How would you cope if your ex lived a couple of doors down with his — much younger —partner and their two small children?
Quite admirably, it seems, if you’re Lesley Clarke, the dynamo behind celebrity hair stylist Nicky Clarke and their shared £60 million business empire. ‘Nicky pops in quite often,’ she says. ‘He brings Nico — his three-year-old — to see me sometimes. Nico calls me “Aunty Lesley”. I sit him down in here with some of the grandchildren’s toys and he plays while we talk — usually about business.’
Lesley and I are chatting in the vast, airy drawing room — all restful cream hues and scented candles — of her five-storey mansion in St John’s Wood, north London; a glorious £12 million pile, currently on the market, with views onto the velvety lawns and swaying palm fronds of the garden.
Lesley Clarke shares a £60m business empire with hair stylist Nicky Clarke
‘I had my grandson Casper’s third birthday here and Nico came along with his nanny. The children all muck in together. They do, don’t they? They’re kids!’ she smiles. It is now 23 years since Lesley, 67, and Nicky, 62, — as famous for his luxuriant (dyed) blond hair as his legions of celebrity clients — separated when he had an affair. Yet the couple remain inextricably bound.
They have two grown-up children together — Harrison, 33, and Tellisa, 31 — as well as a brace of grandkids aged three and one (exactly the same age, incidentally, as Nicky’s two little ones) and a shared business built from nothing with a blend of hard graft, Lesley’s acumen and Nicky’s creativity with the scissors.
Their personal partnership ended with his infidelity: ‘Nicky had an affair and when I found out, he stopped seeing the woman [Susie Bick, then a Vivienne Westwood model] immediately. There was no confrontation. But the damage was done,’ Lesley says, recalling their break-up.
Hair raising: Nick and Lesley at the opening of their Mayfair salon in 1991
However, even in the rancorous aftermath of the split, when Lesley felt ‘pain was raining down on her’, they did not contemplate severing their business links and she remains CEO of the family business as she has been for 29 years.
Neither, it now emerges, did they even separate their personal finances.
Age gap: Nicky, 62, and his partner Kelly Simpkin, 37
‘The business was always going to carry on,’ says Lesley. ‘It’s like a third child and you don’t abandon a child if you split up, do you? We built it from scratch with a £20,000 loan together.
‘We worked so hard life was just a blur. I don’t think either of us ever thought for a second of relinquishing it.’
She adds: ‘Neither of us could have done it without the other. So of course we carried on running it together when we were no longer a couple.
‘As soon as Nicky and I split up I wished I hadn’t, and yes, I continued to regret it. I thought: “That was a drastic decision.” But I’d made it when I was vulnerable and you have to live with your choices.
‘Success is not looking back. That’s my mantra.
‘Do I still regret now?’ She sighs heavily. ‘It was such a long time ago . . .’ is all she says.
‘After we separated I bought the house down the road for Nicky to live in. I know it’s very unusual but we kept everything in joint names.
‘We continued to have a shared bank account and the houses were owned by both of us. We shared all the bills. Right up until a couple of years ago everything belonged to both of us. And until only a few Christmases ago we continued to buy each other presents. Nicky gave me a beautiful Cartier diamond watch for my 50th.
Nicky Clarke and then wife Lesley Clarke. The pair have two grown-up children together — Harrison, 33, and Tellisa, 31
‘Over the years he’s given me lots of jewellery; diamonds, bracelets from Tiffany. He’s a very generous person.
‘And I’ve given him art works, sculptures, a Harley-Davidson motorbike. All sorts of things since we separated. Then a couple of years ago I said, “It’s silly. Let’s not do presents any more”.’
So now she is selling the glorious house they’ve co-owned for all these years and they are both finally extricated from the complicated web of their shared personal finances. I wonder, was the decision prompted by Nicky’s relationship with his current partner — Kelly Simpkin, 37 — whom he met in their Mayfair salon when she was a junior stylist?
And is Lesley selling her home because she finds its proximity to Nicky’s menage — he and Kelly have a one-year-old daughter CeCee as well as Nico — just too close for comfort?
Nicky pictured at his former home with then wife Lesley, who helped build their business from scratch
She insists not, on both counts, although a froideur descends when she talks about Kelly. Does she see her socially? ‘Umm no,’ she says. ‘She came to Harrison’s wedding but I just said, “Hello”. I hardly have anything in common with her. There’s a 30-year age gap!
