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Charity Case

As Heather Mills continues to preside over the transformation of hubby Paul McCartney into a self-promoting bon vivant, she's busy deflecting questions about her charity.

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Making the Scene: McCartney and Mills at a Vanity Fair party.  

It was the middle of a February morning, and Paul McCartney's famous sad eyes gazed out from the stage of the Louisiana Superdome, the New Orleans coliseum that was being prepped for Super Bowl XXXVI. The field was empty save for a handful of technicians, there to rehearse McCartney's flag-waving, game-closing extravaganza. The Beatles alumnus did a run-through of his song "Freedom," the would-be anthem he had composed following the World Trade Center attacks.

Clear on his cues, McCartney hopped off the stage to talk to an attractive blonde who had been intently studying his performance. It was Heather Mills, his new fiancée. The pair huddled for about five minutes, with McCartney listening and nodding his head.

Mark Steines, an Entertainment Tonight correspondent waiting to interview McCartney, imagined that what he thought he was seeing probably wasn't what he was seeing at all. So when McCartney finally strolled across the field to meet him, Steines joked that it looked as if Mills had been giving him notes. Steines says: "Paul said to me, in a corrective way, 'Yeah, don't be surprised, because she does. She knows music, and she has a good ear and she has input.' I said, 'You listen to it?' And he said, 'Yeah.' "

Yeah?

Lately, something odd has been happening to Paul McCartney. In his 40 years of celebrity, he has generally led his life with the quiet dignity one doesn't expect from a rock star. But now, three years after his beloved wife's death, McCartney is everywhere, often trotting in the wake of his 34-year-old model-activist-entrepreneur second wife. If he's not schmoozing backstage with Ozzy Osbourne at Howard Stern, declaiming his poetry on television with Larry King, or dancing on the bar at Hogs & Heifers, he's helplessly attempting to ad-lib on the subject of American football with Terry Bradshaw.

At 60, McCartney is beginning to look like the Elvis of 1968: intact, more or less, but teetering on the precipice of something unbecoming. And Mills, who seems to be cottoning to the role of McCartney's Colonel Tom Parker, may be the last person McCartney needs whispering in his ear.

Even before she became Lady McCartney -- and before he was rumored to have thrown the $34,000 engagement ring out the window of their Miami hotel room and loudly threatened to call off the wedding -- we began to have nagging questions about Heather Mills. Was she the plucky self-made model who took the loss of a leg cheerfully and spoke out bravely for amputees everywhere? Or the shameless self-promoter who turned her accident into a business opportunity? And is the charity work reported to have attracted Sir Paul as her suitor really, in part, a canny marketing device, a way to sell Mills as a sort of Mother Teresa–meets–the Spice Girls? Now, just as Mills prepares to release her autobiography in the United States -- complete with new chapters about her romance with McCartney -- doubts that have surfaced in the British press are following her to this side of the pond.

On a muggy afternoon in July, I get my chance to find out, when Heather Mills calls me. She's in New York for a photo shoot, and I arrange to meet her at Lotus, the aging nightclub on West 14th Street. I find her sitting cross-legged on a squat little leather stool; she's wearing black lacy bell-bottoms and a blindingly white blouse; two matching sets of toenails peek out from a pair of open-toed pumps. Her younger sister Fiona, who doubles as her personal assistant, sits next to her, glowering.

So why did her love affair with the British press turn bad just as her courtship with McCartney was igniting?

"It's jealousy," Heather snaps. Fiona nods supportively. "What else would it be?"

I bring up the name of one columnist in particular, Lynda Lee-Potter of the Daily Mail, who had been scorching in her suggestions that Mills was reeling McCartney in like an experienced trout fisherman. "In her youth she was a proven liar and thief," Lee-Potter wrote of Mills just before the wedding. "She's hugely vain, bloody minded, confident, combative and pushy."

Mills snipes: "Well, just look at a picture of her! She's probably an ex–Beatle fan."

