Our World

In the Press: A Royal Knockout

Harry Mount interviewed world champion eventer Zara Phillips in Friday’s es magazine and discussed her lifestyle, fashion and MUSTO collaboration.

‘When she was born, in 1981, Zara Phillips was sixth in line to the throne – pretty close to the number one job in the land. Princess Anne, though, insisted that her daughter shouldn’t be called Her Royal Highness, and so, at a stroke, Zara was relieved of the prospect of official duties, money scandals (she receives nothing from the Civil List) and bodyguards. ‘It suits me down to the ground,’ she says in her smoky, basso profundo, sexy bronchitis voice. ‘It was never part of the game plan to do official duties. I’ve always been able to do what I want and my family have never got in the way of my riding.’

Whenever she touches on the subject of the Queen and the Royal Family – always ‘my grandmother’ and ‘my family’ – an invisible veil of censorship falls on the conversation, but she never pulls rank, or refuses to answer a question. So she acknowledges that the Queen ‘likes to discuss my horses with me, especially because she owns one of them – Tiger Lily. She’s very knowledgeable about horses.’ Of Princes William and Harry, she says, ‘I speak to them; we’re close, though I haven’t seen them for a while. It wasn’t a nice feeling when Harry was away [serving in Afghanistan]. I don’t envy people who’ve got husbands or wives who are fighting.’ And on the recent announcement that her brother and sister-in-law, Peter and Autumn Phillips, are to become parents in December, she says, ‘I’m really happy for Peter and Autumn, they will make brilliant parents. I’m also looking forward to being an aunt – it’s fantastic news.’

Move on to horses, though, and her large, sad, darting eyes fix their gaze on you as the veil lifts. ‘Everyone thinks eventing is elitist,’ she says, ‘and it’s difficult to persuade people otherwise. People who don’t understand sport think you can just turn up. But you don’t just get up and win a world championship. I’ve only been given one horse, when my mother, father [Captain Mark Phillips] and grandmother bought Toytown together. When I won the under-25s, that was the first time I was allowed by my parents to ask for sponsorship.’

So all-encompassing is the royal thing that it’s easy to forget Zara’s success as a rider. She is the reigning Eventing World Champion, was BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2006 (as her mother was in 1971), and has won team and individual gold medals in European eventing championships. She was unable to compete in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics because Toytown was injured.

She is now trying to track down a horse for the 2012 London Olympics. Toytown will be too old by then – a cause of aching melancholy for Zara, who talks of him like an old friend. ‘He doesn’t owe me anything but I’m sad for him. I’ve got more chances, but it’s sad for him when he was capable of winning; he would have been a great Olympic horse. He gives 110 per cent, which doesn’t do him any favours as he’s more likely to get injured.’ She is full of sporting idioms like ‘giving 110 per cent’. When I interview her, she has just been to see the Wimbledon semi-final between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal – ‘It’s awesome to see someone at the top of their game.’

This isn’t the talk of a member of the Royal Family imitating a sportswoman. It is the voice of a sportswoman who happens to be royal. Her life is far more sport than society, which isn’t surprising since both her parents competed in the Olympics. Princess Anne and Mark Phillips divorced in 1992, and that same year Anne married Vice-Admiral Timothy Laurence, with whom she has a flat in Buckingham Palace and a large pile, Gatcombe Park, in Gloucestershire. Mark Phillips is now married to Sandy Pflueger, an American dressage rider. ‘We’re all close,’ says Zara, ‘although my father is often away [in America, where he's chef d'equipe of the US eventing team]. They both give me tips, although things have changed a bit since they were competing. But your parents are never not
proud of you.’

With this sporting background, it’s no surprise either that her boyfriend, Mike Tindall, is an England rugby player. ‘I was always brought up with sport, and I was always involved in riding and eventing. Sport is in our blood.’ She now shares a house with Tindall in Cheltenham, while her horses are stabled at Gatcombe Park. Contrary to some reports, she has never been engaged to him. ‘And I’m not going to ask him!’ she says with mock outrage (that’s what I call a hint, Mr Tindall). They share a happy sporting life, their routines meshed together. ‘He’s very laid-back, very easy-going.’

It’s a quiet existence, mostly devoted to training, punctuated by occasional social visits to London, usually with Tindall. Zara has just been photographed at the Range Rover 40th anniversary party in a blue tasselled minidress that was so short she was dubbed ‘Her Royal Thighness’.

She doesn’t agree that this settled life is in great contrast to a supposed wild period of her teens and early twenties, when she had a tongue stud and was involved in a fiery relationship with the National Hunt jockey Richard Johnson. ‘They [the press] expect you to be normal, and then they expect you to swan about in a ballgown. The tongue stud was quite normal; when you’re younger, you’re a bit crazier.’

