From S&M brothel madam to the first lesbian to be artifically inseminated, Janis Hetherington has seen it all. Jaine Blackman talks to her about her new book

Do you think I’ll be interesting enough?” said Janis Hetherington when I requested an interview.

She was being rather disingenuous for this is a woman with a tale or two hundred to tell.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction and where Janis is concerned, it’s certainly more outrageous.

From middle-class schoolgirl to S&M brothel madam; the first lesbian in the UK to be artificially inseminated, peace campaigner and women’s rights activist... the list goes on.

Two hours in her company at her Oxfordshire home passed in a flash and I didn’t ask her half the things I wanted to – although I probably couldn’t print the the answers anyway, this being a family newspaper.

But for those who want to know more, Janis finally found a publisher for her book Love Lies Bleeding last year and its subtitle Memoirs Of A Sexual Revolutionary gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s about.

“It’s been written for 30-odd years – I’d be adding every five years – but I’d never found a publisher that would take me on,” says Janis, agreeing with a laugh that it’s difficult to open the book without finding something rude or outrageous.

As soon as news of its existence got out “the writs started flying” but “we decided to publish and be damned,” she says.

It’s hardly surprising some people were nervous because during her time in the sex trade she mixed with politicians, pop stars, aristocrats and overseas royalty. She’s not afraid to name names but knows she needs to be careful what she puts in print: “So I’m waiting for a few more to pop off [you can’t libel the dead] to put them in.”

Janis’s story began in Sevenoaks, Kent, where her parents ran an Art Deco Odeon cinema for more than 20 years from 1942. She was born in 1946 and by the time she was 16 had been expelled from school for organising a train ticket scam and had gone to London to join the Left Wing theatre group Unity.

Through the circles she met there, she ended up as the plaything of a Parisian brothel keeper, leaving after a staged event went wrong (she’s not sure if she killed a man!).

Back in London – still a teenager – she became a madam herself, at one point in an establishment with Janie Jones (a cabaret singer who was later sentenced in 1973 to seven years imprisonment for her involvement in controlling prostitutes and for her part in a Radio One payola scandal).

Janis herself was plunged into a series of misadventures; she lost a baby which had been the result of a rape and was charged in scandalous court cases that were never proven despite direct police evidence.

The Countess, as she was dubbed, was defended by David Lee, whose clients included notorious East End gangsters associated with the Kray twins.

Despite being a lesbian, she ended up living with David: “We ironed out a comfortable co-existence, unconventional maybe, but very workable and even pleasurable,” says Janis.

She was still allowed to have girlfriends and David encouraged her to find an alternative money-making occupation, putting her down as director of one of his property development firms.

The skills she learned have stood her in good stead and she now lives in a large 16th century farmhouse near Banbury, having developed the land and barns which came with it into housing.

“The neighbours think I’m eccentric,” she says with a smile and you get the impression she would be rather disappointed if they didn’t. She dresses like a country gent and swears like a trooper, albeit in beautifully modulated English.

Her love of ripe language landed her in trouble on recent airing on BBC Radio Oxford with the use for her of a very tame swear word (though they are willing to have her back for there’s a lot more to Janis than her sex trade past).

Aged 24 she fell in love with Judy, a married woman with a daughter.

Within two weeks, they had both left their partners and moved to Launton, near Bicester, and before very long Janis decided she wanted a baby.

From her Parisian days, Janis had heard about lesbians conceiving through artificial insemination and the couple found a fertility doctor not only willing to help them but also to donate his own sperm.

Janis remembers driving back to Oxfordshire in the couple’s Lotus Elan.

“I’d been told to keep my feet up, so we drove back with my feet out of the window,” she says.

Janis had conceived at the first attempt and gave birth to son Nicholas Alexander in January 1972, aged 26. She thought her happiness was complete but more tragedy was around the corner.

That September, involving themselves in village life, Janis and Judy arranged a sponsored football match to raise money for a sports hut. Judy won the game with a penalty kick but complained of feeling ill and breathless and when they returned home with guests she went for a lie down.

Lisa, Judy’s daughter, took a drink up to her mother and returned saying she was making “funny noises”.

“The second I walked in the room I knew she was dying,” says Janis.

Judy died of heart failure aged only 30 and another two-year battle began for Janis, to adopt Lisa – the first person in a same-sex relationship to fight for custody.

During that time she began living with the woman who has been her friend and lover for 40 years (in an open relationship) and they raised the children together.

They could have kept a low profile but took the decision in 1977 to go public with their unusual household when prejudices towards same-sex parents exploded on to the front pages after two tabloid reporters posing as lesbians “exposed” a clinic that offered female couples insemination.

“I had the chance to defend my right to have children and could show Lisa (now a teenager) and Nick, as loving kids in a loving environment.”

Son Nick, 42, is now married and living in America and Lisa has moved to Australia.

Janis is never afraid of speaking out for what she believes in: since then she has been heavily involved in campaigning for human rights and environmental issues, in the UK and overseas.

She is an avid fighter against abuses such as sex trafficking, took up the cause of women’s right to vote in Kuwait and also became involved in Israeli-Palestinian politics through a freedom fighter lover.

Fighting objections that they may cause “terrorism” in the area, she planted 5,000 “peace trees” on land she owned near Bicester; supported a secret cell of resistance during the first Gulf War, and raised awareness for prostate cancer with Major Ronald Ferguson (Sarah, former Duchess of York’s father).

And don’t expect her to change any time soon.

As she says in her book: “Do I crave the peaceful arbour of respectability in my twilight years? Do I f***.”