LONDON — Annabelle Neilson, the former model, muse and great friend of the late Lee Alexander McQueen, has died aged 49, with her sister Camilla Neilson confirming the cause of death as a heart attack. Neilson, whose life was beset by tragedy and illness, was found dead at her Chelsea, London, home by emergency services on July 12.
“Very sadly, we have been informed today that my sister Annabelle died as a result of a heart attack at home last Thursday,” Camilla said in a statement to the U.K. Press Association on behalf of the family. “It has come as a complete shock, as she had many plans having recently returned from Spain.
“My parents and I are devastated and shocked by this news. We would ask the media to respect the privacy of our family and Annabelle’s close friends during this very difficult time. We will not be making any further statement at this time. We thank you for your consideration.”
Neilson is survived by Camilla and her parents, Max and Elizabeth Neilson.
Annabelle Neilson, whose family had myriad aristocratic and royal family connections, pursued various careers after modeling: She was a star of the Bravo TV series “Ladies of London” and wrote a children’s book series called “The Me Me Me’s.” Aimed at helping children explore their emotions, the books garnered great reviews when they were released in 2015.
Neilson was divorced, having been married for three years to Nat Rothschild in the mid-Nineties. Her circle of friends included Kate Moss and Sadie Frost, and earlier this month, she was pictured at the wedding of her ex-boyfriend Edward Spencer-Churchill, along with Moss.
The former model was beautiful, wealthy, privileged and smart, but did not have an easy life: She was severely dyslexic and left school at 16, the same year she was attacked and beaten during a trip to Australia. She said she became addicted to heroin as a result of the trauma and the reconstructive surgery she had to have following the attack. She later kicked her heroin habit.
Three years ago, she broke her back and pelvis in a riding accident while training on her racehorse and took months to recover.
It was her relationship with McQueen, though, that defined her career and she often described the designer, who committed suicide in 2010, as her best friend and soulmate. During the designer’s memorial service later that year at St. Paul’s Cathedral she was among the speakers, who also included Anna Wintour and Suzy Menkes.
She talked about taking long walks on the beach with McQueen and his dogs, and also admitted that her friend of 18 years could be “a little tricky,” but that he was the best man she had ever known. “He was loved by so many,” she said, “but felt loved by so few.”
On Tuesday, it was Neilson’s friends’ turn to remember. Frost, Moss and Kinvara Balfour all posted images or tributes on social media.
A profile story on Neilson, published in the October 2000 issue of W Magazine, then a part of WWD’s parent Fairchild Publications, described her as an “inveterate party girl” and a “patron and friend to almost everyone who is anyone in the London scene.”
Her friends in that era ranged from an up-and-coming generation of fashion designers to the Young British Artists Damien Hirst and Jake Chapman to Jay Jopling and Juergen Teller.
She wasn’t only a friend of McQueen’s, but also a regular buyer of his collections from the very early days and also stocked her closet with designs by John Galliano, Julien Macdonald and Dai Rees. She even helped to fund McQueen’s early shows and called the designer her “homosexual husband.”
McQueen was equally besotted, describing Neilson as “one of a kind,” with a heart of gold. “I love her to bits. She has always been there for me and just amazes me. She reminds me of a hummingbird, because she just has so much energy for such a small person,” the designer said.
Neilson had a great sense of adventure and daring and made it clear in the W story that she wasn’t full of hot air: “I’m not a fly-by-night operator; when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. But I’ve always been greedy to grab whatever opportunities I could rather than focus on just one thing.”
Even at the end of her life, Neilson’s sense of generosity, commitment — and love for McQueen — never changed. Balfour, a writer and filmmaker who served as executive producer on the McQueen feature documentary film, told WWD that Neilson helped with the project behind-the-scenes.
“When I joined ‘McQueen’ as an executive producer, Annabelle and I and the directors spoke several times about the project. In the end, Annabelle chose not to appear in the film for her own reasons, but gave directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui some beautiful archive footage, which they have woven beautifully into the narrative,” said Balfour, adding that her abiding image of Neilson is the former model floating through parties in McQueen dresses.
“She was swan-like. And one of the only girls who actually got to wear his revered catwalk masterpieces. I still marvel at that privilege — that obviously special relationship — every day.”
Anne Deniau, the only photographer whom McQueen would allow backstage at his shows, said Neilson was just as lovely inside as she was outside.
“Annabelle was an extraordinary lovely person and I just wanted to make her happy, as much as possible, after Lee’s death,” Deniau said. “She was truly one of a kind — funny, witty, with a big heart, generous, loyal, untamed, a free spirit.”
Deniau called her “a wonderful friend, very brave, as strong as she was fragile. I loved her so much. Her loss is a tragedy, and my warmest thoughts go first toward her family and closest friends. May Annabelle rest in peace now with her beloved Lee. I will endlessly cherish my memories with her.”