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Mary Portas: 'It was a question how do I want to work as a woman?'

Mary Portas: 'It was a question how do I want to work as a woman?'

No wonder she cleaves to her vastly more successful project for Save the Children, a new type of charity shop designed to inspire and work as creative community spaces (Mary's Living & Giving Shops). "I've got 26 of those now. Save the Children has made £15m from them." The only TV project she really longs to do - this one is her idea - would involve setting up Britain's first charity department store in, say, an empty House of Fraser. Her honesty about the high street project is, I think, all of a piece with her straightforwardness and warmth. If Portas is bossy and occasionally controlling, she is also generous and kind, stoical and brave. The defining event of her life came when she was a teenager in Watford. When she was 16, her mother died suddenly of meningitis. Two years later, she lost her father, too, at which point she and her younger brother, Lawrence, became homeless, their stepmother having thrown them out. Portas turned down a place at Rada to look after him - her three older siblings were at university - and embarked on what would become her long career in retail. (She worked first in window displays at Harrods and then Topshop.) "It made me," she says, of this period in her life. "It just totally did." The other day, she went to the funeral of a friend of her father's, someone she knew as Uncle Harry; long ago, the two men had come to England together from Ireland to work on the buses. It was with Harry that she and Lawrence lived for a year after her father died. "You don't forget that. They put us up in their tiny council house, and they had four kids of their own. At the funeral, I experienced such a huge tug." People she spoke to that day remembered her as the "naughty one", but when push came to shove she simply got on with what she needed to do. What's odd is that she never felt resentful. "I don't think I've ever resented anything. I was just trying to survive. I was petrified: this horrible, nervous energy." The other defining event of her life was meeting the fashion writer, Melanie Rickey, whom she married in 2014, and with whom she now has a son, Horatio (their sperm donor was her brother, Lawrence). The two of them fell in love, she says, instantly. "My marriage [to Graham Portas, with whom she has two children, Verity and Mylo] had broken up on mutual terms. If I'm honest it wasn't a case of: 'Ooh, I've been thinking about Linda Evangelista.' So in one way, it was just Mel. But there was a sexual attraction; I do love women. What surprised me afterwards was that so many women are fluid in this way. I would meet them and they would say: 'I was married, now I'm with a woman.'" Her business partner said: Lesbians aren't that glamorous - and you are Telling people in her world wasn't particularly easy. "I had to tell my family, and they had seen me only as one thing," she laughs. "I could see this slight disappointment in my sister. I think she'd thought I was going to end up with some high-flying businessman." And, of course, people talked - even in the supposedly liberal realm of fashion. At a charity dinner, she sat next to a well-known tycoon. Just before she went on stage to give a speech, he turned to her and asked: "Tell me, Mary: how do two women fuck?" When she first began working in television, no one knew she was living with a woman, and her then business partner, a gay man, advised her to keep quiet. "Lesbians aren't that glamorous," he said. "And you are." She knew what he meant. "There is this aspirational hierarchy. White straight men are at the top. Gay men come quite high, too. Look how many there are on television. Gay women are right at the bottom. I remember that AA Gill [the late TV critic of the Sunday Times] knew, and he wrote a very hinting piece about me striding around and stuff." As if she was Radclyffe Hall? "Yes, exactly." She snorts. "Anyway, in the end, I just decided to be truthful. The truth is all that matters, so tell it." When she and Mel converted their civil partnership to a marriage, one of the first lesbian couples in the UK to do so, most of the letters she received were from women thanking her for her openness and honesty. The couple lives in Primrose Hill, north London, and have recently bought a second home in the Slad Valley in Gloucestershire. In her book, she refers several times to her Catholic working-class roots - her mother was so devout she once genuflected in the aisle of a cinema by mistake - but she isn't one of those people who likes to insist that, no, she has not really changed at all. In fact, she can hardly recognise the girl she once was. "If you had told Mary Newton at 15 what life she would end up leading, she would not have believed you. I am a completely different person now. I genuinely do think that a person can have more than one life." Again, she shakes her head; again, every last hair snaps to attention. And, as I watch this happen, I realise she is that rare and marvellous thing: at once both a brilliant invention and yet, somehow, so completely and utterly herself. 