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In the Press: Zara Phillips interview in Tatler

For those of you who haven’t already seen the interview with MUSTO ambassador Zara Phillips in Tatler, here it is!  Tatler came, interviewed and photographed the royal eventing equestrian at our press event launching the new ZP176 Kids Collection last month:

Zara Phillips is the “real” royal. An all round good sort and world class equestrian. As she launches her new range of children’s riding kit, she talks to Sam Leith about the Olympics, her no-nonsense upbringing and a horse called Toytown.

When Tatler meets Zara Phillips unblushing bride, former three day evening world champion and the “Queen’s favourite granddaughter”- it is on a bright afternoon in Gloucestershire, not three days after her wedding. Her honeymoon with new husband Mike Tindall has been delayed, she says, possibly “until we’re both retired”. She’s amid the eventing season and nervously looking ahead to next year’s Olympics Games. He’s gearing up for the Rugby World Cup in the autumn. Today, however, she’s holding court to promote sportswear – launching a children’s line in the ZP176 range of riding gear to which she lends her name to MUSTO. To that end, she’s spent the morning coaching a battery of togged-up tots through a kind of mini-gymkhana for the cameras. Very Thelwell.

The big house where Zara is meeting the press- the property of a family friend, apparently- is spot on, tone-wise: the epitome of county-set horsey. It’s all jocular foxhunting cartoons, Annie Tempest loo-roll holders and the first-floor windows so festooned with rosettes you imagine the room inside being lit like the House of Usher. Under a gazebo- style shade there’s a buffet lunch: hard boiled eggs bound in mayonnaise, quiche, mayonnaise. Jugs of Pimm’s are circulating and ceremony isn’t stood on- Zara’s pal Dolly Maude, maid of honour at her wedding, is mucking in and taking a tray around.’

‘In one corner of the lawn, under the shoulder of the biggest box hedge you’ve seen, the kids recruited to model the sportswear at this morning’s launch bounce indefatigably on a giant trampoline. (By 2 o’clock they’ve gone feral- I overhear Dolly call, “NO! Stop that! Stop it!”  before turning to a companion: “Yuh. Eye- gouging. Lucky the press isn’t still here.”). In another corner, ambling about looking lost and professing never to have heard of Zara Phillips  (“Who?”) or Mike Tindall (“Nah”,), is a bloke from De Beers guarding a bag of diamond knick-knacks sent up from London for the photoshoot.

And the place is thick with tense PR girls in turquoise polo shirts taking hacks aside to explain to them that Zara’s really here to talk about the sportswear and that we really, really mustn’t go on about the royal family. The oddest thing, on the face of it, is that she’s here at all. Less than three days after marrying her big, Shrek-like hunk of rugger-playing beefcake, she should surely be making a mess of an  expensive hotel room somewhere and ordering breakfast from room service. Not trying to flog branded sportswear in some uniform uncomfortably hot Gloucestershire barn while members of the press ask her a bunch of damn-fool questions about whether the Duke of Cambridge sings Bon Jovi on the karaoke.

But here she is- not making any enormous pretence of enjoying it, but being gracious and nice, which is exactly how she has always come across in public, Zara strikes most of us as the member of the royal family with whom she’s being papped, and she always looks like she’s having a laugh. And she comes across as sexy- which, whatever else the members of her extended family tend to do, isn’t one of the foremost attributes.

In person she exudes health and life and general good-eggery: neat and scrubbed- jaw strong, skin clear and nut-brown, hair very blonde and scraped right back into something that if it were 3 inches longer would be a ponytail. She’s in blue jeans, a box fresh red polo shirt and flip flops. The blue toenails- “something blue” left over from her wedding- are as cosmetically extravagant as she gets. We share a giant chintzy sofa, on which she reclines nearly to be horizontal, hands clasped, from what’s probably nervousness, down between her knees.

It seems reasonable to believe- or, at least, more than half-believe- that she really doesn’t get any sort of kick out of being in the public eye. Her mother the Princess Royal, who once told a photographer to “Neff awf!”, hates the press like sin. And after being dragged through the scandal sheets during her turbulent relationship with jockey Richard Johnson, Zara very probably feels the same.’

