By Caroline Graham
When CLARE STAPLES abandoned the LA party scene to enter rehab and became embroiled in a legal battle with her former lover, TV hypnotist Paul McKenna, she found solace in her childhood passion for horses. Now it’s her turn to save them, she tells Caroline Graham
Five years ago, Clare Staples was sunning herself on Simon Cowell’s superyacht in the Caribbean. The champagne was on ice, while a small army of staff stood ready to pander to every whim of the music mogul and his glamorous guests on the 196-foot Slipstream as it swished silently through the ocean.
But as Clare stared out over the crystal-clear waters she felt what she now describes as ‘an aching, overwhelming loneliness. Something was missing. I was living what many people consider to be “the dream”, yet it felt vacuous and superficial.
‘Simon was, and remains, a dear friend. He used to invite me on to his yacht every summer in the Mediterranean and every winter in the Caribbean. We had some fun, crazy, fabulous times. But that day it just hit me: I was done with that life. I needed to get out to save my sanity.’
For Clare, former manager and ex-fiancée of Simon’s friend, hypnotist Paul McKenna, the previous two decades had been spent at the very heart of the celebrity world on both sides of the Atlantic.
Her list of friends reads like a Who’s Who of celebrity A-listers: David and Victoria Beckham, Mel Gibson, James Corden, Russell Brand, Stephen Fry, Elton John, David Furnish, Gerard Butler, Pamela Anderson, Leona Lewis and Elle Macpherson.
Even once she and Paul ended their relationship (during which they got engaged) after five years, they continued to live together (he referred to her as his ‘platonic wife’) and she enjoyed romances with superstar Robbie Williams, footballer Sol Campbell and Mission: Impossible II actor Dougray Scott.
But beneath the glittering facade, Clare says she witnessed the ‘dark underbelly’ of celebrity, which led to her battling drug and alcohol addictions and culminated in a bruising legal fallout with Paul (whose books, including I Can Make You Thin, have earned him the accolade of being Britain’s bestselling nonfiction author).
In a case vicious even by Hollywood standards, she accused him of being addicted, at various times, to cocaine, alcohol, prescription pills, pornography and prostitutes – charges he vehemently denied. Paul later described her claims as a ‘monstrous betrayal’ and ‘extortion’.
‘The world of celebrity is fun…until it’s not,’ says Clare, with a half-smile. ‘The reason I’m telling my story is that so many people these days seem to be obsessed with fame, but it’s a false idol.’
Today, the Clare who greets me at her 9,000-acre ranch in the wilds of Oregon, where she runs a charity rescuing America’s native mustang horses, could not be more different from the glossy designer-clad woman who was once a staple of the gossip columns.
At 52 she remains strikingly beautiful, but her designer gowns have been replaced by cheap jeans from the local supply store. Her long blonde hair is cropped shorter (‘I had to chop it off because the wind whipped it into such a mess’) and pulled back into a rough ponytail. She wears not a scrap of make-up.
The woman who once staggered home from parties at 5am now gets up at sunrise, spends her day in the company of her horses – and has never been happier: ‘I used to see dawn a lot from the other side. It’s much more fun when it’s the first thing you see, not the last.’
Clean and sober thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, Clare describes her journey as a ‘modern-day redemption’ tale: ‘I feel truly fulfilled now because I am doing something worthwhile. In my previous life I was dieting all the time, so I was always hungry and angry. My values are so different now. I spent the first 50 years of my life collecting possessions, and I plan to spend the next 50 years giving back.
‘The rescue horses are amazing. They’ve been abused in the most horrible ways but they come back from it all and are so willing to trust. They demonstrate a resilience of spirit that can’t fail to inspire. It may be a cliché, but my spiritual journey proves the things that make you happy are not things money can buy. I wish I had learnt that lesson earlier in life.’
Born in Cobham, Surrey, to a restaurateur father and teacher mother, Clare was a lonely child who ‘escaped’ into a fantasy world, often involving imaginary equine friends. She became infatuated with the 1950s television series Champion the Wonder Horse, based on the adventures of a wild mustang stallion: ‘Growing up, I used to dream of the US. To me, the mustang represented all that was wild and free about the American West.’
After a brief stint as a model in New York, by 1990 Clare was living in London with her childhood friend, former British number-one tennis player turned TV presenter Annabel Croft. One night, the pair decided on a whim to go to see a young, up-and-coming hypnotist, Paul McKenna.
Paul, a former radio DJ, spotted Clare in the audience and invited her on to the stage. Within days she was his girlfriend, a role that quickly morphed into also being his manager.
Clare contends that she helped turn Paul from a ‘circus act’ into a sophisticated performer whose hit 1993 TV show The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna launched a £65 million empire, including a string of self-help books, and attracted celebrity fans who quickly became friends.
Paul went on to help actor David Walliams mentally prepare for his cross-channel swim in 2006, hypnotised The One Show presenter Matt Baker into believing he was Pablo Picasso and helped US talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres quit smoking after hypnotising her on air.
Clare and Paul split in 1995 but remained best friends. In 2007 they moved to Los Angeles from the UK in a bid to crack the US market and their £4.3 million home above the famed Sunset Strip quickly became ‘party central’ for a host of expat British stars.
