Interview: Louise Fennel, author
SHE’S married to the King of Bling, but Louise Fennell is no trophy wife, as her first novel – a witty saga of the rich and awful – proves
Dead Rich is so engrossing that I was reluctant to put it down long enough to ring its author. Louise Fennell’s debut novel is packed to its gilded rafters with characters so awful that you’ll struggle to decide which one you disapprove of the most. Sex, drugs and murder are all on the menu, as we enter the lives of the Spenders, three generations of a famous family inhabiting London’s Chelsea. They’re such celebrities that leaving the house means navigating paparazzi stacked three deep, and no one dares sit in the garden for fear of snappers’ long lenses.
They’ve been up to their tricks inside Fennell’s brain for years now, she says. “Famous people’s lives are so fictitious in many ways. I’m only exaggerating human behaviour slightly. When people are really under pressure and feel very looked at all the time, and when they’re very isolated and only have a small group to fall back on, it becomes very claustrophobic and incestuous. It’s not good for people and it comes with money, but it gets much worse with fame.
“Don’t they say that happiness is a sense of purpose and somebody to love? It’s very difficult when the world suddenly starts to see you in an unnatural way. Everybody is a bit odd when they meet you – excited or frightened, but not normal. They don’t question you. You stop being reflected, and I think that’s where the damage gets done.”
Everyone will be second-guessing which of her celebrity friends the book lampoons, but the answer is … none of them. Nevertheless, she does enjoy a ringside seat for the show that is Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Husband Theo, sometimes referred to as the King of Bling, is a renowned jewellery designer whose A-list clients include Elton John, Elizabeth Hurley, Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, Cheryl Cole, P Diddy and Elle Macpherson.
Nor is this proximity to wealth and fame entirely courtesy of the family’s patriarch. In decadent 1970s Soho, Louise worked for fashion designer Thea Porter, whose shop attracted customers such as Elizabeth Taylor and The Rolling Stones. When she hosted trunk shows overseas, she met Hollywood’s most illustrious denizens, including Gregory Peck.
For the past 25 years Fennell has run a designer sample sale business, holding sales a few times a year at her Chelsea flat. “I get excess samples and stock from lots of the Italian designers and some of the English ones. I did it while the children were growing up, because it meant I could bring them up at the same time as work. Now Coco is 23 and a dress designer, and Emerald is 25 and an actress and writer. I have always written, but it wasn’t until they left home that I had the time to do this. It’s a big surprise at 55 to find myself with a novel out!”
Zelda and her mum Cleo are the sort of women who wake before dawn to ensure their hair and make-up is camera-ready before they meet their public. Working in fashion means Fennell is well placed to see what obsessing about appearance does to a person, and she admits she’s not immune. “I would confess to being the most obsessed person. I’ve never been thin but I’ve always wanted to be. It’s not just people in the public eye; it affects every woman in this country, fat or thin.
“My daughters are really brilliant about this. A kind of soundtrack to my life has been this thing of always being on a diet or thinking about being on a diet and not succeeding. They’ve seen that and said, ‘You’re ridiculous. That’s not the way to live.’ They don’t buy into it. They’re sensible and eat healthily and take exercise. I am always hopeful that the new generations will be better at it than we were.”
The problem, she acknowledges, is that this complicated obsession with looks is buried deep within our psyches. “I look at Adele and think, ‘What a beautiful, beautiful woman.’ She is beautiful in the way that a woman is supposed to be – fertile and luscious. Nobody ever loved somebody just because they have long legs or a small waist, and if they did, you wouldn’t want to be loved by them. We all know that it’s bonkers and absolutely not relevant, in the same way that nobody loves you any less because you’re wrinkly. It’s nonsense. But it’s a part of our culture, and we’re naturally hard on ourselves.”
Pondering these thorny issues brings to mind the fact that a decade ago Fennell discovered, quite by chance, that she had breast cancer. “I had gone for a gallop – which was unusual as I hadn’t been on a horse for years – and I felt a hot sensation. Then I felt a lump and saw my doctor, and off we went on the journey that so many people are having. I’m surprised by how young people are now, who are getting diagnosed. Everyone must check themselves and run to the doctor and not take no for an answer if the doctor says ‘I think you’re probably fine.’ You have to be quick.”
Her reaction was instantaneous and pragmatic. “I did not think about it for a moment. I asked the doctor ‘What would you do?’ He said, ‘Double mastectomy,’ and that was it; I said, ‘Do it.’ Everyone is different, some people like to investigate everything and see what their options are. Everyone has to do it in a way that they feel really happy about. I’m more of a ‘Don’t tell me, just do it’ kind of person, about most things.”
Having had reconstructive surgery, is she worried about the implant controversy? “No. I just assumed they hadn’t given me bad implants. I tend to be an optimist. I think, ‘Well, mine won’t be those kind of implants, and I’m sure my doctors would have let me know if they were.’ That’s the way I approach things, and perhaps it’s a little careless.”
She loves clothes, but appreciates them more as an art form than something to obsess about when it comes to her own wardrobe. “I think you get a bit lazier when you get older, and just want to wear something comfortable. I’m very drawn to multi-coloured things and my girls say, ‘Hmm, children’s entertainer!’
“Obviously I’m dressing people all the time and I do like what clothes do to someone’s confidence. If they’re cut beautifully and fit well, it does give people a lift and make them feel better and more confident. Clothes, historically, are fascinating, and I adore beautiful materials, but I don’t care about labels or any of that stuff. Things are either brilliant and beautiful or they’re not. People have loved the fantasy of couture since time began and fashion has always been something that humans have wanted to use to decorate themselves.”
Ditto jewellery. I presume she has a stellar collection of baubles – is she allowed to stray off brand? “I do have a big collection. Luckily for me I’m allergic to anything that isn’t real gold, so I can only really wear Theo’s things, which is perfect, frankly. The things I have he’s made especially for me and they will go down through the generations and that’s what jewellery is, it’s something that really lasts forever and can go down to your great, great, great grandchildren – as long as they don’t fall on hard times and have to sell...”
OK, I have to know, what is her recipe for an enduring marriage? She and Theo fell in love at first sight, when they were very young – she was 19, he was a few years older – and relatively penniless. She’s said before that as newlyweds they couldn’t afford to operate heat, light, and a telephone simultaneously. But instead of growing apart as their fortunes improved, they’ve cleaved together.
Spill the beans, I urge. After all, so many men replace their wives with a younger model, when they reach a certain age. An eardrum-splitting laugh comes down the line, and between giggles she says, “It’s only a question of time! But actually, I think that’s it – don’t ever take it for granted. It’s also luck, and being in it together, through thick and thin. You both have to be tenacious and have staying power. It helps if you can have a laugh, and if you both try to be kind. What’s the secret? There isn’t one; it’s just luck. I consider myself very lucky.”
Maybe, but I’ve always subscribed to the notion that you make your own luck. In that regard, Louise Fennell is more talented than most.
• Dead Rich is out now from Bedford Square Books, £9.99 for Print on Demand, and £3.99 as an ebook. Order via www.bedfordsquarebooks.com, or tel: 0207 3044100. From 15 March, it will be available as a mass market paperback, exclusively at Tesco.
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