing”.

She had moved to Primrose Hill in North London and her three children were with her during lockdown – Verity and Mylo, who she had with her former husband Graham Portas, and Horatio, who she had with Rickey.

The pandemic hit shortly after her split from Rickey. They had married in 2014, becoming one of the first couples to convert their civil partnership into a same-sex marriage after the law was changed. Rickey had IVF treatment (Portas’ brother Lawrence was the sperm donor) and gave birth to Horatio in 2012.

Portas is reluctant to be drawn into discussing her break-up, but says: “Divorce is never easy. Again, the rhythms of your life get thrown up and then you think, how do I re-stabilise my world? It’s never easy. But you follow your truth and you know when things need to change.”

She remains on good terms with her ex-husband and with Rickey, with whom she co-parents Horatio.

“You have to – we have a child together,” she says simply. And Portas is dating again, a woman – but that’s all she will reveal.

Having been married to a woman has made her a beacon for LGBT+ groups who want her to be a figurehead, she chuckles.

“You do it because we should be a voice for whatever we’re doing. I was with a woman, so of course I was going to speak out about that, but then the word lesbian was put on it – I think, ‘Am I? Is that my label now?’”

Lockdown enabled her to take a breath and realise how rich her life is.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m here with my children, there’s something deeply good about this.’ I actually thought I’d gone as simply and as truthfully to where I was meant to be in the world.

“I thought, ‘Here is love. Here are your kids.’ My brother was with us and that to me was the unit. I remember thinking, ‘What else do you need?’ That’s when acceptance came in.”

Her lavish 60th birthday party in May 2020 was cancelled by Covid but she had a celebration of a different kind, but no less special, she recalls.

“My brother baked the soda bread that my mother used to make, we had a couple a bottle of champers, a bottle of fizzy elderflower for Horatio, put a picnic together, went up Swift’s Hill (in Gloucestershire) and I thought, ‘This is enough.’”

She meditated, read a lot of books by spiritual teachers and philosophers, and considered if there had been a time in her life when she didn’t have enough.

As a girl from Watford whose mother died when she was 16, she was left to look after her younger brother Lawrence when her father left the family home for another woman. Portas turned down a place at RADA – she had wanted to become an actress – to look after her brother. But those years taught her resilience.

“In my early years, when my mum died, I had so little. But I had enough. That was so telling. We can get by with so much less,” she says now.

After the initial fear about the future of her business, a sense of calm came over her.

It prompted the woman who once advised David Cameron’s government on the future of high streets to continue to champion the ‘kindness economy’, putting people and the planet first, above profit.

She has now written Rebuild, which shows how she reached this point and how we can reset post-pandemic and build back better, becoming more socially and ethically responsible and not just focusing on consumerism and profit.

She throws in statistics about all the hot topics – the scourge of plastics, the discarded clothes which go into landfill, the young workers exploited so businesses can achieve the bottom line in consumer goods – and how businesses who don’t address these issues will fall by the wayside.

Her values also lie in the kindness of people, in collaboration, empathy, instinct and trust.

“I think we are much kinder now than we were in the 70s and 80s. In the 70s we didn’t have gay marriage, we didn’t have acceptance. My mother’s generation of the 60s meant the women had to be the housewives at home. Men were the main breadwinners. Come on!

“We are much more inclusive, much kinder and more open. People have voices.”

It’s ironic that she herself was once a tough and aggressive alpha figure who transformed the fortunes of Harvey Nichols, encouraging people to buy things they didn’t need, pushing consumerism to the hilt.

“Of course I regret it, but I knew no better. I thought that’s what you did.”

She has long been trying to change the business mindset and promote the ‘kindness economy’, its foundations highlighted in her last book, Work Like A Woman.

Her company now advises companies on how they can transform their behaviours to better impact the world and humanity and give everyone a better future, to do less bad and add more good.

She cites hugely successful companies such as Patagonia and Lush, whose environmental and ethical principals have proved a magnet for consumers.

Her own staff has been reduced from 55 to 25, but the business has been moving in a different direction with a different focus for some years, she explains. She says she is making less money while she rebuilds.

This year she also started a new podcast, The Kindness Economy, and still gives many talks to businesses.

Her proudest career achievement to date is the creating of 26 Mary’s Living and Giving charity shops for Save the Children.

So, like her ‘kindness economy’, is her new hairstyle going to stay?

“My daughter said, ‘Mum, I love your hair like that,’ so I decided to leave it and then people started commenting and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to keep this.’”

Rebuild by Mary Portas is published by Bantam Press, priced £14.99. Available now.

Yorkshire visit

Mary Portas visited South Yorkshire nearly 10 years ago as part of her challenge from the Government to carry out an independent review on the future of the high street.

She was impressed by the popularity of Barnsley’s Sunday secondhand and specialist market.

However her report for the Government revealed that a third of our high streets were in decline.

A few years later she told The Yorkshire Post that successful brands aren’t necessarily about being the best, or most fashionable, one on offer.

“It’s about having the right product in the right place... it’s about understanding your uniqueness and the importance of that,” she said in 2015.