How Desert Island Discs made Mary Portas confront her past

Mary Portas isn’t often called upon to show a soft side and the image of the no-nonsense red-hed has suited her television persona, as has the title of Queen of Shops.

13/06/2014 PA File Photo of Mary Portas at the Stonewall Summer Party at the Kensington Roof Gardens in London as the gay rights charity celebrates its 25th anniversary. See PA Feature BOOK Portas. Picture credit should read: Ian West/PA Photos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature BOOK Portas.

Mary Portas isn’t often called upon to show a soft side and the image of the no-nonsense red-hed has suited her television persona, as has the title of Queen of Shops.

However, in her new memoir Shop Girl, it’s a different Mary which emerges - in the 1970s she was plain Mary Newton, one of five siblings growing up in a big, noisy Irish end-of-terrace in north Watford. However, that easy, ordinary childhood came to a halt when her mother, the loving linchpin of the family, died suddenly from meningitis when Mary was 16.

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She had gone to bed feeling unwell and was delirious by the time a doctor visited her the next day. He put it down to the menopause and prescribed anti-depressants. Less than three weeks later she was dead.

“The family unit unravelled the minute she died,” says Mary. “It was the end of my childhood, the end of freedom to be the one having fun, pushing boundaries.”

Her father, Sam Newton, a bus conductor-turned-sales manager for Brooke Bond, couldn’t cope. When he left the family home for another woman soon after, Mary gave up a place at RADA - she had always wanted to be an actress - to look after 14 year old brother Lawrence.

“Weirdly, my father leaving was a relief, because he was so hopeless that his grief was always there. Without him, Lawrence and I became this little unit, however dysfunctional.”

Mary was prompted to confront the pain of her past when Kirstie Young interviewed her on Desert Island Discs.

“She asked me about my childhood and I realised that there was still this pain deep down inside of me. I started to feel this pain and anger towards my father and all the stuff that had happened.”

She had therapy for six months after the programme, which, she says, helped enormously.

“I liked little Mary Newton in the end,” she says quietly, tears welling. “Because I was always in trouble, I thought I was a bad person. But I’ve just realised that I’ve got to like her, scruffy little thing that I was.”

Mary’s father died just two years after her mother, leaving everything to his new wife Rebecca. The siblings asked for their mother’s possessions back - photos, trinkets, a quilt with Scottie dogs on it - but never received anything.

However, those early years did make her resilient, thrifty and forced her into being in control of the situation. She went to a local art college, gaining some work experience at Harvey Nichols. But on leaving college, she badgered Harrods personnel department for an interview, even though no job had been advertised, ringing every day for weeks until she was finally granted one - and got a window dresser’s job.

“I worked harder because I needed the money. I had the fear that it could be lost. I was probably giving five times more than other people because I was scared.”

She went on to marry chemical engineer Graham Portas in 1990 and they had two children. The couple divorced in 2003, but remain good friends. Today, she lives in a £6m house in London with her wife, fashion journalist Melanie Rickey.

“Mel’s made a huge difference to my life, she’s wonderful,” she says. A few years ago Melanie had IVF treatment and gave birth to their son Horatio and Mary recently announced that her brother, Lawrence, is the biological father.

“We’ve just had the nicest time. Horatio has Mummy (Melanie) and Mama (Mary) and he knows that Daddy is Lawrence. We wanted a child that was genetically linked to part of the family. He was a wonderful little gift.”

Shop Girl by Mary Portas is out now priced £16.99. Mary Portas will be at Scarborough’s Books by the Beach festival on April 16.