‘If I see her in the street I say hello. I don’t feel awkward. Why would I? I honestly don’t give her a second thought.
‘I don’t even remember her from the salon. She was just one of the juniors. I mean, I had a salon manager and I don’t get involved with the juniors.’
I ask if it is galling for Lesley that Kelly has stepped into a life of comfort and luxury that Lesley, a milkman’s daughter with a keen eye for figures and a relentless work ethic, helped build from scratch.
Lesley says she doesn’t work with Kelly, and doesn’t give her a second thought as she was a salon junior
She deflects the question. ‘I like working. Kelly doesn’t work in our business. I have no idea what she does,’ she says.
‘I always earned my money and couldn’t imagine not being independent.’
We talk a bit about grandchildren and although she adores her two, Lesley admits: ‘I love looking after them but it’s nice to come home to some peace and quiet. After a day with them, at my age, you’re exhausted.’
I point out that Nicky, embarking on parenthood for a second time round in his sixties, must be permanently shattered. ‘More fool him,’ she smiles. ‘I know how tired I get looking after little ones.
‘But he’s made his bed. We make choices in life and we have to own them.’ She insists that her decision to sell her vast and elegant six-bedroom house is merely practical. ‘Look at the size of it!’ she says, gesturing round the ballroom-sized drawing room with its white grand piano (once owned by U.S. singer Neil Sedaka), sprawling sofas and carefully edited antiques.
Lesley getting her make up done by Oonagh Connor, hair is Tito at Nicky Clarke, Styling Emily Monckton
‘It’s just me here and it’s too much. I very seldom even use this room. So I want a smaller house on just two levels, with an annexe where my elderly mum and dad can come and stay.
‘Perhaps a manor house in Essex with a beautiful walled garden, in a village with a pub and church with a church hall where I could go to yoga classes.’ ‘You’d go to yoga in a church hall?’ ‘Why not?’ she laughs. ‘I like simple pleasures. These are just trappings.’
Lesley also wants to be close to Harrison, who works in corporate finance — and is dad to Casper, three and one-year-old Felix — and is about to up sticks and move with wife Rhian to rural Essex. Meanwhile, daughter Tellisa, a banker, had her June wedding postponed by Covid.
‘But she’s virtually planned when she’s having a baby on a spreadsheet and she’ll come and live with me for a year when it’s born. So I thought: “I hardly ever go out in London so what’s the point in staying here?” I’m ready for the next stage of my life.’
Lesley with brunette locks, attends a Children In Need recording with then husband Nick in November 2005
But there won’t be any diminution of her role in the business, which has garnered a veritable Who’s Who of clients over the years including Elizabeth Taylor, Kate Moss, Brad Pitt, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher.
Nicky, who commands around £600 for a haircut, works two or three days a week now, but Lesley, at an age when most women are dialling down, is ramping up.
She remains a powerhouse of energy, elegant and youthful; her post-lockdown hair a glorious confection of honeyed blonde and chestnut.
‘After lockdown I had that much grey,’ she cries, indicating a swathe the size of a hand-span. ‘I asked my stylist, Tito, if I should go completely grey and he said, “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re not an old woman. You’d hate it”.’
Lesley’s responsibilities as CEO include everything from liaising with salon managers to controlling finances and accounts, plus overseeing packaging, design and sales of the Nicky Clarke range of styling tools.
‘And I’m the one dealing with the Covid crisis because I’m more equipped to do so than Nicky. He’s a hairdresser!’ she cries.
‘I was in the Mayfair salon at midnight the day before we re-opened, sticking social distancing notices on the floor. Nicky was there videoing me so the staff could see how it’s done.’
If all that were not enough, she has just launched her own brand of paraben-and-sulphate free hair products, Azure by Planet Friendly Beauty, formulated to be gentle to sensitive scalps like her own. The packaging is plastic-free, too.
‘It’s my first foray into my own products,’ she says. ‘It’s nerve-racking! Nicky’s endorsing them. But he’d be honest with me if they were rubbish and wouldn’t have staked his reputation on them if he didn’t rate them.’
