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Louise Mensch: The dilemma that drove me to New York

The Times

May 29, 2013


Her critics see her as an egotistical bighead promoting herself above all else. They won’t be surprised to find that, in a documentary on Brian Johnson, lead singer of AC/DC, the last words are not about him but the presenter, “metal-head” Louise Mensch.

“She’s straight-shooting, she could go back and run for prime minister. She’d get my vote,” Johnson grins as he speaks of the controversial, telegenic former MP for Corby, who resigned her seat last August to move to New York to be with her second husband Peter Mensch, manager of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Criticism that she is a publicity courting dilettante is “water off a duck’s back”, Mensch says as we sit in a café near her Upper West Side townhouse. Mensch laughs that Johnson’s tribute was affectionate. In fact, the whole documentary is an affectionate one, charting Johnson’s rise from his working class Tyneside roots to rock stardom (and luxurious pad in Florida). Mensch is a genuinely enthusiastic guide and fan of both AC/DC and her much-adored heavy metal.

To underscore her metal credentials she indicates her all-black ensemble: a fitted Armani leather jacket, leggings and thigh-high Armani boots. She looks super-skinny but proffers the muffin she’s eating as proof of a hearty appetite; her svelteness is a result of daily exercise — at 42 she boasts that her running pace is at the same level as a male British soldier in his early 30s. Her face is as unlined as you’d expect from the person who found “the best guy in the world” for the plastic surgery she had in 2011.

Mensch says New York is everything she expected: “Vibrant, full of clever, interesting people. The nexus of the business, architecture, arts, film and music world here is fantastic.”

So she doesn’t see herself returning to British politics? Not even at No 10, as Johnson says? “That ship has sailed, hasn’t it?” she laughs, a non-denial masked by jest. “I still keep a hand in as a commentator. [She has a column in The Sun on Sunday.] I have to live in America. I had to move my children [three by first husband Anthony LoCicero, ages 9, 8 and 5], or spend another 13 years in Britain because of their schooling and be separated from Peter for that time.”

Her voice rises. “It was impossible for my husband, who has children of his own, to move to Britain — and he runs a pretty large business out here. It kills me totally. You’re looking at two choices: see out your term, which I desperately wanted to do, or be separated from your husband for 13 years until your youngest child is 18 years old.

“Sometimes I would see Peter for just two days a month. That just doesn’t work. When Peter could come to London I was busy with parliamentary or constituency duties. The marriage wasn’t in trouble, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a huge amount of pain and stress associated with being separated from your spouse. Part of the time I told myself I was a military wife. There are lots of people who sustain marriages who don’t see their spouses for long periods of time, soldiers’ spouses in particular.”

To the consternation of many Tories, Mensch’s seat fell to Labour. “I’m very sorry about that,” she says, “but those closest to me in the party and the Prime Minister understood.”

Now, 18 years after the publication of Career Girls, her first novel, she has returned to writing chick-lit, “even though I never left it, I’ve pretty much written one a year since I was 22”. Except it’s not chick-lit but “a contemporary feminist take on the retro Eighties blockbuster. There was a slight hiatus when I was in Parliament: even I couldn’t ride that many horses at once.”

During her two years as an MP, Mensch, who has attention deficit disorder, was drinking ten cups of tea a day and a glass of wine at night. “I didn’t struggle with alcohol,” she says, “and I was within recommended drinking limits, but it was a bad idea. I had disturbed sleep patterns. ‘Wine o’clock’ for women, which is popular in Britain but not New York, isn’t good. I’m not a teetotaller. I drink wine and saké when I go out. But now I don’t say, ‘It’s 7.30, I’m having a glass of wine like every working mum’.”

She hasn’t found Manhattan mothers competitive. “I love the America of [Facebook chief] Sheryl Sandberg, where a woman is not judged to be less feminine because she’s ambitious. ‘Ambitious’ is not as pejorative here as it is in Britain, particularly when applied to women. In Britain women are judged to be ‘pretty’, ‘bossy’ and ‘shrill’, whereas a man has ‘drive’ and ‘tenacity’.”

