Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon has battled her way back from addiction and bankruptcy, but the sudden death of her ex-husband Matthew in April strained her emotions to the limit. In her first interview about losing him, she tells Jane Mulkerrins how her blended family – and her fighting spirit – have kept her strong.
‘I still cry about it every day,’ says Tamara Mellon, as tears roll down her perfectly made-up cheeks. It’s a sunny autumn morning in Los Angeles and the former It-girl and co-founder of luxury shoe brand Jimmy Choo is talking about the death in April of her ex-husband, billionaire Matthew Mellon – father to her 16-year-old daughter Minty. ‘This year was absolutely devastating.’ Matthew, an addict with a well-documented history of drug use, died while on his way to rehab in Mexico, leaving behind not only Minty (short for Araminta), but also his second ex-wife, Nicole Hanley, and their two young children, Olympia, five, and Force, seven. ‘I’m still so emotional about it – I can’t believe he’s gone,’ she says. ‘We really loved him.’
We’re at the headquarters of her shoes line in West Hollywood, where the 51-year-old is forging a new brand in her own name. Lesser mortals would likely have limped away from public life long ago, cowed by addiction, divorce, bankruptcy and grief. But Tamara, impeccably groomed in sleek Saint Laurent trousers and jacket and leopard-print boots from her own collection, is made of impressively stern stuff.
Tamara launched Jimmy Choo – with the Malaysian shoe designer who lent his name to the brand – in 1996, while still in her 20s. She was chief creative officer as the label quickly grew from its East London roots to become a byword for high-end glamour, favoured by the A-list – and the shoe-obsessed characters of Sex And The City – with shops from Milan to Moscow and Hong Kong.
London-born Tamara met American banking heir Matthew in 1997, and their ‘proper English wedding’, as she once described it, took place at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire in 2000, attended by guests including Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. The couple divorced in 2005 but, riding high on the success of Jimmy Choo, Tamara left London for New York in 2009 to be closer to her ex for the sake of Minty, then seven.
But, feeling undermined and exploited by the firm’s private equity investors (who by then owned a majority share in the company), Tamara left Jimmy Choo in 2011 with a reported £105 million payout, and two years later started her own eponymous line of shoes and clothing. By 2015, however, the new firm had filed for bankruptcy. It was a very public failure for the former golden girl of retail, once ranked the 64th richest woman in Britain, worth an estimated £99 million.
But Tamara, rather like an indomitable heroine from dramatic fiction, has once again picked herself up, dusted herself off, and is back on top. In the great tradition of relocation, she’s gone West, where the second iteration of her Tamara Mellon brand, now two years old, is thriving. Its £450 Frontline sandal has become a red-carpet favourite, worn by Jennifer Lopez and Solange Knowles, while the Duchess of Sussex caused such a surge in demand when she was pictured in a pair of Tamara’s siren heels that the firm sold out in every size. Until now an online business (tamaramellon.com), this month the label has opened its first store, at LA’s glamorous new Palisades Village shopping mall.
When we sit down to chat in her ‘dressing room’ – an area at the back of her office, with sofas and racks of jewel-bright outfits – she pops on a pair of aviator-style glasses; but, not 15 minutes into our conversation, she is removing them again and reaching for a tissue when the subject of Matthew’s death comes up. The 54-year-old had been battling addiction issues for decades, but in his last months, says Tamara, Matthew had been ‘doing so well’. Minty had persuaded him to go into rehab, and ‘he was sober and the best I’ve ever seen him in the 20 years I’ve known him’, she says. ‘He was showing up for Minty, he looked healthy and handsome and was living the life he wanted to yearlive.’ As an early investor in cryptocurrency, he’d also enjoyed a great deal of financial success.
However, in the three preceding years, he’d fallen back into addiction. After a surfing accident, he was prescribed OxyContin, the highly addictive opioid painkiller that has ravaged entire communities in the US, creating not only widespread addiction to the prescription medicine itself, but also to street heroin. ‘The statistics show that when you can’t get OxyContin you go to heroin,’ says Tamara. ‘Matthew was an addict and had drug issues his whole life, but he never took heroin until the last three years.’
Shortly before his death, however, he’d been trying to break his addiction with ibogaine, an experimental plant-based therapy administered by the Clear Sky Recovery centre in Mexico. ‘It plugs the brain’s opioid receptors so you don’t have cravings, but it runs out after three months,’ says Tamara. Matthew had an appointment for a booster on a Monday morning, and checked into a hotel on Sunday night. ‘But he had a relapse and he didn’t make it.
‘When you use [drugs] every day, your body builds a tolerance, but when you relapse you can’t use the amount you used before and you OD,’ she says. ‘It’s very common and often people die.’ Minty was ‘absolutely devastated’, she says. ‘But she is pushing through and I’m really proud of her.’ She is close to Olympia and Force, and Tamara and Matthew’s second wife Nicole, who is based in New York, are very close too. ‘Nicole and I are in this together for our three kids now – we are a family.’
Matthew’s fate must, I suggest, be particularly chilling for Tamara, who herself had substance issues – she has talked openly about her problems with cocaine, and she and Matthew met at Narcotics Anonymous. ‘But the penny dropped for me young,’ she says. ‘I felt scared and I wondered, “Where will I end up if I don’t get myself together?” Fear got me sober and I’ve been so for 23 years. Minty’s never known me to have a drink. She can’t even imagine what that’s like.’
