Interview: Vanessa Perroncel
In January, it was "revealed" that the England captain John Terry had had an affair with a team-mate's ex-girlfriend. But nothing was heard from the woman at the centre of the scandal, Vanessa Perroncel. Here, the 34-year-old mother finally sets out her (very different) side of the story
Vanessa Perroncel – the woman at the centre of the sex scandal that lost footballer John Terry the captaincy of the England team and kick-started a bumper year of celebrity infidelity splashes – has always denied the affair.
In September 2009, the 34-year-old, routinely described as "glamorous brunette French lingerie model Vanessa Perroncel", says that a long-standing friendship with Chelsea defender Terry did not develop into a sexual relationship. This would suggest that Terry (who was, and who remains, married to Toni Poole) and Perroncel (who at the time of the alleged affair had recently split from fellow England footballer Wayne Bridge, father of her three-year-old son Jaydon and former team-mate of Terry's) did not meet twice a week for sex at Perroncel's £2m, five-bedroom mock Georgian house in Oxshott, Surrey (as was breathlessly reported in the News of the World on 31 January this year). It would also mean that Perroncel did not become pregnant and did not have an abortion at a private London clinic, arranged and paid for by Terry. It would mean that Terry didn't give Perroncel £20,000 after the procedure so that she might "cheer herself up".
There is no reason not to believe Perroncel. Evidence for the affair comes from journalists with a vested interest in it being true, from a number of nameless, faceless and unsubstantiated sources (ah, the unimpeachable credibility of the anonymous "close friend"). It also comes in the context of the super injunction Terry sought, and then lost, in January, which prevented the press from reporting the allegations.
Why did he do that if there was nothing to hide, I ask Perroncel. "I don't know!" she says. She is exasperated. "No one asked me whether or not I thought it was the right thing to do. If they had, I'd have said no. Let them publish it, then sue. I suppose they were worried about negative press about John Terry."
We know Perroncel did not "tout her story round Fleet Street – for a figure in excess of £250,000" (Daily Mail, 4 February). No Perroncel-authored tabloid "tell all" ever ran. We also know Terry did not buy Perroncel's silence for figures estimated to be anything from £400,000 (Times) to £800,000 (Evening Standard). We know this because she's agreed to talk to the Observer, for a sum of precisely £0. So Vanessa Perroncel is the girl who didn't kiss and didn't tell – and got trashed in the tabloids anyway.
For the first three months of this year, Perroncel was ripped apart by the press. Her reputation was destroyed, her public profile one of the most tarnished in the country. Journalists delved deep into her sexual history, running stories based on rumour. They printed satellite images of her home and maps of where and how she might be found. They raked up the details of her parents' divorce, and her father's suicide. "There is a word the French use for women like Vanessa Perroncel," wrote the Mail in an "examination" of Perroncel which ran in early February. "The word is effronte, and it means barefaced or shameless."
"Vanessa Perroncel is a she-devil in John Terry's dirty game," Sue Carroll wrote in the Mirror on 23 February. She was a "maneater", a "football groupie". She was "money-hungry" and "gagging for it". Claims that Perroncel had slept with five members of Chelsea surfaced; one red-top paper printed a team photograph and circled the men concerned in marker pen. "Maybe she'll make it a full 11 by the weekend?" the Mail wondered. When anyone reported Perroncel's denials of relationships with anyone other than Bridge – which occasionally, they did – those anonymous sources piped up. "To say she's a Chelsea girl is a bit of an understatement. By the time she got to John Terry, she'd achieved her own five-a-side football team,'" said one particular unidentified "close friend", choosing to speak in a tabloid-ready soundbite.
"A prostitute. Gold digger. Slut," Perroncel says, wearily. It's now early August, just over six months since the scandal first broke; a couple of days before news of Peter Crouch's alleged sexual transgressions makes the front pages, ensuring the Terry scandal is invoked once again. "There was a joke going round. It was: 'What does Vanessa Perroncel say after sex?'" A bitter pause, before the punchline. "'So do you all play for the same team?'" She laughs, angrily.
Perroncel has agreed to talk to us because she wants her version of the truth to be in circulation "before my son is old enough to read any of these other stories". She wants to raise her profile as a human being in the hope that the pantomime scarlet woman version propagated by elements of the media might be diminished. She is suing everyone who ever published an especially unpleasant story about her. Perroncel and her lawyer, Charlotte Harris, sifted through the press clippings, ordered them in terms of the most offensive, most damaging and most outrageous, and began addressing them, one by one. "I felt better when I started the legal action," she says. But beyond that, she has to find ways to move on, to redefine herself; and interviews like this are, perhaps, a starting point.
