One novel and my life was a different story

Surprisingly enough, the famous journalist and author of Superwoman had to scrape a living even after the guide for working women was published.

Shirley Conran didn’t earn much money from Superwoman that became a bible for many working women in the 70s. However, she became rich and famous “overnight” after the publication of her novel Lace that had become a blockbuster.

She was born in London and studied in one of the high-level schools of England – St Paul’s Girls’ in Hammersmith. Then Conran decided to study the art of sculpture at Portsmouth University, later moving back to the capital and taking up painting and textiles.

She had two sons, Sebastian and Jasper, with her husband Terence Conran after she got married in 1955. The married couple worked together in the Conran Fabrics company, as Mr Conran was a designer and owned the firm.

They divorced in 1962 and Shirley decided to start a new life as a journalist, becoming the first women’s editor of The Observer in only 2 years after starting a new career. Later she was working as women’s editor of the Daily Mail and caught a chance to start her Femail section in 1968.

After falling ill with ME in 1970, Conran quit journalism and began writing books. First published in 1975, Superwoman features tips for women on how to save time and money.

In it, she coined the famous phrase: “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.” In 2004, Conran was made an OBE for services to equality.

Yet it was her 1982 “bonkbuster” Lace that made her wealthy. The novel, which in 1984 was turned into a TV mini-series in America, earned her $1m at the time.

More recently, she has turned her attention to improving people’s maths skills. In 2004 she founded the campaigning organisation Maths Action, then, in 2014, after years of research, she created a free online maths course for women, moneystuff.com, with the Superwoman-inspired catchline: “Life is too short to be short of money.”

This year, Conran, who is an adviser to the Department for Education and an honorary fellow of University College London, launched the Maths Anxiety campaign.

Conran, 84, lives alone in Putney, southwest London. Both Sebastian, 60, and Jasper, 56, are well-known designers.

How much money do you have in your wallet?
£135. I usually give myself a weekly amount of £120, because taxis back from town to Putney are expensive, about £30.

What credit cards do you use?
I’ve been with Coutts ever since I had a bank account — when I was about 28. I gave chequebooks and an allowance to my sons when they were young.

On one occasion I had reason to believe Sebastian had gone into his overdraft, when he was about 16, so I phoned up Coutts and said: “If this is the case, can you please give him the complete treatment of ‘When do you intend to pay this money back?’ ” I think it is one of the reasons Sebastian is so frugal.

Are you a saver or a spender?
I think I’m both. I am interested in money, you see; I can make money. I used to think it was some trick — that men could make money and women somehow lack the gene. But it isn’t.

How much did you earn last year?
About £100,000.

Have you ever been really hard up?
When I first had ME. It was surprising how quickly I ran out of money. I couldn’t afford to buy Sebastian a pair of boots one Christmas. I told him: “I can afford one boot if you buy the other out of your allowance.” He decided he couldn’t afford to. When I sold Lace, I phoned him up and said: “You can buy a pair of boots.”

I didn’t make money on Superwoman because it was so rich in research and that cost a lot. One year, in the 1970s, my phone bill was £5,000. I thought: I’ll give it one more try and write one more book. My advance for Lace was $750,000. Together with the advance for the mini-series, it came to $1m.

Do you own a property?
I own my flat in Putney, which I bought for £260,000 about 20 years ago. I spent £47,000 on a refurb and about £10,000 on furnishings. I also have a small buy-to-let business in London — I have a few properties in Notting Hill and Covent Garden. I enjoy being a good landlord.

I had a penthouse in New York, a chateau in the hills behind Cannes and a farmhouse in the southwest of France — I have done things I wouldn’t even have dreamt about when I was a girl. But if you’ve got a place on the international ranking [for books], it takes all your time to look after it. You can’t loll around in your chateau eating strawberries — you’re going to be at your typewriter, at 8am at the latest, every day.

I sold the chateau in 2004 and the farmhouse in 2006.

