From pioneering WAG to Strictly dancer, Nancy Dell’Olio is always centre stage. But in her Fringe debut she promises to go beyond the glitz, writes Janet Christie
NANCY Dell’Olio knows how to make an entrance. Whether it’s arriving at No 10 in a red sequin-spangled catsuit or tripping along the red carpet in leather, lace, saris or Cleopatra headdresses, she is guaranteed to turn heads. Nancy’s is a brow that has never furrowed over the fashion editor’s cleavage or leg conundrum – she does both. Flamboyant and theatrical, she may be best known for her relationship with football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, but the former lawyer, star of Strictly, lingerie-line launcher and charity ambassador continues to enjoy a life in the limelight as she brings her one-woman show, Rainbows From Diamonds, to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.
The Goring in Belgravia is not the sort of hotel where people come to gawp – Kate Middleton stayed here the night before her wedding to Prince William, and discretion is guaranteed, yet lunchtime diners pause mid-sip to watch as Dell’Olio sashays through the lounge bar and sweeps out on to the verandah. With her floor-length Italian linen dress – unbuttoned up to her bronzed thighs at one end and unbuttoned down to an enviable decolletage in which a gold chain nestles at the other – she resembles the figurehead on the prow of a sailing ship, bravely steering a course through the vicissitudes of life. The overall effect is fabulous.
There is a suite upstairs we can use, but Nancy much prefers to talk outside so we settle on the verandah overlooking London’s largest private garden. Nancy is in her five-star element here. “Welcome back, nice to see you again,” says the restaurant manager. “Thank you,” says Dell’Olio, unleashing a million-dollar smile. “Let’s have champagne,” she says, then, thankfully: “No, let’s start with water. I was at the Serpentine summer party last night and didn’t sleep much. Five hours is OK, but three is not enough. We will have champagne later.”
As she admits, Nancy is often lost in translation. This is partly down to her accent and her sometimes idiosyncratic word order, not to mention the acres of news stories, often speculative, she attracts. Her 2008 book My Beautiful Game was an attempt to put this right and now Dell’Olio is taking her story to the stage in a bid to show the public the real woman. “People know something about me already probably, but there are so many sides. They don’t know the side to me that will not sell papers. They don’t show who you really are. I do hope people will get to know me through the show. People say I’m brave to do it. Yes, I’m brave.”
The plan is to use the Edinburgh run as a springboard for taking the show elsewhere and also to forge links to help her develop her TV talk-show idea.
“There are very few women doing those in the evening, we just have men. Have we no women? I would do it completely different, where your guest is the centre of attention, the protagonist, not the host. But I don’t have it ready yet. And I will do another book too. But I need a few more chapters lived in my life yet.
“There are not many opportunities that people can get to know me because every time in an interview the journalist interprets you. With family and friends you can talk and explain, but when you’re in the public eye… I will use this in the play, how to deal with the press and how it can affect you. Like the Daily Mail’s man eater…”
Dell’Olio lost a libel action in 2011 over an article on her last relationship, with theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn, which used the word ‘man eater’ in the headline. Dell’Olio claimed it was defamatory.
“This country is very sexist. It’s part of your culture, more than Italy. The women are stronger and men feel more intimidated, so to protect themselves they have this masculine, misogynist world. The judge ruled that it was not an offence for a paper to call a glamorous woman sexy, that it’s a compliment. I found that absolutely unacceptable. The French call it a femme fatale. I have never eaten any of my men. All of my men are still very much alive.”
They may be very much alive, but she doesn’t have contact with them all. But with her first husband, millionaire lawyer Giancarlo Mazza, she has remained on good terms.
“I have a great relationship with him. He is a very intelligent man. We shared a time together, even terrible moments. In a relationship you share life; how can you cancel that from your life? I don’t like to delete people. We evolve and transform. We were 24 years apart in age, but it was the right moment. Then Sven was the right moment. Everyone always has been the right person or time. We have something to give, to learn, to exchange.”
And what of Eriksson, who described her as “too demanding” and had a string of affairs before the couple split up in 2007? The dalliances with FA secretary Faria Alam and Ulrika Jonsson made the headlines, and Eriksson detailed a few more in his autobiography, Sven: My Story, published last year, including a Romanian former gymnast and a Swedish hotel worker. Until last year, Dell’Olio and Eriksson were embroiled in a legal wrangle over the £2.7 million flat in Belgravia that he bought in 2005. Dell’Olio had been living there since they separated, and only moved out in April last year. Given their history, does she have any contact with him?