So we meet. I'm fascinated to see Perroncel in the flesh. I followed the story at the beginning of this year, along with everyone else, and though I was annoyed at her treatment (so typical, I thought, to vilify the woman), I also bought a lot of the received wisdom. I never doubted a relationship had happened, or that cash had been paid in exchange for her silence. It wasn't until I started researching in advance of this interview that I realised Perroncel had consistently denied the affair.
I watch her pose for pictures: she is reserved, circumspect, compliant, a good model. She is, of course, physically lovely. If Perroncel hadn't been quite so gorgeous, in quite such an aloof and unattainable way, she wouldn't have been such excellent paparazzi fodder; nor would she have been so easy to dislike on principle. Beyond that she is cautious, considered, smart. Her English is extremely good. She has a baccalaureate in philosophy and languages, so perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. She says "at the end of the day" a little too often, but apart from that, she is cliché-confoundingly eloquent.
There's a toughness to her. I ask her if she felt vulnerable in the early stages of her scandal, when her home was besieged by journalists "buzzing, buzzing, always buzzing on the door!". She says, coolly, "Vulnerable – it's not a word I use about myself. It's not really my character." She's not without humour. She tells me she fantasises about blowing up the offices of the News of the World, and describes herself wearing a hard hat and grinning cheesily for photographers as she plunges the cartoonish charge on a detonator. But she is also brittle, defensive and incredibly angry. A bassline of fury pulses through Perroncel. "I do rant, sometimes," she says, and her eyes glint with something very raw and very dark.
She was born in Bandol in the south of France in 1976; her parents divorced when she was five and she moved to Paris with her mother. She worked as a model in Paris in the 1990s – she was scouted as a teenager – and she enjoyed it although, "I didn't like it when we were expected to have dinner with older men…" She is referring to the industry executives, photographers and money men who can assume that socialising with the beautiful young clothes horses in their employ is a perk of the position. "It seemed exploiting and I saw the drugs and the sex… I didn't like it. I was always causing a drama about it, threatening to leave my agency! Ranting about why do I have to spend time with these fat, ugly, old men! When I wanted to be off out with my friends and the male models my own age!"
She acted a little ("in TV programmes like the French version of Saved by the Bell") and spent the summers working in expensive night clubs in St Tropez. "There was a scene, we were a close group; they were my friends and we looked out for each other." When she moved to London, in 1999, she modelled some more; in 2003 she took up a job as a VIP table runner at the Elysium nightclub in central London: a glam, upmarket venue that attracted a footballer clientele, among other VIPs.
This is how she met Wayne Bridge in 2004, "when I was working, by the way, because I wanted to earn extra money, not because I was plotting to meet a footballer. Not because I was studying the back pages for fixture lists and transfer lists or any of this crap the papers made up. There are girls who do that, yes. I am not one of them." I hadn't suggested otherwise, but you can forgive Perroncel if she gets preemptively defensive from time to time.
Perroncel and Bridge never married, but they were together for five years, during which time she gave birth to Jaydon. In the grand scheme of these things, theirs was a low-key life.
"Wayne was private, I am private; we never did any magazine deals, never had anyone take pictures in our house. I never did the whole: 'Oh! Here I am pregnant' thing," she says. Perroncel turns to one side, strokes her hand over an imaginary belly and smiles an empty Hello! magazine-friendly smile.
Perroncel encountered some of the press frenzy associated with footballers and Wag culture during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. She was papped shopping in Baden-Baden with Elen Rives (ex-girlfriend of Frank Lampard and mother of his two daughters); she read a couple of erroneous reports about her own movements. "But then it was just: Wayne and Vanessa were spotted in such and such a restaurant, when really we were somewhere else. So it was not true, but…"
In January 2009, Bridge transferred from Chelsea to Manchester City. He, Perroncel and Jaydon shared a suite in a Manchester hotel while they looked for a more permanent base; after six months, Perroncel took Jaydon back to Oxshott. Their relationship floundered, then ended. She was miserable. "I loved him. I wanted the happy-ever-after, the fairy tale. My parents' divorce was awful, this was not what I wanted for my son."
As Perroncel tells it, John Terry offered support in the weeks and months following her break-up from Bridge. Terry had been close to the couple; Bridge and Terry were said to be best friends at Chelsea. She says he thought he knew how they might salvage the relationship. Perroncel, who was still very much in love with Bridge, met with him and listened to his advice. "It was based on good intentions. It was a friendship," she says.
A News of the World journalist spotted Terry visiting Perroncel at home. A series of unpleasant tabloid stories concerning Terry had run over proceeding months: stories about his father supplying cocaine, stories accusing Terry of selling private tours around the Chelsea complex. But until that point there had been nothing of a sexual nature. "I suppose they wanted a 'John Terry in kinky sex' story," she says.
What was the first you knew of it?
