Her Uncommon Cause

Times Staff Writer

Heather Mills is a British model who lost the bottom of her left leg in an accident seven years ago. She has since become a champion for the disabled and devoted herself to working for and among victims of land mines in Third World countries. She is visiting Los Angeles to attend tonight's $500-a-ticket benefit at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for Adopt-a-Minefield, an international organization that provides funds for land clearance and survivor assistance.

And did we mention she's Paul McCartney's girlfriend?

Well, that's beside the point, really. At least it would be to anyone who's spent any time with Mills. She is beautiful, bright, game and passionate, so one might wonder who the man in her life would be. But the remarkable past she has overcome, her zest for life and commitment to helping others make her a compelling personality on her own.

In fact, Mills, 33, had already published a best-selling autobiography in England and rated her own profile in People Magazine before she met the 58-year old former Beatle, widowed in 1998 when his wife Linda died of breast cancer. McCartney and Paul Simon are scheduled to entertain at tonight's benefit, performing several songs separately and, for the first time, together.

Ever since she stepped off a curb near Kensington Palace in London and collided with a police motorcycle responding to a false alarm from Princess Diana's residence, Mills has been barraged with media attention. Her tragedy was ripe for the tabloids, so while she lay in the hospital, recovering from a fractured pelvis, a punctured lung and a leg amputated below the knee, she rallied enough to bargain with the vultures of Fleet Street.

"I had my brother and sister to support, no relationship with my father, and my mother was dead," Mills says. "I'd been a big earner as a model, and I thought that was over." So when the tabloids balked at paying for her story, Mills told them to stop wasting her time. She eventually negotiated exclusive rights to different elements of her tale with several newspapers, earning nearly $250,000. With that money, Mills knew she could continue to pay for her siblings' education, and wouldn't have to think about how she'd manage her bills for a while. She was 25 years old.

"The great thing was, after my story was published, I got letters from girls who'd say, "I lost my leg and was feeling suicidal until someone showed me what you'd done, and you made me realize I'm going to be all right.' I thought, God, I now have people who are feeling inspired by me. I have a responsibility to them."

Being a role model only heightened Mills' natural inclination to accept no limitations. A stranger to self-pity and depression, she learned again how to dance, ski, swim, scuba dive and play tennis, almost as well as she had before the accident. For the first time, she took up in-line skating. She continued to model, as much to challenge people's perceptions of what an amputee could do as to make money.

"I thought if people would see me, without a limb, feeling good about my body, then they should start to feel good about their bodies, with a disability or not," she says. "Now, any kid who loses a limb is in the papers, with a story about how this great kid is playing football or whatever. The psychological effect of putting amputees in a positive light is fantastic."

Mills manages to be altruistic without coming across as sappy or self-righteous. She's girlish as she shows off the slender, shapely prosthetic leg she had made specially for wearing with high heels--her goal was for it to be as pretty as the legs of Joan Collins' wax likeness at Madame Tussaud's. "I had a French manicure done on the toes," she points out.

When a phalanx of public relations people hover too long after Mills has settled down with an interviewer in the deserted restaurant of the Chateau Marmont, she dispatches them firmly, making clear that she doesn't require a baby-sitter. After all, this is a woman who's driven into war zones and sopped up the pus oozing from a child's shattered leg before attaching an artificial limb. This is a woman who that very morning resisted Larry King's folksy charm, telling him she'd come on his program to talk about Adopt-A-Minefield, not her love life.

"I live as if I've only got so many seconds left," Mills says. "So I think, before I pop my clogs, what difference have I made? Why have I bothered coming on this planet if I've done nothing? People don't know till they've done it that when you get your mind involved in problems halfway around the world, it makes your life a bit better."

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Most people question the value of their existence on milestone birthdays, if at all. Mills does it routinely and has concluded that "things happen for a reason." So perhaps the purpose of the Dickensian harshness of her childhood in the northeast of England--an abusive, financially irresponsible father and a mother who abandoned the family when Mills was nine--was to awaken her strong survival skills. Four years later, when her father was imprisoned for fraud, Mills had to help raise her younger brother and sister. She says, "I was suddenly given the responsibility and had to deal with it. It was sink or swim. So I learned that when anyone had a problem, it was up to me to come up with a solution."

At 14, she was living on the streets of London. By 21, she'd wed a British businessman she'd met when she was 15, and begun modeling. After two years of marriage, Mills fell in love with a Yugoslavian ski instructor, and went to live with him and teach skiing in the Balkan Mountains. Then war broke out. She helped two dozen of their friends escape, then set up a refugee center in London. For the next two years, she lived a double life: modeling in Austria during the week, then every weekend bribing border guards with her earnings in order to bring medical supplies into Croatia.

Mills was in London for a much-needed rest when the accident happened. Forty-eight hours in a coma wasn't the sort of break she'd had in mind.

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Yet in a feat of positive thinking, she sees losing her leg as an almost lucky twist of fate. She'd been a hands-on activist before her accident, but Mills' personal experiences, from coping with insensitive hospital workers to needing prostheses that would work for amputee athletes, gave her an understanding of specific ways she could help others. Because her first artificial leg had become too big two months after she began using it, when the swelling around her injury had gone down, Mills established a program for recycling discarded limbs. She collected 27,000 prostheses in England, where the government health system gives them to amputees, and distributed them to other countries where they were needed.

"I don't do that anymore," she says, "because I try to make people self-sufficient in their own countries. And, what you need from a limb in Sierra Leone, and how you need to crouch or kneel or cross your legs with it, is different than what you'd need in Cambodia or Croatia."

Mills recently spent several weeks fitting prostheses for about 8,000 children in India who lost limbs in last January's earthquake. "It's bizarre how much having lost my leg helps me working with amputees," she says. "I just get on the bed and say, 'It's going to be all right. Look at me.' I'll pop my leg off and give it to someone who's lost theirs. Their whole face just changes. It would have been great if someone had walked into my hospital room and said, 'I'm an amputee, and it's going to be fine.' I didn't even know what an artificial limb looked like."

She now has a wardrobe of five legs she helped design, including one for skiing and a light model for running. She walks without a limp, and when McCartney first saw her at a fund-raiser in May 1999, he didn't know she wore a prosthesis. He called her shortly after, offering to make a contribution to her charity. She understands the public's fascination with their romance, but does not discuss it.

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"Before I met Paul, I was completely open about my entire life," she says. "Any interviews I did would focus on my charities. As soon as I met him, I always said, 'No comment,' about us, because the one time I didn't, what I said became the headline: 'Heather says she loves Paul McCartney.' Everything else was ignored.

"I don't want to belittle our relationship, because it means everything to me. But at the same time, I don't want to be talking about it, because he's so huge, and it always overshadows the issues I'm working for."

For the last seven years, Mills' principal income has come from motivational speaking. "I do five days a week for my charity, and one day for myself," she says. "It's so easy. You get up, speak for an hour, get paid a crazy amount of money, and you leave. And that enables me to have time for my charities."

She doesn't worry about giving away most of what she makes. "I think you're either generous, or you're not. What I love about making money is the difference it can make it other people's lives. You know just $40 will buy a limb that will let a child walk again."

Symbolically, Mills feels she needs to learn to walk like a child again herself. Since circumstances put a premature end to her childhood, she's aware that she's always been older than her years. "I don't know what it's like to be a kid," she says, then smiles. "But I probably will when I'm 50."

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More information about tonight's benefit and Adopt-A-Minefield can be found at http://www.landmines.org.

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