Her life is now the repetitive, physical existence of an athlete in training. She’s in the swimming pool before the day’s riding begins at 8am. That continues until 4.30pm, with a bit of cycling up the Gloucestershire hills thrown in. ‘I’ve got to work on my core and glutes, and my hammies,’ she says, sporting code for the torso, the bottom and the hamstrings. ‘The swimming is for the upper body. The training has already taken over my life.’ And you can see it in the way she looks. In her civvies – flip-flops, cut-off denim shorts with frayed hems and a country and western check shirt – she is a knockout: Daisy Duke comes to the Cotswolds. Her legs – tanned after a Maldives holiday with Tindall – are toned. Her skin is smooth and unblemished, her cheekbones pitched at a steep angle. There’s only one flaw: her right upper canine tooth sticks out at a pretty woggly angle.

That unrighted snaggle tooth is linked to a rural, upper-class distaste for vanity – the world of mud from the herbaceous borders under the fingernails, the Aga spattered with three-day-old Irish stew. Zara is unashamed: ‘I normally wear breeches, a jumper and a T-shirt – you can’t be smart around horses. Out in the country, people let you get on with it. I don’t get bothered down here. In London, there are more busybodies.’

However, she does have a strong interest in clothes, as long as they’re the right kind. Her new collection for British outdoor clothing brand MUSTO is devoted to equestrian clothes, designed by Zara to be technically suited for efficient and comfortable riding. On the back of each garment is stitched ‘ZP 176′, her international riding number.

‘I’ve been wearing MUSTO since I was little,’ she says, which is hardly surprising since the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh also sport the label. ‘I wanted to design clothes that would keep me warm, and that are waterproof and windproof, while getting things right, like the length of the jackets, and putting a seam in the sleeve so you can bend your arm. I want them to have a better fit while you’re riding, give a better silhouette when you’re off the horse and not ride up when you’re jumping. But I like shoes and dresses as well. All girls do! The Louboutins are beautiful, aren’t they?’ she says, not seeking reassurance but deploying charm by asking my inexpert opinion. ‘Being brought up in a family like mine, you have to dress formally more often than you might otherwise.’

Apart from modest references to ‘my family’, you’d be hard-pressed to identify Zara as royal; she is more the conventional country public-school girl (she went to Gordonstoun, as did her brother Peter, Prince Charles and Prince Philip). And by her own admission, she is no intellectual. ‘I had a gap year, but I didn’t go to university,’ she says, acknowledging the non sequitur with an ironic lilt in her voice.

Like lots of badly educated upper-class girls she has a full armoury of irony and sarcasm. She uses mock rudeness to win intimacy: at one point, trying on a black Catherine Malandrino jumpsuit, she says, in pretend spoilt-girl mode, ‘I want one!’ She goes for the same tone when offered a pair of shoes to model: ‘No, not those, they’re horrible,’ she says, signposting the faux rudeness with a big throaty laugh.

‘Why do you have to ruin stuff with nuts?’ she asks, channelling Lady Bracknell, as she inspects a biscuit for dangerous signs of health food, before polishing it off. She has a hearty appetite, cheerfully munching sandwiches throughout the interview; no boarding-school anorexia for her. She also draws from the Sloaney lexicon, giving things nicknames and dropping into slang. ‘Any schnacks?’ she says at one stage, surveying the catering table.

There is a whisper of royalty in her aversion to showing off, an inclination drawn from not wanting to give anything away or be exposed. The other royal hint lies in the bedrock of confidence that comes of being so off-the-charts grand. She talks about a dress that isn’t ‘really appropriate for that sort of do’, and says the unposh word ‘do’ with absolutely zero irony. There are Sloaney, horsey mothers across the Cotswolds who would crucify their daughters for using such a non-U word; Zara has to do none of that class police-work on her vocabulary.

Confidence comes across, too, in the slow way she speaks. Michael Caine said that when he made Zulu he based the physical movement of his character on Prince Philip: ‘The lower you are socially, the faster you speak, because no one listens. Powerful people are absolutely still, because everyone’s going to wait for what you have to say, and you speak in a long, slow voice.’

Zara shares the long, slow diction of her grandfather, accentuated by a bat-squeak of well-disguised boredom at being interviewed. She is never anything but polite, yet you get the impression that, at all times, she’d be happier on a horse than talking to a journalist in a Wiltshire manor house; or, for that matter, downing Flaming Lamborghinis in Mahiki. It seems a wise choice to make.

Zara Phillips is an ambassador for MUSTO, with which she launches her first clothing collection, ZP 176, next Friday (musto.com)’

> SHOP ZP176 COLLECTION | > BROWSE ALL EQUESTRIAN CLOTHING

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