Of course, the world couldn't have been happier when McCartney started going out with Mills. When Linda died, there was popular speculation that McCartney would while away his days as the shattered widower, growing old on the farm, with only his sheep and gold records to kiss good night. When Mills appeared at his side, there was a collective sigh of relief. The relationship, drawn broadly, had a pleasing symmetry: Two people with deep wounds nurse each other back to health. McCartney seemed smitten, reborn.

The romance made her an international celebrity, of course, but the creation of Heather Mills as a tabloid character began much earlier, on an August afternoon in 1993, when Mills stepped off a curb and was knocked down by a police motorcycle speeding to a call. Her lung was punctured, her pelvis crushed, but most ghastly of all, her left foot lay several feet from her body. But then, in the hospital, something clicked in Mills. As she later explained, she "went into business overdrive." She didn't see any reason the tabloids shouldn't pay her medical bills.

The first interview went to a downmarket tabloid called The People, which produced a series of stories of the inspirational-recovery variety: "LOOK AT ME . . . I'VE GOT TWO LEGS AGAIN AND YOU CAN'T SEE THE JOIN! IF MY LEG POPS OUT, I'LL POP IT BACK IN AGAIN," SAYS BRAVE HEATHER. When she broke up with her boyfriend, an Italian banker, readers were treated to HEARTBREAK FOR BRAVE HEATHER AS SHE CALLS OFF HER DREAM WEDDING; "YOU CAN MEND BROKEN LIMBS, BUT BROKEN HEARTS TAKE A LOT LONGER!" Happily, she was just as quick to share more cheerful news. In 1995, she told another tabloid that she had fallen "madly in love" with Marcus Stapleton, a tennis-tournament director she had met only a week ago but hoped to marry soon. Not long after, the tennis pro was out, and a BBC filmmaker in.

Capitalizing on her newfound notoriety, Mills produced Out on a Limb, her breezy autobiography, featuring a coquettish dust-jacket portrait of herself in riding gear, a prosthetic leg leaning on the wall next to her. Inside was everything anyone could ever want to know about her: the absentee parents, the topless modeling, the breast reduction, the arrest for nicking £1,000 worth of jewelry from a store she worked for. It appeared to be the work of a person grooming herself for a new level of fame and scrutiny. By divulging and spinning the sketchiest chapters from her past, she left little to dig up.

And then, in 1998, she met Paul McCartney -- at a Daily Mirror dinner celebrating Brits with inspiring, mostly harrowing stories. Not long after the dinner, McCartney called Mills, ostensibly to talk about war victims. Then he called again. At the end of one of their first meetings, he wrote out a check for £150,000.

Meanwhile, her honeymoon with the tabloids was coming to an end. No longer interested in shilling Brave Heather's newest romance, they had indeed begun dredging up her past. Her ex-husband wrote a story warning Sir Paul that Mills should carry a BUYER BEWARE sticker, and grumbling that he ended up sending her to a psychiatrist to treat her for "her problems with the truth," as he put it. Next up was her stepfather, Charles Stapley, a former soap-opera actor, who told the Mail on Sunday that MY STEPDAUGHTER HEATHER IS JUST A CONFUSED FANTASIST. Mills, he wrote, had invented many of the more romantic details about her past, including her celebrated claim that she had been homeless among the bums under London's Waterloo arches.

When I bring up the accusations at Lotus, Fiona erupts. "Her stepfather is broke, he's a failed actor, and he wanted the money for the story!" she says. "And her ex-husband is the biggest asshole in the world. I used to work for him. He's a tosser!"

And on the subject of her penchant for invention, her publicist, Anya Noakes, offers this game defense: "I'm not pretending that she's never exaggerated stories. But I don't think it's ever been done with malicious intent or anything. What I find quite funny about it all is that when she was a little girl, because of all the horrible things that happened in her childhood, she lived in this slight fantasy world. And then what's happened is, it's all sort of come true for her: She's ended up with Paul McCartney!"