“No, we don’t. Some men can’t cope with that. They find it impossible to live with me but it’s impossible to live without me and they can’t cope with the separation. He feels guilty probably. Some people can’t cope with the idea… in addictive personalities when you love very much something and can’t have it any more…
“Sven is one episode of my life, but not affecting my trust. Your trust has to be with you. I’m not cynical and I don’t like cynical people. It’s the worst thing. I have been affected of course. I am more aware. Less naive, but I think we should keep the spirit of a child as much as possible. We have to give trust because I could not imagine my life to not give trust. It’s always about trust.”
Dell’Olio is single at the moment, but sees this as a positive, saying simply: “I’m making space in my life.”
When there is sufficient space, what will she be looking for in her ideal man?
“I don’t have an ideal. My man has to be very strong, confident, supportive not competitive, allow me to be who I am, love me. We need to have interest together and enjoy to share some peace together. It’s always a great gift with the right person. The basis of every relationship has to be a friendship, and it’s sad when you can’t transform it later. Women, we have so many roles; we can be the wife, mother, lover, daughter, we can do so many things. Men can’t.”
One role Nancy hasn’t experienced is being a mother, partly through choice and partly through fate.
“Since I was very young I had a feeling I didn’t want to be a mother. I’m very severe and still never accept to make mistakes, and to have children is a huge responsibility. I was very clear it wouldn’t be part of my experience in life. I like to be with children, but not responsible. But at other times we are not completely in control. One case was my decision and in others it was not. I lost babies a couple of times and had one abortion. That was the first time, after I was married. It completely surprised me to be pregnant, that first time. I went completely sick, mentally, physically, so it was my choice. A woman should be in control. And I was the first one talking about this – because I was made to feel guilty. It’s a better society now.
“And you can be a mother in many ways. I have a niece who is ten and I spend a lot of time with her – I’m the oldest of four. And I’m a mother with men,” she says, laughing.
Some questions elicit long, lively answers, others are swept away with a gesture, but always it’s done with a smile. Nancy prides herself on not taking herself seriously. “You can’t take a lot of things seriously. That’s why a great thing is to have a sense of humour. Like Strictly. I wanted to send out the message to be fun and that I don’t take myself seriously. I think it’s ridiculous if you take it seriously. Anton and I, we decided to be funny.”
So when he said you weren’t very good? “He was joking,” she laughs. “If you take life seriously, it’s sad.”
When I ask where she is living – she moved out of her £4 million flat after a dispute with the landlords over rent in May – she gestures in the general Belgravia direction.
“I am looking at the moment… Chelsea perhaps. I love London. I consider it my home, it’s where I spend the majority of my time. I’m between here and Puglia, where my parents are, and I’m at a time in my life when I’m a little bit worried about them. For work, London is the centre of the world.”
Inquiries as to her age are met with an animated rebuttal and more gesturing.
“Age? I am 30 on the inside. Yes, I am, doctors have told me I have the body inside of thirtysomething. It’s how you feel on the inside. So yes, I am in my thirties.” She laughs and will not be drawn.
Who knows, who cares? Whatever age she is on the inside, she can definitely pass for a good decade younger on the outside too. Olive-skinned, mane of glossy black curls that cascade down her back, gold amulets and a crystal-encrusted gold knuckleduster ring, lips slick with more gloss than Homebase, and above, thick Shetland pony false eyelashes and huge raven wings of eyeliner sweep up to herald a completely unfurrowed brow. Whatever worries Dell’Olio has, she wears them lightly. As the blurb goes for her show, she’s a woman who has never let fate smudge her make-up. The car crash at 21 that left her in a coma, and after which she had to learn to walk again; the betrayals by Eriksson; the rumoured money troubles. She is a believer in moving forward, attacking life.
“It gets better all the time. Absolutely there’s a pot at the end of the rainbow. It’s going to be a bright day.”
So, back to the show, and the reason for our interview. The pre-publicity tells us Dell’Olio will share her secrets of survival through glamour, how to live a self-empowered life, and give advice on getting through the dark times, holding firm to the knowledge that the best is yet to come.