Clare met actor Gerard Butler in typical fashion: ‘Gerry was at the next table at lunch one day and I started talking to him. He told me he wanted to stop smoking and I said, “Oh, you should see Paul,” and that’s how our friendship started. He’s still my best friend.’
Clare had a headline-grabbing romance with Robbie Williams in 2007 and, with Paul, hosted legendary Sunday barbecues at which Simon Cowell, Stephen Fry and Russell Brand were regulars. But the partying lifestyle gradually took its toll as she descended into drug and alcohol addiction.
It was then that Clare’s childhood love of horses came to ‘save her’. She and Welsh actor Matthew Rhys were walking their dogs one day when they saw some people riding in a canyon. On a whim, they bought a pair of mustangs, and a celebrity riding group, which included British actors Tim Roth and Nicholas Hoult (who was dating Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence at the time), was formed.
‘The horses helped me feel healthy,’ Clare explains. ‘The partying wasn’t fun any more. I went back to what made me happy as a child. Horses were my therapy.’
After years of struggling with addiction she joined a 12-step programme and finally got sober in January 2013. She moved out of the house she shared with Paul and into a ranch in Calabasas in LA county because, she claims, Paul was still partying. ‘For me, the Hollywood parties felt superficial. Simon would invite me to go on his yacht and I began turning him down because I wanted to spend time with my horses. No one could understand it. But I’d managed to get sober and the more time I spent around the horses, the healthier I felt.’
Then, in the summer of 2013, Paul reportedly ‘fired’ her as his manager, and a court case began when she sued, demanding ownership of the £800,000 horse ranch and half of their Hollywood Hills home, plus a share of Paul’s future earnings.
In court documents Clare accused him of flying into rages, demanding that a producer be sacked for asking if he was drunk during a segment on Lorraine and being so ‘wasted’ during a private seminar that the client demanded a refund. Paul refuted her claims, with his lawyers releasing a statement calling her a ‘greedy woman’ who made ‘false allegations’ in an attempt to ‘extort millions of dollars from him’. The case was settled out of court last year, with Clare coming away with the ranch and around 15 per cent of the Hollywood mansion.
While Clare is reluctant to speak about the case (‘I want to focus on the positive and not dwell on the past’), she will say that her love of horses helped her endure the ‘nightmare’. Unable to work because of visa issues, she devoted herself to her equine friends: ‘I threw myself more and more into helping horses because other aspects of my life were so negative.’
At the height of her legal battle with Paul, Clare learned about the plight of the wild American mustangs. ‘In the US there are millions of acres of public land that are managed by the government, which is where the wild mustangs live. The land is used by cattle ranchers and other livestock owners who pay the government to allow them to graze their animals there. They have powerful lobbyists in Washington, as do the mining companies that use the land. The wild mustangs are considered worthless. They are rounded up and put into cramped pens and fed cheap hay,’ says Clare.
Currently, there are at least 36,000 mustangs in holding pens. The US government regularly auctions off the horses. Many are sold for £100 or less, and end up being shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, with the meat sold to Europe or the Far East.
Clare says: ‘The horses are put in trailers and travel for days in horrific conditions before they get to the slaughterhouses. They are then sold by the pound for their meat. Many of the horses we rescue are pregnant; they sell for more because they weigh more.’
Horses are often sold to Mexico where mustang ‘tripping’ is a sport. ‘They hold rodeos and cowboys chase the horses at full gallop, then rope their back legs and pull hard so they fall down. They break their legs and smash their heads. One of the horses we rescued had a face full of gravel from hitting the ground so much.’
Clare was able to fund her work after meeting her husband, venture capitalist Christopher Polk Read. The couple married in December 2014 after a whirlwind nine-month romance. They set up a mustang rescue ranch in Malibu and last year bought 9,000 acres near Bend, Oregon, from which they run their charity, Skydog Sanctuary.
So far the couple have rescued 47 horses, eight donkeys, seven sheep, two goats, three peacocks, a giant tortoise and an emu donated by Robert Kennedy Jr, son of the late US presidential hopeful Robert F Kennedy.
Clare’s new life has restored her faith in the power of healing: ‘The horses have been starved, abused and neglected. We regain their trust. At first, they cower every time you go near them and then, one day when you’re not looking, they turn and look at you. If you look at them they glance away because they don’t want to be hit.
‘Eventually, they learn to trust and they will nuzzle. It makes me cry every time it happens, because that horse has taken a huge leap of faith to put its trust in a human again.’
Many of Clare’s showbusiness friends have become loyal supporters. Mel Gibson is a regular visitor to the ranch, as are Gerard Butler, Pamela Anderson, Leona Lewis and Rachel Hunter. ‘It doesn’t matter how rich or famous you are, the horses don’t care. The ranch is a great leveller,’ says Clare. ‘People come here and forget all about the Hollywood life. You can’t look at the mustangs as they gallop across a meadow without being moved. The horses saved my life. Every time I rescue a mustang, I am paying them back.
‘For a large part of my life I thought possessions would make me happy. If I had this car or this boyfriend or if I weighed this much then I’d be happy. In the superficial world I was living in your values get warped and distorted.
‘I can honestly say I am never happier than with hay in my hair and dirt under my nails as I muck out the horses. I’m happier doing this than I ever was sunning myself on Simon Cowell’s yacht.’
To find out more about Clare’s charity, visit skydogranch.org