You'd think that becoming engaged to marry former Beatle Paul McCartney would mark the beginning of a pretty wonderful year for any woman, especially one who endured an abusive childhood and lost a leg in a freak accident. But Sir Paul's new bride, 34-year-old Heather Mills, said it was "worse than the year I lost my leg."
It's not the marriage that's been difficult for Mills. It's the limelight that has accompanied it.
Mills has lived a life almost as remarkable in its own way as McCartney's. She was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, yet she has a criminal record for theft. She has addressed the United Nations, yet has been the subject of scathing tabloid accusations. She was a fashion model who lost a leg in a freak accident.
Once abused and homeless, living on the streets of London, she is now Lady McCartney, married this past June to one of the richest and most famous men in the world.
Probably the Worst Year of My Life
Mills had every reason to think this last year would be the best of her life. She had a fairy-tale wedding to McCartney at a castle in Ireland. But living happily ever after is proving just a bit difficult for the couple.
Mills described the past year as "horrendous, publicly. Really, probably the worst year of my life."
She said the couple ended up spending day after day explaining and having to justify themselves to the British tabloids, which ran stories topped with such hurtful headlines as "Watch Out, Paul" and "Henpecked McCartney."
Mills says she is being attacked out of spite because she had refused to talk about her romance. She said she had kept quiet out of respect for McCartney and his children but it all backfired. She said the tabloids "got their knives out."
Mills says McCartney would love to speak out and tell the press to leave her alone. Instead, he suggested that Mills publish in America her remarkable story, titled A Single Step. The royalties will be donated to Mills' charity, the U.N. Adopt-A-Minefield program.
Struggling Through a Traumatic Childhood
In order to understand who Mills is today, we have to go back to who she was. She says she was emotionally and physically abused by her father — an allegation her father denies. Then, her mother left her to care for herself, and her younger brother and sister.
"From a very young age I had to cook and clean and steal clothes and steal food," she said. And things only got worse for 13-year-old Heather when her father was sent to prison for fraud.
Mills says her mother, whom she hadn't seen for years, showed up and took the children to London, but Mills didn't get along with her mom's boyfriend. She says he told her either she should leave home or he'd leave. Mills says her mom told her she'd better go.
So Mills left home. She says she lived on the streets around London's Waterloo Arches for four months.
But Mills has been accused of exaggerating the circumstances of her childhood.
Her mother's boyfriend has surfaced and claims that things were never that bad for Mills.
He says Mills never lived in cardboard boxes and that her mother didn't throw her out … and a few other not very kind things.
"I think there's about 20 other people that say the opposite," Mills said.
Whatever happened, no one disputes that Mills' childhood was traumatic. At 15, she was arrested for stealing gold chains from the London jewelry store where she worked. After a night in jail, she was put on probation.
But things got better when she won a photo contest … which led to some success as a model. She married at 21, but the marriage failed after just two years.
Tragedy Sparks Activism — and McCartney's Attention
Mills' world was changed dramatically on Aug. 8, 1993. She was walking to Kensington Gardens in London when she was struck by a police motorcycle. Mills was thrown in one direction, her severed leg in another.
"The cars were going around the leg. Going, 'What on earth is this in the middle of the road?' And there was blood everywhere. I'm just lying over there watching my leg, thinking, 'What on earth is it doing over there?'" Mills said.
Mills said it took a while for this new reality to sink in. "I kept forgetting that my leg was missing. So I'd get out of the bed and just fall on the floor and hit the stump. And then it would split open again. And it was that frustration at first. And then I thought, 'I can make a difference. This is happening for a reason.'"
That difference, she decided, would be made in helping other amputees. Within a year, Mills collected 25,000 used artificial limbs in Britain and personally delivered them to war-torn Croatia.
Losing her leg gave Mills something that had been missing — a direction for her life. She became spokeswoman for Adopt-a-Minefield, a U.N. campaign dedicated to clearing the more than 60 million land mines left behind after wars in more than 70 countries. Mills traveled to India and Vietnam, meeting with amputees — showing by example that happiness does not have to end with the loss of a limb.
And it was through her work that Mills met McCartney after a charity event in London.
"I saw her at the award ceremony, but we didn't meet. I just heard her speak. And I thought she was pretty impressive," McCartney said.
Their romance took a few months to blossom, according to Mills.
She said their courtship was very romantic. Mills said McCartney is "very flighty and artistic and creative. And so he brings the child out in me. You know, he'll say, 'Let's go run in the ocean.' … And I'm like, oh, I've got to put my leg off … and he said, 'I'll give you a piggyback. Let's just run in.' So he brings out that kind of free spirit in me," she said.
Before long they were a couple — Paul and Heather seemed to be everywhere together.
She even advised McCartney on his music. He's written several love songs for her, including "Your Loving Flame." And when Mills made a music video, McCartney sang backup.
And how did Sir Paul pop the question? Mills said he took her to the Lake District in the north of England.
"I thought someone had shot him in the back of the kneecaps 'cause he just fell to the ground," Mills said. She said she gasped and asked if he was all right. His response was, "I love you. Will you marry me?"
A Wife and a Stepmom
Much of the tabloid gossip has been focused on Mills' relationship with McCartney's three grown children, James, Mary and Stella, and his stepdaughter, Heather, from Linda McCartney's first marriage. It's been written that McCartney has no relationship — or a very poor one — with McCartney's children.
Mills said the children were concerned about their dad's relationship with her at the start. However, when they learned she wanted to sign a prenuptial saying she wanted none of his fortune, they were relieved, according to Heather. "They were over the moon. … And we all have a very, very good relationship," Mills said.
The press speculated about why Stella McCartney, a successful fashion designer, didn't make Mills' wedding dress. Mills said, "I didn't want to put Stella under pressure. Because I don't care how much we get on, I wouldn't want to make a wedding dress for my father's new wife. … So I never asked her, and she never offered."
‘Men Need to Be Bossed’
Maybe part of what makes the marriage work is that Mills and McCartney are honest about each others shortcomings.
"This is a man that has had his own way his entire life. You know, you become that famous at 19, it's sometimes hard to listen to, you know, other people's opinions. … So I am very opinionated and so is he," Mills said.
And what does McCartney say about being "henpecked"? Well, he said, "She can be a little overbearing. She can be a little bit bossy, because she's so single-minded. … I will sometimes say, 'Hey, wait a minute, you're bossing me around.'"
Mills admits she's bossy, but says "men need to be bossed" — even Paul McCartney.
Mills also doesn't think her life has become a sort of fairy tale since her marriage. She said, "I would love nothing more than … to live a more anonymous life."
"If the press keeps attacking me, I might have to be a stay-at-home wife. I mean, my life would be a lot easier. I could just do lunch, darling."
It's unlikely that Mills will be just "doing lunch" any time soon. In fact, she is fighting back against the tabloids. Recently, after a London paper mistakenly claimed she was under investigation for mishandling charitable funds, Mills sued.
The Mirror of London settled out of court and Mills said part of the settlement included a donation of $50,000 to Adopt-A-Minefield.