Sarah Symonds: The mistress

WHAT do you hope to get out of a relationship with a man? Love? Commitment? Respect? Or a posh flat, a flash new car and illicit, on-demand, athletic sex? For Sarah Symonds, who hit the headlines this weekend as the alleged mistress of Gordon Ramsay, there's no question. Getting it on is all about what you can get your hands on.

Symonds, a self-proclaimed 'adultery expert' or 'professional mistress', knows a thing or two about the subject of infidelity. The fact that she tends to tell the world what she knows (and here was I thinking that the golden rule of the mistress was to exercise discretion…) has evidently not diminished her attractiveness to the rich and powerful married men with whom she has had affairs, even if it's won her few fans among women.

In autumn 2007, Symonds published a book, Having An Affair? A Handbook for the Other Woman, at her own expense (it cost her a mere 1,500) and based on her own experiences as a lover of married men. Like any smart author, she worked the promotional circuit to publicise the book (including an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's TV show, with its audience of millions), as a result of which sales rocketed and there were rumours of a TV series and even, bizarrely, a fragrance (the bitter tang of deception, perhaps?).

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As a serial mistress, relationships for Symonds were all about profit and gain, she revealed. In her advice to would-be mistresses, she wrote: "Even if it's 'only' great sex, a promotion at work, or a bit of help with the deposit on that new car, get something for yourself, please."

Post-publication, Symonds declared she was finished having affairs with married men – but, it seems, she may have spoken too soon.

Ramsay is worth 60 million, so if it turns out to be true that he enjoyed regular trysts with Symonds in London and in LA, while his wife Tana, 33, was at home with their four children, Symonds, in landing herself on the front pages, will certainly have practised what she preached and got plenty out of it for herself.

According to agony aunt Jenni Trent-Hughes, there are different kinds of mistresses. "There are people who, unfortunately and sadly, fall in love with someone who is married. Then there are people who make a habit out of doing it, and then there are people who make a career out of doing it."

According to Trent-Hughes, Symonds falls firmly into the latter category. "The issue I have with all of that," she says," is if that is where your mind is headed then you should just become a prostitute, because I think that at least prostitution is a more honest profession. You're not pretending to be something you're not." For Trent-Hughes, the way in which Symonds has admitted behaving in the past is "a betrayal of everything, including yourself".

Born in Newport, Wales, Symonds left school when she was 16 and at 22 she moved to Abu Dhabi to live with her brother. It was there she learned about a world in which it was acceptable for a man "to be married and have 20 mistresses". It's a lesson she took to heart.

On the one hand, Symonds might be seen as a woman who tells it like it is about the brutal reality of affairs and adultery. Men are "cheating, insincere, cowardly losers", wives are the wearers of "awful, baggy velour sweatpants and old slippers" who bore their husbands into cheating. Children are the "feeble excuses" that stop men (in Symonds' own experience, it seems) from leaving their cosy but dull domestic lives.

On the other hand, Symonds might be seen as a victim of what even she acknowledges is the "emotionally destructive" toll of being the other woman. A woman who time and again chooses men who want her, but not all the time, who desire her, but allegedly only in hotel rooms for an hour at a time, fuelled by performance-enhancing drugs from the nearestl sex shop. It's not a question of whether she deserves sympathy, but it might have some bearing on whether we'd listen to her advice.

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At 38, the PR and marketing executive (another of her titles) has been described as making a career out of sleeping with other people's husbands. In fact, what Symonds has done is make a career out of sleeping with other people's husbands and then talking about it.

Back in 1999, the tabloid celebrity story we were all reading about, in eye-watering detail, focused on Jeffrey Archer's "big white pants" and "pasty skin" and the fact that he liked to have sex – with Symonds – while his wife Mary's "fuddy duddy" nightgown lay neatly folded on the pillow next to them.

Symonds had met the former MP, peer and novelist Archer at a fundraising event in the House of Lords on her return to London from the Middle East. He was running for mayor, she – having spent five years living in the fast lane in Abu Dhabi – was looking to make her mark here in Britain, and embarked on a series of relationships with married men.

Among them, according to her book, was a "US celebrity" (unnamed) in 2001; then there was "Mr X", a father of two whom she met in Dubai in 2004. He set her up in a smart London flat and flew her all over the world to be with him, but ultimately refused to leave his wife and children for her, as he'd once promised to do. For a so-called "expert" on married men, Symonds seems to have fallen for the oldest line in the book. Not to be beaten, she turned her emotional distress into a book and then dedicated herself to punting it all over the media. The best way to deal with a break up, it seems, is to open your heart to Oprah.

There's nothing radical or empowering about Symonds's advice to would-be mistresses. She recommends you "act like a man. Don't get hurt, use him as much as he's using you." If cooking's not your strong point, she says, don't worry: take his mind off the sub-standard dinner you served him by practising your skills in the bedroom. "Aim to practise some extra special sexual techniques afterwards. He will soon forget the absence of that bouquet garni in your coq au vin. Trust me!"

But, according to Trent-Hughes, women who make a habit of getting involved with married men often suffer from low self-esteem and a lack of belief that they are worthy of a proper relationship. "One of the things about being in love that makes it wonderful is that you are the major person in another person's life: you are that person's number one," says Trent-Hughes. Women who have affairs, she says, "feel they are not worthy of being number one".

But Symonds, it seems, is a woman with a plan. Earlier this year she contacted celebrity publicist Max Clifford to talk about how she might build a media career for herself. Clifford declined to represent her (make of that what you will), but said: "She's articulate and intelligent and she's got it all worked out." There's little doubt, if Symonds has her way, that we'll all get to know about her exploits whether we want to or not.

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