'I don't want to lean in' We don't need suits to be part of the tribe, says Mary Portas in this extract from Work Like a Woman I'm tempted to take off my whole outfit and start again as I stand in front of the mirror, dithering. Do the flowery trousers work? Are the rings too much? Do I need to tone the whole thing down? I really need to decide because I'm running late. It could be 1978 all over again. But I'm not a teenager about to go on a night out. I am a 50-something mother of three who has run her own business for years, and is now often asked to give business talks because I'm an expert on the retail sector. I'm doing one today and will go on stage after Liam Fox MP. He's sure to be wearing a grey suit and most of the audience will be, too. Grey suits are the accepted uniform of working men in positions of power. The most daring it gets is a purple stripe in a tie, perhaps a flash of a coloured sock. So what I'm wondering is this: what will they make of me when I appear on the podium in floral trousers and a cobalt blue jacket? Will I fit into the tribe? Then I find I don't care. It's taken me a long time not to care, to come to understand who I am and feel confident enough to look the way I do. I leave the house knowing that what I'm wearing is a reflection of me: colourful, confident and slightly flamboyant. This is my kind of outfit and I'm good at what I do and sure of what I'm talking about. I don't need a suit to impress people or feel part of their tribe. But we all grapple with questions like these almost every day. Humans are tribal. Even if we're not a complete fit for the group we're part of, we like to create social groups with rules we understand and can work to. So, to start understanding the alpha tribe a little better (and we have to understand it in order to unpick it), we must look at it in its purest form: almost exclusively male institutions. Let's begin by rewinding a couple of decades back to when Caitlin Zaloom, an American anthropologist, decided to study the very male world of financial trading floors in London and Chicago. What she found was a stringent pecking order, men rising up the ranks, thanks to extreme financial risk taking and such excessive shows of bravado that two paramedics were needed on standby at the Chicago Board of Trade in case physical fights broke out. God knows if the paramedics are still there today. But I see little change from that kind of competitive behaviour in the way that industry and others still work, and perhaps that's reflected in the fact that women still make up only 15% of the financial trading workforce. Similarly, when MPs examined what was holding women back in the intelligence services, they identified an immovable layer of middle management with a traditional male mind set. They also saw an alpha male management culture that rewarded those who were loud or aggressive in pursuing their career, leaving others behind.But alpha culture is not always found in the most obvious places. It can hide itself well, too. TV production or tech offices might be full of free-thinking creatives who enjoy the onsite yoga studio and napping pods, but don't mistake a progressive top layer for real change. Just ask Apple. In 2017, the company unveiled its new California campus, for 12,000 employees, which had taken eight years to build. It was so carefully thought out that even the stone covering the gym walls in the 100,000ft fitness and wellness centre was 'from just the right quarry in Kansas, and has been carefully distressed, like a pair of jeans'. Fabulous attention to detail, Apple. Imagine how long it took to dream up that one. Strange, then, that no one managed to think about putting any childcare facilities on site. The combined minds of 250 architects and countless Apple bosses didn't think to build any. And what they implicitly communicated to their employees by focusing so heavily on design and gym facilities was that beauty - be it the building's or the staff's - was important. The ability of their employees to integrate their working lives with those minor, messy responsibilities called children was not. But let's be clear here: women don't get a free pass on all this. Alpha culture might have been put in place by men, but we're also working alongside them and, in many cases, perpetuating the status quo. Now if there weren't many women working, I might be able to understand why the culture of how we work hasn't really changed over the past few decades. If, say, there were just a few of us in the workforce and the rest of us were sitting around posting pictures of cushion covers on our Pinterest boards I could maybe grasp why adapting our working culture to better reflect and reward women's strengths might not be considered a priority. But we're half the workforce and only a third of its managers, directors and senior officials. That's rubbish by anyone's standards. The workplace is still working against us and, as much as I respect Sheryl Sandberg, who argued that women need to adapt their behaviour to better suit the status quo, I'm more of a Gloria Steinem fan. 'It's not about integrating into a not-so-good system,' she said. 'It's about transforming it and making it better. If women have to acquire all the characteristics of a corporate world, it's probably not worth it.' Too right, Gloria. I don't want to lean into a system that is entrenched in a working world that's quite frankly dated, limited and controlling. It's bloody well time it changed.

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