11.03.98 THE TIMES


The following article by Joanna Coles appeared in a November 1998 issue of The Times newspaper...

Trudie Styler: A passion for peace: "I've had years of celebrity life. When that starts to become repetitive, you look for something deeper."

It would be easy to mock Trudie Styler fretting over the children of Southwark as she sits curled on a tapestry sofa in her duplex overlooking Central Park West, one of the smartest addresses in Manhattan. Through the french doors, in the adjoining office, her own children are finishing half-term homework as her assistant staunches the permanent ring of the phone.

The thick windows muffle the traffic and a big bunch of autumn lillies sweetens the air. As the wife of Sting, Styler could put her svelte legs up in their Dolce & Gabbana boots and never work again. Instead, hands gesticulating wildly, she talks about her latest fundraising project, a Tibetan Peace Garden in Southwark.

"I've been doing some research and 45 per cent of these kids are on free meals," she sighs. And then we are on to world peace and the significance of the millennium.

"What you hope for as a citizen of the world, and as a parent, is peace," she says solemnly, tugging the cuffs of her thick black jumper. "People want peace. We've lived through a century of conflict, but we can create harmony through non-violence. That's the most important thing the Dalai Lama stresses."

But Styler, actress, producer, environmental activist and mother of four, is not as flaky as she sometimes sounds. Two weeks ago, with her husband, she picked up a GQ Man of the Year award for her work during the past nine years trying to save the rainforests.

And yesterday she hosted the first fundraiser at the Hempel Hotel, Bayswater, to kick-start the four-acre peace garden, less than a lager-can's throw from the Elephant and Castle, one of London's most depressed areas. Mick Jagger, Elton John and George Michael bought tickets.

"It's quite difficult to raise funds for anything nowadays," she says, asking her assistant for a cup of Earl Grey. "There's so much competition. Aids, cancer... but it's a great project. I've written to all the local schools. It's so important that children will be able to enjoy it."

The circular garden, with its eight stone meditation seats around a central mandala - a Tibetan peace symbol - is sited in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum, and the Dalai Lama will attend its opening next May.

"I am a great devotee," cries Styler. "He's an exceptional person. I'm not a Buddhist but I've attended some of his seminars and I find what he has to say important for how I live my life."

As a sign of the garden's significance, the Dalai Lama has decreed for the first time in Tibetan history that the mandala can be permanent. "They're usually made from sand," she explains. "Buddhist monks believe that everything is impermanent, so they pour them away to show life is temporary and so are we. But the Dalai Lama wants to make peace permanent."

Styler's interest in Tibet was initially sparked by 'Moving the Mountain', an award-winning documentary that she produced in 1995 about the horrors of the Tiananmen Square massacre. From there it was a short ride to lending her celebrity status as patron of the Tibet Foundation.

"I've had years of being around the celebrity life, of getting dressed up, going to openings and being photographed in public, and when all that starts to become repetitive, you begin to look for something deeper," she says. "I've become a yoga devotee. I practise every day. I chant and pray, I practise the spiritual path as well. It's a holistic regimen. I think the Churches of England and Rome have lost their way," she adds.

"When you look at our cities, there's no sense of community. And those faceless suburbs where there's so much violence because kids have nothing to do. And we've lost a sense of family. Our old people get kicked in the pants. Look at advertising and the fixation with youth. You'd better not look more than 40!"

At 43, Styler herself looks pretty damn good. Her elfin features sit easily under her blonde fringe and she gives off an aura of cheery calm. On the table behind her are two trays of fat cream candles, and I count another nine placed around the room. Despite the rumble of traffic and an occasional jackhammer, it doesn't feel like central New York.

In term time, the family move back to their manor in Wiltshire. "I'm a huge fan of our local vicar, John Reynolds," she says suddenly. "Now he fosters local community and it doesn't matter if you're Sting and Trudie Styler, or if you're someone who isn't well off at all. He's there for us all."

Reynolds baptised the couple's four children, who range in age from two to 14. But I wonder, given their alluring, migratory lifestyle, how Styler manages to convey to them a sense of what's really important?

"I think what Sting and I try to do is to say 'Don't take this lifestyle for granted. You are extremely privileged children.' And yet, at the same time, we don't want to ram it down their throats because there was a 'before and an after' for us. We both came from lowly working-class backgrounds and every now and then we think 'Oh, isn't this great? This beautiful farm, or this lovely apartment in New York!'

"But there is a different lifestyle out there which they'll discover when they manage on student grants and nothing else. We feel it's important that they make their own way through their own lives."

Do they practise yoga as a family? "We're very open about doing our yoga practice. Our teachers come and the kids join in if they want to. It's quite nice to see the two-year-old sitting in the lotus position with his hands praying, and then topple over and roar with laughter. But it's not something we shove down their throats."

As the afternoon fades, she talks angrily about the rainforests and their indigenous people, for whom she raises $1.5 million a year. "They're marginalised, they need a voice," she says. "If the current rate of destruction goes on, we'll have no rainforest left in 50 years time. What a legacy!" Indeed, she sounds so motivated that I wonder if she has ever considered a career in politics?

"I haven't had time. I have a very young family, but when they're grown up, then perhaps. The world of politics needs more passion."

She talks briefly, too, about how much easier it is to raise funds in New York, where the tax structure is more sympathetic to donors. But I suspect that the attitude towards her here is also more generous.

"Well, it's a shame we're doing this for the British press," she remarks ruefully, "because I'll get lambasted again. There's a feeling in England that I'm an actress, and when I go out of my sphere, I'm derided. You know, 'Who are you to try and save the rainforests?' Or, 'Oh it's all right for you because you're rich and you've got time on your hands'.

So what's her reply? "Oh, British journalists have got it in for anyone who does something other than their music. Bob Geldof got it, Elton gets it. Sting is criticised."

Does she know why? "Positive stories don't sell papers. I think an attack on someone is sadly more readable. I don't think it's people. I go out and give talks, I've been in schools with people who are hugely admiring of the work we do and are aware of the need to save the rainforest. But time after time the tabloids shoot you down. I'm an object of mirth. And you ask, why? Why would they do that? Because bad news sells."

A final question: last summer a French magazine quoted Sting observing that he used to make love like Lurch from the Adams Family. Since practising yoga, however, "all I think about now are my wife's orgasms". Later, in the same piece, Styler is quoted as saying that "no one should have sex before the age of 40 because it's so much better after".

Did she mean it? She hoots with laughter. "Did I say that? I didn't say that! Er, I think a loving relationship is really about your level of happiness with your partner. Um, and well, I think that's how I should leave it!"

© The Times
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