All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for January 2003

Tragic Beauty

She shocked the nation when, in this iconic picture, she became the first woman to pose naked in The Times. But the glamorous life Vivien Neves seemed destined for ended when she was struck by MS at 30. Here, for the first time since her death at Christmas, her sister opens her heart

January 11, 2003
Angela Levin

AS THE voice of Eric Clapton launched into a celebrated love song, with the words 'you are so beautiful', Amanda Neves broke down and cried. The funeral of her beloved sister, Vivien, which took place on Thursday at Downs Crematorium on the South Coast, was one of the most difficult days of her life. For she had worshipped her older sister for as long as she could remember.

Who could blame her? Vivien, a stunning beauty, was one of the first women to pose nude in a British tabloid when The Sun launched its Page Three glamour pictures in 1970. A year later she became the first woman to appear naked in a broadsheet newspaper, in a risque advertisement for the chemical company Fisons, for what was then the top people's paper, The Times.

Although glamour models rarely hit the headlines today, it was quite a different story 30 years ago. The nude picture of her seated on a sheepskin rug, reaching up to brush her cascading hair, caused huge controversy and turned her into a household name. Amanda, ten years younger than Vivien, had little interest in the morals of the day, and looked up to her sister as a fairytale heroine. Vivien seemed to have everything - looks, money, fame, and an infectious joy of life.

Her success, however, was to be cruelly shortlived. For at 30, Vivien's story took a nightmare twist when she learned she had multiple sclerosis, the crippling disease which affects the nervous system.

Far from having it all, she lost almost everything, including the man she loved - her photographer husband John Kelly, who left her because he couldn't cope with her disease.

Vivien struggled on. She had always been resourceful, down to earth, brave and determined - and these characteristics, which had been vital in forming her career, now became invaluable in coping with her devastating illness.

'When she had visitors she wouldn't talk about being ill,' says Amanda, now 44. 'She stayed positive and was always good company. She simply refused to be beaten by it.' It was a 24-year battle that Vivien lost just after Christmas when she died at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford where she apparently also caught the MRSA superbug.

Yet even after her death, Vivien remains a controversial figure and the postscript to her story bristles with rumours of family friction, negligence and exploitation.

Amanda, a former aerobics teacher, knows her sister better than anyone and wanted to tell Vivien's real story - a tale of rare beauty, lost love and betrayal that could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie.

The second of three daughters, Vivien was born on November 20, 1947 in Brighton, to Iris, a housewife and her husband William, a senior engineer with the gas board. When Vivien was 12, her father moved the family from their council flat to Walton-on-Thames in Surrey.

NEVER displaying any academic interest, Vivien left school as soon as she could and took a series of mundane jobs. But it was a chance encounter with a local photographer, who spotted her in the street and asked to take her picture, that provided Vivien with her springboard to fame.

The resulting picture that appeared in a local newspaper - in which she posed in a skirt, 3in above her knee - set off a storm of protest, but earned Vivien just the kind of recognition she craved. She was on her way.

At 18 she left home for Swinging London and became a waitress at the Raymond Revue Bar strip club in Soho. Penthouse magazine soon heard about her perfect 36-23-36 figure and before long she was appearing as the magazine's 'pet of the month' (fee GBP 75) and earning herself the soubriquet The Body.

She lived life to the full, too, with a series of boyfriends that included top photographer David Bailey, impressionist Mike Yarwood and a another man 20 years her senior with whom she moved in.

'Mum was always understanding, but our father, who was also a scout master, had a strong moral code and was initially furious that she was living in sin,' recalls Amanda.

'At first he wouldn't let me stay with her in London but eventually, when I was 12, he agreed. I had a lot of flak from girls at school about my sister earning money by taking her clothes off, but I adored her and never felt jealous.' One can imagine how glamorous Vivien's life seemed to her young, impressionable sister - not least because Vivien also helped Amanda get her own modelling work.

'She got me my first job when I was 12,' beams Amanda, who also went on to be a topless model. 'She was appearing as a bride and I was her bridesmaid.

She bought me wonderful clothes, too, including a flowery trouser suit which was then the height of fashion.

SHE ALSO took me along to her photo- shoots. She was incredible. As soon as she was in front of a camera she would exude sex appeal.

'John Kelly, who used to photograph her before they married, had a favourite greasy spoon cafH in Pimlico and Vivien often went there with him straight from the studio looking very glamorous. It made every one of the men choke on their eggs and bacon.' Vivien and John married in 1973 and Vivien, who at the height of her fame was earning GBP 20,000 a year, (about GBP 200,000 in today's money), decided to invest in bricks and mortar. She bought a property on the Brighton seafront and The Summers, a vast, rundown 16th-century, 12-bedroom mansion set in 14 acres in West Clandon, Surrey.

Perhaps more surprising than her business sense, however, were Vivien's maternal and domestic instincts.

'She converted it into a stunning home,' says Amanda. 'There was a large part of her that just wanted to be a mother and make a home.

'She was thrilled when she became pregnant the following year and didn't think twice about cutting back on her career. She also loved animals which she rescued from different sanctuaries.

