My meeting with Elle Macpherson begins with me showing her my knickers, and ends with Elle showing me hers. I have come to interview the supermodel, lingerie tycoon and television personality, bearing my favourite pair of pants as an exhibit. As I hand them to her I notice that the beige polka dots have fared less well in my washing machine than the label, which clearly says: Elle Macpherson Intimates.
“Oh, how nice,” says Elle, taking them from my outstretched hand and testing the elastic. “God, you must have had them for a while. Really for a while. But they’ve worn well.” She gives them back to me and I return them to my handbag, pleased that they have met their maker.
That is to jump ahead. Fifteen minutes earlier I was sitting in a corridor in the basement of Purple PR on Savile Row. On the stroke of 10.30, down the stairs comes first a pair of Perspex heels, then legs clad in blood-red, skin-tight leather, then a demure dark jumper with three gold buttons on the shoulder and, finally, a face bearing no trace of make-up, half-obscured by a pair of sunglasses and topped with hair scrunched into a bunch.
“Hello gorgeous! Look at you!” says Elle, gazing straight past me at the PR girl standing behind me.
“No, look at you,” the girl replies.
And I do look at Elle. It is hard to do anything else. She is like a thoroughbred racehorse. She must be 6ft 3in, muscular, beautiful and perhaps a little on edge.
We are shown into a windowless room and sit down facing each other on low chairs. I explain that I’m here not to talk to her about her role as the inhabitant of The Body, or as a TV presenter or actress. I am in search of Elle the businesswoman.
She turns crossly to the PR woman and tells her it would have been far better to have held the interview in her office. She explains that she’s a control freak, quickly takes it back, and then, without giving me a chance to ask anything at all, starts to talk.
“My space of work is an ever-changing kind of environment,” she says in a voice whose Australian vowels have been softened by three decades of living elsewhere. “So it’s not like I’m sitting in an office cutting patterns – if that’s the assumption that you’ve had, which I know it’s not. But I think managing a brand comes, from all different angles. This happens to be a more PR environment which is very important.”
There are two problems with listening to Elle. The first is that she talks on and on, propelled by a nervous energy. But the main one is that the beautiful woman who sits before me is distracting me from what she is saying.
So I show her my knickers and, that done, ask if she finds the world of business nicer than that of modelling or TV. Elle thinks and gives another marathon soliloquy that can be summarised:
“Not one is better than the other.”
She flashes a miraculous white smile that is made disconcerting by the fact that her eyes don’t move. But surely, I press on, business is nicer than modelling because it’s less shallow, there is more food, fewer drugs and it’s driven by money rather than ego.
“Well, that’s a perspective,” she says, as if having such a thing were to be discouraged. “But I find being driven by creativity much more interesting than being driven by money. And I think money’s the by-product of creativity.”
Twenty years ago Elle joined up with Bendon, a New Zealand corset maker, to launch a new underwear business and money has indeed materialised as a by-product. The brand is now in 15 countries in Europe, is enormous in Australia, big in the US and selling in the Middle East and China.
Unlike other celebs who have lent their names to a product, she is intimately involved in every bra, every tag, in the sort of metal stands they are displayed on, the sort of stores they are sold in. All must be agreed by the Creative Director, Elle Macpherson.
If Elle understands bras, she also understands brands. She is one. Along with the other supermodels of the 1980s, Naomi, Christy, Claudia and Cindy, she was one of the first human beings to be a brand. She has now taken that brand and used it to persuade women like me to stop buying their pants in three-packs at M&S and pay 10 times as much for something pretty with a bit of lace and her name on it.
She tells me that she has recently spent a lot of time contemplating the brand, and has just written a brand poem.
“Brand poem?” I repeat. I invite her to recite it, but she seems to have noticed my quickening pulse and declines. Instead, she tells me how her business has mirrored her life.
“When I became pregnant I created maternity bras. And when I got separated from the father of my children and I wanted more saucy lingerie, so I created Boudoir. And then as I’m nearly 47 years old, I’ve created Obsidian, which is for a more mature woman, It’s more expensive, it’s more subdued, it’s beautiful.”
How is she finding being a more mature woman? As a prompt, I tell her I’m finding it a real downer and that I’m four years further into it than she is.
“You don’t look it,” Elle says, suddenly releasing her hair from its topknot and letting it tumble over her shoulders. “You look much younger than I do.” She gives me another of those enormous, slightly chilly smiles.
