United Kingdom

Cara Delevingne's mother Pandora opens up on her battles with heroin and mental illness

Pandora Delevingne doesn’t really have a clue what it is to be pansexual. ‘Nor do I want to,’ she says. ‘I’ve been married to my amazing husband for 37 years, which I think is pretty cool.’

Pandora’s husband is the dashing property developer Charles Delevingne. They have three daughters: Chloe, 35, and Poppy, 34, both married, and their very famous, very cool youngest child, supermodel Cara, 27, who identified as pansexual a few weeks ago, meaning she is attracted to and has relationships with all genders.

Her mother doesn’t pretend to understand. ‘Cara is influenced by her lifestyle,’ she says. ‘They say she’s the top or one of the top models in the world, plus she’s done about eight movies. That changes you. I don’t know what will happen with her sexuality. It goes both ways right now.

Enigmatic: Cara Delevingne, Pandora's daughter, on the catwalk for Victoria’s Secret

‘When she first told us about her being bisexual it gave us a shock. Well, Charles mostly. He’s ten years older than me and very masculine. He couldn’t understand why a girl would like another girl in that way.

‘Cara always brought all shapes, sizes and colours home. Everyone was welcome. We never thought anything of it. I suppose it was the being confronted by his daughter’s sexuality — whatever that might have been — that was hard. He soon got over it. When she won an award for … what was it?

‘Darling,’ she calls to Charles. ‘What was that award Cara won when you went to New York for one night to be there with her at the ceremony?’

‘I can’t remember,’ Charles answers. ‘Some gay thing.’

Pandora rolls her eyes. ‘We’re both extremely proud of her. I actually liked Ashley [Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson] who she’s just given up — really liked her a lot.

‘As long as she’s happy and healthy, that’s what I mind about — health coming first. She’s a wild character — a force of nature. As a child, she only ever wore her blue Chelsea football strip and, if not that, her camouflage outfits. If she’d go to a party I’d say, “come on put this on” — a beautiful smocked dress with lace around the edges.’

‘She’d say, “I’m not going unless I can wear my camouflage outfit.” There was no point arguing. She’s her mother’s daughter that’s for sure.’

Pandora is a thoroughly likeable woman with a quirky humour and an exotic style. When we meet in her Chelsea home the day before she flies to France for a family holiday, she’s wearing voluminous green harem pants and trainers. (‘Most people call me out-of-the-box,’ she confides with a certain pride.)

Candid: Pandora at home this week. She is a recovering addict who was diagnosed with bipolar 30 years ago, which means she suffers manic highs and crashing lows

Now 61, Pandora used to be a ‘rampant crazy girl’ (her words) with a penchant for dancing on tables and generous present giving. ‘The dancing on tables went on for quite a long time until I was about 38 when I thought I was a bit too old,’ she says. She continues to give presents.

Today, she hands me a blue woven friendship bracelet made by the women of Bela Vista. Pandora first visited this impoverished part of Mozambique in 2017. She believes these wise, kind-hearted women who live hand-to-mouth saved her, in a sense.

Pandora is a recovering addict who was diagnosed with bipolar 30 years ago, which means she suffers manic highs and crashing lows. She says for much of her life she was ‘searching, always searching to fill a hole I was never able to fill’.

She was at a retreat in South Africa, suffering with the sort of depression that made her feel death was preferable to life, when she met missionary Theo Classen.

‘He was nice looking which always helps,’ she laughs with a flash of the sense of fun of old. ‘He told me about his work in Bela Vista building houses and helping the amazing vovo women [grandmothers] who look after the children, many of them orphans. I really wanted to meet these people out of curiosity.’

Cara and former girlfriend Ashley Benson. I actually liked Ashley [Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson] who she’s just given up — really liked her a lot', says Pandora

Pandora ventured to this deprived corner of the world, where family life has been shattered by civil war, to find only happiness and gratitude. It was, she says, truly humbling. So much so she is launching the Bela Vista Project, a charity intent on improving the lives of those who live there.

