By Amy E Williams
Her family home is Alnwick Castle of Harry Potter fame, where her wedding was the society event of the year. But MISSY PERCY prefers muddy fields to posh parties. So when the fairy tale ended in divorce, she put on her wellies and rediscovered her country girl roots.
It’s a little bit disappointing to discover that Lady Melissa ‘Missy’ Percy is not a party animal. The headlines I’d read before our meeting go something along the lines of ‘The very naughty girl who broke royal pal’s heart’, in reference to her divorce from one of Prince William’s closest friends, and ‘More fun than the Middletons’, suggesting that some guests had skipped Pippa Middleton’s May nuptials to attend Missy’s 30th birthday bash instead. It is often noted that she is ‘fun-loving’: a ‘dancing on tables’ kind of a girl.
‘I’ve never danced on a table in my life!’ she corrects. ‘I’m not a party animal; in fact, I get quite nervous in rooms full of people. And anyway, Percys notoriously do not dance!’
Wrong then on the partying front, but possibly the newsmen have it spot on with the ‘fun-loving’ bit because after a day in her company I can tell you that fun and energy are attributes not lacking in Missy Percy. She’s simply more likely to channel them romping up Scottish hillsides than doing all-nighters in London clubs.
When we meet for the YOU photo shoot at Burncastle Lodge, the sumptuous Scottish Borders hideaway built by her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, as a summertime escape from the family’s main residence (Alnwick Castle in northeast England), she engages and enraptures the team with consummate ease. This is her home but we’re all very welcome.
She kits us all out in wellies from the boot room, chauffeurs us along steep mud tracks in her 4×4 and then insists over lunch that she needs to know everyone’s answer to her all-important Service Station Challenge: if you were hungover and stranded on the M1, what fizzy drink, snack and chocolate bar would you buy? (Hers: Irn Bru, Monster Munch and a Boost.) She challenged Johnny Vaughan once and then he used the idea on his radio show.
Along with her three siblings, Catherine (Katie), 35, George, 33, and Max, 27, Missy is sometimes referred to as a ‘Hogwarts heir’, on account of Alnwick’s modern-day role as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies.
The casting of the castle (it also had a star turn in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is a mixed blessing for the Percys. The J K Rowling effect means they’ve hit the jackpot in terms of visitor numbers and cashflow (not that the family need be greatly concerned about the bottom line when recent rich lists put their wealth at the £370million mark, with land in Yorkshire and the West Country as well as Alnwick, Burncastle and Syon House in London).
It also means they now prefer to decamp to Burncastle during the summer holidays, when broomstick lessons and photo ops with Hagrid rather take over.
The Borders lodge, an hour or so away, suits them all just fine because although the Percys may not be up to much on the dancefloor they are hotshots, quite literally, when it comes to country pursuits.
Missy was eight when she picked up her first gun, nine when she shot her first pheasant and 11 when she took down her first grouse. ‘As children it was all about the great outdoors,’ she says. ‘If we weren’t shooting or fishing we were playing on motorbikes or generally running around like little rotters.’
They’re a highly competitive bunch, though she does concede that her mother Jane and sister Katie are probably the best female shots in the land. They also partly inspired Missy’s new clothing collection, Mistamina, a range of jackets, shirts, jumpers and trousers designed for girls who want to shoot, fish and stalk but don’t do purple tweed.
Launching the business is the start of a new chapter for Missy and the first time she has ventured into either the entrepreneurial or the fashion fray. But what she lacks in fashion design training or retail experience she makes up for in her aforementioned energy and get-up-and-go – qualities she has been putting into practice for years.
Missy was just 14 when she embarked upon her career plan A: to become a professional tennis player. She left Millfield, the sports-mad boarding school in Somerset, to join a tennis academy in Florida where she spent six hours a day on the court, far away from friends and family but happy and determined. ‘It was a lonely life but I loved it.’
She was supported but, unlike many Wimbledon wannabes, not particularly encouraged by her mother and father who she says are the antithesis of pushy parents. ‘They tried to put me off the idea of a tennis career – I was so young. But, looking back, it is pretty awesome that they allowed me to leave school and live on the other side of the world.’
Missy had all the natural talent to justify the move – she could have played professional hockey, too – but although she made it into the world’s top 500, took part in Junior Wimbledon and joined the WTA circuit, she fell short of her personal goal of achieving a top 200 ranking before she turned 21.
‘The tennis world is not very friendly: once you start competing, everyone is out for themselves. I was beginning to quite fancy a normal life. I remember calling Dad at one point and saying, “All I want to do is wake up at 8 o’clock, put on a suit and grab a Starbucks on my way to the office like other people.” I missed my family, I was jealous of my friends and I was just ready to come home.’
On her return to the UK, Missy threw herself into a Leiths cookery course. She also began working as a tennis coach at Queen’s Club in West London, nurturing everyone else’s talent while accepting defeat when it came to her own. ‘I never have regrets about anything, but it’s hard sometimes because with the knowledge and maturity I have now, I think, “Gosh, maybe I could have made it,”’ she says. ‘But that’s because I’ve been learning and changing. Of course you can’t go back to where you were with the know-how you’ve gained since. That’s just life.’ And I can’t help thinking this wise observation has resonance for Missy’s personal life, too.
