Interview: Lady Colin Campbell - All about my mother

Lady Colin Campbell's life reads like the plot of an implausible melodrama. Born into one of Jamaica's wealthiest families and, due to a birth defect, raised as a boy by a vain, jealous mother, she has chosen to purge her demons by opening the closet on all the family's secrets

Reading Lady Colin Campbell's book about her mother's narcissistic personality disorder, it might be tempting to conclude that the gene did not entirely skip the next generation. Campbell happily describes her own stunning beauty, her "genius" IQ levels, her affluent background and impeccable connections. It's just the toffs' way. (A giveaway of social class, apparently, is whether a person can pick up chicken bones in public. Only the lower classes suffer the inconvenience of embarrassment – which is probably also true when it comes to self-promotion.) Over the years, her ladyship's television appearances – for example, when she produced, even before Andrew Morton, the first Princess Diana expos – were distinguished by that delicate, upper-crust breathiness that goes hand in hand with robust grandiosity and perhaps a whiff of condescension. But in person, Campbell is an interesting, complicated woman with, I suspect, marshmallow at her core. (Though you may need a pick-axe to chip through the concrete first.)

She is, after all, a woman who admits behaviour that would simply shock most ordinary people. "Such as?" she inquires quietly, politely, but with just enough stillness to introduce a certain frisson of danger. She is 60 now but looks nowhere near her age, with her long blonde hair, leggings and high-heeled sandals. She lives mainly in France but we are sitting in one of her London properties, surrounded by antique furniture and floor-to-ceiling art. "Such as?" Well, when her mother, Gloria, tried to steal her daughters' inheritance from their grandmother, Campbell planned to get her committed to a mental asylum. She also hatched a devious plot to force Gloria to move money to a different country to avoid death duties.

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Campbell smiles instinctively. "Oh I loved that," she says and laughs. Well, I didn't say I didn't love it! Gloria sounds monstrous. But however awful she was, most people would consider Cambell's behaviour manipulative. "Yes, of course," she agrees soothingly. "I stayed awake three days and nights figuring it out…" Did she feel guilt? "Absolutely not," she retorts, almost indignantly. "I was just relieved. I was proud of myself for coming up with it, though I was a little bit ashamed it took me three days." She laughs infectiously. "There was mummy churning out these blasted schemes, and it took me three days."

Gloria had a veneer of beauty and charm that concealed cruelty and megalomania. Perfect as a polished apple on the outside, rotten to the core inside. Rich, vain and spoiled, she was an alcoholic, a racist and a snob. She was interested only in self: self-promotion, self-aggrandisement, self-deception. Ironically, her self-obsession never extended to facing who or what she really was. A control freak, she sometimes used physical violence, but more often mental cruelty and manipulation, to get her own way. "I rule the roost here," she was fond of saying – "here" meaning everywhere.

Only in later years did her children understand that her behaviour indicated narcissistic personality disorder. A friend of Campbell, a psychoanalyst, suggested she write a book on the subject. "I think she thought I had the tools, the spiritual tools, to do it justice. I was flattered, but then I recoiled. I said, it's my mother! But she said, 'No, your mother's dead. It's no dishonour to her now.'" Even Campbell's two sisters encouraged her. "One sister, Libby, I think wants the book out because everyone will know what she had to endure. You can't go around telling people what a monster your mother was on a day to day basis. It's unseemly. So I think she wants the recognition, the validation, of what she suffered at the hands of this monster."

Daughter of Narcissus is not the only book Campbell has out this month. Her debut novel, Empress Bianca, will also hit the shelves. First published in 2002, it was subsequently withdrawn following legal action by Lily Safra, widow of billionaire banker Edmond Safra. Safra claimed the book, which is about a social-climbing double murderess, was based on her life. Since Safra has never been charged with murder, it might seem extraordinary that she would, as Campbell puts it, claim the hat fits, wear it, then complain about the colour. "Any educated person knows the process fiction goes through," says Campbell. But she insists the factual inspiration for the book was actually her distant cousin Blanche, who was indeed a double murderess.

In turn, Campbell sued Safra. The case was settled with both sides claiming victory and Campbell making only very minor adjustments to her novel. But Campbell's two books appearing side by side make very interesting reading. One thing is abundantly clear. Bianca is more than a little reminiscent of gloria, isn't she? Campbell simply smiles enigmatically. "Nobody else has made the link. When I put myself in the shoes of a double murderess, I didn't know what to do. But when I put my feet in mummy's shoes… There was the dialogue. It just came popping out. Bits of it are just pure Mummy."

When we first speak on the phone, Lady Campbell suggests meeting at her French chteau. I could stay overnight. It's a warm, surprisingly trusting offer to a stranger she has heard of only second-hand. But it's an unnerving thought. Interviews of colourful people demand colourful questions. Inevitably, there will be the, "So, Georgie, you were brought up as a boy…" moment. And what do you say after that when you're staying the night? "Eh…will you make the cocoa or shall I?"

