He’s wildly successful, charismatic and controlling, but how does the Fifty Shades fantasy compare to the complex reality? Writer Daisy Armstrong reveals all
STRETCHED OUT ON MY ENORMOUS FIRST-CLASS seat on a flight to Nairobi, I’d never felt more uncomfortable in my life. It wasn’t because I had never flown first class – although that was true (as a magazine journalist in London, my salary barely covered my mortgage). Despite the three glasses of champagne I’d drunk, I couldn’t relax because, beneath my leather Miu Miu skirt, and on the strict orders of Matthew*, the man sitting next to me, the man who’ paid for my seat, I wasn’t wearing any knickers. For ten hours, this secret kept me precisely where he wanted me: in a now-familiar tangle of adrenaline, shame and lust.
I met Matthew, managing director of a global company, at a black-tie charity party I’d been sent to attend by my editor. I had mentally written the evening off – the cool Roksanda cocktail dress I’d borrowed was wasted on the table full of dull, grey, middle-aged corporate donors. Then, suddenly, he strode in, two hours late and completely unapologetic. He scanned the table and loudly made everyone move so he could sit next to me.
‘What’s a beautiful girl like you doing with these idiots?’ was his opening line. He wasn’t the most handsome man I’d ever met, but he had the kind of charisma, arrogance and caged energy that meant it didn’t matter.
Within half an hour, we’d left the party together. People were watching us – well, watching him – and it was a huge kick that I was the one he’d chosen to leave with. As I stepped into his chauffeur-driven limo, I stepped into another world. I knew immediately that he was different to any man I’d dated before. He made me feel amazing. When I got home – having summoned up every ounce of self-control to resist the urge to sleep with him – I did what anyone else would do in my situation: I Googled him. Half a million search results later, I realised this guy was A Big Deal. And the focus with which he’d pursued career success was now being trained on me – he’d texted me to ask me out before I’d even opened my front door.
On our first date, the following weekend, he told me to pack an overnight bag, then picked me up in his Aston Martin and drove me to Babington House. We took a walk in the snow, then warmed up in front of a roaring fire. It was intoxicating, textbook romance; Richard Curtis himself couldn’t have written it better. On our second date, he hired a chef to cook us Coquille St Jacques at his Kensington townhouse (I had briefly mentioned it was the best thing I’d ever eaten), and on our third date, he took me on a safari to Africa.
Even to someone who is level-headed, independent and confident, it was completely overwhelming. It was out of character for me to be so submissive, but the sheer momentum with which he drive the relationship forward, and the panache with which his money allowed him to do it, was impossible to resist, especially compared to previous commitment-phobic boyfriends.
Matthew was smart, restless and easily bored. He was also ruthless – when he had to make 100 people redundant, he barely batted an eyelid. And right from the start of our relationship, it was clear who was in control. On hearing I only liked red wine, ‘We’re going to have to educate you, aren’t we?’ and proceeded to order exorbitantly expensive bottles of white wine wherever we went. I wonder now why I went along with it, but it seemed an essential part of the Pretty Woman fantasy – but let’s not dwell on the fact that Julia Robert’s character is actually a prostitute.
Oddly enough, the one place he was least keen to exert control was in the bedroom. He once took me to Selfridges and bought me a pair of skyscraper Prada heels, whispering in my ear as he took out his Gold Amex that he couldn’t wait to see me wearing them naked later. But once we were actually in bed, he was the one who was keen to be dominated, asking me to tie him up, tease him and generally make him suffer on the way to his orgasm. It seemed that exerting such whip-tight control in all other areas of his life made the reversal of roles in the bedroom impossibly erotic.
But despite the relentless glamor, dissatisfaction started to creep in after six months. Matthew’s lateness was habitual – and quickly became intolerable. Used to having thousands of employees at his beck and call, he seemed incapable of being on time, and I often waited, shivering, on his doorstep. He refused to allow me to take charge of anything and his rage was another issue. Though he was never aggressive towards me, he often got that tight-lipped anger, and I found his behaviour towards cabin crew and hotel staff increasingly appalling.
Ultimately, the initial surge of lust and excitement was unsustainable. No one can live at that pitch for long. It creates an addiction, an insatiable hunger. Once the new reality becomes normal, the old dissatisfactions start creeping in. I had gone to bed with the fantasy and woken up with the reality. Once the Louis Vuitton luggage and Lamborghinis become unremarkable, the real questions start to emerge: am I happy? Does he make me laugh? Do I even like him?
By now, we had been dating for nine months, almost solely on his agenda. I had missed days at work, friends’ birthdays, and yet he had never once said he loved me, despite the fact I was desperate for him to say it. He never talked about the future, beyond the next holiday. The balance of power between us was, by now, hopelessly out of kilter. I was in my thirties and cravings love, marriage, babies and stability. For all the things he had given me, he had no intention of giving me those. Ultimately, he was the most emotionally unavailable man I’d ever met.
The final straw came at Christmas, a year in. He’d booked first-class flights to Barbados without consulting me. I had never missed our family Christmas, which had become very important to me since my mother’s death a few years before. But I said nothing – after all, it was such an unthinkably generous gesture. But more than that, I think a small, shameful part of me knew the relationship would burn itself out soon, and that would be the end of five-star trips to the Caribbean for me. So I went with him.
I spent Christmas Day vainly trying to Skype with my family over a hopeless internet connection. Irritated by my distress, he stayed in the bar all day, drinking daiquiris, a savage glint in his eyes that appeared when I was ‘ungrateful’. The day we got home, I broke up with him. He was upset and annoyed, but didn’t try to change my mind – I think I had probably just become too much effort, and I doubt he was sorry the relationship was over.
Back in my flat during a cold and bitter January, I grieved – for the sunshine, the glamour, the excitement. I was also struggling financially – being constantly groomed felt like keeping up my end of the deal, and I’d spent a fortune on blow-dries, waxes and underwear. But I didn’t really grieve for him. Instead, I did a lot of soul-searching. How spoilt must I be, if a man lavishing money and holidays on me didn’t make me happy? Would I ever be satisfied?
I was just as much to blame as him for what went wrong: no relationship can thrive if it is allowed to develop from such an unequal premise. I could have insisted on some financial parity, even occasionally. It is not power that corrupts, but fear, and I had become so addicted to a lifestyle I couldn’t afford that I couldn’t think straight for terror of losing it.
Six months later, I met a lovely, kind and normal man who is now my husband, whop has given me all the things I really wanted: a home, a beautiful daughter and a relationship with a rock-solid foundation. My heady, hedonistic year with Matthew seems like a faraway dream, and, hand on heart, there’s nothing I miss about it. Well, perhaps on thing: there’s more leg room in first-class.