Love or loathe Michelle Mone, she’s always been hard to ignore – the woman herself would credit her business empire to her knack for attracting publicity.
The glare of the public spotlight may not be resting so comfortably on the skin of the bra tycoon though following allegations she and her family used PPE contracts awarded by the British government as the Covid crisis raged to enrich themselves.
The Conservative peer faces a standards investigation in the House of Lords, while her ties to a company tasked with producing hospital gowns for the NHS are being probed by law enforcement and the House of Lords.
It’s just the latest twist in the tale of a self-proclaimed one-woman success story – a story which has had plenty of twists and turns up to this point.
Raised in the East End of Glasgow, Mone first came to prominence in 1999 with the launch of the Ultimo bra, which the entrepreneur said was inspired by her experience of wearing an uncomfortable cleavage-booster and realising she could come up with a better design.
In May of the following year Ultimo launched at the Sak’s Fifth Avenue store in New York City, and it was claimed that Julia Roberts wore one of the bras for her role in Erin Brockovich.
Mone and her company MJM International would go on to launch a range of diet pills, as well as partnering with the likes of ASDA, Debenham’s and doing modelling campaigns with Kelly Brook, Gemma Atkinson and Mel B of the Spice Girls.
Almost from the start of Mone’s entrepreneurial career there have been questions surrounding the legitimacy of her much-vaunted achievements.
Her business career started with Canadian beer brand Labatt, with the Scotswoman admitting that she faked details on her CV to land the role.
Publicity for Ultimo went through the roof thanks to reports that Julia Roberts had worn one of the bras for her Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich, though this has been denied by several of the filmmakers.
A 2015 profile of Mone in European CEO stated that the actress herself had mentioned the undergarment in her acceptance speech for the Academy Award but if she did then it wasn’t on stage at the ceremony – the footage is freely available on YouTube and features no mention of a bra.
MJM’s ‘Trimsecrets’ diet pills, produced in collaboration with Jan de Vries, were described as having “no scientific basis or rationale” and while the entrepreneur had claimed their efficacy had been proven in clinical trials when questioned by The Guardian, Mone stated that the trial had in fact been a 63-person questionnaire, for which she was unable to produce the results.
Questions were also raised over the success of her business empire. Despite claims she was worth £50m, MJM made losses of £780,000 in the 2013 financial year before passing its assets to its parent company, Ultimo Brands, which also made a loss.
A former employee, Scott Kilday, was awarded £15,000 in compensation after discovering a plant pot in his office had been bugged, ostensibly due to fears he was planning to leave and work with Mone’s ex-husband, Michael.
Despite those concerns, Mone began to establish herself as a political player. Setting herself up as a staunch unionist, the businesswoman threatened to leave Scotland if the SNP won the 2007 Holyrood election and was a firm advocate for a No vote in the 2014 independence referendum.
Shortly thereafter she was appointed to an unpaid role as the Conservative government’s ‘start-up czar’, which drew backlash from other entrepreneurs.
Describing Mone as a ‘small-time businesswoman’, Douglas Anderson of Gap Group said: “Her businesses have been no more than excessively over promoted PR minnows gaining unjustified acclaim due to the glamorous sector they happen to be in.
“There is no way, by any measure, that she is qualified to advise anybody on setting up a profitable business, because quite simply, she hasn’t!”.
Mone resigned as a director of MJM in August 2015. It was wound up last year with debts of over £300,000.
Mone was given a peerage by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015, but in the following six years spoke just five times and submitted 22 written questions.
Her appointment was criticised by both opposition and Tory figures at the time, with one branding her “a public relations creation, a personal brand rather than a serious businesswoman”.
Prevailing events tended to back that assessment. Her UTan range, launched through UBeauty Global, was claimed by Mone to have cost £1m to develop but the company’s first set of accounts showed it to be worth less than £25,000.
She and partner Doug Barrowman launched a cryptocurrency in 2018 hoping to raise $80m, with the baroness describing herself as “one of the biggest experts in Cryptocurrency and Blockchain”. By August, The Sunday Times reported that the project had “flopped” and all investors had been refunded.
Mone was also accused in 2019 of sending a racist WhatsApp message describing a man of Indian heritage as “a waste of a man’s white skin”, which she denies, with a representative responding that the baroness and her husband had “built over 15 schools in Africa”.
The biggest scandal of all, however, would break in October of 2020.
In October of 2020 The Herald revealed that the British government had awarded a £122m contract to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to a company run by a former associate of Baroness Mone without going out to tender.
The justification given was that the equipment was needed urgently as cases of Covid spiked, with the contract handed out to supply 25 million gowns for health workers.
It was awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care just a month after the company, Medpro, was founded.
The gowns were never used.
A spokeswoman for Baroness Mone said that she had no comment as she has no role or involvement in PPE Medpro, which received over £200m in total via government contracts.
— Lady (Michelle) Mone OBE (@MichelleMone) November 24, 2022
The spokeswoman added: “Mr Barrowman (Mone’s husband) is also not involved in the company… and is not a Director or Shareholder.”
It later emerged that Mone had referred the company to the government in March 2020. Leaked emails later suggested she had been promoting Covid tests sold by the company as late as October 2020.
This week leaked documents appeared to show that Mone and her children secretly received £29m from the profits made by Medpro through a secret offshore trust of which they were beneficiaries.
The documents, produced by HSBC, state Barrowman was paid at least £65m by the company and then distributed the funds through a series of offshore accounts, trusts and companies.
The funds landed in Barrowman’s account just before he and Mone’s wedding and honeymoon, while The Sun reported in August 2021 that the bra tycoon’s children had spent more than £3m on property in Glasgow during the pandemic.
Mone’s shared home was raided in April 2022 as part of a National Crime Agency investigation into Medpro, while a separate investigation into standards is taking place in the House of Lords.
For Mone you might say it’s win or bust.