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Dame Zandra Rhodes: The real reason I kept my cancer a secret

The real reason I kept my cancer a secret: Dame Zandra Rhodes, 80, was told she had six months to live just as lockdown struck. One year on, in her most heartfelt interview yet, fashion designer reveals why she kept diagnosis quiet

  • Dame Zandra Rhodes, 80, was diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct last March
  • The fashion and textile designer has been a favourite of royals since the 1960s
  • Said she had to pull herself together as she still has a lot of work to get through

Dame Zandra Rhodes sits among a lifetime’s worth of accumulated treasures in her rainbow-coloured South London penthouse, like some exotic migratory bird.

At 80, she remains a vision of vibrancy and colour: her hair is still her trademark fuchsia; her kohl-rimmed eyes are shaded in aquamarine and she wears a top of her own design accessorised with a vast heart-shaped brooch. She exudes life and glamour.

‘I feel pretty good,’ she announces. ‘I’ve just galloped up two flights of stairs.’ All of which is extraordinary because little more than a year ago, after being diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct, she was given just six months to live.

Early in the pandemic, the fashion and textile designer, a favourite of royals and rock stars since the 1960s, had just begun a yoga session in her flat with her best friend, artist Andrew Logan, when she realised something was amiss.

‘We were lying there, on our little lilac mats, and my stomach felt full,’ she recalls. ‘I thought, “It can’t be full — I haven’t eaten anything.”’

She went to her doctor and then for tests, which revealed a tumour. Three months of chemotherapy, then immunotherapy followed, all during that first bleak lockdown.

Dame Zandra Rhodes, 80, (pictured) was told she had six months to live after being diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct last March, but after treatment she was given two years to live

I wonder what the prognosis is now and she seems breezily unconcerned. ‘Oh, I’ve been in remission for at least . . . I mean the specialist said it had gone away, so I presume I’ve got maybe two years.’

‘Two years until you get the all-clear?’ I ask. ‘No, no, no, it wasn’t like that,’ she corrects.

‘Right at the beginning, last March, they said I’d probably got six months to live. I said, “What?!”’ She shrieks recalling her shock. ‘I said, “I’ve got lots of projects coming up. I’ve got to last longer than that!”

‘And then I had my treatment and they said I’d probably got at least two years. That gives me time to get myself together and get things done.’

I remark that she’s incredibly stoic. Did she cry? ‘Not really. I probably moaned to my sister.’ She laughs. Beverley, 77, who has four children and seven grandchildren, is her only sibling and her closest relative.

‘What I don’t understand is why it didn’t worry me. I just had to pull myself together. The amount of work I’ve got to get through!

‘I’ve got 100 chests of clothes because I never sold my original designs so we’ve been cataloguing and repairing them. (She has two ‘fabulous’ staff helping her.)

‘We’re working on a key collection that will go into the Fashion and Textile Museum. (She opened the museum in 2003 in a converted warehouse below her flat.) Other important pieces will go to the V&A and the Metropolitan museum in New York.

‘I’m consolidating my legacy. If I hadn’t got work, I wouldn’t have pulled through. Work keeps driving me forward. You have to get all the tasks done in time.’

She doesn’t indulge in a moment’s self-pity. ‘Because of the lockdown, you weren’t allowed to have anyone with you at the clinic.’ I ask if she felt wretched. ‘Not really. I just got in an Uber and went. If something was difficult to bear, I’d tell my sister. She’s taken on the amazingness of our mother.’

The fashion designer and textile designer, who lives in a rainbow-coloured South London penthouse, said she had to pull herself together as she still has a lot of work to get through. Pictured: Zandra, bottom right, in last year’s series of the BBC’s The Real Marigold Hotel

Zandra’s mother, Beatrice, was clearly an inspiration. She’d worked as a fitter in Paris for French couturier House of Worth before becoming a lecturer at the then Medway College of Design near the family home in Chatham, Kent, and fostered her daughter’s love of colour, textiles and design. Zandra has always been less effusive about her lorry driver father and once said her mother ‘married beneath her’.

Work has been her abiding passion and, during her illness, a distraction.

‘And I’ve been very lucky that I believe in my work enough to think it’s a legacy I can leave to the nation. I don’t really have time to think: each day passes so quickly.’

She says that to start with she told no one, other than a few close friends and her sister, that she was ill. She’s talking now, she says, in the hope of encouraging others with similar symptoms to seek a diagnosis.

‘It was very funny because when I had my first meeting with my specialist, he said: “You haven’t asked the one question I thought you’d ask: “Am I going to lose my hair?” I told him: “Oh, I’ve got plenty of lovely pink and blue wigs!”

‘But I didn’t need them in the end. I only lost a little hair.’

She insists that she wasn’t lonely during lockdown when she was to-ing and fro-ing for treatment.

‘This isn’t a lonely sort of place,’ she smiles, gesturing round the room, a riot of colour and drama, where she sits in front of a life-size model of herself against a backdrop of paintings, curios, ceramics and objets d’art. Beyond, sunshine filters through the lush plants on her wrap-around terrace.

‘Normally I work until 7pm and I’ve a lovely friend round the corner who used to bring me meals. I have also got a TV for the first time. I’ve never had one before!’

She has an intern, Lottie, ‘a wonderful cook’, who lives with her and sometimes joins her to cook meals. (Zandra, most recently on our screens in last year’s series of the BBC’s The Real Marigold Hotel, was a contestant on 2019’s Celebrity MasterChef.)