Only when we meet in London is it apparent that it probably wouldn't have mattered. Campbell faces difficult questions in a way only people who have endured extensive, bad publicity can. (Her ex-husband, Lord Colin Campbell, would claim she was a transsexual.) She talks with the same frankness about adversity as she does about beauty or IQ. In fact, her exaggerated, almost coquettish femininity and comments about her own beauty are, understandably, probably just positive assertions that she really is female. But background first.

Campbell grew up Georgie Ziadie in one of Jamaica's wealthiest families. Her accent is still a curious mixture of upper-class English and Jamaican twang. Her wealthy businessman father, Michael, met the beautiful and well-connected Gloria when she was just 15. Gloria's life would be one of privilege, but true happiness escaped her. Relatives later told Campbell that her mother had never been normal. As a child, she screamed with such ferocity that a doctor told her parents never to say no to her – with inevitable consequences. Gloria once told her daughter that she knew she had never been quite like other people.

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Michael adored Gloria, but her demanding nature made him dodge her company when he could. In later years, Campbell would find the only greetings card Gloria ever kept. Michael had signed it as her "devoted slave". Did she love him back? "I think she loved the fact Daddy loved her. He worshipped her, was in awe of her. But she also disdained it. My sisters feel even more strongly about this than me. I thought there was a little bit of love somewhere. They think there was only money."

But like many powerful men, Michael was a man of intemperate mood and desires, sexually demanding and not able to control his turbulent temper. Gloria knew how to flick his switch, at times manipulating him into terrible eruptions of violence. In fact, he sounds almost as monstrous as his wife. "Do you think so?" says Campbell. "No, he was selfish but not malicious. He was less subtle than Mummy. He was more out of control, but his loss of control made it more human. Being very controlled is worse."

Gloria had no time for small children, including her own. She hated her eldest son, also called Michael, because her husband had an affair while she was pregnant with him, and hated her daughter Libby because she became too beautiful and was therefore competition. Campbell was her favourite. Curious in a way, because she had what she delicately describes as a "birth defect". She had deformed genitals, and although doctors would later sign a legal document saying she had been born female, her parents brought her up as a boy. "It wasn't really their fault. The advice they were given 60 years ago was that it was better to be a boy than a girl, so if a child was already handicapped, why give it another handicap by making it a girl?"

She never doubted her own gender. "I knew it. Everybody knew it. This is where it gets bizarre. Various relations used to say to Mummy, why is Georgie being brought up a boy? She is obviously a girl. People always said how beautiful and feminine I was. I played with dolls and was a gifted seamstress." She has every sympathy with transsexuals, but distinguishes between their situation and hers. So it was her body, not just her mind, that was female? "That's right." She couldn't have had a sexual relationship as a man? "No." Why was the distinction with transsexuals important? "Because if you are Russian you don't want people to call you Italian, even though you are both European."

Perhaps her imperfection was less threatening to her mother. Campbell thinks she was also the favourite because she was the softest and most obliging. "I gave her what she wanted. I'm very good at giving people what they want. I don't think there's anything terrible about that." Gloria needed an audience and, trapped in her sexless limbo, Campbell made a perfect companion. "She was going to be Queen Victoria and I was going to be Princess Beatrice, the devoted handmaiden, for the rest of my life. The funny thing is, I might well have been. Even when my problems were sorted out, as long as I could get married and have the kind of life everyone else had, I was perfectly happy to be mummy's handmaiden. If she hadn't turned on me."

Her father didn't want to know about corrective surgery, but Georgie always thought her mother wanted to help. Only when her father was dying did she find out that Gloria had blocked her all along. When Campbell's grandmother insisted on paying for surgery, Gloria became jealous of her 21-year-old daughter's blossoming. She turned on her, once even trying to burn her face with a cigarette. "That shattered my relationship with her. Narcissists are very envious of other people, but I didn't know she was a narcissist then. I just thought she was being horrid to me. Now I know what motivated her."

Campbell's desires in life were simple. "Every girl of my age wanted to be married. No matter how successful you were, if you hadn't been married you were not a success." It was in New York that she made her hasty and short-lived marriage to Lord Colin Campbell – they married in 1974 and divorced the following year. In the years since, Campbell has spoken with brutal frankness about her ex-husband's physical and emotional cruelty. She made the common mistake of marrying what she was familiar with.

The Campbells, too, were a troubled family. Colin's father and his wife, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, clashed in the notorious "headless man" sex scandal divorce case of the 1960s, in which photos of the duchess engaged in a sexual act with an unidentifiable man became part of divorce proceedings and a government investigation. And Colin would accuse his brother Ian of sexual abuse towards him. Despite the brothers' difficult relationship, Georgie says they united to sell stories to the press about her supposed transsexuality. "It made something into an issue that was no longer an issue. Colin just couldn't stand the fact that I was leaving him."

