Let’s just say it’s as well property tycoon Robert Tchenguiz’s estranged wife, Heather, was out when he sat in front of the TV at their palatial £20 million home to watch the BBC documentary Robbie’s War: The Rise And Fall Of A Playboy Billionaire earlier this week.
‘I was shocked — extremely shocked,’ he says. ‘I have a very civil relationship with my ex-wife. We travel together. We still live together. She’s the mother of my children and I’ve done everything to ensure she has what she wants. What was portrayed in this programme is . . . is . . . ’
Bewildering? He harrumphs. ‘It’s s**t. People think I’ve locked her in a box and she’s such a poor, starving woman she has to cook off a stove in her room.’ For those who missed it, the hour-long BBC2 documentary gave an extraordinary glimpse into the tycoon’s unconventional family life.
We see Tchenguiz, 57 — a colourful figure with a huge appetite for fun and pretty girls who likes to be called Robbie — living luxuriously on the airy upper floors with his very glamorous, 27-year-old model girlfriend, Julia, while his wife Heather Bird, 48, slums it with their two kids on the lower floors.
Robert Tchenguiz’s estranged wife Heather Bird shows her tiny room in the documentary Robbie’s War: The Rise And Fall Of A Playboy Billionaire earlier this week
Heather Bird peers into what was claimed to be her room in Tchenguiz’s luxury £20m mansion
Now and again, these two worlds collide, we learn, when the staff occasionally mix up Heather and Julia’s bras.
Forget how the other half live. This was Cinderella with bells on — or so it seemed.
Take, for example, the scene when Heather gives the documentary makers a glimpse of her living quarters. ‘This is where my bedroom is,’ she says. ‘I’ll just give you a quick look so you can see where the bed is.’ She opens the door a fraction to show a tiny, darkened room with barely enough room to swing one of her four cats.
The incredulous interviewer asks: ‘You’re in this vast house, but you’re in a very tiny room?’ ‘I guess that’s my option right now,’ sighs Heather. ‘It’s not my choice, but I don’t have a choice. I didn’t select the room.’
Where does she dine? ‘I usually eat in my room,’ she says. Warming to her theme she continues: ‘I cook my food in my room. I have my little fridge and I have my tea kettle and I have my little stove burners.’
Robbie, who sees himself as a generous, big-hearted man, is beside himself with anger. He invited film-makers into his grand, four-storey house ostensibly to ‘raise public awareness of the legal challenges an innocent person faces’ (Robbie’s words) since he was wrongfully arrested by the Serious Fraud Office after losing much of his fortune in the 2008 Icelandic banking crisis.
‘Stoves!’ he thunders. ‘There is no stove. It would be a fire hazard. This house has two kitchens. Heather has a fully-equipped one on the third floor as well as the use of the main kitchen in the basement. The children have a cook to prepare their meals.’
Robbie needs this latest domestic headache about as much as he needs, well, another kitchen. He is fighting to hold on to this Grade II-listed house that featured in ITV’s Mr Selfridge and was once home to the Royal College of Organists.
The documentary showed Robert Tchenguiz living luxuriously on the airy upper floors with his very glamorous, 27-year-old model girlfriend, Julia (pictured)
Robbie, who grew dizzyingly rich in the years of soaring property prices and easy credit, poured his ‘heart and soul’ into renovating his home before installing Heather, a Mormon from Utah whom he met in St Tropez, the playground of the super-rich.
They married in 2005 when she fell pregnant with his daughter, after whom he names his yacht, My Little Violet. Within two years the entrepreneur and brother Vincent made it onto The Sunday Times Rich List with a combined worth of £850 million.
A son, Victor, now ten, followed. Victor was still in nappies when the credit crunch hit. The brothers lost billions in less time than it takes to redecorate. In 2009, he and Heather separated but have never divorced. Today, Robbie says he relies largely upon the goodwill of family and friends to fund his estimated £1 million-a-month legal fees as he battles receivers acting for Kaupthing Bank.
The Icelandic bank, which collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008, lent companies belonging to Mr Tchenguiz’s family trust £1.6 billion before it went to the wall. In 2013, liquidators gained an order from the Royal Court of Guernsey allowing them to take assets from him, including his house.
Robbie, who sees himself as a generous, big-hearted man, is beside himself with anger
The legal wrangles continue and the stress of litigation clearly affects him. He smokes non-stop and has put on several stone in the past three years. But this former gladiator of the Mayfair property market refuses to quit.
‘It’s abundantly clear my house was not part of the collapse. The receivers made it part of it. That’s my battle. I fight for what is right,’ he says. ‘That’s how I’ve succeeded in the past and, maybe, it will be my failure too, but that’s the way I am. I can’t change at this age. What I don’t understand is why would the BBC want to tarnish my reputation like this by saying I don’t look after my family?
‘My wife does not live in a cupboard. Heather and the children have three very large rooms with bathrooms for their use. They also have access to all the house, except for my bedroom. As well as a nanny, she and the children have a full-time driver. We have two cleaners, a handyman and housekeeper. She also has over £150,000 a year for her personal spending, and I’ve been financially supporting her business (a Knightsbridge beauty clinic).
‘Since the financial crisis Heather has been going on four to five holidays a year, which I pay for. They’re always going on holidays — skiing holidays, summer holidays, France, America twice, three times a year.
Tchenguiz claims Heather has ‘very large bedrooms’ such as this one for her use in the house
‘I have looked after this woman for better and worse. She also has access to a four-bedroom flat, where she was all of last week while her boyfriend was in town.’
A boyfriend? ‘He’s from America. She’s been seeing him for the last seven or eight years, although it’s a very long-distance relationship with all the difficulties that involves. We have a very, very civil arrangement. I’m friends with him and Heather is friends with Julia.
