So here I am with Lady Colin Campbell in a former council estate in Worthing, helping her load a decidedly grubby £40 second-hand washing machine into her car. Well, to be strictly accurate, the royal author, turned I’m A Celebrity phenomenon, is watching me lifting said washing machine. But later back at the castle, dressed in jeans, stroking her dog and chatting away cheerily cradling a cup of tea emblazoned (I think self-mockingly) with the motif “Her Ladyship”, she is hardly recognisable as the fearsome, grand dragon presented by Ant and Dec.
I realise this is a controversial statement, but I have always liked “Lady C”, as television stardom has re-christened her. I first met the new chatelaine of Castle Goring more than a decade ago, and have never been bitten by the venom which had her jungle-mates scurrying to the TV interview hut for a long cry. Yes, our Georgie can be direct and even a bit of a snob, though I suspect no worse than most of her cast and class from what was then the colony of Jamaica.
She has led quite a life: raised as a boy; told to kill herself by her father for the supposed honour of her family; schooled in New York and a successful modelling career; marriage to the Duke of Argyll’s younger brother who later denounced her as “Boy George”; connections to some of the grandest figures in Europe; biographer of her chum Princess Diana; reality TV star; art collector; and castle restorer; here she is in Sussex Style – exclusively telling us the tale.
“I dumped a Texan billionaire who flew over once to propose marriage over dinner at Wilton’s,” she says at one point, her opening conversational salvo always commanding your interest. “But as he proposed I noticed he had ordered his chauffeur to wait in the car. I realised if that was how he treated his staff, that would be how he would treat his wife.”
It didn’t always come across on television, but she is invariably amusing, mostly intentionally. When I ask how many bedrooms the castle has, she looks blank: “I don’t know, I’ve never counted.” Similarly: “What really appealed to me about this place was that it was quite small,” she announces on my tour of the Grade 1 Listed castle, wafting a hand at a “state room” or the suite where Queen Victoria would stay. When I raise a quizzical eyebrow she gives me a gentle shove and says: “You know what I mean, compared to some of the places we have stayed. Compared to the château.” Only Lady Colin Campbell could move into a castle and present it as an act of downsizing. But leaving her place in France was a necessary sacrifice because: “I ended up hating the French, they were passively and aggressively unfriendly, turning their backs on you in shops.”
In 2013 she found this then derelict Sussex castle – once home to the romantic poet Shelley – on the front of The Sunday Times magazine under the enticing headline “this could be yours for £500,000 plus”. Contrary to popular belief that aristos are feckless, those who have survived have an almost ancestral nose for a bargain, and Georgie’s nostrils were twitching, so she immediately “beetled down” for a squiz. “I went round with my beady eye and worked out how much it would cost to do.”
As she says: “It was the £500,000 which gets you, it is the “plus” which kills you.” Reports suggest she finally paid £700,000; all she will say is “the price wasn’t as right as I would have liked.” She takes me up on the roof which has been completely replaced and you quickly see why the estimated £2 million repair bill looks like an understatement. Hence her improbable appearance on I’m A Celebrity (“whoring for Goring” as she puts it).
She had a delightful house in Chelsea I have visited where there was scarcely enough space for her collection of modern British art, but she wanted a country house for her and her two Russian sons, Misha and Dima, who she adopted in 1993. “I also needed a pension,” she says honestly. So Castle Goring, as well as being her Sussex retreat (she retains a pad in town) is now available for wedding hire. With a sweeping spiral staircase below a magnificent glass dome, leading from its own chapel with wonderful restored frescos, any bride would surely be swept away.
But the castle, which was on the “at risk” register, has been a monster restoration – her factotum, an under-employed hairdresser now doing odd jobs round the castle, recalls how in childhood he would run round Shelley’s crumbling mausoleum which afforded a view of the stars through the roof.
“It was propped up with scaffolding,” Lady C recalls. “The planners were very exacting. No steel beams were allowed, it had to be the right type of oak.”
Much work has been done, but looking at missing chunks of plaster, and a room of (admittedly magnificent) 18th century Spanish pressed leather wall-coverings, I ask when it will be finished.
“It is finished,” she declares, and her look would brook no argument, even from Duncan Bannatyne, her I’m A Celebrity nemesis. Ditto when she announces that her two biggest wedding rivals are Kent’s Hever and Leeds Castles, two of the world’s finest.