Mensch felt she was a target of that? “A little bit. Yes, I’m ambitious. So what? When people have strong opinions they arouse strong opinions. I’m proud of being authentic. It’s why I got so many Twitter followers. I didn’t toe the party line. I wasn’t boring.” Her sister once said Mensch “lives almost completely in my own head. That’s true I think”.

Is she an attention-seeker? Mensch rolls her eyes. “Unlike other politicians?” she says, alluding to “the pieces complaining about how ubiquitous I was. Well stop writing about me.” Are men called “attention-seeking” as much as women, she asks. She claims, again implausibly, to be “neutral” about fame: “The question was, ‘What can I do with it?’. It gave me a certain amount of power. I was keen to establish Conservative feminism. I believe social liberalism and economic conservatism are the future of politics.”

When Mensch gave up her seat, “it wasn’t about spending time with my children, it was about physical separation from my husband, although there are many things you can say about being a mother in Parliament, which is organised in the most unbelievably sexist way. Because of the expenses scandal you can only have a one-bedroom flat in Central London, which family members cannot stay in.” [Mensch means that the rent allowance — £20,000 a year, plus £2,500 for each child —would not be enough to rent more than a small flat in central London.] “Say you’re a mother from Stoke-on-Trent with three kids under five. You become an MP, but you won’t be able to see your kids for four days a week. The rules freeze mothers out of Parliament.”

Mensch grew up, with Tory parents, in Sussex. She “always” wanted to write, composing her first poem at 4. She thought about becoming a policeman, farmer (“until I realised it meant killing animals, then went off it”), and the Queen. “My mother would curtsy and say, ‘Your fish fingers, your majesty’.” “Happy and withdrawn”, she was a bookworm. “Even now I’m a solitary person: I’d rather be playing with my blog or reading.”

Her love of metal began with Def Leppard. At 16 she went to a Beastie Boys concert with “naked girls in cages and a giant inflatable penis”. She dossed down on fellow fans’ floors: “This generation doesn’t have that feeling of community tribal-ness and rebellion that went with hard rock.” Fellow Tories Priti Patel and John Whittingdale are metal fans: “At MPs’ karaoke he did a version of (Deep Purple’s) Smoke on the Water. You’d be surprised how far metal has infiltrated the Establishment.”

In the early 2000s, Mensch had panic attacks, spurred by fears over mad cow disease. These ended in 2003. When she was 13st 2lb after the birth of her third child, Mensch felt she “lost” herself: “As a woman I had written myself off.” Walking led to running, then the gym. Today, she has a blog called Unfashionista, embracing the spirit-enhancing qualities of exercise, make-up and clothes. On it, she invokes “the Tao of Lipgloss”. “I’m not saying you’ll have low self-esteem if you don’t wear make-up, but if women pay a little attention to their appearance it says you’re worth bothering with.” But then she claims to “hate all kinds” of beauty and clothes shopping (“I’m only wearing bronzer as blusher and eyeshadow today”), yet has her hair styled at top salon Louis Licari.

As for her surgery: “I had a procedure around the lower face which I assume involved pulling the skin back. It wasn’t a facelift.” Does she have Botox? “I’m not answering that.” No, her feminist principles didn’t clash with having surgery, “because it’s exercising choice”. She is “pretty happy” with her face. “I wanted to do it as maintenance, something early so it stays that way.” Will she have more? “ I’m reasonably happy but I’ll never say never.”

Would Mensch like more children? “I’d love to have another child but we’ve got six between us. I’m 42. No matter how fast I run my ovaries are on a different clock.” The drawback to being together full-time is that Peter says he never realised how right-wing she was (“he’s a real leftie”). Mensch smiles. “I’ve always felt for [Speaker’s wife] Sally Bercow: it’s medieval to think a wife should echo her husband’s views.”

She is planning to do a documentary on feminism. “There’s an overwhelming amount of online and offline misogyny, including Alastair Campbell tweeting I should be on Page 3. When did that become part of political discourse? In some ways women have advanced, but there’s a hatred that wasn’t there before. It’s not casual misogyny but real hatred. We need Sheryl Sandberg to be our role model, not Britney Spears.”

Does she miss anything about the UK? “Thatched cottages,” Mensch says outside her very unthatched townhouse. But as two joggers go past and a siren wails, she doesn’t look that nostalgic.