Nicky and Lesley do business from their London studio. Lesley says she has had botox but it gave her a headache and she doesn’t think she’ll try it again
One thing is eminently clear. She and Nicky share not only a mutual fondness, but a respect for each other. ‘I care a lot about him and want him to be happy,’ she says, confiding that he came to her when, two years ago, he discovered he had thyroid cancer. ‘I was one of the first people he told,’ she says. ‘He came to see me and said, “I have some bad news. I have a thyroid problem and they’ve done a biopsy. There’s a tiny amount of cancer there”.
‘My heart went out to him, of course — I’ve known him for 39 years, and he’s my children’s father. But he took it all in his stride. They cut the cancer out and I don’t think he even needed radiotherapy, just some medication.’ Nicky also broke both hands when he fell off his scooter the same year, but Lesley quashes the rumour that his magic mitts are insured for £1 million. ‘They’re not. We’ve had some kind of insurance for years but not specifically for his hands,’ she says.
‘He couldn’t cut hair when they were in plaster and I don’t think he drives a scooter any more. I saw him cycling past the house the other day so I guess he now rides a bicycle.
‘At least he has the decency to wear normal clothes. He’s not a Lycra lout. Stupid men! Where do they think they are? On the Tour de France?’
She concedes that the perennially boyish Nicky looks youthful for his age: ‘And he hasn’t had any work done. He’s got a good head of hair and he dyes it. I’ve only ever known him as blond, but he’s a redhead really. And I imagine he tints his eyebrows because they’re really very fair.’
Of her own beauty regimen, she says she is full of good intentions that rarely materialise: ‘I’m the laziest person. I don’t have any skincare secrets!’ she cries.
‘Actually all I use is rosacea cream (to combat redness.)’ Her skin looks flawless from where I’m sitting, but intervention has been minimal, she insists. ‘I had a bit of Botox and filler for Harrison’s wedding but it wasn’t a success. I felt a bit weird.
‘I got a really bad headache after the Botox. I don’t think I’ll do it again. I’d like a tummy tuck but my kids would kill me if I had a general anaesthetic at my age. It’s not wise.’
Ah, the passing years. Nicky, who had a series of relationships after he and Lesley separated, seems to have settled into domesticity with Kelly — they have been together for 11 years. If Lesley is surprised by the longevity of the relationship she isn’t saying.
‘Nicky was quite ill a few years ago with a cyst on his liver and the children and I were very worried. I think illness makes you reassess your life,’ is how she explains it.
‘Four years ago I was in hospital for 21 days with pneumonia and heart problems. After that I made sure I only do things I want to do. I don’t go to many functions any more. I’ve become a bit reclusive.
‘You evolve and change, don’t you? I’ve calmed down. In the evening I like to stay in, cook, do some dressmaking; watch TV.
‘Covid has made us all reassess our lives, as well. And it’s taught us we’re not invincible.’
The pandemic has also had a huge impact on trade in their London salon. ‘It’s dropped by 60 per cent, which is scary. It isn’t just us. Restaurants, hotels . . . they’re all closed.
‘Immediately after lockdown lifted it was crazy. We were working seven days a week, but now it’s all calmed down. The congestion charge doesn’t help.
‘And we have a lot of clients who fly in from Europe and Dubai and they’re not travelling now.
‘I’m hoping now schools have gone back it will help. But it’s perilous at the moment. Not for Nicky and me, but for our staff who work on commission.’
The slowdown in business has not influenced her decision to sell her home — business and personal finances are entirely separate; she and Nicky have not been rendered financially vulnerable by the pandemic. It is, she insists, just time to scale down and ‘give some money to the kids’.
Three years ago, following an interview with Lesley, I revealed that she and Nicky — despite the widespread belief that they were married (even their children assumed they were) — had never actually tied the knot.
So I ask her now: is there a man in her life? ‘I haven’t been in a relationship for four years,’ she says. ‘I was, but we just decided it wasn’t working.
‘I can’t imagine having anyone living in my house full-time. I haven’t lived with anyone since Nicky and I don’t think I could.
‘A man of my age just wants home comforts and I’m not sure I could offer that. I don’t want to be a housewife. So I’ll just stay a spinster!’ She shrieks with laughter. ‘Getting married? It’s such a bizarre thought. So alien. I can’t imagine it!
‘But weirder things have happened, haven’t they? Just look at Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch. Power is an aphrodisiac, isn’t it?’