Interview: Hilary Devey, businesswoman and star of Dragons’ Den

IT’S tough at the top, says straight-talking, self-made multi-millionaire Hilary Devey, but that doesn’t stop her wanting to run the country

IT’S tough at the top, says straight-talking, self-made multi-millionaire Hilary Devey, but that doesn’t stop her wanting to run the country

Why, I want to know, is Hilary Devey not running this country? Well, the raven-haired, vampish businesswoman, who breathed fire into the Dragons’ Den last year and who has “a gob like the Mersey Tunnel,” will almost certainly end up doing just that. Then we shall all rest easy knowing our fate is in her scarlet-taloned hands.

When I ask 55-year-old Devey, who has just published her rags-to-riches autobiography, Bold as Brass, in which she reveals that she was raped at the age of 12 and was brutally abused by her violent partner, the father of her only son, Mevlit, who almost died from heroin addiction, what’s next for her, she confides: “Politics. It’s always been my dream to become an MP. I’ve always thought I might end up in Westminster some day.”

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    After all, she adds, with a dramatic wave of her king-size filter-tip, running a country is like running a business, you have a balance sheet – and it should balance.

    “If they can’t run the NHS, for instance, how can they run the country?”

    I can’t wait. Picture the scene in the House of Commons: Devey, Gothic in murderous heels and bold shoulder pads, telling David Cameron in that deep, rumbling voice that sounds as if she gargles with gravel, that she’s so angry, that, “You make my foot itch, mate,” as she told one hapless entrant in the Den. (A remark that rapidly got its own Facebook page.) Or – better yet – as she informed another guy who would not stop talking, telling the Prime Minister: “God gave you one of these and two of these,” pointing to her mouth and then her ears. “So use them wisely.”

    In Bold as Brass, which she says she’s written but not read yet as it was ghosted, she “writes”: “The UK is a business, and in terms of the economy, if you’ve got a deficit then you’ve got a cost-cutting exercise to do. The people in power should have known years ago what was going to happen. Analysts are paid to study demographics and we’ve got sufficient historical data to provide an accurate statistical analysis. But they chose not to tell us.” The coalition government is “shambolic”, she says.

    As we talk she launches into an incisive analysis of the Eurozone crisis, saying that she despairs of the stream of words being spewed out by politicians of all stripes and their inability to make themselves understood by the man and woman in the street. She’s brassed off with the lot of them. “Where’s the common-sense talk that would get everyone far more involved in the running of our country?” she asks.

    The Big Society? “P-uh-lea-ssse,” she sighs, arching a perfectly etched eyebrow. All she knows is that if, say, she’s talking to the Turkish ambassador, which she has just done since her haulage business is going pan-European, she doesn’t talk to him in the same way that she would to her truckers.

    Oh, Hilary, if anyone has the brass neck to sort this lot out, you have. So, which party will she stand for?

    “I am going to have to think long and hard about that,” she replies. “In my heart I’m a Socialist; in my head I’m a Conservative. I am going to read everything, including their manifestos, which I already know make no sense because they don’t know what’s in them themselves, then I’ll make my mind up. I’ll never stop pushing myself so politics is the next logical step for me.”

    We meet in her chandelier-swagged, two-bedroom west London pad, which is so opulent it’s like being inside a Fabergé egg, almost three hours later than scheduled due to the fact that she’s doing wall-to-wall interviews for the book as well as filming the next series of Dragons’ Den.

    How are the dragons? “Very nice,” she replies through gritted teeth, flicking a wary glance at her PR man, who is perched on the stairs poring over his iPad. Clearly, we are not going to go there. Nonetheless, she has gone into business in the new series with both Duncan Bannatyne and Theo Paphitis. “I’ve also made one investment on my own,” she says.

    With the relentless filming schedule, she’s exhausted and is thankful that there are only two more days left on set. Meanwhile, she’s also making a two-part documentary on women in business for BBC2 (working title Women on Top) in which she’s interviewing women politicians, CEOs and ordinary people, investigating whether there’s a glass ceiling stopping women from rising to the top. “There isn’t,” she says firmly. “I’ve proved that a manicured fist can smash any glass ceiling just as well as a hairy one, haven’t I?”

    Yes, but as Bolton-born Devey, reveals in Bold as Brass, it has cost her. Sure, she’s rolling in money – worth £50m, according to the Sunday Times Rich List – and her company, Pall-Ex, which she built from nothing, selling her car and her house for £112,000 to get sufficient start-up capital in 1996, when she was so poor she often couldn’t afford to eat (“I’ve been hungry, love, really hungry,” she says), has an annual turnover of £100m. However, given the dire economic situation she’s recently done some cost-cutting of her own, making it leaner and meaner.