‘I met Vovo Celeste, who had nine children. Seven went off with her husband to war [which ended in 1992], two were left who had motor neurone disease.

‘They hadn’t been outside a single dark room for 13 years, but she was so happy, so grateful — so full of gladness. I was knocked over by that. How the hell could they be grateful for the little they had? Most of them lived in straw houses that are blown away every winter. Their food was, well God knows what they put in the pot.

‘She said, “We live day by day. As long as we can give the children one meal a day we are happy.” Her face radiated gratitude. That had such a profound effect. I thought, “God, Pandora, you’re not grateful for anything. This woman who has nothing, look at her: she’s glad to be alive.”

‘I feel very differently about life now. I was born into privilege — I didn’t have a choice. Now, at the age of 61, having taken and taken all my life — materially and mentally — I’m finally discovering the joy of giving back.’

Pandora is the daughter of the late, colourful publishing magnate Sir Jocelyn Stevens and Janie Sheffield, an It-girl of her time and former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. In short, there are more titles, politicians and feted society beauties in her family tree than berries on a holly bush.

But her childhood was far from idyllic. Her youngest brother, Rupert, was born with cerebral palsy and died aged 25, which troubled Pandora deeply, while her father, a dynamic but hot-tempered man, bewitched and frightened her in equal measure.

‘He was either furious, throwing typewriters out of the window or kicking the sofa or throwing a lamp, or he was charming, charismatic, interesting and intelligent. He had both sides to him. I always wanted to amuse him.’

The girls: Pandora with, from left, Poppy, Cara and Chloe. This is the first time Pandora has spoken with such honesty about her mental health and how it’s affected her family

‘For my 18th birthday, my father gave me dinner at Tramp for 12 people. Much to his amazement, when he walked in to see how it was going, there were 11 men and me. I was wearing a sequin leotard and that was it. He laughed at that.’

But Pandora never truly felt she was enough.

‘I had to try and stop feeling this emptiness I felt inside — this hole,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t fill the hole. I was always searching for something — a drink, a drug, whatever to take me out of myself into being this person who is confident and not nervous or anxious.’

Within weeks of her 18th birthday, Pandora was experimenting with heroin. ‘I had one go and that was it,’ she says. ‘It was the drug for me. It gave me all the things I didn’t have — self-confidence mainly.

‘I sank pretty low. I had nowhere to live, so used to bunk on people’s floors. I had abscesses on my arms and septicaemia. My parents, who had to be quite strong with me by the end until I hit rock bottom, checked me into a treatment centre in Weston-super-Mare.’ Pandora has not taken heroin since but continued to battle addiction throughout her life.

‘Later on it was morphine pills, opiate-based pills, the strongest painkillers you can get. I just wanted to be able to live a normal day without the anxiety — or what I thought was normal. For a while I would. Of course, the addiction caught up with me. It always does.

‘You’re an addictive person or you’re not. I am. I’m paranoid the girls might drink too much or take too many drugs — understandably I think. I do talk to them about it. They say, “I’m OK, Mum” or, “I’m this or I’m that”, but they’re not addicts.

‘Sometimes I worry if they get depressed. Then I think, “just because you’re a manic depressive you don’t have to put it on them. They’re just going through a bit of a hard time”. We all go through hard times.’

This is the first time Pandora has spoken with such honesty about her mental health and how it’s affected her family. ‘For Charles, it’s hell. I think he’s really suffered,’ she admits. ‘But he says he loves me and that he’ll put up with the bad times because the good times are so amazing and special it’s worth waiting for.

‘I never stripped off my clothes and ran down Bond Street and blew all my money on Gucci, but when you become manic you often go into psychosis, so have no idea what you’re doing.

‘The girls have had to live with me being too ill to mother them. When I went to treatment I’d just disappear without them knowing or understanding where I was going. They suffered from abandonment, from a lack of consistency and from me being odd. When I was stoned I was odd.