She makes it all seem quite a breeze. I suspect cheerful dismissiveness is her bulwark against worry. She says she doesn’t fear death.

The favourite of royals and rock stars since the 1960s said she is busy ‘consolidating her legacy’ and said she had to pull herself together as she still has a lot of work to get through. Pictured: With Princess Diana in 1997 who she described as ‘very shy and sweet’

‘No. I don’t think about it,’ she says briskly. ‘I used to think I’d take myself to Switzerland [where voluntary euthanasia is legal] if I became very ill. I always thought it would be a simple solution but I don’t know anymore. My sister has said she’d look after me if it came to that.’

Meanwhile, aside from her cataloguing, she is backing a new Recycle Your Electricals campaign, rather than adding to the 155,000 tonnes of them that are thrown into household rubbish each year. Any item with a plug, cable or battery — from old mobiles to laptops, hairdryers and irons — can be recycled.

She shows me the organic cotton tote she’s designed — decorated with her iconic painted lady head and a swirl of electrical goods — in which we can take smaller items for recycling.

Apparently 79 per cent of Brits have been clearing out during lockdown, with many of those polled in a survey by Material Focus throwing out old electricals. Thirty nine per cent said that a special bag for recycling such items would stop them throwing them in the bin so they then end up in landfill.

Until two years ago, Zandra divided her time between London and San Diego, where her long-term partner, Egyptian-born Salah Hassanein, former president of Warner Brothers International Theatres, lived.

He died, aged 98, in 2019, but Zandra is pragmatic about his passing: ‘It would have been better for Salah if he’d gone at least two years earlier. He was more or less bedridden for 18 months, and, as an amazing, self-made man, it was probably degrading for him.’

She was involved in civic life in San Diego, fundraising for the hospital, and I ask if she’ll go back now Salah is dead.

‘I’d have to get a new visa first, and that means getting a police report and queuing up at the Embassy,’ she laments.

A police report? ‘Yes! I’m an 80-year-old criminal!’ she cries. More than 30 years ago, she tells me, she was busted for growing weed. The conviction has remained an encumbrance whenever she has wanted to travel to the U.S.

‘I had three rather beautiful (marijuana) plants growing on my windowsill when I lived in Bayswater,’ she says, ‘And I suppose they alerted the police. They took me away in a Black Maria.’ She chuckles.

During her illness, Zandra said work kept driving her forward and with the help of two ‘fabulous’ staff, she is going through 100 chests of clothes of her original designs as well as working on a key collection that will go into the Fashion and Textile Museum 

She hasn’t smoked since — although the plants fostered a love of gardening — and she never drinks, ‘because what’s the point if you’re going to be falling asleep everywhere?’

Her pleasures are restrained, middle-class ones: a long-time Archers’ fan she once made a guest appearance on the Radio 4 show, opening a fete, and she regularly writes in. ‘I think the storylines are very clever, although I’ve never forgiven them for killing off Nigel Pargetter. But they’re not doing enough farming at the moment. I’ll write to them about that.’

She loves hosting dinner parties — a pleasure denied in lockdown — and is looking forward to cooking for guests again.

‘They always know what they’ll be getting: homemade soup, salmon; then probably bread and butter pudding.’

Old friend Britt Ekland is a regular guest. ‘I made a dress for her when she was married to Peter Sellers and another for her when she was with Rod Stewart. We’ve been in touch for years,’ she says.

Zandra has dressed a veritable cast list of royals and celebrities over the decades from Queen’s Freddie Mercury to Princess Diana (‘very shy and sweet’); from Debbie Harry to Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy.

Princess Anne wore a glorious Zandra Rhodes confection in her engagement portrait — photographed by Norman Parkinson — a gauzy white cloud of tulle whose glory eclipsed even her wedding dress.

She was appointed DBE for services to British fashion and textiles in 2014. Pictured: Diana, Princess Of Wales, pictured in one of Dame Zandra Rhodes’ creations in 1989

On the day in 2014 when she was appointed DBE for services to British fashion and textiles, it was Princess Anne who invested her. ‘It was a great, great honour,’ she says.

Zandra turned 80 last September and I ask her how it feels. ‘Just the same as being 70!’ she laughs. There was no hoopla, due to lockdown, only a drink on her terrace with Andrew Logan and the promise of a dinner party when restrictions ease.

Throughout the decades of her fame, Zandra has remained true to her credo that style is more about personality than transient fashions. Sitting alongside her, our faces juxtaposed on our Zoom call, it’s hard not to feel dowdy: a peahen next to her iridescent, jewelled peacock.

Zandra’s make-up is as theatrical as ever; her cleansing routine as basic. ‘I keep my make-up on at night and wash it off with soap and water in the morning. I don’t wear foundation and I’ve never had Botox.’

She’s gregarious, likeable; chatty. I’ve rarely encountered anyone less self-absorbed or, in the face of serious illness, more up-beat. When I wonder if she is wistful for the children she never had, she replies: ‘I don’t waste time thinking about it. I don’t regret. I have plenty to do.

‘I can see my sister’s children and grandchildren when I want and I’ve grown closer to them since I’ve been in London more.

‘I’m very happy living here — and very lucky indeed, really.’

The Zandra Electrical Tote for Recycle Your Electricals is available for £12 from shoprecycleyourelectricals.org.uk. All profits go to Waste Aid. For your nearest recycling point go to recycleyourelectricals.org

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