Twenty-five-year-old British model Heather Mills, just back from a trip to help war victims in Bosnia, was strolling with her boyfriend near London’s Kensington Palace in August 1993, when several police cars raced by with lights blazing. Later she learned a false security alarm at Princess Diana’s apartment had caused the ruckus. Believing the street was clear, despite her inability to see around a waiting doubledecker bus, Mills stepped off the curb. “Suddenly this police motorcycle comes out of nowhere,” she recalls. “I fly one way and my leg goes the other way.”
When she woke up in the hospital 48 hours later, Mills was confronted with a punctured lung, a fractured pelvis and the grim reality that her left leg had been severed just below the knee. It was ironic, she recalls thinking—she had just risked the dangers of a war zone only to come close to death back home. “I thought my modeling career was over,” Mills, 31, says today. Still, she was determined to find some good in her tragedy.
Almost a year later she did just that, founding the Heather Mills Health Trust to recycle artificial limbs to amputees in nations from Croatia to Cambodia. Months before starting the trust she had been surprised to learn that an amputee’s residual limb can take years to heal. As a result, a prosthesis may fit for only a brief time. Mills had to replace her first artificial leg (advertised in the Yellow Pages and bought for $1800) after just five weeks; she was told the hospital intended to discard it.
So Mills came up with a better idea. Having met dozens of people who had lost legs to land mines in Bosnia, she began working the phone, enlisting the help of charities and making her pitch on talk shows to lobby initially reluctant hospitals to donate their used prostheses. In November 1994, Mills accompanied two trucks loaded with 5,000 artificial limbs and 500 wheelchairs to Zagreb. It was the first of many shipments to Croatia and other war-torn lands. To date, 27,000 people have received recycled limbs through her charity. “She managed with extraordinary resilience to turn her misfortune into a powerful vehicle for helping others,” says Andrija Kojakovi?, the Croatian ambassador to Great Britain.
Mills is no stranger to hardship. The middle child of three, she says she felt “very old” growing up near Newcastle in northern England. Her father, Mark, 58, a former military man, “was totally intense and aggressive,” she recalls. Her late mother, Beatrice, was a psychologist who left her husband and children for another man when Mills was 9. “I got involved in running the family,” Mills says. “We just had each other.”
Times got tougher still after her father’s various business ventures failed. “He’d give us a pound and tell us to get dinner for everybody,” says Mills. “I ended up stealing food.” When her father was imprisoned for fraud in 1981, Mills and her sister went to live with their mother in London, while her brother moved in with their grandmother. Unable to get along with her mother’s beau, Mills ran away, scraping by on odd jobs and even living for a brief time under a bridge.
Her fortunes changed when, at 17, she met Alfie Karmal, now a computer company executive, at a nightclub. They wed in 1989. Karmal encouraged Mills to model and, after some early rejections, she landed her first job, as a showroom model. By 21, she had started her own small agency. The business thrived, but not her marriage. Mills and Karmal divorced in 1991; by then she was already living with a ski instructor in Slovenia. During fighting in nearby Croatia, a friend was killed, and Mills returned home to gather supplies for refugees.
These days, Mills takes her injury in stride, spending her free time near her London loft dancing, in-line skating and playing tennis. Her career remains strong—she recently landed a three-year, $1 million contract with an Italian cosmetics company. There’s still one hurdle, though. Owner of five different prostheses, including one shaped for stiletto heels, Mills says, smiling, “It’s a nightmare when I travel. I show up at the airport with a suitcase full of legs and I’m always over the limit.”
Joanna Blonska in London