How TV's What Not to Wear presenter Lisa Butcher faced up to tragedy


Last updated at 17:41 07 December 2007

It's taken a year for What Not to Wear presenter Lisa Butcher to come to terms with the death of her ex-husband. It was only after his death that she discovered he'd never stopped loving her – and it made her regret walking away from the marriage

Lisa Butcher is the kind of woman who can get dressed in the dark (as she admits she did today) and still look enviably coordinated.

The 35-year-old co-presenter of What Not to Wear was in such a rush to get her two children to school and still be on time for the YOU photo shoot, that she paid little attention to what she put on this morning (a Topshop jumper, Chris Soames jeans and ballet pumps she bought in a charity shop).

But then these days Lisa is relishing the fact that although she still remains in front of the camera – presenting the prime time BBC1 programme with her old friend Mica Paris – she is no longer the clotheshorse she was during an international modelling career that, unusually, spanned two decades.

"I can't tell you how good it feels to have hung up my stilettos on my modelling career. I have retired at the age of 35 and it's great. I am finally able to use my brain – it's been on standby for the past 20 years," she says with a laugh that turns into a cough (she is getting over a chest infection and has arrived with an inhaler and a bottle of Covonia linctus).

Scroll down for more ...

Lisa Butcher

But there is another reason why Lisa is less worried about appearances and more concerned with important things in life: a year ago she suffered a double tragedy that has had such an impact on her that it is only now that she is able to talk about it.

The autumn of 2006 was a difficult one for the Butcher family. Lisa – the youngest of four children of retired tobacco executive John and his wife Deirdre, a former air-hostess – was coming to terms with the fact that her terminally ill 78-year-old father could not go on for much longer.

"He had many complications, but in the end he died of renal failure. We were giving Dad dialysis four times a day at home. He was in and out of hospital and the strain on my mother was huge. I would do the dialysis when I could, but I was trying to bring up my children and work, and it's hard when you begin parenting your parents. There were times with Dad when it was just so painful to see him deteriorate ..." she breaks off, unable to allow herself to dwell on the memories.

But the loss of her adored father was compounded by a second tragedy only two weeks later, when Lisa's ex-husband, the Chilean polo player Gabriel Donoso, suffered a horrific accident.

Gabriel, 46 – a devoted father to their children, 13-year-old Olivia and 11-year-old Amber, and who remained on close terms with Lisa after their divorce in 1996 – was in Buenos Aires when a polo pony he was training shied, causing him to fall on his head and suffer a colossal brain injury. Lisa heard the news from Gabriel's sister Teresa Beresford – who is married to Lord Charles Beresford and based in Britain – in a phone call that couldn't have come at a more distressing time.

Scroll down for more ...

Lisa Butcher

"Teresa rang me on the day that we buried Daddy," Lisa recalls. "She said, 'Sit down, I have some news: Gabriel is critically ill in hospital.' And because Gabriel was so tough – he'd survived a serious accident five years before – I didn't really understand the gravity of the situation. She

said to me, 'We have to go to Argentina and we have to go now.' He was not expected to live through the night," Lisa says.

Lisa took her daughters out of school and flew with Teresa to South America on a 24-hour journey – "the longest and most harrowing" of her life.

"I told the girls that their father had been in an accident, I didn't tell them that he was not expected to live – how do you tell your children something like that? The extraordinary thing is that no one had expected him to live long enough for us to see him, but his heart kept beating until Olivia and Amber saw him, and then he went. It was almost like he waited for them."

Gabriel's body was flown from Buenos Aires to Chile, where the high-ranking player – considered the best his country had ever produced – was a national hero.

"We had to have a police escort from the airport because there were so many people. They threw flowers in front of the funeral cortege, and the whole thing was reported on all the news stations in South America," she says.

Lisa talks a lot – and very emotionally – about her daughters' reaction to the loss of a father who had been very active in their lives. When Gabriel was in England for the polo season each summer, he saw his girls every weekend, and they would fly out to Chile every school holiday.

"Even though the marriage didn't work out, I couldn't have found a better father for my children. The girls put him on a pedestal – he was everything to them," she says, pausing before adding, "I don't know where they draw their strength from – they have been fantastic; I have so much respect for them."

