Profile: Tamara Mellon

THERE can't be many British trade envoys who have been photographed sprawled naked across a couch for a glossy magazine, with only a fluffy kitten to hide their modesty. But then Tamara Mellon is not, in any sense, typical.

From drug-addicted market stallholder to wildly successful business tycoon, Mellon's life story reads like something out of a Danielle Steel novel. Today, the president of the Jimmy Choo shoe empire is worth 60 million, lives in a fabulous Manhattan penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park and counts Beyonc, Madonna, Penelope Cruz and Michelle Obama among fans.

And now she works for the UK government. Hot on the heels of an OBE from the Queen and an Enduring Vision award for her charity work from the Elton John Foundation, last week Mellon was named a global trade envoy by prime minister David Cameron. The 5ft 6in superglam businesswoman has a roving brief to promote Britain's fashion industry overseas. She will undoubtedly turn heads on the international business circuit but, beneath the sleek, impeccably groomed exterior lies a ruthless, dynamic businesswoman who recently took her own mother to court.

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Those who know Mellon talk of her determination, steeliness and drive. To have turned her life around so spectacularly, the 43-year-old divorce clearly has a whole lot going on beside looks and great taste in shoes. With shoes and bags selling from 300 to 1,500, in 14 years Mellon has transformed Jimmy Choo from a small bespoke London cobbler into a global brand worth $500 million.

During her time at Choo, she has negotiated three private equity deals and fought off a hostile insider takeover bid. Jimmy Choo sold his share of the business in 2001, and though he and Mellon reportedly parted on frosty terms, he won't say a word against her in public. "She's very hard-working, she was the brain behind everything," he said.

Born in Berkshire, Mellon grew up surrounded by fashion and business. The indulged eldest child, Mellon is the daughter of Ann Davies, a former Chanel model, and Tommy Yeardye, an illegitimate Irishman born into poverty once engaged to Diana Dors. Nicknamed "Muscles", Yeardye was a tycoon who turned Vidal Sassoon into an international brand, hung out with celebrities and knew the Kray Twins. When success hit, the family moved into the house next door to Nancy Sinatra in Beverly Hills.

Tamara was packed off to the posh Heathfield School, in Ascot, then to finishing school in Switzerland. Emerging with no qualifications, the determined young Tamara set up a T-shirt stall at Portobello Road market. Most nights she could be found partying in London's hippest clubs with "It" girl pals Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Tamara Beckwith. She bypassed university and got a job at Browns fashion boutique, then moved into PR before being taken on as an assistant at Vogue magazine in 1990.Around this time she got to know Jimmy Choo who had a workshop in Hackney and whose clients included Princess Diana. Her career was taking off, with a promotion to accessories editor at Vogue, but the beautiful, pampered young party girl was plagued by feelings of self-loathing and a belief that she was "ugly and stupid". Increasingly she was relying on drink and drugs to prop her up.

Age 28, she quit Vogue and checked into rehab. She emerged six weeks later and threw herself into work after persuading her father to lend her 150,000 to go into business with Choo. Obsessed with shoes for as long as she can remember, at five, on a trip to Paris with her convent school, she begged one nun to buy her a pair of cowboy boots.

You don't have to be Freud to work out where Mellon's drive comes from. She recently described herself as coming from a "really dysfunctional family where you're always told you're not good enough... I guess even in the face of my success, I still can't get the approval."

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Her argument is not with her adored father to whom she spoke every day until he died six years ago. Mellon has publicly described her mother as a "sociopath". She took Ann to court last year and successfully fought a bitter battle for the return of 6m in company shares. The two have not spoken since. Mellon is also estranged from her two brothers who sided with their mother.

It was at a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous that Mellon met her husband, Matthew Mellon, the heir of an absurdly rich American banking family. Two years later they married in a lavish ceremony at Blenheim Palace before going on to have a daughter, Minty, now eight. But from the start, theirs was a turbulent relationship, with things becoming increasingly strained after Matthew started using drugs again. Aged 35, Mellon had an affair with Oscar Humphries, the then 21-year-old art dealer son of Dame Edna comic Barry, and in 2005 she divorced Mellon. Her private life exploded onto the tabloids with court cases, love affairs with rock stars and porn tycoons and revelations Matthew had hired a detective to snoop in her e-mails and bank accounts. The two have since made up.

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Currently single, the shoe tycoon has been linked with the likes of actor Christian Slater, former Formula One boss Flavio Briatore, rock star Kid Rock and US porn magnate Joe Francis. "My mother always said if there's someone inappropriate within a hundred-mile radius, I will date him," said Mellon.

The rail-thin, glossy maned businesswoman's other remaining vices are self-help books and smoking. Pinned to a wall of her New York apartment is a no-smoking sign which daughter Minty drew to encourage her mother to quit.

Reflecting on the sacrifices she has made for work, Mellon said: "Your private life does suffer. I don't see my friends as much as I'd like to. But I find what I do here so rewarding. Minty and Jimmy Choo are my world. I'm completely financially independent. I don't need anybody.It's what I've always wanted. I feel very liberated and I'm having a ball." Whatever happens next, Mellon is not about to put her well-shod feet up any time soon.