When Libby met Kirsty

Libby Caudwell talks to Kirsty Bertarelli at the Caribana Music Festival

The performance is beleaguered with misfortune. It’s raining. Hard… The Caribana music festival crowds seem more concerned with wolfing down meat sticks in beer tents than braving the summer showers. Even those hardy enough to venture out from shelter to stage seem subdued. The obligatory festival nut in this case is an elderly lady who dares clap along with the desperately encouraging bass player. “The Swiss people are shy,” mutters my companion. They sure are.

Unfazed, Kirsty Bertarelli delivers an accomplished performance of tracks including her recent UK dance chart hits “Set Your Body Free” and “Green”. The consummate professional, she cajoles and corrals the weather wary crowd and is endearingly appreciative when the applause reaches a decimal beyond Swiss reticence.

Kirsty Roper was the Staffordshire born Miss UK who in 2000 married entrepreneur Ernesto Bertarelli, Swiss owner of the biotech giant Serono. The Sunday Times Rich List recently put Kirsty Bertarelli as the UK’s richest woman. Why then is she subjecting herself to the always- unpredictable festival scene? Why not just give the odd champagne-fueled private performance in a Gstaad alpine palace? Or bathe in Beluga? Or bomb about in a Bugatti? Or bounce her baby on her Hastens Vividus mattress ($50,000, not kidding)?

But marriage did not turn Kirsty into a peeled-grape demanding chaise-lounger – instead she forged on with her already successful song-writing career and added performer, designer and philanthropist to the success inventory. Her powers lie securely in song writing but Kirsty sings too – from the heart in her disctinct breathily sweet vocals. The crowd slowly loosens from its torpor. At one point she blows a kiss to a ravishing woman in the audience: “This is for you, Miriam,” she says. The song is sweetly sad and Kirsty’s voice wavers, closed-throated and pitchy with emotion; tuning eschewed in favour of truth.

After the performance she is embraced by the entourage, all of whom had been Britishly bopping about backstage. “You were fabulous, darling!” they gush. And she really was. She opened the festival to indifferent crowds and won them over. The ravishing Miriam arrives flinging herself into Kirsty’s arms. “I’m so sorry. I should have warned you I was going to sing it.” “No, no, it was beautiful. You were beautiful,” Miriam replies.

Ernesto Bertarelli, looking sporty yet slightly forbidding in his Alinghi team attire, marches up to his wife and congratulates her. “You did a great job, it was a good show.” He is brusque and matter of fact. None of the backstage hysteria. She looks at him with a touching, little girl gratitude.

When I finally get my time with her, she is heaven. She is no remote, air kissing, smug socialite but all warmth and kindness. I compliment her on her performance and she hugs me. A real hug. Sitting in her little dressing room trailer, sipping on champagne, her eyes still shine with performance elation. She is tiny, like a toned Daryl Hannah. She is considerably younger looking than her 40 years, who speaks with a curiously transatlantic twang for a Staffordshire lass who found herself in Switzerland, but it is pretty and melodious and it suits her.

I show her a copy of our magazine and she giggles her approval of the edgy design. With that we are ready to begin.

Kirsty Bertarelli

You are a fashion designer as well as a musician. Who or what inspires you?

I’ve got so many designers that I love. Giorgio Armani because the clothes are strong and structured. And I’ve always loved the floaty femininity of Valentino. I also love up-and-coming British designers such as Alex Noble. For me fashion is always a mood. It’s fun to play different people by wearing something that can take you to another headspace.

Tell me about your collection.

I did a collection for Alinghi (the sailing syndicate set up by her husband) because back in 2007, the designs were mainly for men. Knowing that I’m creative they asked me to design some ladies’ wear. So I initially created a more feminine, fitted collection, which was such a success and I ended up doing a line for the team as well.

Do you see any future fashion endeavours?

Maybe, not at the moment. I am concentrating on the music. I enjoyed designing but I think I would be burning the candle at both ends. I want to concentrate on my family and my music and, you know, you have to get a balance.

What music do you enjoy listening to?

Adele. I love her voice. Also I’m writing a lot of high-energy dance tracks so I’ve been listening to the Black Eyed Peas a lot. They originate a fresh sound.

What have you got planned for your music in 2011?

I recently performed at the Sundance festival which is a dance / electro festival with DJs Igor Blaska and David Guetta. I’ve been writing a lot so I’m excited about all the new songs I’ll be releasing. “Set Your Body Free” went to Number 1 in the Dance charts recently, which I think is quite an amazing achievement.

I’ve collaborated with Igor on “Green”, an environmental dance anthem with proceeds being donated to WWF to support their ongoing conservation projects around the world. “Miriam”, the song you just heard, is coming out by the end of the year. I just finished a great track with Matthias Rollo called “Twilight”. I’m really happy that my music is filtering into the UK because that’s where my roots are.