‘All I know is it hurt them irrevocably. Actually, it’s going to take even more time to really become . . .’ She searches for the right words. ‘. . . to let them trust me. They lost all hope really.’ Pandora adores her three daughters. The eldest, scientist Chloe, is ‘shy’, ‘clever’ and ‘a brilliant mother’, while Poppy, a model and global brand ambassador for the likes of Chanel, is her ‘most compassionate’ child.

‘She’d walk to Scotland if it would save someone’s life. She’d do anything for anybody,’ Pandora says. ‘When she comes in, she’s all smiling. I know you shouldn’t say this about your children but she’s very beautiful in a different way to Cara.

‘Cara’s more tomboyish and in-your-face — androgynous. That’s her fascination. Poppy is elegant — always glamorous, always looking lovely, always sending me candles or flowers or whatever. Chloe was the first child I ever held in my arms. There’s no more beautiful moment for a mother. Now she takes care of me. They all do, but Chloe is always the first one there when I’m losing the plot.’

This week, Chloe and Poppy, along with their respective husbands and Chloe’s children, Juno and Atticus, are with their parents on a family holiday in the South of France. ‘My grandchildren are divine,’ says Pandora. ‘They’re well behaved and well disciplined, which I mind. Chloe has never had any help with the children. Nothing. She does the lot — washing, ironing, gardening — and she’s brilliant at it. She’s very clever too.

‘Six years ago, she started as co-founder of Lady Garden Foundation [a woman’s health charity that raises awareness and funding for gynaecological health, including cancer]. From the bottom of my heart I believe she’s not jealous of her sisters.

‘I don’t think she’d like to lead their lives because their lives are so hectic. It can be difficult being a celebrity — very difficult.’

So much so that Cara is unable to join her family in France for their annual holiday this year. Pandora wishes it wasn’t so. ‘It’s a long way away, California. She can’t leave to come to us in France where we’re going tomorrow because she’s in lockdown. If she leaves America she can’t go back.

‘Her legal adviser said, “you can’t leave”. So she couldn’t have lockdown here. I think she really wants family time. When she’s here she doesn’t really expect anything except us.

‘That’s one good thing — she hasn’t lost her humility, which I find extraordinary. I’m sure if I had that much money and was living in California, oh boy would I live in grand style. I’m not saying she lives in a shack, but she’s very humble.

‘If she was here now, she’d be lying out on that sofa chatting. She doesn’t really want to talk about her work when she’s with us.

‘She wants to talk about what’s happening to us as a family. They’re really close, those girls — incredibly close. It’s lovely they get on so fantastically — probably because of me. I try to be as good a person as I can, which isn’t brilliant at all. I find the depression hard to accept. The junkie in me is another ballgame.

‘For me, the depression is much more of a worry. I don’t need a reason for it. It just happens and I can’t cope. I think, “How am I going to get through today?” ’

Bela Vista helps. Since her first visit three years ago, the charity feeds 60 children a meal a day, has installed a fresh water point and delivered a ton of clothing, 100kg of teddy bears, plus medical and school supplies.

‘The school has 60 to 80 children who come every day. Some walk 5km in their bare feet. As Nelson Mandela said, “the way out of poverty is education”. Once this village is sustainable, I want to create another one and another one.’

Such is her family’s pride that Charles is a trustee of the charity and Cara an ambassador, and, while Pandora continues to suffer crashing lows, there is greater contentment in her life now.

‘Doctors will tell you bipolar gets better as you get older. Unfortunately I haven’t found that, but in the evening before I go to bed I do a gratitude list where I run through in my head the things I’m grateful for that day. If you feel gratitude and gladness to be alive, it’s not possible to be depressed.

‘I am grateful for everything I have, but particularly for Charles and the girls. I wouldn’t be sitting here now if it wasn’t for them.’

You can find out more about the Bela Vista Project or make a donation on the website www.belavistaproject.com

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