Posing on an Austrian glacier, Heather Mills oozes body confidence. “I’ve been the same size and shape for 20 years,” declares the 43-year-old, who has a seven-year-old daughter, Beatrice, with her ex-husband Sir Paul McCartney.
The charity and animal rights campaigner credits her toned physique with a vegan diet and years of doing sports and Pilates – she was also a contestant on the US dance show Dancing with the Stars in 2007, and ITV1’s Dancing on Ice in 2010.
Her figure still turns heads. “I was walking down the street with Beatrice when she was about six, and she suddenly said to me, ‘Mummy, that guy thought you were hot!’” laughs Heather.
“She says, ‘I’ve got the hottest mummy in school.’ She is really proud of me, and so lovely and sweet. To get the confidence about how you look from your daughter is more heart-warming than from any guy.”
Heather’s fitness levels have also impressed on the slopes. Last year she was on a skiing holiday in Austria when she was invited to train with world champions with a view to possibly trying out for Britain’s Paralympic downhill team.
“I wasn’t crazy enough to think, ‘Oh, I’ll go and do the Paralympics now.’ That’s mad,” she says. “Starting Paralympic training at the age of 43 does seem unrealistic. But, then again, I’m not someone who follows the rules.”
Heather is now aiming to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and not even her recent shoulder injury is going to hold her back.
Just a fortnight ago she had to be airlifted to hospital after crashing into a fence during training on Austria’s Mölltaler glacier. In spite of fracturing her shoulder blade in five places and being in “a huge amount of pain”, she intends to be back on the slopes within six weeks. “I’ve got a very high pain threshold,” she says. “I’ve lived with pain for nearly 18 years.”
She is, of course, referring to the time in 1993 when she was knocked down by a police motorcycle. In addition to suffering crushed ribs and a punctured lung, the former model had to have a metal plate inserted into her pelvis and her left leg amputated just below the knee.
She has also had more than her fair share of psychological pain, having gone through a high-profile divorce from former Beatle Sir Paul in 2008, during which she was subjected to a barrage of negative press.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she says. “The older you get, the more you realise that, if you hang on in there, you can get past virtually anything. You can’t feel fear if you are going to be a good downhill skier. And I’ve been skiing at 120km an hour!”
Finding a renewed love of skiing – she first tried it when she was 21 – has given Heather a fresh perspective.
“Being in the mountains is where I’m happiest,” she reveals. “Just being in touch with nature and feeling free… When you lose a leg, it’s not often that you have that sense of freedom because you’re carrying something heavy the whole time. When you’re skiing, you’re just flying. It’s like when I take my leg off for swimming, I just feel like a dolphin. Or when I’m dancing. It’s that fluidity…”
When skiing, Heather wears a specially adapted prosthetic leg.
“It took about six months to get it right,” she explains. “It has metal components to stop the knee from twisting so, if I crash, it won’t put my knee out. I want the skin on my knee to get harder so I get fewer blisters.”
Her resilience and determination have impressed doctors. In another skiing accident in January she damaged an anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. “An Austrian physio asked me if my parents were ET,” says Heather. “He said that I shouldn’t still be able to ski with no anterior cruciate ligament.”
Her recent crash could have been a lot worse. “If the fence hadn’t been there I would have crashed into a snow plough,” she says. “I couldn’t move at all. I went really quiet and was like, ‘Please don’t touch me.’”
Heather was admitted to the private Maria Hilf Hospital in Klagenfurt, where she began a rehabilitation programme involving a mixture of osteopathy, underwater therapy, ultrasound and physiotherapy.
“I’m a quick healer,” she says. “And I’m a big believer in homeopathy.”
She has since returned to England and now feels the accident probably happened because she was tired.
“I’d been really busy, promoting my Redwood wholefood company in Slovenia and doing a cooker y demonstration the day before, and I’d been skiing since 6am.”
Before the accident, her training had been going “brilliantly” and she says she was on track to gain a place in the British Paralympic team.
“I’m really strong. When I’m skiing the coach says, ‘You’d better finish now,’ but I don’t feel tired. I am convinced that’s because of my vegan nutrition.”
HERE COME THE GIRLS…
Heather currently spends ten months of the year skiing. When she’s not looking after Beatrice, she rises before 5am to get an early start on the slopes.
She shares custody of her daughter with Sir Paul and, when it’s her turn to look after her, she flies back to England. They then often fly out to Austria together.
“Oh, my daughter comes skiing with me all the time,” she says. “I’ll train from 6am-10am and my sister will bring Beatrice up at about 9am to get warmed up. Then we all ski together.”
Spending this precious time with her daughter gives Heather “such a lovely, lovely feeling. I waited so long to have a child, and she’s amazing, really funny, an absolute comic.”
Despite spending so much of her time in Austria, and contrary to reports, Heather has not bought a chalet there. Instead, she rents properties during her stays.
In addition to training, she still finds time to oversee her vegan restaurant in Hove and continue her charity work, offering support to those who have lost limbs, most recently in the Japanese earthquake.
“Everything I do in the UK is behind the scenes now,” she says. “We’re helping people in the USA, Haiti, Japan and New Zealand.”
Although Heather remains coy about whether or not she is in a relationship, it’s clear that she is happy. “I feel really content right now,” she says. “I’ve got a good team around me and have met some amazing Austrian friends who are just so giving and want nothing in return – and that’s a big shock. I feel like I’ve got a great balance.”
Making it to Sochi in 2014 would be “a dream come true” and, although she will be 46, she doesn’t see age as a barrier.
“I think life begins at 40. My goal is to get to Russia and to win a medal. But I also believe in enjoying the journey, and that’s why I’m the smiliest person on the slopes.”
INTERVIEW: Dawn Emery
PHOTOS: Damjan Zibert
STYLING: Annie Cruickshank
HAIR ANDMAKE-UP: Belinda at Aveda