What was your first job?
Doing PR for a jewellery firm when I was 19. It was very glamorous: I had my own expense account at the Savoy. I had a wonderful job phoning up famous women and saying: “We do so hope you’d like to borrow our jewellery and wear it in your work.”

Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of contacts. When I married Terence, it was only natural to me to publicise what he was doing. He used to think it was a waste of time — nobody in London had a PR, let alone a little impoverished former art student making furniture in a basement. I don’t think he thinks so now.

Are you better off than your parents?
It’s hard to say. My mother, Ida, wanted six children — and she got them. My father, Thirlby, had his own trawler, and that’s what he always wanted. He was a naval captain who then started a dry-cleaning business.

I came from a middle-class background and went to a middle-class school full of swots. Then I got married. My parents were very good: they didn’t say anything against Terence but he was not the husband, out of all the boyfriends, they would have chosen. He had no money, no prospects; he’d been to art school and he was a bit weird.

My parents’ hopes were pinned on somebody else, who was very suitable in the eyes of the world. I know my father helped Terence considerably in his early days with money.

Do you invest in shares?
Absolutely. At one point I thought, [surely] I can’t lose money faster than the people who are losing it for me. So I took over and found it was quite easy to understand. I like forex [foreign exchange] and predicting which currencies will go up and down.

What’s better for retirement — property or pension?
Pensions? Don’t trust the buggers!

When did you first feel wealthy?
There are two things: wealth and fame. Wealth is wonderful and fame is horrible. No sensible person would enjoy being famous for more than 15 minutes, but money is an enabler. I became rich overnight after Lace. I didn’t talk about it but my publishers did and so I became a target for every conman in the country.

What’s been your best investment?
After I got ME, the Daily Mail gave me a delightful handshake and I paid off all my debts with it and then split the money into buying two David Hockney paintings, one for each of my sons. People at the time didn’t know Hockney but I knew him a bit personally.

Both boys sold them to provide a deposit for their first flats — for 25 times more than the £1,350 I had paid. I had told them not to open them [to keep the studio’s original packaging] because that would destroy the value. Sweet, obedient Jasper didn’t open his, so he got £5,000 more than Sebastian.

And the worst?
I am tempted to say husbands, but they are an expense, not an investment.

I am tempted to say husbands are my worst investment, but they are more of an expense

When I was 55, I had a Jaguar I really hated. I walked into the showroom, as it was my birthday, and bought it for £25,000. It was such an arse to drive.

I swapped it for a Mitsubishi station wagon that could take nine people and an antique grandfather clock, because you never know. I used to have a sleeping bag in the back and I once used it when I went to stay with [the fashion designer] Mary Quant in France. She lived at the top of a hill next to Nice. I got there at about 11.30pm when I had been supposed to arrive at 7.30pm and the whole village had gone to bed. So I just slept in the car.

What’s the most extravagant thing you have ever bought?
A Christian Dior dressing gown for £750 about 20 years ago. Authors live in their dressing gowns, you see.

What’s your money weakness?
I collect Aboriginal paintings. I bought one by Emily Kame Kngwarreye in 1993 for A$750 and later sold it for A$240,000.

What aspect of the tax system would you change?
All of it. So much of our tax system is related to the politics of envy and not practical common sense. I would simplify it and have no allowances whatsoever. I am in favour of giving everyone a basic income.

What’s your financial priority?
Books. If I had money to spare and I had to choose food or a book, I would always choose a book.

Do you support any charities?
I have a big charity list. I write cheques every January, because that’s when they need the most money.

What would you do if you won the lottery?
I would go on doing what I am doing now: educating women about money, only in a much bigger way. For that, they have to learn maths. Maths teachers have a horrible job; I am surprised we have any left. They have to operate in such a tight government schedule — it’s like a damned tap dance.

What’s the most important lesson you have learnt about money?
To look after it yourself.

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