Though Tamara has long catered to the red carpet, the move from New York to LA was
not, she says, a calculated one to be closer to Hollywood. ‘No! Moving was totally for love,’ she assures me. Since 2011, she has been dating Michael Ovitz, the 71-year-old co-founder of CAA – the biggest talent agency in the US, representing A-listers from Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg to Madonna – and now a major Silicon Valley investor. When they met at a business conference in Aspen, ‘we just clicked’. Michael asked her to have a drink with him. ‘I knew who he was and thought, I’m looking at a sea of middle-aged men with pot bellies and bad chinos – he has cool jeans and nice shoes,’ she has said. ‘So I went for the drink.
He was, she says, ‘bicoastal for a while’, until he persuaded her and Minty to join him in California. They now live between two lavish homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu, filled with Picassos and Rothkos – Michael is a renowned art collector.
‘He’s definitely a grown-up,’ she says thoughtfully, when I ask what she thinks makes their relationship work. ‘He’s been through a lot, he’s built businesses. And we’re compatible – we enjoy the same things. We both love collecting art, but I cannot compete with him and his collection for wall space,’ she laughs. ‘When we moved in together, all my art went in storage. But being with him for seven years, and looking at his art, has been an incredible education.’
In 2014, Michael proposed, with an enormous square-cut diamond – it takes up almost an entire finger joint – but they don’t have any firm plans to get married yet. ‘I’m a bit busy right now,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve just moved, launched a business and put a kid in high school. I’m happy with being engaged and fully committed. Maybe one day we will [get married], but it’s not at the top of my mind now.’ (There is also the complicating factor that Michael is still married to his first wife.)
I’ve met Tamara several times, and she seems calmer and more content than in the past. ‘Yes,’ she agrees. ‘I do feel very settled; very happy and secure. It’s a really nice feeling.’ She pauses, suddenly more serious. ‘I’ve been through some tumultuous times,’ she says.
LA life appears to suit her. ‘It’s a healthy town,’ she nods. ‘You go to bed earlier, everyone’s into wellness. I go on hikes, do yoga, meditate – I wish I’d discovered it 20 years ago, it’s changed my life.’ What about LA’s obsession with plastic surgery I ask. ‘I’m a try-and-look-as-natural-as-you-can, do-it-gracefully sort,’ she shrugs. ‘Nobody wants to look weird.’ But she’s at an advantage: ‘I live with the truth-teller, Michael,’ she laughs.
At CAA he was famous for being brutally honest with his clients. He reportedly once told Robert Redford he ‘looked like s***’ on the set of Indecent Proposal, and sent the star home to sleep for three days. ‘He tells me when I look good, when I don’t look good, when he likes what I’m wearing, when he doesn’t like it,’ she says. ‘So when he says I look good I can trust his opinion.’
Michael has also been a huge boon in starting the new business, after the bankruptcy (or ‘reorg’ as she calls it) of the previous incarnation of Tamara Mellon. ‘He’d just say, “No big deal”,’ she says. ‘He mentors a lot of tech guys, and he told me, “The tech world loves failure, because you learn so much.”
But long before she landed in California or began dating Michael, Tamara seemed to have an innate resilience and a fighting spirit. Where does that self-belief come from, I ask? ‘Absolutely from my dad, because he never treated me any differently to my brothers. He instilled in me that attitude of picking yourself up and carrying on.’
Her late father, Tom Yeardye, was a stunt double for Rock Hudson before co-founding the Vidal Sassoon hair-product empire. When Tamara was nine, his job took the family from London to LA for seven years. ‘I drive past my old home every day – it feels like I’ve come full circle.’
While she was close to her dad, Tamara’s relationship with her mother, former model Ann Yeardye, was strained, as she details in her 2013 memoir In My Shoes. They are, she tells me, still estranged. ‘That reconciliation is probably not going to happen,’ she says equably. But that relationship has informed her own choices as a mother. ‘I wanted Minty to feel loved, supported, nurtured, to feel I had her back no matter what, and feel safe with me. I never felt safe growing up,’ she says. ‘There was always a drama, a crisis. You never felt on safe ground around her.’
Out in the airy, open-plan office, there’s the quiet thrum of industry among the 30 employees, all but two of whom are female. ‘The guys are very good sports about it,’ Tamara laughs. She deliberately sought out a female CEO, and actively seeks to put women in leadership positions. ‘We’re not anti-men,’ she says. ‘But my team are less afraid to do things because they’re women and can relate to the customer.’ On Valentine’s Day last year, they ran a campaign with the slogan, ‘Be your own damn Valentine,’ and sent vibrators out with every order of shoes. ‘I’m sure that if I had a male CEO he’d have said, “Ooh, maybe not,” but this team totally got it.
Tamara, it is clear, still has the fierce tenacity that made Jimmy Choo the soaraway success it was before she hit 30. ‘The game plan is to build a big luxury brand like I did before,’ she says. ‘Whether it’s bags or fragrance or sunglasses, we’re definitely going to go into other products. And we’re definitely going to roll out more retail stores.
It seems as if she’s in her second act, I suggest. ‘Yes,’ she agrees. ‘I feel as though I’m really hitting my stride now – with the business and with everything – and it feels great.’