Last year she divorced her husband, Thomas van Straubenzee (Van to friends), whom she started dating soon after arriving home from Florida. Their wedding at Alnwick in 2013 was billed as the society event of the year. Princes William and Harry were ushers and the guest list included Harry’s former girlfriend (and Missy’s bridesmaid) Chelsy Davy, his then girlfriend Cressida Bonas and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.
The fact that Missy’s heirloom tiara looked awkwardly heavy and large for her may or may not have been an omen, but the marriage lasted less than three years before a mutual decision to part ways.
‘I knew it was right but it was a very hard thing to go through,’ she says of the split, carefully considering her words and for the first time pausing for thought.
‘We were together for the whole of my 20s, and I think as a girl you change a lot at that age,’ she adds, implying that they simply grew apart rather than together. ‘But [the split] kicked me into action – in figuring out what I wanted to do, who I am and what I want out of life.
It was a period of learning about myself and other people, and most importantly about not caring what other people think. I was always trying to make everyone happy and it’s exhausting. Ultimately you can’t, and that’s one of the hardest things I had to learn.’
The press interest around the divorce was not easy – or avoidable. Van is godfather to Princess Charlotte and one of Prince William’s closest confidants, so the split was unlikely to go under the radar. ‘At the time of the divorce I knew I was going to have to deal with a bit of backlash,’ she says. ‘My brothers were worried about me because they know me as someone who cares so much about what people think and I know they said to Mum and Dad, “How is Missy going to cope?” But actually the whole thing was just the best lesson for me in not worrying and in letting things go.’
Meditation and hillside runs, along with support from her sister, who has been through a divorce herself, and from her mother, as well as from a strong group of girlfriends, have been her saviours. ‘You quickly learn who your true friends are, which at 30 is pretty valuable,’ she says.
There were fleeting rumours of a fling with Otis Ferry (son of Bryan, currently dating the Duke of Rutland’s daughter Lady Alice Manners) but she is now very happily single. Throwing herself into Mistamina has been a welcome distraction. She has overseen each part of the venture from moodboards to manufacturing.
The knitwear has been designed with extra padding for ‘gun kickback’ and the signature piece is a windproof camouflage bomber that Missy had long sought for herself. ‘I’ve created my dream shooting jacket,’ she says, proudly.
She is definitely a cargo pants and bomber kind of girl, but she is also inherently glamorous, with the blonde hair, glowy skin and slightly overdone eyeliner of the perfect Sloane pin-up she would almost certainly never want to be.
For her 30th birthday party, at Syon House, she wore a full-length Alexander McQueen number, a birthday gift from her parents (in true Percy style, the other part of the present was to have her guns adjusted). The dress code was ‘black tie with a hint of sparkle’ and the cake was in the shape of a shark, her head between its jaws. ‘I love sharks. And I got to cut myself up with a sword!’
For the record, no one skipped Pippa’s wedding to attend – although her brother George, a great friend of Pippa’s, left after the service to get to Missy’s party, ‘which I think is the best compromise ever’, she says, pointing out that the day of the clash was her actual birthday.
The Percy siblings are extremely close and loyal, and she can’t think of a single time they’ve fallen out. Missy’s favourite recent adventure involved camping in a tiny two-man tent with Katie and their wirehaired vizsla Uzi, who they were relying on to catch them a hare – which Katie then skinned and Missy filleted and cooked.
She recalls George reading every sports biography he could find to help Missy when she started to stress over her tennis career. And she tells a tale of all four of them insisting on sharing a room when they first moved from their homely farmhouse into rambling Alnwick Castle, which their father Ralph inherited on the early death of his brother Henry in 1995.
Missy’s mother Jane struggled with Alnwick’s huge, cold rooms and traditional ways. ‘[But] Dad promised her she could do whatever she liked with the place. And she did. She added burnt orange walls and roaring fires and the most incredible gardens you’ve ever seen. And now it is the most warm, colourful castle I know.’
It doesn’t sound, however, like the most relaxed place to grow up. ‘There are 25 cleaning ladies, so there is no way you can “sleep in”, and I could never, ever come down for breakfast in my pyjamas.’
Because her own family is so close, she ideally wants a ‘football team’ of children, but ‘only with the right person and once I have set up my nest’. Missy’s nest, I suggest, will be a cosy country pile with a constant stream of well-connected friends turning up for shoots dressed head-to-toe in Mistamina. Her brother George will inherit Alnwick, but not for Missy the trappings of a castle or a life dining out on her title. ‘When I get post addressed to “Lady Melissa” I just think, goodness, that’s a bit posh!’
Mistamina will launch on 11 September, mistamina.com
Styling: Ian Tod.
Hair and make-up: Rae Mathieson using Nars and Bumble & Bumble.