Interview: THE OBSERVER (2002)

August 09, 2002

The following article by Adam Higginbotham appeared in an August 2002 issue of The Observer magazine...

Truly Trudie: She makes movies, fights for the rainforest and has the world's best contacts book. So why is Trudie Styler still best known for marathon sex sessions with husband Sting?

She was the only blonde in a club full of dark hair and dark eyes, and she became King Faisal's favourite. She would hover over his table all night, waiting to change the ashtray. Each time she did, the King of Saudi Arabia would give her a £50 note. In 1979, London was full of high-rolling Arabs flush with oil money, and the Xenon Club on Piccadilly was where they went to spend it. She enjoyed working there; it was fun. And, as an out-of-work actress with a mortgage to pay, she needed the money. She compered the floorshow: the bands, bellydancers and the special guests - singers flown in specially to perform. She presented everything in Arabic. She had to learn it all phonetically, by rote.

As each performance began, the men in the crowd would shower the stage with bank notes. By the end of a show, you couldn't see the stage for money. The singers would be ankle-deep in it. At the end of the night, it was Trudie's job to pick it all up. Twenty-three years later, Trudie Styler sits at her usual table in Harry Cipriani's tiny restaurant up on Fifth Avenue. At the next table, a frail-looking white-haired man wearing a blazer and outsized trainers is finishing his lunch: it is Kirk Douglas. Trudie's fork hovers over her chocolate cake. At first, she struggles to remember her lines. ' Salaam,' she says. 'That's good evening. Salaam...' But gradually, it all comes back. It seems incredible, I say, that she can remember it all.

'I'm an actor,' she says, 'aren't I?'

First as mistress, then girlfriend and - eventually - wife, Trudie Styler became famous because of her relationship with a rock star. She's the mother of four of Sting's six children; the woman who accompanied him when he went to save the rainforest; the one with whom he practises tantric sex. More recently, she has gained renown for the names in her address book. If you've got a cause, Trudie can get anyone you fancy on the telephone - from the Dalai Lama to Tom Cruise. She introduced Madonna to Guy Ritchie. Last year, when Harpers & Queen compiled a list of the 25 Best Connected People in Britain, Trudie made it to number eight.

'It would be hard not to be well-connected - I've been with Sting for 20 years,' she says. 'He's a famous, successful musician. He knows other famous, successful musicians. And he has also lived in the world of movies. And we meet famous and successful artists. At parties, at things we go to. Not that we're friends with everybody. But after that amount of time, you do get to know quite a few people. And when I'm doing a charitable thing, it's easy - even if I don't know somebody - to put in a call. And they'll have some knowledge of me, because I'm Sting's wife.'

But Styler has always had a career of her own. Last year, she acted in two feature films, playing Anna Friel's mother in period chick-flick Me Without You and a gypsy fortune-teller in 'Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister', a retelling of Cinderella. She runs a film production company, Xingu, which has just completed its fourth documentary project, and has two new feature films in the works, including David Thewlis's new movie, 'Cheeky'. And every year for the last 10 years she has been the producer of the Rainforest Foundation Benefit concert in New York. A three-hour musical extravaganza with a different theme each year and a gala dinner afterwards, this is the annual highlight of the Foundation's fundraising activities, and has become a fixture on the Manhattan charity circuit.

When we first meet, in New York on a warm Thursday afternoon in mid-April, there are only two days to go before the concert. There is much left to organise. Trudie will spend the rest of the day rehearsing with the musical director, Narada Michael Walden, and the 18-piece backing band. The stars won't start until tomorrow. This year, in addition to Sting, Elton John and James Taylor, the line-up includes Nina Simone, Smokey Robinson, Jeff Beck, Patti LaBelle and country star Wynonna Judd. Half the evening will be devoted to a tribute to George Harrison. 'My Sweet Lord' is still causing problems: she can't find any decent Hare Krishnas. 'Sensible Hare Krishnas,' she says. 'Sensible is the operative word.'

Trudie is a studied flirt. ('Am I flirty with you? A bit? Oh, please say it works a tiny little bit,' she giggles.) But she is careful in what she says, and keeps a blazing look ready for sensitive topics ('Is that,' she asks, when I point this out, 'the Don't F*** With Me?').

She's well aware of the reputation she and her husband have had for being humourless, moralising dilettantes: earnest faddists apparently discovering the rainforest from the windows of their private jet. But this image was at its sharpest in the late 80s, when Sting worked the chat-show circuit with Raoni, a Kayapo chief.

'And,' she says, 'looking back, if I was asked to do that again, I'd say no. I don't think it was a great beginning for the Foundation. We didn't know what we were doing.'