Which brings us back to the project that attracted Sir Paul's attention in the first place: the Heather Mills Health Trust.

A charity, it turns out, that didn't exist -- at least as far as the Charity Commission for England and Wales was concerned. The commission requires that any organization that collects more than £1,000 per year must apply for charitable status. But for all of Mills's purported business acumen, she neglected to make the trust official until after McCartney began calling.

Mills had been collecting money for her trust since May 1994, when she'd unveiled plans to start her own Bosnian relief effort. The People reported that it had already donated £2,000. "I give my personal guarantee to each People reader that every single penny you send will be used to buy false limbs and wheelchairs," Mills told the paper.

But soon, Mills's plans changed. Instead of spending the money on new limbs, she began to collect secondhand limbs from people, like herself, whose stumps had changed shape, rendering their old artificial limbs useless. In her book, she says that about 5,000 limbs were collected, dismantled into component parts, and transported to Zagreb. Mills claims that 22,000 mostly recycled limbs have been fitted, a staggering number considering that by her own count, there were only 63,000 amputees in all of Britain. Mills finally registered her charity in 2000 -- after a journalist inquired why it hadn't been registered.

A review of the first year's accounts of the Heather Mills Trust lists £102,219 in income, nearly £50,000 shy of McCartney's donation of late 1999. Mills's explanation is that the charity's annual returns only reflected a period after March 20, 2000, when the trust was officially accepted by the Charity Commission, and that by then much of the money had already been given away -- but in the end, she declined to furnish New York with details on how the moneys were spent. (The commission also declined to provide New York with financial information relating to the trust before March 20.) Also unclear is when royalties from the dance single "Voice" -- which she cut with McCartney, promising that all proceeds would go to the charity -- would actually be paid to her trust. Though the record was released on December 13, 1999, no royalty revenues appear in the trust records through December 31, 2000.

The returns show that the trust spent nearly a quarter of its income on support costs and management, and Mills took £10,000 as repayment for an unexplained loan she'd given the charity.

In order to sort out these puzzling inconsistencies, I e-mailed questions to Mills's publicist. "Whatever she's done with her charity is utterly, utterly by the rule book," Noakes assured me.

Still, when I broach the subject at Lotus, Heather casually mentions that the last newspaper that raised questions about her charity was in deep shit. "I can't say who it is right now," she says. "Only one paper has slagged it off, really crossing the line, and normally I don't bother suing. But this time I went all the way, and they are just totally being drained of all funds. Like huge. Huge!

"I can handle as much bad press on me as they want to do," she adds, "but when they cross to my charity, God help them, because I will go all the way! Paul was like, 'Screw them!' "

She admits she doesn't have accounts for her charity for 1994 to 1999, saying she had thrown them out because British law stipulates that records need be kept only five years. "I don't keep them," she says, "because I'm totally honest and I'm trustworthy." But she refuses to provide any more recent records.

Everybody, she moans, is getting her story wrong. The ring-tossing incident? "Absolute rubbish -- we were messing about!" Resistance from the McCartney kids? "I am so close to the daughters you have got absolutely no idea. I speak to Heather, the eldest, especially, 40 minutes every day. Every day! And Stella and I get on brilliantly." Two weeks before, she adds, Stella had even issued a press release saying how much she liked her new stepmother. As for the ongoing libel case, she tells her sister to put me in touch with her barrister. Then Heather also instructs her to put me in touch with the trust accountant and their contact at the Charity Commission.

The next day, Noakes tells me the offer has been withdrawn. It turns out Mills's new IMG agent is busy negotiating to sell her book's first serial rights, along with an interview and photo shoot, to "a major glossy American magazine."

Oh, and just for the record, Mesh Chhibber, Stella McCartney's publicist, denies the designer ever put out a press release about Mills. "No," he says firmly. "No. Stella never discusses her private life, so a press release would never have been issued."


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