She lives in a flat upstairs, messy but magnificent, full of clutter and art with her beloved spaniel Totty rampaging over the sofas. Downstairs is grand as grand, though very much with the Lady C twist, such as a pair of vibrant John Bratby oils featuring smirking, topless women. While the TV series will show her at “Lady C’s ball” holding court in these “state rooms”, I ask if the novelty of living so formally in this part of the castle has worn off. “It never wore on,” she smiles.
It is unclear what Shelley would have made of all the improvements – the butler’s pantry has become the gents, complete with urinals, at which Lady C helpfully gives a mock demonstration on how to use, complete with ribald remarks about the size of male genitalia.
The recent ball held here was mainly for the benefit of the TV production company, accommodating 140 guests for dinner, another 140 after. She says many friends who had seen it for the first time admitted it had been done beautifully. “Even my two duty guests, who I will not name as I think you might know them, left off the bitching and admitted it looked wonderful. It feels a very happy place.”
Not that it was always so. Built by Shelley’s grandfather, the first baronet Sir Bysshe Shelley, Goring was to be inherited by Shelley but he drowned in Italy aged just 29. Already the castle had been at the centre of scandal and tragedy when his then wife Harriet committed suicide over his affair with Mary. Shelley and Mary famously married and spent a summer with Lord Byron. But after Shelley’s death, the heartbroken Mary sold the castle – not before having the idea for Frankenstein, and on stormy castle nights you can imagine how the gothic towers could have provided spooky inspiration. All of which Lady C, who endured her own scandalous marriage and separation, tells with glee and gusto.
The castle, like its owner, can present two faces. The front is neo-Gothic, perhaps to imitate nearby Arundel Castle, the back Palladian. English Heritage has described it as the most complete remaining example of the “carnival style” of the period.
Mary sold the pile to the Liberal MP for Brighton, Sir George Brooke-Pechell, fourth Baronet. When Victoria came to stay at then fashionable Worthing, Sir George was turfed out of his commodious bedroom to accommodate his monarch. Lady C has placed a bust of Queen Vic in the bedroom, which could put some newlyweds off their stroke.
For all the grandeur – much of it exaggerated by TV executives who wouldn’t recognise blue blood if they were swimming in it – Lady C was born Georgia Ziadie in Jamaica in 1949, the daughter of a prominent merchant who had emigrated from Lebanon in the early 20th century. Due to a genital malformation (a fused labia and deformed clitoris) she was assumed to be male, and christened George William.
She did not undergo corrective surgery until she was 21, when her grandmother gave her £5,000 for
the operation. “No-one ever faced the knife more eagerly than I,” she says. “You would have thought I was going on a wonderful cruise – which, in a way, I suppose I was.”
She married Lord Colin Ivar Campbell in 1974, younger son of the 11th Duke of Argyll, having known him for just five days.
“He had the strongest personality of anyone I had ever met,” she says. “He simply exuded strength, decisiveness and charm.” However, their relationship soured as swiftly as it had sweetened, and she dumped him after nine months, citing his abusiveness and alleged drug addiction.
She sued, successfully, several rags which claimed she was born a boy and had undergone a sex change, and accused her ex-husband of peddling these untrue stories for money. It is an allegation she sticks to.
Relations with her ex-husband remain non-existent. He reports that he apologised to Prince Charles for her 1992 biography Diana in Private: The Princess Nobody Knows, a New York Times bestseller, though some of her allegations were certainly vindicated, notably that the princess had enjoyed an affair with “the cad” James Hewitt and that she suffered from bulimia.
“It is important that a husband loves his mother, because there is transference which goes on later, and if he hates his mother, he will hate his wife. My husband hated his mother, because she was evidently very unkind to him, and preferred his brother Ian because he was going to be the duke.”
She declares herself single apart from a gay male friend shlls “my gusband”, and insists it is a relief that “the biological imperative has faded”. Nevertheless, she is an incorrigible flirt, so when she changes into a green ball gown she asks our (gay) publisher whether this might convert him. Similarly, she announces to me: “I could marry you, are you married? Would you like an older woman?” Perhaps it is more that she has that unsentimental upper class view of sex. She shows me a downstairs room with a day bed, and says “handy for the bridesmaids to get off with the groom.”