And since then, the world has changed around them. They were practising yoga when Geri Halliwell was still practising dance routines in her bedroom; the environment has long since become a mainstream political issue; and they're less easy to poke fun at than when they were taking the bloke with the plate in his lip on Wogan

'I think we have been accorded some sort of respect - we've just gone the distance. Twenty years of being together, in the sort of industry where marriages fail. And we've been around now for such a long time that we're sort of establishment. I think we've become thought of in affectionate terms.'

Indeed, this very evening, after the rehearsal, she will be receiving one of the Natural Resources Defence Council's annual Forces Of Nature Awards. 'For riding in limousines,' she mutters facetiously. 'For taking Concorde... for being,' she admits finally, 'a good egg.'

Friday, 3pm. Elton John, Sting and James Taylor are on stage in Carnegie Hall, singing George Harrison's 'Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)' for the third time in 10 minutes. The theatre is almost completely empty. Ron Perelman - cigar aficionado, owner of Revlon and Marvel, billionaire sponsor of the Rainforest Foundation - lounges in the stalls with his wife Ellen Barkin and their children. Legendary French photographer Patrick Demarchelier wanders around, taking informal snapshots. And squatting on the lip of the stage, concentrating intently on the three men clustered around the microphone, is Trudie. The song finishes, and Trudie stands. 'Good, boys,' she says, like a primary-school teacher winding up a finger-painting class. 'Very good.'

4pm: Nina Simone appears from the wings and shuffles slowly across the stage. She takes her seat at the grand piano with the stubborn air of an old lady reclaiming her favourite armchair.

She plays 'Here Comes The Sun' unaccompanied. She does so at half speed, and sings in a strange, blank tone: George Harrison's lyrics of lysergic optimism transformed into an eerie dirge of lost hope. At the end, a nervous round of applause echoes through the hall.

Nina turns balefully toward the stalls. 'Mer-ci,' she drawls into her microphone. There is a pause. She stares straight ahead, unmoving. 'Let's proceed,' she says, to nobody in particular.

Trudie crosses the stage, crouches beside Nina's stool and whispers to her. Nina continues to stare straight ahead and address her microphone. 'OK, Trudie,' she says, 'I can do that.'

There is another pause. More whispering.

Up on the drum riser, Narada Michael Walden stands up from behind his kit. 'She wants you,' he says clearly into his microphone, 'to give it a little more soul.'

The last word hangs in the air. A horrified silence fills the hall. There is a terrible moment that lasts an eternity. Time enough to consider the good doctor's 50-year career as a performer of unparalleled power; her years at the forefront of the civil rights movement; her years of suffering and pain. And, finally, her reputation as one of the most volatile and unpredictable people ever to sit behind a piano.

Dr Simone is motionless throughout. And then, in a tone of withering disdain, her voice resounds from the speakers: 'I beg your pardon?'

Clearly, this rehearsal is not going to be easy.

Trudie Styler was born in 1954. She was brought up on a remote council estate on the outskirts of Stoke Prior, a small village on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Her father was a packer in a lampshade factory, her mother a school dinner lady. The couple had three children in three years. They were all girls: Heather, Trudie, and then Sabrina.

One day in 1956, her mother was busy indoors giving her sisters a bath. Trudie had been given firm instructions to stay indoors but wandered outside anyway, into the normally deserted road. She doesn't remember anything about being hit by the van, or being dragged beneath it. She was only two-and-a-half, the unlicensed boy driving it only 16. But she spent a long time in hospital. 'I have this image of my father looking at me from behind bars,' she says. 'He would spoonfeed me jelly through the bars of my cot, I think.'

Most of the injuries she sustained were to her face. 'And my mother decided to sue, saying to the judge, "My daughter might want to be an actress, so she should be compensated." No one knew at the time how extensive the scarring would be.'

The accident changed her life. It meant she didn't really have friends at school until she was into her teens. 'I was not a very... um... not a very popular girl. I think a lot of it was, you know, no boo-hoo about it - but I looked pretty strange for the first few years of my life.' At primary school she spent her time with a girl called Vivien Barrett, who had a strawberry birthmark across her face. The other kids had names for them: Scarface and Beetroot. 'So we became the two little freaks in the school.'

At home, there was no TV set. Trudie and her sisters would put on pretend plays behind the sofa. Trudie got into the local grammar school, in spite of her dyslexia. In the fifth year, she was cast in the school play. She was good at it. She liked the attention it got her. She decided she'd found what she wanted to do with her life. Her father didn't agree. He wanted her to get a good, respectable job: in the local brush factory. So, at 17, while her mother was out at a whist drive, she left.

First, she ran away to Stratford, but eventually won a scholarship to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And, after plastic surgery - paid for by her mother's court case - Trudie Styler really did become an actress. She went into rep, and then signed a nine-month contract to appear in the Cornish bodice-ripping TV drama 'Poldark'. 'I played a gypsy girl called Emma Tregirls. She falls in love with a preacher. It was quite a big part.'