"When my ex [Bridge] rang me up and said: 'There's a journalist outside my house. He says you've had an affair with another footballer.' He didn't know who. A few minutes later, he rang back: 'It's John.'"
Perroncel was perplexed, panicked, upset.
"I said: 'It's not true!'"
Which it really wasn't?
Terry was never anything more than a friend?
Your relationship with him was never physical?
Perroncel looks directly at me. She looks cold and hard and exhausted by repeating it while wondering if anyone will ever believe her. She takes a steadying breath.
"No," she says.
In the latter stages of January 2010, Terry applied for and got the super injunction; it was overturned within 10 days by high court judge Mr Justice Tugendhat who said, damningly, that: "The nub of the applicant's complaint is to protect his reputation, in particular with sponsors."
From then on, the salacious tabloid splashes – the revelations and investigations and thoughts and theories of all those close friends – came thick and fast. "More and more every day! I couldn't keep up!" Did she read them? "You try not to, but… you hear about them anyway, from other people."
What was the worst thing she read about herself?
"All of them! All of them! And you get to the point where you don't even know which of the lies to correct first. Or who you even ring up! There were so many, and they were so random! Or part true, which was worse. For example: well, yes, you're right, my father did commit suicide! But you're wrong about him gassing himself…"
The day after the story first broke, when Perroncel was reeling and shocked and besieged by members of the press, she asked Max Clifford for help.
Clifford issued a statement of denial on Perroncel's behalf ("although, of course, when you say, 'John Terry is a friend', the press go: 'Oh yeah! We know what kind of friend!'" says Clifford), and agreed to do his very best to advise her and guide her and arm her against what he describes as the "excesses of the press".
It's been an exceptional year for sex scandals. From Tiger to Terry to Vernon Kaye's texts. From Ronan Keating's dancer to Mark Owen's dancer to Peter Crouch's £800 hooker. No Sunday has been complete without another newspaper revelation. Sex scandals are Max Clifford's forte, his gift to contemporary British culture. All the best sex scandals are stage-managed by Clifford.
"Although these days," he tells me on a crackly phone line, as he speeds about some part of the country or other, "my job is much more about protection than promotion. It's 90% protecting people like Vanessa. For every story I broker, there's 10 I stop from coming out, because I know they [the individual] can't handle it. I'll tell them they can't handle it."
You assess the characters of everyone you work with and advise them to speak out or keep quiet?
"Absolutely right! My job is not only working out what they want, but the kind of people they are. So you've got… Antonia de Sancha who hated everything about the David Mellor situation; still does. Whereas Lady Bienvenida Buck, who had an affair with Sir Peter Harding, loved every minute of it! Made a career out of it! And Rebecca Loos [alleged former mistress of David Beckham]… Rebecca loved it! Absolutely loved it! Had a very good year working, television, off the back of it. Quite apart from making £1m! It suited her. She was a very strong, opinionated person, very thick-skinned… Suited her down to the ground. You know instinctively from the start which way they're going to go. You can tell from the way they walk into the room, from the clothes they wear."
"There was no question that Vanessa was ever going to talk. It was clear that even if she had had a relationship with John Terry, which she didn't, it would have been totally wrong for her to talk about it. She would have hated the whole thing. Too private. Exactly the same as Francine, the girl who had an affair with Ronan Keating, who came to me a few weeks ago. Everyone is offering hundreds of thousands of pounds. We talked it through. There is no way she should do her story. Everyone knows they had an affair. His wife made it public, he admitted it. But no. She doesn't want to. It's not her. She's coming to see me tomorrow and I'm going to tell her: 'Don't. Concentrate on your dancing. It's not right for you.'"
Yet there's an assumption that all these women have a price and are ultimately out for every penny they can get?
It's horribly sexist.
Does it make you angry, Max, or are you hardened to it?
"Not hardened. More… realistic."
I want to know how the classic British sex scandal unfurls. Is there a procedure, a protocol, a check list that needs to be adhered to?
"Every case is different. But what I do is, I meet them. If I don't like them, I won't work with them. If I do like them, I do it on a handshake. No contracts. Never had a contract. Then: if they want to talk [to the press], I'll tell them: 'OK. Talk to your mum, your big sister, your best friend. Be aware. Think about it very, very carefully.' I'll tell them: short-term gain, long-term pain. If you want a career in television eventually, don't do a kiss and tell. Because no one will work with you. So and so won't trust you, such and such a star won't work with you because they'll think you might sell a story on them, too… If they still want to go ahead, then I will get them the best possible deal. We won't take £50k if it's worth £200k. And I know the rates. I get the rates. Then, we want quote approval. As much control as possible. And before the interview, I'll advise them: 'Don't talk about that, because it comes across as really cheap and nasty. Keep that quiet.'"
