SUPERMODELS cannot live on fresh air alone. But that didn’t stop Scots businesswoman Michelle Mone asking Penny Lancaster to help promote her bra range for free.
The two were revealed to have parted company last week, with Glasgow-based Mone somewhat cheekily suggesting Lancaster did not have the international recognition required to be the ‘face’ of Ultimo bras.
But the real reason why Mone and Lancaster - the 6ft 1in girlfriend of Rod Stewart - went their separate ways appears to be the usual culprit: money.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal that when Lancaster’s 200,000-a-year contract to promote Ultimo ended, Mone asked if she could continue using the model’s image for another five months for free. The ‘offer’ was rejected as "ludicrous".
An unabashed Mone insists she is on the verge of signing up an international superstar to promote her brand, but the revelation that she tried to get Lancaster’s services for nothing begs uncomfortable questions about the financial position of Mone’s firm, MJM International.
In 2002 the company needed a loan from Scots tycoon Tom Hunter to relaunch the bra range following poor sales, and Mone admits the accounts for 2002/03 will make bad reading.
But the ever-confident Mone - once voted World Young Business Achiever - insists MJM International has turned the corner and is back in profit.
Celebrity played a major part in the initial rise of the Ultimo bra, which took off when Julia Roberts wore one in the film Erin Brockovich. Society ‘It Girl’ Lady Victoria Hervey and Prince Charles’s partner Camilla Parker Bowles are other well-known wearers.
But what showbiz gloss there was from the attachment with Lancaster has been tarnished by the outbreak of an unseemly cat fight.
In an exclusive interview, Lancaster’s agent Nicholas Young said the claim that his client parted company with Mone because she was not well-known enough was "utter nonsense".
"The contract expires on January 31 and MJM was seeking to extend it to the middle of the year at no cost or minimal cost. That’s not acceptable.
"At the expiry of the contract they can no longer describe her as the face of Ultimo and use photographs in the catalogue.
"They were seeking to do both those things and it’s clearly ludicrous. They cannot afford to carry on with Penny and they haven’t got anybody else up their sleeve, otherwise they would have announced it."
Young added: "I’m disappointed they chose to adopt the ‘Aren’t we grand, we’ve dumped her’ attitude.
"She’s considerably better known in the US than Ultimo is. Penny Lancaster’s name often appears in American newspapers.
"I think they are trying to make the best of a bad job. They couldn’t afford Penny.
"Negotiations for another contract really broke down. I’m personally not in any doubt that the reasons they haven’t renewed are financial."
He insisted Lancaster was "totally ambivalent" about the decision and said she did want to become involved in a "slanging match".
Mone, 31, was herself a model of diplomacy when contacted by Scotland on Sunday.
When asked about the attempt to persuade Lancaster to work for free, Mone said: "When you are negotiating any deals of course you’re going to negotiate about money and try to get the best deal.
"But it so happens the deal with the person who will be the new face has happened a lot faster than we anticipated."
Mone added: "Nothing against Penny, we had a really good relationship, but it’s like football, people move on.
"I think Penny was fantastic for Ultimo and we were fantastic for her. She’s gone on to make her fitness video, it was great both ways. I got on really well with her, she’s a really nice girl.
"We’re not extending Penny’s contract and whatever Nicholas [Young] has to say about that is his opinion.
"We’re going to an international level and that’s why we need a change and need an international person to help us to that.
"I don’t think an international person would be less money. Would Ronaldo be the same price as Henrik Larsson?"
Meanwhile, business analysts are more interested in facts and figures and the last available accounts - for the year to April 2002 - show MJM owed nearly 1.5m.
In March last year when these results were made public, Mone admitted the firm had had an "awful" year but promised the turnover would triple and MJM would break even.
But in her interview with Scotland on Sunday, Mone admitted that when the figures for the year to April 2003 are made available in the next two months they would detail a "nightmare". However she once again claimed the company had been transformed.
A business analyst said as MJM International was a private company there was really no way of telling how it was currently performing.
"If they are disclosing their information almost a year in arrears, a lot of the material in the accounts represents sales that are almost two years old," he said.
"The company is not breaking any law, but it is prudent to try and get the results in as soon as possible.
"Unfortunately we’re going to have to wait until February 2005 to find out if Michelle Mone is telling the truth about the firm."
A spokesman for Tom Hunter - whose firm West Coast Capital holds a 25% share in MJM - said they continued to give Mone their full backing and the 100,000 loan had been repaid.
The spokesman said: "She’s competing against global firms with hundreds of millions to spend on marketing. She has been a phenomenal success in terms of taking those business on.
"You have to stand back and admire her for that. It’s a tough market.
"Tom and West Coast remain very supportive and will, at all times, do anything we can to support Michelle and the team there."
SUPPORT FOR THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
SHOULD the new face of the Ultimo bra fail to live up to expectations, Glasgow-based marketing firm Nation 1 has come up with an alternative ad campaign.
Creative director Andrew Grant said a Pop Idol-style competition could be held to find ordinary people to star on television adverts and billboards.
Wearing the uplifting Ultimo, they could be transformed to look like Ursula Andress (right) coming out of the sea in the James Bond movie Dr No, Marilyn Monroe and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars.
"The idea would be that normal-looking women in an Ultimo bra could look as beautiful as women like Ursula Andress," said Grant.
"You would get the kudos and association with film stars, without having to pay for it."
He said that too much emphasis is often be put on the power of celebrity names to win over the public.
"I don’t think the name of the new face of Ultimo will be make or break," said Grant.
"Celebrity endorsement can be the icing on the cake, but ultimately it comes down to how good the product is, and the Ultimo bra is a fantastic product."