‘The cleft stick in which she finds herself is that she’s emphatically trying to make her way in the world as Miss Phillips rather than as a scion of the House of Windsor- and yet the line of work she has chosen is one that thrusts her right back into the limelight. Running a world class stable of eventing horses is reported to cost her close to half a million a year. She needs sponsors to do her job, an though- God knows- having won a World Championship is the central thing, it’d be naïve to suppose that her royal connections aren’t part of what attracts the funding. So she’s somewhat shackled to it. But that doesn’t stop any encounter with her being preceded by warnings that she gets cross if you call her a princess- because she isn’t.  

That’s true. Zara has always been plain Miss Phillips and will remain so professionally. Princess Anne specifically requested, when they were born, that neither Zara nor her brother Peter be given the customary ‘HRH’. I ask Zara why she thinks her mother took that decision. (It seems, though I don’t say so, pretty obvious that Anne’s own experience led her to think of ‘HRH’ as a distinctly mixed blessing.)

She straight-bats the question: “I don’t know, actually. I should ask her. I think it was good, though. My brother and I have been able to get on and have been very lucky to do things with our family that other people wouldn’t be able to do. But, then again, we’ve also been able to live a normal life as well.”

Yet that normality itself has caused problems. Ever since Zara was a teenager, the red-tops have had her down as ‘royal rebel’- a phrase that will probably accompany her to the grave. Is that tag something that annoyed her, amused her? Or was it even something she felt flattered by?

“I don’t know, really, a little bit of both. Obviously, I did have a tongue stud,”- that teenage piercing, now long gone, caused a global tabloid meltdown, “but at least I didn’t have it coming out of my nose or anything…”. She tails off, then resumes, exasperated: “And then I was supposedly- God, I can’t even think what they said. Every time an article gets started, it gets started with the same thing, and it just lingers, and a lot of it is not actually true”. In the end, I had a great childhood. I loved school, loved my gap year, love working with horses…”

How much, I ask her, was the baggage of a royal background something that impelled her to feel she needed to make something of herself in her own right? “Baggage!”, she exclaims in a mock indignation. “I did probably, subciously do it. But also, in a sporting way, I wanted to be good at what I was doing. And I think, in my family, we’ve been brought up to be good at what we do”.

It seems fair to say that her role as a brand ambassador for MUSTO isn’t at the core of what animates her as a person. She is pretty vague about her contribution to the designing, “I’m not a designer, I work with Louise Clinton, MUSTO’s equestrian designer. We based the kid’s range on the adult’s range and the cuts I liked, and we talk about colours and the palette that works for kids. It’s slightly brighter, and with more stripes and the fabrics that would work for them, and which they wouldn’t trash straight away. Just things like that. For me, it was so that they could have a range like the adults’ one, but obviously in their sizes and with some slightly different bits”.

Well, does she have a favourite? Someone passes her the Must catalogue and we spend a moment or two as she leafs through it, frowning. She finds one and points to it. “In the kids’ range, I like the coat that you can do 10,000 things with. It becomes a gilet- or a gilet with a hood on. Look: there’s a little picture here. Although I like all of it! I can’t choose. It’s a bit strange for me, as we are so far ahead of this- we’re already on next season.’

‘But its heavy weather getting a sense of what- when she’s not aboard ahorse- does float her boat. She says she lieks to cook, for instance. What does she like to cook? “Just, you know, food. Nothing in particular.” After some encouragement she decides that the last thing she cooked was “probably spaghetti Bolognese”. She can’t remember the last film she enjoyed. Pressed about the telly, she says she likes crime dramas. She mentions CSI. She hasn’t heard of “the Killing”. Does she take an interest in the news, in what’s going on in the world? “Not really. No. I wouldn’t say I’m a big new person. I tend not to read papers. I read magazines,” Ahem!. “Of course- Tatler! I love travelling. I’ve never been to Africa. I’d like to do Africa and South America. Ive done Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Caribbean, all that sort of stuff”. She’s of a young generation. Does she ever use Facebook or look at Twitter? “No! I think Facebook’s dangerous!” she says. “So many people I know get into trouble with Facebook…I’d rather just pick up the phone. Or Skype. I like Skype”- she mimics a Skype call – “You’re frozen again! Really?”.

