In conversation with Mary Portas, the proactive and passionate Queen of Shops. First published in the July 2012 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
We meet in a coffee shop on Marylebone High Street. It’s packed, but Portas sits with her back to the room and is engaged with our conversation while being aware of the effect she has on the people around us. But I wonder how many of those who stare know that Portas didn’t find fame in an instant: she grafted to get where she is today, driven by a genuine passion for getting people excited about shopping. That’s why she comes across so authentically. She also eschews a make-up artist when filming, saying she’d rather spend the money on the work, but wishes the crew would remember to tell her if she’s looking a bit shiny. I suspect they get distracted by her energy. As she puts it, ‘I didn’t want to do TV for the sake of it, but this is stuff I genuinely believe in!’
After all, remember when Harvey Nichols was the place to go, as featured on Absolutely Fabulous? Or Thomas Heatherwick’s sculptural extravaganza in the shop’s windows for London fashion week 1997? It was Portas, as creative director of the store, who made these things happen. And then she left to launch Yellowdoor, her retail and brand communication agency, she wrote books (Windows: The Art of Retail Display and How to Shop), filmed three series of Mary, Queen of Shops for the BBC, became Channel 4’s Secret Shopper, penned a weekly Shop! column for the Telegraph Magazine, and most recently prepared a report for the government on how to revitalise our high streets. Workshy she is not!
So, I ask her, hearing politicians discuss her recommendations must be a buzz? ‘I don’t need the government,’ she says emphatically. ‘The future of our country will be led by the people getting off their arses to do something.’ And what of design? Could we entice her to rally for our campaign to protect originality? ‘Oh, my heart has always been in interiors and design, much more so than fashion! People don’t understand design enough. I’d love to do a programme on design.’ And what of fakes? ‘It’s the same argument they used with Primark. It’s not diffusion; it’s debasement. The materials shame the product. It’d be naff as knickers to have a fake Picasso; it’s the same with design!’ And with that, she’s off.
Tell me five words to describe yourself. Clever. Quick. Kind. Naughty. Intuitive.
What’s your favourite colour? It was yellow, but now it’s orange. It’s good, happy and optimistic.
What’s your favourite film? That’s really difficult! I’m quite heavy when it comes to film. I’d never see a comedy or musical. I love Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and that great German film The Lives of Others. I cried for two days after watching that.
What are you reading right now? I dip in and out of books. I love Claire Tomalin, A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and I just got Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Oh, and I’m a total Dickens fan.
When did you last laugh? I laugh a lot. Really a lot! I’m naughty! I set up situations for a laugh. My family is really funny, full of Irish one-liners.
What keeps you awake at night? I’m not a brilliant sleeper; I can wake at 3am with something in my head.
Do you have any regrets? No. Not at all. I have the most extraordinary life; there’s someone looking down on me with a ray of sunshine.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I can be a bit black and white about people. I’d like to be more mindful.
Who would you most like to meet/have met? David Bowie. His influence on me redefined everything. And I think we’d like each other. His music was so influential. I remember my brother dressing me up as Aladdin Sane!
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with? AA Gill. He is a brilliant writer but he uses his talent to destroy, not build.
You’re throwing a fantasy dinner party and can invite anyone you like, dead or alive, real or fictitious. Who do you invite? Barry Humphries; David Bowie; Eckhart Tolle; Judi Dench – she’s naughty and fun; Arthur Miller – I’d love to know about the Marilyn years; a great American female writer like Joyce Carol Oates; and my mother. She left me when I was 16 and I have so much I’d like to ask her.
Are you religious? I was brought up a Catholic but I’m not. I believe in a moral code which I put out to my children. I’m spiritual. It’s important to me to have goals, to push myself to achieve.
Do you have any pets? Walter the schnoodle [schnauzer/poodle cross] and Ferdinand the big ginger tom. Kevin the canary died after five days.
Do you collect anything? I’m quite obsessive about memorabilia, but I don’t hoard.
What do you think you’d taste like? I don’t think I’d be sweet or chocolatey. I’d be something savoury in the fridge with a bit of a kick to it. Something to snack on.
Do you believe in luck? I believe in the energy you put out into the world. If you do things from a good place, good things happen.
Do you have a motto? A quote from Eckhart Tolle about embracing the unexpected: ‘If you fear the unexpected, it becomes fear.’ I refuse to be in fear.