    She’s surrounded by the trappings of wealth and owns homes in Florida, Spain and Marrakesh, as well as a wing of a stately home, Rangemore Hall, in Staffordshire. Her extraordinary appearance is high-maintenance. By the way, she is not wearing a wig. She offers me a lock of hair to tug to prove it. She has had hair woven into her own because she suffered from alopecia due to stress. “And,” she exclaims, “I have had no work done on my face!” Both subjects, along with her iconic shoulder pads in the Den, have trended on Twitter.

    She does have wardrobes full of Jimmy Choos and designer frocks – from Alexander McQueen to Marni to Primark. Primark? “I like a bit of Primarni – a smart jacket for £20? I love a bargain,” she laughs.

    “Money doesn’t bring happiness,” she says wearily. “It brings sadness. Materialistic success doesn’t mean much, to be honest.” You just need to look at her in the first series of Dragons’ Den. “You can see the pain in my eyes,” she says softly. At the time her private life was imploding. She was still recovering from the stroke that almost killed her three years ago and had just got married for the third time to former pub boss Philip Childs. She met him when she was renovating her property in Spain. In her book, she writes that what she didn’t realise is, “you both come with a lot of baggage when you get married in middle-age.”

    She tells me: “The marriage lasted one day; then it was over, down the pan almost before the wedding reception was finished. Of course it was bloody hard knowing I’d got it wrong – yet again.”

    Please, please, Hilary, don’t get married again, I tell her. She laughs and cuddles her Teacup Yorkshire terriers, Mixie and Dixie – a third, Micha, lives at her house in Marrakesh, where, she jokes, the dog has her own butler – telling me that if she had a pound for every person who has told her that, she’d be richer than Croesus.

    Her mother, Minnie, who died two years ago, always said: “Our Hils, you are brilliant at business but you have lousy taste in men.” “Minnie was right, wasn’t she?” says Devey, who married her first husband, Malcolm Sharples when she was 18. He wasn’t strong enough. “I’m a strong woman, a driven woman – I suppose that’s why I went into haulage,” she laughs. Then she met Hussain, a Turkish businessman, the love of her life. She had a son, Mevlit (25), with him. They never married; he hadn’t bothered to tell her that he was already married and had five other children.

    Hussain – who is currently a guest of Her Majesty’s prison service – was violent and abused her both physically and verbally. “But, yes, I loved him. It was the happiest of times and the saddest of times. I kept going back to him because I did truly love him, but he lied to me.”

    Her second marriage to Ed Devey ended in tears, too. She thought he truly loved her for herself but – as with other men she’s met – her money was the big attraction. “My money’s been loved more than me. So, yeah, I’m lonely. I’d like to have someone to share all this with,” – she gestures at her luxurious surroundings, – “but I think it’s too late now. I’m resigned to being alone for the rest of my life – anyway, I enjoy my own company.”

    Looking back has been painful. “All that heartache,” she sighs. “Revisiting the past has been hard, maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done, particularly writing about how I was raped after being lured into a situation by an older girl I trusted. I was so naive. I’ve never spoken about it before.”

    Nevertheless, her childhood was full of laughter, although it was rackety. Her adored late father, Arthur Channon Brewster, who died of stomach cancer when she was 18, had his own central heating business but was bankrupted when Devey was seven years old. She’s never forgotten the arrival of the bailiffs. Her dad went into the pub business and soon young Hilary was illegally pulling pints, “grafting hard, because that’s what I’ve always done, graft.”

    The family moved around so much she went to 13 schools. Her two brothers went to university. She didn’t because her dad didn’t believe women needed educating. “I used to think I’d had a happy childhood,” she says. “Now, looking back on it for the book, I realise it wasn’t normal.”

    She was determined that no child of hers would ever watch bailiffs strip a home as she had done. Which explains why she worked so hard to give Mevlit a good life. By far the saddest, most heart-rending part of the book is her graphic account of his descent into drug addiction when he stole from her to fund his habit.

    “Of course I feel guilty about what happened to Mevlit, but I did everything I could for him. When he was diagnosed with dyslexia, I sent him to a specialist boarding school; then he got into drugs. We stared into the abyss together. He almost died. In fact, he says that but for me he would be dead today – I forcibly dragged him to rehab.

    “In the past year, we’ve begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He’s clean, he’s got a girlfriend and he’s working as a carpenter. They live in my house at Rangemore Hall. I am really proud of him. Sure, I risked my life to save his. I went and got him out of the clutches of dealers so many times the police warned me that I’d end up on a mortuary slab with a tag on my big toe. But I put seven dealers away. Mevlit keeps saying, ‘Don’t talk about it mum, they might come and get you.’ But I want every bloody dealer off our streets.”

    Before I leave – feeling as if I’ve smoked 40 cigarettes since Devey’s house reeks of smoke, but, hey, it’s her home – I tell her that, reading between the lines of the book, I reckon that she has more to tell. “I haven’t told the half of it,” she says, adding that she could write another four volumes.

    First, though, we want Hilary Devey to run the country. There’d be no chillaxing for her – she’d just keep on trucking.

    • Bold As Brass: My Story, by Hilary Devey is published by Macmillan, £16.95.