Friday, 9.30pm. The pre-show party. Up in the expensive, velvety darkness of Central Park West, the elevator stops on the second floor. It opens right out into Sting and Trudie's apartment. A grinning girl in a blue bikini, her body painted all over with flowers, hands me a giant daisy. Behind her at the bar, waiters and waitresses wear tie-dye T-shirts, headbands and comical Afro wigs. In the next room sits a giant ice sculpture of a peace sign, lit from behind by multicoloured revolving disco lights. Upstairs, two Japanese sushi chefs produce exquisite canapes. Only one member of staff is not kitted out in fancy-dress, instead wearing a white Nehru jacket and exuding a chilly dignity. This is Andrew, the family butler.

Trudie wanders from room to room, a glass of white wine in her hand. Jeff Beck is sitting in the corner. There is Wynonna Judd, having her picture taken with Sting. Glenda Bailey, editor of Harpers Bazaar - the magazine of which Trudie is a contributing editor - is talking to the artist Steven Sandler. Nina Simone sits alone on a sofa, attended by a handsome young man whose name no one knows.

I meet David, a gaunt, weather-beaten looking man in a tight suit, homemade earrings and brothel creepers. David is Trudie's yoga teacher and guru.

'I want to go beyond that now,' he says. 'I'd like to be introduced as something else. Like, as Trudie's accountant. That might get a different response. Or maybe I could be her psychiatrist.'

He is far from the carrot juice-slurping ascetic you might expect. In fact, David and I stand in a corner for some time, drinking red wine, watching the party go by. 'The body is a result of the effect of the contents of the mind,' he explains. 'The mind itself is empty. You fill it with what you need to see. There is only one truth. And that can be encapsulated in one word. Love. With a capital L.'

A striking girl in a short skirt joins the conversation.

'Are you a yogic master? 'she asks.

'No,' he says, cracking a skeletal smile. 'I'm drunk.'

By midnight, the crowd has thinned, and the music has been turned up. Sting and Trudie perform an energetic lambada in the middle of the living room. As the party draws to a close, we meet by the remains of the baked Alaska. Sting's shirt is transparent with sweat. Narada Michael Walden, bald head glowing with exertion, his leather jerkin gaping open, hangs from Trudie's neck. Nina Simone has disappeared.

'She said, "I need a man." I told her,' Trudie says, 'she could have you.'

The first time Trudie Styler saw Sting, he was just walking down the street. He had green hair. 'I thought,' she says, 'I fancy that guy with green hair.' It was summer 1977, and unfortunately Sting was already married: to the actress Frances Tomelty. Together they had a baby boy, Joe, and lived in a basement flat at 28A Leinster Square in Bayswater. Trudie was also living in a basement flat, two doors down. Sting was still a poverty-stricken musician who had just formed a band called The Police. They were still a year away from a proper record deal; two from being a global phenomenon.

Styler won't discuss what happened next. 'I don't talk about it because it's tied up with, you know, his ex-wife and I don't talk about her.' But whatever took place, it was complicated. By 1980, Trudie's was playing first witch in Peter O'Toole's infamously disastrous West End production of 'Macbeth'. Tomelty was co-starring as Lady Macbeth. Styler began a relationship with O'Toole. And Trudie and Frances became friends. By the following year, Trudie and Sting had begun an affair. In 1983, she became pregnant. She stopped acting and went on the road with The Police, who were on a world tour and in the throes of disintegration. She flew until she was eight months pregnant. Sting was still married to Frances.

'Neither of us are proud of a situation that happened - it just happened. We loved each other and we lived together and then we got married and we had more kids,' she says. 'And that's our life story.'

Until her affair with Sting became public, Trudie had been working regularly. In 1981 she was appearing in an RSC production of Iris Murdoch's 'The Bell'. But suddenly Sting took it upon himself, at a press conference, to describe her as his mistress. After that, she says, she was perceived as a jet- setting gold digger. The work dried up. 'I couldn't get arrested, in fact.'

After the birth of her first child, Michael, in 1984, she spent much of the decade bringing up children.

In 1989, her agent asked her go up to the Bolton Octagon. They were doing 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. She'd be perfect for Blanche, he said. Trudie felt she'd be doing them a favour. She auditioned and went home assuming it was a done deal. Then her agent called. The people at the Bolton Octagon, he said, weren't happy.

'I was like, "Not happy? What can they be not happy about? It's me ! It's the Bolton Octagon! What the f*** are you talking about?"' She pauses. 'Wake-up call!'