‘I don’t know what the BBC’s agenda was. They did not even show the room she sleeps in. She’s in a large guest suite next to the children’s rooms. The children like to be together with their mother which is fine by me.
‘It’s a very sunny bedroom with oak floors. There’s a chandelier, a king-size bed and fancy drapes at the windows which overlook the Royal Albert Hall. There are two other bedrooms for the children.
‘But who chooses to sleep where is up to them. These are the facts — the actual facts that can be verified. Come and see for yourself.’
Which is why, several hours later, I find myself on the doorstep of his stunning frescoed home in the shadow of the Royal Albert Hall.
Robbie is in court fighting one of his many legal battles. In his absence, his Filipina housekeeper Mary offers herself as guide, which is just as well. You’d need a sat-nav to negotiate this house alone.
We begin in the rooftop conservatory where Heather, Mary tells me, likes to sit with her friends. There are photographs of Heather, Robbie and the children on windowsills beyond which the most exclusive real estate in the capital stretches out below.
Next, we’re in the lift gliding down to the family’s living quarters on the first floor. Mary knocks on the door of Heather’s bedroom but there is no answer. She is out.
We move on to the children’s bedrooms, one with a bunk bed, the second with the double bed that was featured as Heather’s in the BBC documentary. The room, which is not pokey at all, is cluttered with toys.
Robert Tchenguiz and Heather Bird pictured in happier times at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006
Mary is bemused at the suggestion Heather sleeps and cooks here. She takes me to the kitchen on the third floor, which is rarely used. Heather, it seems, prefers to dine out.
For those who do eat in, there is a sumptuous burgundy dining room and a table for six in the children’s playroom-cum-telly-room in the basement, which looks onto the indoor swimming pool.
Robbie, Mary tells me, often eats here with the kids. And Heather? ‘Not so much now,’ she says.
We see the orange room — a fourth vast bedroom Heather uses as a storeroom — and the blue room. Mary keeps this locked. ‘For guests,’ she explains. Finally, she proudly shows off the grand ballroom, where Robbie hosted his lavish Versailles-themed 40th birthday party and where, ‘just a few weeks ago’, Heather entertained. Are Heather’s friends often here? Mary nods. The sheer number of rooms is head-spinning and Heather, it seems, isn’t confined to a handful of them.
What did Robbie say to her after watching her extraordinary allegations on the documentary?
‘I wasn’t happy. I said: “It didn’t portray the truth.” She didn’t say anything. But this is not about me and Heather. This is about what the BBC has shown versus the reality of our situation.’
In response the BBC said: ‘The BBC refutes all Mr Tchenguiz’s claims. To the extent that matters of accuracy were raised by Mr Tchenguiz; he and his lawyers declined to provide details of what they alleged to be the true state of affairs. We therefore verified all of Ms Bird’s allegations for ourselves and are confident that the film accurately represents the living arrangements as they were in October 2017 and we stand by the contents of the film and its programme makers who have acted professionally throughout. There has been no misrepresentation: filming took place nearly seven months ago and since then some living arrangements in the house may have changed. Mr Tchenguiz and his lawyers were given a full viewing of the film prior to transmission.’
Robbie disputes this. ‘The rooms used by my children and my wife were refurnished when they moved back in — which is exactly as they were when the BBC came to film and exactly as they are now. Throughout this time she has had the use of a well-equipped kitchen.
‘Lawyers acting on my behalf did raise these inaccuracies with the BBC in writing on May 16 before the documentary was broadcast asking them to correct them. They did not.’
When Heather and Robbie separated, she moved with the children to a four-bedroom penthouse he owned on the river in Battersea where he continued to support her on the condition he was able to see his children every day. They have never divorced.
‘Divorce is a complicated thing,’ he says. ‘It takes forever and amongst all these other headaches I have to deal with…’ He stops. Harrumphs again. ‘I am a family man and believe in respecting the mother of your children. I will say, though, that after the crash, of course, depression sets in. At some stage I got out of it and started to get my life back under control.
In 2009, Robbie and Heather (pictured) separated but the pair have never divorced
In the programme Heather opens the door a fraction to show a tiny, darkened room with barely enough room to swing one of her four cats
‘I’ve tried to shield my wife and children from all of this. It’s true Heather and the children are not living at the Battersea flat at the moment. While this might not have been her decision at the time, it was a decision that had to be taken for complicated financial reasons.
Nobody’s “taken” the flat away from her; I want my children to live with me but she had a choice to move back or stay here. She likes living here. It’s a lovely place to live. The children are comfortable here — everyone is.’
This is the first time Robbie has spoken about his far from conventional family set-up. For all his flamboyant ways, he is a hugely private man and a devoted father. He is speaking out now because he doesn’t want his children hurt.
‘It’s crazy the reaction my children are facing. My concern is their schoolteachers and the other children’s parents are seeing a documentary which is not a true or fair portrayal of the arrangements between Heather and I. We were all skiing together in Courchevel in February — my children, Heather, my girlfriend and the nanny.’
Could the presence in the house of the glamorous Julia have upset Heather? ‘Not at all. Heather and I have been separated for over nine years. Julia is not the first girlfriend who has moved into the house. This is not new.’
What about rumours he intends to marry Julia? ‘I’ve no comment,’ he says. ‘This is about the BBC not portraying the truth. I’ve come across as a bigot tormenting this poor woman. I can only comment on the facts. We (Heather and I) have a very civil relationship.’
He emphasises the word ‘very’. ‘I’ve spoken to her since and asked her if she has anything to complain about. She says she hasn’t.’
He sighs deeply. ‘I understand Heather wanted to raise the profile of her business which is why she agreed to be interviewed but I don’t understand the rest of this.’
Neither, having finished our tour of the house, do Mary or I.