At one time, she had eight donkeys, 33 cats, two dogs, various birds and eight geese at West Clandon.' When Vivien's daughter Kelly was born, Amanda moved into The Summers for six months to help look after the baby. Soon afterwards, however, life delivered its untimely bodyblow.

'Vivien's MS began with what she described as a numbness in her fingers which soon crept down the side of her body,' says Amanda.

'She was eventually taken into hospital for tests. The doctors gave John and our father their diagnosis, but left it to them to tell Vivien - which they did about six months later.

'I don't know why they kept it from her. Perhaps it was to protect her from stress. She was always so brave and kept saying: "I won't let it get me." I really admired the way she coped.' John, however, found he simply couldn't come to terms with Vivien's illness and walked out on her when their daughter was about ten. He moved to Holland, where he remarried.

'Vivien was devastated when John left,' says Amanda. 'He was the great love of her life. Perhaps if he realised how much she loved him, he wouldn't have gone.' Amanda, who was by then married with a daughter and living in West Sussex, visited her sister as often as she could, but one can imagine how hard it must have been for Vivien, both emotionally and physically, to continue living alone in her vast mansion. And how vulnerable she must have been.

Indeed, her loneliness perhaps explains how, when David Stredwick, 16 years her junior, walked through the door of The Summers to do some electrical work, they soon became lovers.

Vivien's family were initially delighted as he seemed to be a combination of a male Pollyanna and Prince Charming. 'He seemed so caring,' says Amanda. 'He insisted on doing the cooking and cleaning as well as looking after Vivien.

We were pleased that she had found someone to look after her.' By now, as multiple sclerosis took its cruel hold, living in the grand house became too much for Vivien and she moved into a cottage in the grounds. She let the house first to Marlon Brando and then to Boy George, before selling it with part of the land for approximately GBP 1million.

Soon afterwards, she embarked on an uncharacteristic spending spree - buying a Rolls Royce and a sports car for David. They went on exotic holidays and Vivien bought Wurlitzer jukeboxes for David to renovate and sell. 'At one time they had 34,' Amanda recalls.

The family used to visit her regularly, but perhaps became rather complacent - for when David began telling them it was inconvenient to call, they made little fuss.

'By this time the MS was affecting Vivien's ability to speak, so he always answered the phone,' Amanda recalls. 'He'd say she wasn't feeling well and that we shouldn't come. We didn't suspect anything. She also had, by this time, given him power of attorney.

'I later discovered,' she claims, 'that he spent most of the time drinking and spending my sister's money. Sometimes he left her on her own all night.'

It was only when Vivien and Amanda's 74-year- old father William died of heart failure in March 1997 that Amanda became determined to see her sister face to face. 'I had to tell her the news myself,' she says.

When she arrived at the house, however, she found no one to let her in. 'I knew Vivien had to be inside so I went to the local pub to see if I could find David.

'Sure enough, he was there drinking with friends.

'He told me it wasn't convenient for me to see Vivien, but changed his mind only when I threatened to call the police.' Amanda was shocked when she saw the state her sister was in. 'She was in bed, totally in the dark and very disorientated. She looked terrible. Who knows how long she had been left there?

'She couldn't even have got herself a drink if she had been thirsty. I asked her daughter Kelly to move in to keep an eye on her mother and David, which she did.' Vivien was admitted to hospital with dehydration. 'While she was there, David turned up drunk one night at her home at 3am,' says Amanda.

'Kelly was frightened and called the police who took him away and we haven't seen him since.' VIVIEN stayed in hospital for about six weeks until care was sorted out for her. By this time she'd moved from the cottage to the one-upone-down coach house also on the grounds. Amanda organised the building work to make it suitable for a live-in carer.

'We also discovered that the cottage had been sold. Sadly, we don't know what has happened to the capital from that, or the mansion, or Vivien's wonderful antique furniture. And by this time, Vivien couldn't speak, so it was difficult to know how she felt about things.' Amanda, meanwhile, continued to visit her sister regularly. 'I used to cleanse her face, give her a massage, do her hair and put on her makeup.

'Even though she couldn't use her facial muscles, she still looked so beautiful.

Whenever I saw her, I wanted to cry but I knew I couldn't in front of her.' She last saw her sister on her birthday - November 20 - in hospital in Guildford. 'The ward sister came to tell me she had the MRSA bug. I knew it would be the end because she was so weak.

'Vivien went home but was readmitted with pneumonia. I didn't go to visit her then. I couldn't face seeing her suffer any more.' It was at 6am on the Sunday after Christmas that Kelly telephoned to say Vivien had died. 'I know she was so ill, but I think she chose her own time to go.

'Kelly had just told her that John's marriage had broken up. I am sure she thought he would come back and be there for Kelly and they would be a loving family again.

'Vivien might be remembered for those glamorous photographs, but to have a loving family was all she ever really wanted.' DONATIONS can be sent to The MS Society, 372 Edgware Road, Staples Corner, London NW2 6ND, tel: 0808 800 8000.

© Copyright 2003 Associated Newspapers Ltd.