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The stories must have made other relationships difficult. Most men don't like anything that introduces ambiguity into their own sexuality. "That's precisely why he did it," she agrees. "All it meant was that the men I ended up with were secure. They knew what they were and what I was. But it did exclude a category of men I might have been perfectly happy with, and who might have been happy with me, but were frightened by the stories surrounding me.

"When I left that c…" she says, and stops abruptly. "You nearly heard!" she laughs. When she left her husband she expected to marry again. It never happened, despite various relationships over the years. There was EastEnders actor Larry Lamb. A darling, she says. But there was only one man she might have married. When he wanted to marry her, she refused, and when she would have married him he was married with two children. They were together for 15 years. "He was a good guy," she says quietly. "It was a good relationship." She says she would rather be on her own than in the wrong relationship. "I was never lonelier than when I was with Colin Campbell. Never. I was crushingly lonely."

Why keep his name – to annoy him? No, she took out a press notice announcing her title should no longer be used, she insist, but newspapers ignored it and publishers wouldn't allow her to drop it. Especially over that Diana book – her baby money book. She wanted desperately to be a mother and used the cash to adopt two Russian orphans, Dima and Misha, now teenagers. But does she like having a title? "Darling, my father is a Russian count, so I technically am a Russian countess in my own right. But I was born in a country where my name was a household name, and you don't need a title if you have a household name. For instance, would you prefer to be Mrs Niarchos or Lady Smythe? I bet you'd say Mrs Niarchos. I'd certainly take Mrs Niarchos. In France, I am just Madame Campbell. In Jamaica, nobody uses my title."

The title she seems to like best is mother. Maybe that's because she wants to create what she never had with her mother with children of her own. "The woman had every single blessing a person could have, but she would have been better off as a Somalian peasant walking ten miles a day for water and having the love of her husband, children and grandchildren. She had good looks, money, brains… but she had nothing."

Michael Ziadie couldn't tell Gloria and Campbell apart on the telephone to the day he died. They looked alike, sounded alike, shared similar mannerisms. But Gloria emerges from her daughter's book as a grotesque figure. Surprising, then, that the pages describing her death should be so emotionally piercing. There is something poignant about the scale of Gloria's monstrousness. But worse is the sense that when she was dying, she recognised her own inability to truly love. Instead, she pretended, so that everyone around her would pretend back. After she died, she was kept "on ice" until her funeral was convenient, and her tombstone reads, "Wife. Mother. Sister." Her family couldn't manage the word beloved.

Can Campbell say she loved her? "There was a bit of her I loved, and an awful lot I didn't." But she felt there was an inescapable, spiritual side to their relationship. She didn't choose Gloria. Gloria didn't choose her. They were simply mother and daughter, and that always drew them back together. Campbell believes in God and sometimes thinks she will never be free. "What happens when I am dead? Do I have to put up with Mummy for all eternity? I'm serious. I'm not joking. To be stuck with her for all eternity…"

Campbell has fought hard for money but for different reasons to her mother. She wants it for her children. "My mother was a fun-lover. Everything had to be pleasure. I like having fun, but the most important thing is to be as good a person as you can be. Nobody can be happy all the time, and if you aim to be, ultimately you will never be happy."

Her own unhappiness taught her a lot. It's easy to simply gloss over the sentence "I was brought up a boy". But the reality of being trapped, of being sent to an all-boys school, must have been truly terrible."It was," she says quietly. Did it damage her psychologically? "No," she says surprisingly, "I think it enriched me."

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Perfection is corrupting, she says. "If you have suffered, especially when you were young, you have an affinity with other people. I often say, and I really do mean it, that I am as hurt by somebody doing something to you as if they do it to me." Therapy eased her personal unhappiness. "I had been walking about with an unbearable amount of pain, and no friend or relation could be inflicted with it for the time that was required to unburden myself. The other thing was that I genuinely believed all human beings were good and people who weren't had strayed inadvertently and would be delighted to go back on to the straight and narrow. Unbelievable, but I did. My therapist showed me this belief was seriously flawed. He used to say, Why does the scorpion sting, Georgie? Because it is in its nature.'"

It was certainly in Gloria's. Campbell may be like her in superficial ways. At times, she is even breathtakingly steely as well as charming. But there is a vulnerability that her mother lacked. She enjoys privilege but embraces hardship because without it, darling, you start to believe you are a goddess. Every so often, a fear flips inside her. "If I hadn't had some of the problems I have had," she says, "would I have been like Mummy?"

Daughter of Narcissus: A Family's Struggle to Survive Their Mother's Narcissistic Personality Disorder, by Lady Colin Campbell, is published by Dynasty Press on 1 October (17.99)