By Chrissy Iley
The décor in Hilary Devey’s central London apartment is maximalist opulence in every nook and cranny, chandeliers and candelabras. Devey herself emerges slowly. She is tired. She’s had a hard week on Dragon’s Den and survives on four hours sleep a night anyway. Not that you’d know it. She is immaculately turned out. Her vampishly dark locks are glossy and full. Her smoky-eye make-up perfect. Her eyes themselves are a sparkling blue grey. She’s taller and slimmer than you expect in black leggings and a cream embroidered silk top. She is 53 but her face looks so much fresher than on the television. ‘It’s been tough this week, really tough. Long days in the Den and I was absolutely exhausted. Plus these bloody doors at the BBC in Salford are so heavy I feel I’ll actually have muscles by the end of it.’
If Devey admits to having a tired and stressful week it must have been really something. Her book Bold As Brass tells the story of her life; the stress and pain streams off every page. You are emotionally exhausted at the end of each chapter thinking how could one woman have gone through so much.
A childhood where she hardly went to school, worked in her parents’ pubs, lost her beloved father to stomach cancer when she was 18, endured painful marriages with men who either loved her too much or not enough, one beat her up. Her only son became a heroin addict and stole from her to pay for his addiction and nearly died. And in her book she reveals for the first time that she was raped. But more of that later.
Two years ago she had a major stroke from which by sheer willpower alone it seems she has mostly recovered; except her peripheral vision has never returned and she will never drive again. One arm doesn’t work properly. She can’t hold the steering wheel and sometimes can’t properly brush her hair.
‘My brain is mush. I can’t sleep if I’m not surrounded by my own familiarity’ – she didn’t feel comfortable in a friend’s luxury apartment in Salford where Dragon is shot. One wonders if all this non-stop work for Dragon’s Den and for her own company Pall-Ex that has a turnover of £100 million a year, didn’t contribute to her actual stroke?
‘No, not really. I did a lot of research on it myself. Children as young as six have had strokes. Stress doesn’t cause a clot. I was just unlucky. I have a healthy diet, no red meat and I don’t like wine, I don’t over indulge and I believe that hard work is good for the soul anyway. A good hard day’s graft makes you feel good,’ she says in her bold as brass Bolton tones. She said that she had warning of the stroke, a terrible headache which she tried to ignore. ‘I was packing for a business trip and I couldn’t coordinate the packing but carried on. Then my arm went numb. The signs were there but I didn’t act on them. Instead I took every conceivable headache pill and then I collapsed.’
It was her son Mevlit, 25, who lives with her on her rambling Edwardian estate near Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, who discovered her and announced, “She’s had a stroke.” He’d watched the advert for it on TV. ‘When I got to hospital they did a CT scan and said I’d had a very severe stroke, the magnitude was nine out of ten. The tiredness goes on for many years but I’m a fighter. I’m much better than I was. What could you do? Lay back in bed and think I am so depressed I can’t move my arm?”
For Devey there’s never been any lying back in bed. ‘No, you just get on with it. I am fortunate that I can afford to pay somebody to help do my hair to get me ready. The unfortunates are the old people who have strokes. That’s why I became patron of The Stroke Association. Once the brain is damaged there’s no going back. A third of my brain was taken away. It just goes to show there’s a lot of brain we never use and I found it.’ The other day on The Dragon’s Den she had to calculate quickly percentages and investments ‘and my brain would not multiply. It’s very intense. What are your projections for first year trading? What’s your margins? That sort of thing.’
Devey has never let anything stop her before. So it’s frustrating if anything threatens to. This is the girl who as a child if there wasn’t a horse available for her to ride she would ride a cow. ‘I love animals. I prefer animals to people actually, and they are so much more economical than men. They eat what you put down for them and clean up after themselves without using any of God’s resources.’
She shakes her head. ‘Men are another source of exhaustion.’ While she has excelled all her life at being a woman in a man’s world be it serving in a pub or creating her own haulage business, nothing has fazed her. But as her mother used to say “Hilary, you are brilliant in business but you have got a lousy choice in men.” It’s a strange paradox that such a strong and striking woman would attract such weak men. She has been married three times.
‘With business I have been brought up to take the compassion out of the commercial decision and then put the compassion back into it. It’s hard to do that with men when you are feeling a bit lonely and vulnerable. Having a public profile and being at the top of your business is a very lonely place to be.’
Some men are perhaps intimidated by her. ‘I have no doubt that men think of what I have achieved and that emasculates them. God only knows why. I am not powerful or strident in a relationship. I am a very traditional bird. I like cooking. I like cleaning.’
There is pain in her eyes even though they sparkle. She has suffered. Which is probably what makes her a gay icon. ‘Perhaps it’s because I don’t care what people think of what I wear. I like shoulder pads. So what if it’s OTT.’
Does she think that men always try to rein her in? ‘Absolutely. Categorically.’ And did she change for any man? ‘No. Never.’ She was however battered down by her long-term partner Hussein, a Turkish businessman and Mevlit’s father. They couldn’t marry because he was already married to someone else when he moved in with her. He lied to her, juggled his time between two women, lied to everyone. ‘He was very jealous. He gave me some of the happiest times of my life and some of the saddest. I did truly love him. The only problem was that he lied which turned the whole relationship into a sham.’ How could she have been with him so long and not realised? She shakes her head. ‘I don’t know is the answer.’ At this time she was working hard but not with her own company.
‘I met some interesting characters when I was setting up Pall-Ex (in 1996). Haulage is such a misogynistic world.’
She is doing another television programme about the glass ceiling that women experience. ‘I don’t believe we should impose quotas in the UK because I think that takes us back 25 years where we will start to discriminate against gender. What I hope to gain from this is that the government should allow more transparency during the interviewing of personnel to senior positions, such as when do you plan to have children? That way it’s the business’s job to strategize. We can’t stop having children. ‘The lady in the city who has nine children is very fortunate to have a house husband because believe me there are few of them.’
Back to emasculated men? ‘They get vicious, violent, aggressive, petulant. It brings out everything bad.’ She speaks of course from personal experience. ‘Although I don’t think he (meaning Hussein) felt emasculated by me at the time. It was just his temperament. When I look back at the life we had together we had an awful lot of stresses and strains that a young couple should not have endured.”
When she met him he was dark, tall, strong, handsome. He disappeared from her life when he could no longer possess her. It was he who was the businessman but he made some unfortunate deal and ended up trading in drugs and is currently in prison. Her son wanted to establish some kind of relationship with him so she met him again recently – frail with only one tooth in his head. ‘He is very much a different person.’ She speaks of him softly and even though he was violent towards her you feel she wants to help him now.