If they don't want to talk?
"Then I have to tell them exactly what to expect. Vanessa, like dozens and dozens before her, came to me and said: 'Can you help me?' John was nowhere to be seen. He'd been told by his people, 'Avoid her like the plague, don't talk to her.' She only lives five minutes from me. So I said: 'Come round the house, come and have a chat. Talk it through. She came round and talked, told me what had happened, what hadn't happened…"
She told you there had been no relationship?
"That he had been nothing more than a good friend from the start. That he had come round, but because he knew she was devastated when Wayne walked out on her. He had only ever been a friend to her."
Clifford warned Perroncel the papers would feel thwarted by her refusal to speak, and that they'd become more aggressive as a consequence, and more reliant on gossip and lies. "I told her: 'You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.' I said: 'This is how it will play out' – and it did. I've done it so many times already! Loads and loads of times! I was able to forewarn and forearm her. Although it didn't help. She was having a dreadful time and getting a dreadful time from Wayne, who was being very critical and very nasty. Or, so-called close friends of Wayne…"
What can you say to someone in that situation?
"You're not a criminal. You've done nothing wrong. It will blow over."
I ask him how he makes money out of a situation like Perroncel's – when there are no deals to be brokered and no cut to be taken. He says he doesn't, and it's not the point. "I've got more money than I can spend in a lifetime. I've got a £4m house and a brand-new Bentley. It's not about the money… Vanessa can't afford me anyway."
Clifford is a flash git who has made millions manipulating one of the least seemly functions of the modern media, a vocation he freely admits to loving – but perhaps there's something noble about him, too. I tell him I'm shocked at the wrong that's been done to Perroncel.
"There are so many of them, Polly," he says. "Dozens and dozens."
I am shocked at the wrong that's been done to Vanessa. Whether or not you believe her denials – and oh, it's tempting, isn't it, to keep believing the worst, the most malicious rumours. But Perroncel did not deserve those months of unmitigated trashing. And now it's calmed down for her somewhat, I'm not sure what she's got left. Clifford says it probably would have been better for her if she had slept with Terry. "Take Terry away, and what have you got? No interest. It is going to be very hard for her, building a career. Very hard."
Why you, I ask Perroncel, at the end of our interview.
"Why me? Why me?" she says. "It doesn't do me any good to think: why me?"
"Why do you think me?" she asks.
The fact that you wouldn't speak, wouldn't play the tabloid game, I say. The usual heady mix of misogyny and racism. Plus, I think, there's a celebrity class division at play here. The non-famous women who fall in love with, or are associated with, famous men, are automatically objects of suspicion. Their motives and their morals are questioned; they're considered complicit in any wrong that's done to them. What else did they expect? They knew what they were getting into, etc. It's wrong, but it happens.
"I don't know. Settling up with the newspapers."
You seem like you're on a mission in terms of amassing apologies.
"Ha ha! I am!"
Are you happy?
Can you imagine being happy again?
"No. But – I hope to be."
Did anything good come from this?
What do you want most, now?
"For my son never to read these stories. For Wayne to know the truth."
Wayne Bridge doesn't believe you?
Perroncel looks terribly sad. "I don't… you would hope, wouldn't you, that someone you loved so much would know you better… I loved him very much. I still do. I don't want you to go and write that Vanessa Perroncel wants to get back with Wayne Bridge, but…"
You do want to get back with him?
"I can't imagine being with another man and raising our son with him. It's all a bit… fuzzy."
You aren't in another relationship?
She looks at me as if I'm mad. "Nowhere near it."
We say goodbye and I wish her luck.
The problem with sex scandal culture – quite apart from the issues of privacy and press intrusion and whether or not it's good to feed our collective appetite for the very sordid – is that it will always propagate a horrible notion of women. Not just the women who go out with celebrities, or those who kiss and tell, or those who don't kiss or tell but get caught up in it anyhow; by extension, all of us. The basic nature of women, each and every sex scandal suggests, is always this: cynical and money grabbing, inclined to view their sexuality purely in terms of the financial leverage it offers, lacking in dignity, open to exploitation, never really anything more than the adjunct to a man.
I tell a friend about the interview, about how disturbed I am by her treatment. He listens. He is clever and evolved and not especially bothered about football, but once I finish speaking he says: "Doesn't she feel guilty about Terry losing his captaincy?" Kate Garraway asks Perroncel something similar during a GMTV interview screened the week after I meet her. There is still, it seems, an overwhelming sense that she has done wrong somehow, somewhere along the line; that she has committed some crime. We're extremely attached to that idea as a nation. Yet if anyone should be feeling guilty, it's probably us.
(A/N: I have nothing to say - no judgments, no conclusions - about Vanessa or Terry. Just thought this would be an interesting read.)