“Rainbows From Diamonds: do you like the title?” she asks. My co-writer [the comic/writer Diane Spencer] suggested this. I love it because I love rainbows, the reflections. They usually come after the storm and they bring luck. Since I was little always I was looking for a rainbow in the sky. And of course, I do love diamonds. They are beautiful. Sometimes they can be illusions too. This title summed up what I want to say in the show, how life is; full of reflections both beautiful and dark. And sometimes the illusion is better than reality. Life is never an easy walk, it’s a journey that goes up and down. That’s why we need entertainment.”
Dell’Olio is very entertaining. Flamboyant and theatrical, she’s fast-talking and funny, and clearly a woman who knows her own mind. Born the eldest of four children in New York to an American mother and Italian father, she was raised there and in Italy, after her family moved back to the Italian town of Bisceglie when she was five. She studied law at the Sapienza University of Rome before completing her masters in New York. Returning to Italy in 1990, she set up her own legal practice specialising in high-end property deals. She married Mazza, a major shareholder in Lazio football club in Rome, and through him met their manager Eriksson. After she left Mazza for Eriksson, the couple moved to England in 2000 when he became the national team manager and Dell’Olio sprinkled a little stardust around the rather dour Swede.
“I will never consider myself part of that WAG culture. It was something the press created. So yes the first. With me it started. It was a phenomenon of the time. Football became more important because of TV rights and probably with my arrival in the football world, but they will never see it again.
“I’ve been in the UK for 13 years. The last 13 years I have never stopped talking about me. It’s never completely my choice. I have to embrace it in my life. Sometimes you enjoy it, sometimes it’s annoying, but it’s part of the game. When you’re in the public eye you have to play the game. You don’t have a choice at the beginning, then it becomes a choice.”
Choices have included several TV shows, including Footballers’ Cribs on MTV and Sky One’s Project Catwalk, her autobiography My Beautiful Game published in 2007, and a year later her own range of lingerie called ND. She’s regularly papped at benefits and launches, never anything less than fabulously turned out – she arrives for the interview with an assistant, Massimo, wheeling several outfit options. Given that Dell’Olio enjoys such a high-profile, high-end lifestyle, where does her income come from?
“It’s my choice and my life. So many choices. I have to work in different things, many different things. I miss law and do some consultancy, but lately it’s difficult. I want to use my law training for humanitarian work, human rights,” she says. Dell’Olio supports many charities and is an ambassador for Vital Voices, the foundation formed by Hillary Clinton and the Red Cross. She is chairman of Truce International the British-based project she founded with Eriksson, which aims to use football as a means of uniting people in areas affected by war and is collaborating with the Tony Blair Foundation. Last month, Dell’Olio was made a Cavaliere, Italy’s highest civilian honour, for her contributions to the nation.
“It’s like in the UK to be nominated a dame. Unfortunately they use only the masculine term, but a few women get it too. It’s a great honour and I’m very pleased. It was for my contribution to society and work for charity. All these things I have been trying to achieve. I have been travelling in Africa, in Kenya, South Africa, Liberia, to bring water to communities. It’s amazing to think that a third of the world, still for them to have a meal a day does not happen. Such an incredible gap between the world we live in and the world others live in. Many parts of Russia, India… to see all the wars going on, and to see the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa…” Here she pauses and we look around us at our five-star surroundings as the silver cutlery clinks on fine china and the champagne fizzes in crystal glasses. Buckingham Palace Mews is at the top of the street, the Wimbledon set is holding court and everything is about to stop for tea.
“Yes. I love to contribute, to make a difference. One purpose of celebrity is to try and help to make a difference, because we can create awareness and attention and to send the message because there’s still a lot that needs to be done about inequality. I’d love to get involved more in politics. I’m liberal, so more for Labour, although the Conservative Party lately has been in some respects more liberal. I do understand that the British don’t look at themselves as European, but it’s always been part of Europe to me.
“I do hope Scotland doesn’t go. I think it’s much stronger all together. You are greater together. I’m for that. I love Scotland, I love the landscape, I love the castles. Yes!” She’s had a thought; she tosses her mane and her gold hoop earrings swing as she pronounces: “My next man must have a castle.”
So, eligible, confident, supportive Scotsmen with castles, form an orderly queue. Nancy’s on her way.
• Nancy Dell’Olio’s debut Edinburgh show Rainbows From Diamonds will be at the Gilded Balloon from 14-24 August (more info), for tickets (£9.50-£11) visit www.edfringe.com. This interview was conducted in The Goring
Originally published in The Scotsman
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