If you were being bitchy you could suppose that – to adapt Gertrude Stein’s line about Oakland, California – the trouble with Zara is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there. But that’s not fair. Her laugh, when it comes out, has real life in it. Rather, she’s inhibited when talking about herself and, commendably, not all that interested in the subject.

I suspect what we’re seeing is not dullness, or even just defensiveness, but the intense focus common to all really world-class sportspeople. She doesn’t spend a whole lot of time wondering about the Israel-Palestine question or how to make perfect shortcrust, still less pondering the wellsprings of her own motivations. She has seven horses, each of which needs an hour’s exercise every single day. What she’s really doing for most her waking hours is riding- or thinking about riding.

In this, she joins another family firm: both of Zara’s parents were Olympic-level eventers. When she calibrates her ambition, does she fell in competition with them? “No”, she says thoughtfully. She pauses, then chuckles. “A lot of people ask that, but no. It’s a whole different era of eventing, really. I think I more put challenges on myself, rather than say, “I think I’m gonna beat what you guys did.”

Are they good critics of her work? “Sometimes. Not really. My dad can be pretty critical sometimes. If I’ve done something really well, he will tell me. But it is hard to get a compliment out of him. It’s just the way he is and the way he trains.”

Captain Mark Phillips is notably plain-spoken- he once, woundingly, called Zara a brat in public. Does she find that difficult? “It can be. It’s fine if you’re doing well and feeling confident- but when you’re not doing so well, it can be difficult. “That’s when I go and see my mother. But also- he’s telling the truth. “You didn’t do it good enough, that’s why this happened.” Then you’ve got to go and do it better”.

At the moment, ‘doing it better’ is all about next year’s Olympics. If she makes the team, it will break a run of rotten luck. She missed the last 2 games because of injuries to Toytown, the horse with which she made her professional career and which she calls ‘my horse of a lifetime’. Toytown’s career is at an end. If she goes next year, it will most likely be on a younger horse, High Kingdom.

Asked if she thinks she’ll ever be able to get what she had with Toytown again, the sportsman in her says yes- but the horse lover causes the pitch of her voice to rise in doubt. “I love all of them. Ive got a good relationship with all of them. But he’s quite unique.” She’s very even and matter about the Toytown’s retirement to me, but the Sunday after we meet, she’s photographed breaking down in tears as she shows him off for the last time at Gatcombe Park.

When you ask her to think about what happens next – what she wants to do when she stops riding competitively, she doesn’t really have an answer. The question does, however, prompt her to volunteer, “I’d love to have kids, but not at the moment. You know – I’m just happy competing and  putting the work in…”

“I didn’t ask about kids”, I say, “I know!” she chides herself. “I’m just telling you and you didn’t actually even ask me!”.

What are her ambitions, though? If she comes away from next year’s Olympics with a gold medal, where is there to go to next? “You have goals every year. There are always other competitions and other dreams that you want to achieve. Winning Badminton and Burghley, the Olympics, another World Championships…”

“All your ambitions are on horseback?” I ask, “Yeah,” she deadpans. “I can’t take up ice-skating now.”

Looking back, does she have any regrets? Is there anything she’d have done differently?

“I don’t know. You always learn from your mistakes, so… Nothing I can tell you about. Ha-Ha! I’ve been very lucky.”

As I leave I have to ask: “Do you call her Granny?”. She looks a little pained, and mumbles plaintively: “She’s my grandmother”. “But do you call her Granny?”, “Yes. Of course.”

And with that we are done. She’s taken off to be bullied into hair and make-up and made to exchange her faded jeans for jodhpurs so that can stand patiently, with the sun in her eyes, looking pretty and unaffected in the middle of a field full of horses for as long as it takes.

Oh – and the guy from De Beers? After a day of waiting in the wilting heat, he dispiritedly schleps off back to London with his ‘pieces’ still in his case. They don’t need the diamonds. Zara won’t wear them.’

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