So she flew to Brazil, to find out what was going on in the rainforest. She went for a swim in a tributary of the Amazon, and nearly drowned. When she came back, she had decided to set up her own film production company. She named it after the river. The second documentary she made won an award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Saturday, 5pm. There are four hours before the show starts. Onstage, Patti LaBelle is scorching her way, once again, through Lady Marmalade. In the wings, Elton John is perched on a stool, eating his lunch from a paper plate. He is carefully ignoring the massed 10-year-olds of the New York Children's Choir, crushed into the backstage corridor, pulling faces behind his back. Out in the auditorium, the stalls are packed. Trudie has managed to sell tickets to the dress rehearsal: 'They're from NetJet, the airline. They're quite wealthy. They're paying Dollars 10,000 a ticket. Do you think,' she asks, with a genuine edge of nervousness, 'they're getting a good show?' Well, they've had 'My Sweet Lord' three times. 'I hope it's getting better,' she mutters, and disappears out on to the stage.

Sting is sitting on a flight-case with a copy of the New York Post. 'Get in Rada - to be some kind of actor,' he says. 'Nine letters.' He is trying to do The Times crossword - the Post, he explains, reprints it every day. He can't get started. The two of us sit in silence for five minutes, staring fruitlessly at the clue. Onstage, Wynonna Judd is singing 'Anyone Who Had A Heart'.

Trudie returns, clutching a copy of the concert running order. 'I need your advice,' she says to her husband. 'I have a feeling I should put Smokey on after Patti LaBelle. Because this is just way too down...'

'Yep,' Sting says immediately. 'I think you're right.'

Trudie wanders away, satisfied.

'I always agree with everything she says,' he explains. 'That's the easy way.'

Later, lost in the bowels of Carnegie Hall, I come across the two of them wedged together in a stairwell. They are dissecting the running order in detail.

Trudie Styler and I meet again a month later at the family home: Lake House, their 14-bedroom Jacobean manor in Wiltshire. It's a brilliant summer morning. Andrew, the butler, shows me in. Trudie takes me for a walk around the grounds: the lime grove; the croquet lawn; the kitchen garden; the summerhouse by the river.'It's not much,' she says in a funny voice, 'but we like it.'

Inside, around the walls of the Captain's Room - a huge, panelled drawing room with a stone fireplace and mullioned windows where Sting likes to write - there are several pictures. One of them looks just like a painting by Breughel. It isn't: 'That,' says Trudie, 'is a school of Breughel. That,' she points down to the other end of the room to another darkly varnished picture,' is a Pieter Breughel.'

Another frame contains just two small black-and-white photographs of children - a boy and a girl. They are surrounded by handwritten text. 'Sometimes,' it begins, 'I'm filled with a terrible anxiety that our paths will never cross...' It's a poem about two people destined to be lovers. Sting wrote it and gave it to her for their last wedding anniversary. While we're talking, Sting wanders into the room, and for a moment, the two of them just exchange the mooning looks of courting 14-year-olds.

Today, Trudie is more open with me than she has been before. 'There are some things,' she says, 'I feel the need to pussyfoot around that I would like to... give vent to. But I realise the press isn't the place to do that. I don't want to involve or hurt people I know.'

She tells me that Nina Simone has just asked her to make a film about her life. We talk about celebrity, private jets, and the globe-trotting existence. A few years ago, she says, when she used to fly to New York and then on to their beach house in Malibu, she often used to wake up in the middle of the night, not knowing what country she was in. But that doesn't happen so much any more.

She won't tell me how much Sting is worth ('I'm not discussing that! You'll be asking me what kind of panties I wear next!' she argues, somewhat implausibly). But she tells me that they suspected something might be up with their accountant when he gave them a Jaguar for their wedding. He had, it transpired, stolen nearly pounds 7m from them.

And we talk about the things everyone gets wrong about her and her husband.

'Sometimes when I meet people, even if they don't say it to me, they say it and it comes back to me, "Oh, they're so ordinary, aren't they? And they're so nice." Like, why wouldn't we be? Ordinary and nice? Because... ' she pauses, as if baffled with the obviousness of this, 'we don't have any reason not to be.'

And I ask one last question. In doing so, I am obviously mindful of the money, the art, and the seven houses around the world.

What's the most extravagant thing you've ever bought?

She thinks about this for a long time.

'You mean me or Sting?'


'Me buying for... somebody else? Or for myself?'


'Does that mean that it cost more than it should? I wouldn't deliberately go and buy something that one would categorise as an extravagant thing.'

Not even for a treat?

'Well, I buy couture clothes. I live in,' she waves her arm expansively around the cavernous hall, 'great comfort and luxury. Everything that I have, compared to the life that I had, is extravagant.

'My life,' she says levelly, 'is extravagant.'

© The Observer magazine



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