You mentioned Miriam. Could you tell me the story behind the song?

It’s a song dedicated to a very dear friend of mine, whose husband loved her more than anyone imagined.

Is it true that you wrote “Black Coffee” when you first met your husband?

Absolutely. It was when we first met. Again, that’s when the best songs materialise when the words are almost effortless and I have a very strong emotion about something. “Sail away, I miss you more, until you see the shore. There I will be waiting, anticipating.” He was always sailing away and I was trying to bring him back to shore.

Was it strange to hear somebody else sing such a personal song?

It was a little bit. Obviously I was thrilled with the success. William Orbit did an amazing version for All Saints, but I was so happy that I sang it at my wedding. I wanted people to know that I had written it for my husband.

Kirsty Bertarelli

Proudest accomplishment to date?

My three children. They are an inspiration to us all. It is the most wonderful love to have children. They fulfil you in so many ways.

Do you have a dream music venue?

Do you know what? I haven’t really thought about it because I take every step as it can only be thrilled about the next thing. It’s a privilege to create music and then if you have the opportunity to sing it and share it, all the better!

Is there any area of your life in which you do not feel fulfilled?

I know what I want to say. (Embarrassed pause.) I’m just really frustrated with my golf! It should be something more important than that shouldn’t it? But it’s the truth. I love my sports. Obviously with the Bertarelli Foundation we are always striving to achieve greater things and help more people but personally, yeah, I would like to improve my golf.

What is your major shortcoming?

Worrying I think. I’m a big, big worrier. About anything and everything. It drives everybody mad. It’s my mother’s fault, she’s always worrying as well. It’s wonderful to see that your children don’t always inherit your characteristics! I see my daughter and I love how knowing and confident she is.

Tell me a little bit about the Bertarelli Foundation.

It’s active in many different areas, from marine conservation to education, to funding orphanages and schools in underdeveloped countries. I’m really proud of Chagos. It’s the biggest marine reserve in the world encompassing 1% of the world’s ocean and we’re hoping to increase that to 10% in five years’ time. It came about after we watched a video called “The End of the Line” presented by George Duffield. I was so touched and shocked by it because it emphasises the depletion of fish in the world’s oceans. I love diving with my husband and I have seen for myself what’s happened in the last 10 years. I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where there’s no fish in the ocean.

Do you extend any charitable outreach to the UK?

I was involved with “Facing the World”, a charity which brings children from Third World counties over to the UK in order for them to have reconstructive surgery for birth defects or disfigurements caused by war crimes. We don’t have any UK based organisations because the Foundation focuses on a few different areas and then puts the utmost effort into them. I get so many letters asking for help but at the end of the day, if you spread yourself too thin, you’re not really doing any good at all. It’s better to concentrate on a few things and do them well.

How easy or difficult is it to reconcile your music career with your philanthropy?

I think it’s important to have a balance and in fact I think I am accomplishing quite well at the moment. I have monthly Foundation meetings and I find time to do music. You set an agenda and you try to fit everything in as best you can.

What makes a philanthropist?

I think it’s a bit like music. When you feel very strongly about something you give it your all. It’s about considering what really matters to you and, if you are in a position to help, then to go out there and help as much as you can.

Do you collect art?

Yes. I appreciate art very much and I love drawing in fact; it’s another part of the creative side of me. I think when you are creative it’s multi-faceted: whether it’s writing or designing or drawing. I love Tracey Emin at the moment. My favourite piece, that we own, is a neon piece that says, “I Never Stopped Loving You”. It’s just a little phrase but it’s there for life. No matter what happens, the ups and downs, it stays true. I never stopped loving you, you know? And it’s pink!

Does beauty play a part in success?

I think it’s important to teach your children at a young age that beauty comes from within and to encourage a sense of self-worth. They need to understand the importance of emotion and education, and to live a full life, because in that way, you will be beautiful. To what extent is success dependant on luck and how much of it is hard work? I think it depends on what you want from life. Some people are… more ambitious than others. If you have a passion and you act on it then you can be successful because you are living your life exactly as you want to live it and that’s up to every individual. Success is relative.

Kirsty Bertarelli

There is nothing relative about Ernesto’s success and as such he must not be kept waiting any longer, and so I free Kirsty to her husband and hoards of admirers. I cannot resist introducing myself to the big man and, for a second, all of that Swiss sangfroid dissolves; he winks happily and thanks me for being speedy. Oh, Lord. Now that is success – when a simple gesture of approval is enough to send endorphins skyrocketing to the brain of the lucky recipient. I know it, Kirsty knows it and I have no doubt Ernesto does too.