What Lisa doesn't talk about immediately is her own reaction to the loss of a man who – you sense – was the love of her life. The girl who won Elle magazine's Face of 1987 competition when she was 16 and went on to become the muse of the late photographer Norman Parkinson (who dubbed her the face of the 90s) has a chequered emotional history that includes not one but two ex-husbands.

Lisa met Gabriel in 1993, a year after her ill-fated first marriage to chef Marco Pierre White had ended. She is keen to close the door finally on her first husband – they met when she was 21, married eight weeks later and parted after 15 weeks amid hideous comments from him (he described her as "beautiful but boring") and a dignified silence from her (although she has hinted at some secret horror on their honeymoon and subsequently auctioned her Bruce Oldfield wedding dress – which Marco disapproved of – for charity).

The handsome and incredibly charming Gabriel was the perfect antidote to that difficult first marriage, and a blissfully happy Lisa put her career on hold and went to live in Chile.

But finding herself in a foreign country with a young baby – Olivia was born within a year of the marriage – made Lisa feel isolated, which was compounded by the fact that so much of her husband's time was spent running his farm and pursuing his polo career.

Looking back, Lisa thinks that her decision to end the marriage and return to Britain when she was pregnant with Amber was immature. Indeed the most difficult part of coming to terms with losing the father of her children was the discovery – in the days following Gabriel's death – that her ex-husband had not, as she had thought, ever moved on from their relationship.

"The hardest part for me was going back to the house in which I had lived with him ten years ago, and it was exactly the same. He still had all my things there, he still had the presents I had given him and my picture was everywhere."

"I realised then that he hadn't moved on and that I was the one he had loved more than anyone, and that broke my heart because I had no idea. He didn't tell me and it's too late, I can't talk to him now," she says emotionally.

Lisa's faith (she was brought up as a Catholic) has been a huge help to her in the past year.

"When Gabriel died, I felt him around me, and the same with Dad.

I still talk to them both and maybe I do see Gabriel as a kind of guardian angel – angel Gabriel. The strangest thing happened when we were burying his ashes. I was praying, and in my prayer I asked for a sign: suddenly I became aware that the song playing in the background was the song that Gabriel and I called

'our song' – 'No Ordinary Love' by Sade. It was weird because no one else seemed to hear it but me. I felt that was a sign," she says.

Olivia, Amber and Lisa have always been a tight unit, and the responsibility of not just being a single mum but now a lone parent is the focus of Lisa's life. Supported by her mother, who lives nearby, and a nanny – to cover the times she is working 14-hour days on What Not to Wear – she manages to be very much a "hands-on" mum.

Lisa plans to take her daughters to Chile this Christmas to make a documentary about the SOS Children's Village there (Lisa is a patron of the organisation, which helps disadvantaged children and families). They will dedicate the documentary to the memory of Gabriel.

Her girls are, she says with a proud smile, beautiful and clever (they currently want to be vets) and she is very protective of them. "Olivia has already been scouted by Storm twice and I have said that if, when she is 18, she wants to model she can do it then, but not before. I think it's detrimental to model young – they should just enjoy growing up," she says.

Lisa will not say whether there is a new man in her life (she has had relationships in the past with the actors Jeremy Northam and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) because she doesn't want to "jinx" herself – a comment that suggests she does have a boyfriend.

She doesn't rule out marrying again and having more children – "If I meet the right fella" – but her priorities now are her new career in television (she'd like to be a documentary maker in the mould of "Michael Palin or Louis Theroux") and Olivia and Amber.

Lisa is not a woman who likes to dwell on bad past decisions, but she does admit – as this emotional interview comes to an end – that maybe she made a mistake in walking away from her marriage to Gabriel.

"Would have, could have, should have – who knows what might have happened if I hadn't walked away? I was young, I had my head in a bubble, and I was the main player in my own movie. I felt I had given up so much for him and was getting so little in return."

"That was my naivety – I should have stuck around and made my point," she says, pausing and then adding regretfully, "I think that if I was to meet him now and marry him it would have worked. I know who I am now."

Lisa Butcher is ambassador of SOS, the world's largest orphan charity. For more information on SOS and World Orphan Week, please visit

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now