When we reach her sons’ bedrooms and the den they are building, complete with bar, I remark that it is the perfect setting for roistering. “The boys can do what they like as long as they go into Battle with helmets.” Assuming she is referring to the Sussex town near Hastings, I remark “so you are happy for them to ride motorbikes?”
“No,” she shakes her head indulgently “I meant I didn’t want them to catch aids.” Helmets, evidently, are condoms.
Similarly, she jokes how she wants wedding guests to attend a confessional in the chapel, and for the “fabulously sexy, naughty stories” to be recorded and played back at the wedding breakfast.
By awkward quirk of fate, a big poster on the busy A27 outside the castle advertises Tony Hadley in concert nearby; Lady C, one suspects, will be otherwise engaged that night: she and the Spandau Ballet front-man were never destined to be soul-mates.
How does she look back on her time in the Jungle? “I hated the self-congratulation,” she says of certain celebrities. “They didn’t ever seem to exchange an idea. I had been so exhausted doing up the castle, I used it as a time to relax. At least no-one was able to bother me about the building work. So I just let them witter on.” Well, not exactly: many was the time that a reality TV star found themselves on the wrong side of an aristocratic tongue-lashing.
“I was transfixed by them,” she continues. But, I suggest, the woman I know a little (not well) seems so at odds with the viper shown on TV. “I have never watched it so I can’t comment,” she says. “I believe they edited very considerably. None of the provocation was shown. At the after show party Duncan Bannatyne actually stamped on my foot, but no-one saw that. He is on a different planet, the man is unbelievable.”
Still, it doesn’t explain entirely the completely different faces of Lady C. And now she comes the nearest we will ever perhaps come to an apology, or at least an explanation. “I had hurt my back very badly and was in a lot of pain. I had tripped on a shoelace.
“I am normally very polite, but when I need to put people in their place I am very good at it. I would never pander to jerks.”
You don’t go through the very public opprobrium she has without being steely, and this is shown when she discusses leaving the show. “I only left when I knew I was not going to forfeit one farthing of my fee. I was not going to have people deny me it.
She says she rather liked the younger women on the show. “All were in the entertainment industry, in the loosest sense of the word. In some cases, feet to ceiling…” and she tilts back on the sofa.
I ask what she made of Ant and Dec: is their apparent niceness genuine? “I suppose they are nice, I got to know the wives too, and their friendship seems true, though as my son remarked they are like an old-fashioned couple: when not on camera, one goes north, the other south.”
I ask what grander friends made of her entering the jungle of reality TV. “Everyone said ‘how can you go on that frightful programme with frightful people?’, yet all but that one said afterwards ‘gosh Georgie, didn’t you do well?’”
Even on the more egalitarian streets of Britain, there seems no animosity towards her. When we go to the estate (ex-council, not the castle’s) and we ring first on the wrong door, the occupier – a well built woman in need of a good dentist – looks stunned to
see Lady C on her doorstep, but is so polite she almost curtseys.
Lady C is a recognisable phenomenon and is even cheered. “Many thousands of people have stopped me and say ‘well done for standing up for yourself and for women, we could see what was going on.’
Not one person has made a negative comment.”
She admits she is open to offers for more reality TV, if the price is right. But she is no fool, and she must seek more than that. “I would like to enjoy my life more. Pretty much most of it hasn’t been enjoyable. There have been too many feuds and struggles.”
But would she really have enjoyed a quiet country life, married to some dull toff? “Life in the country and no-one would have heard of me? That is the life I would have had, like my sister. But I married someone so unpredictable, with him and his
brother’s propensity to sell stories about me. I was meant to cough up my father’s money. It was all very distasteful, frankly.”
All that, though, is over the drawbridge of a life flown past. Both sides have washed their laundry in public, so perhaps it was appropriate she bought that washing machine. If her destiny at Inveraray Castle with the Argylls was denied her, she has reclaimed a grand identity, albeit in rather cartoon form: aristos and council house dwellers alike can argue about her behaviour, but the last laugh surely belongs to the lady in the castle.
At home with “Lady C”, late of the jungle, now of Castle Goring in Sussex. The aristo turned reality star is to appear in an ITV series about her new life on the ramparts. Lady Colin Campbell invites Jasper Gerard for an exclusive audience. Photographs Emma Jane Lee