I protest at this lunatic attempt at flattery, but she insists until I turn to the unfortunate PR girl and ask for an independent opinion. Caught between the rock of contradicting her client and the hard place of saying that her client looks more aged than an addled hack, the hapless young woman looks alarmed. Then, brilliantly, she skirts the question altogether and mutters something about my skin.
Elle takes off her jersey, revealing a black wife-beater vest and a good deal of smooth, extra-ordinarily firm skin. The Body is in good shape now, though I put it to her that, in business terms, it is surely a wasting asset.
“That hasn’t been my experience,” she says evenly. “I look at my business, which has been based on my body, it has not been a wasted asset, it has been a growing asset. I don’t believe that beauty’s reserved to the youth, and I never have.”
Simply, as she has got older her life has changed. Her two sons, she says, are the focus now. “I always put the children first. That takes away the stress.”
But surely there must be times when she has been so up to her neck in problems with bras that she has been either absent or in a filthy mood?
“Well, then I look at the big picture. It is in the greatest interests of the children that they have food on the table today because I’m earning money.”
Again, this doesn’t sound quite right. According to Wikipedia Elle is worth £60m, so the fish fingers must be already paid for in perpetuity. I put this to her and she replies: “I believe that having a healthy, growing business is incredibly important. I have a 13-year-old boy. In a very short period of time he might choose to take over this business.”
So is he already showing a premature interest in lingerie?
She says he isn’t, and adds: “Their father has a very successful business. So perhaps they will go and work with their dad.”
Their father is the sultry hedge fund manager Arki Busson, who Elle split from five years ago. I’ve been warned that she won’t answer direct questions about him and so I try a more oblique tack: did rubbing more than shoulders for so long with a leading hedgie teach her anything about business?
Elle is silent for a long time. Eventually, she says: “That’s a really interesting question, and it’s taking some time to answer because I haven’t ever answered that question.” Then, speaking unnaturally slowly, she says: “I would say that I am the sum total of all my experiences to date.”
It is not a very interesting answer. Still, it’s nearly time to go and inspect Elle’s new knickers. But before we do so I want to talk to her about her telly show, Britain’s Next Top Model, which reached its glorious conclusion on Monday. The programme consists of emaciated young women competing to look the sexiest while eating malodorous fruit and hanging from trees. The trouble is that they all look ugly amateurs next to Elle, whose role is to utter the catchphrases written by Tyra Banks, the creator of the US show.
“I feel that I could be more relaxed and more myself,” Elle says, but when I ask what being more herself would involve she doesn’t seem to know.
I say that while I love the show, I wish she hadn’t shed cheesy tears in the semi-final when sending one of the girls home. The temperature drops.
“Well, with all due respect, it was not something that was intentional,” she retorts, staring at me in a scary way. “I was very taken with emotion. And I am not English. I am Australian and I’m a woman. I have a real affinity with these young girls.”
I say that I didn’t mean to attack her, I just felt there was an oversupply of tears on reality telly.
She tells me again that I’m entitled to my own opinion, though evidently thinks nothing of the sort. In silence, we go next door where a vast array of Elle’s new bras and pants are on display. There are rails of slinky satin and cotton and lace in green, maroon and navy. Elle shows me the turquoise lacy breastfeeding bras and the sleek, dark new range for older women. I say that it’s a pity that Elle’s bras don’t fit me. She glances at my chest.
“I’m not surprised it doesn’t work for you so well. I design for myself, and so our comfort zone is 34C. It was incredibly important for me to be able to cater for women with small backs, big breasts.”
Then she starts to get technical, talking about new fabrics and shoulder straps. She has lost me.
“I’m actually wearing a three-piece-cut bra now,” she explains, pulling down her vest and turning the cup of her bra inside out so that I can see both its construction and a reddish-brown nipple.
Perhaps, I think, if you’ve been on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue five times you think nothing of baring your breast to a stranger. What is so odd about Elle is that this lack of inhibition about her body is matched by an excess of inhibition about her opinions.
But just as I am about to leave, Elle produces an opinion for me to take home.
“You know what,” she says. “You’re a tough nut. Did you have tiger for breakfast or something, because you have come in like raring to go?”
She looks amused and I see a different Elle Macpherson, one who is less spiky than sharp.
Twice over the next week Elle calls on my mobile. She has reverted to being anxious, fretting about remarks being taken out of context. The disembodied voice of The Body sounds different: both more impressive and more coherent and I ask her if she knows just how much The Body gets in the way of the words.
“I want to be skilled at creating manageable sound bites,” Elle says. “Sometimes I’m good at it. Sometimes I’m not. It’s not that my body gets in the way. It’s that I get in the way.”