There are few places more grim than a British seaside resort in November but it is here, in a down-at-heel Bournemouth hotel, that Billy Jay Smart – scion of the world-famous circus family – will be bedding down tonight in a £29 room.
The Anaglypta-lined walls and garish carpets of the Durley Grange Hotel are a far cry from the 12-bedroom Grade II-listed Georgian mansion in rural Essex where he was living until his eviction last year.
But, as the 49-year-old Old Etonian tells me in painfully honest detail, ‘needs must’ when you find yourself plummeting from Big Top to rock bottom.
But, having burnt his way through the family fortune, BJ, as he has been known since childhood, has only £200 left to his name.
Billy Smart, pictured, son of playboy multimillionaire Billy Smart Jr, grew up in vast homes in London , Monaco, Marbella and Florida
Nazeing Park, the home of BJ Smart. The Anaglypta-lined walls and garish carpets of the Durley Grange Hotel are a far cry from the 12-bedroom Grade II-listed Georgian mansion in rural Essex
Now ‘of no fixed abode’, he flits between friends’ sofas and budget hotels. His only possessions are a rucksack of clothes and an Apple computer with a 27-inch screen which he lugs around under his arm.
Having slept rough in a 20-year-old Nissan Micra for several months, the Travelodges in Suffolk and at an M4 service station in Berkshire have been recent haunts until price hikes forced him on his way.
‘I’m definitely getting to see how the other half lives,’ he says, determinedly upbeat. ‘It’s surreal to find myself in this situation.
‘It’s a humbling experience. I could never have imagined it happening to me.’
His spectacular fall became public earlier this year during court proceedings brought against him by his sister, Baccara La Roux, and his creditors.
It resulted in him handing over the keys to £5.4 million Nazeing Park House near Waltham Abbey in Essex to discharge his debts.
But today, Smart has agreed to speak to The Mail on Sunday about the humiliating riches-to-rags tale of how he squandered his share of the inheritance, borrowing against properties to make ill-fated investments while trying to maintain a lifestyle befitting an aristocrat.
He arrived in Bournemouth this morning, he tells me, after spending a freezing night at Victoria coach station in central London en route from a hotel near Stansted Airport.
Gone are the days of whizzing around in his father’s magenta Rolls-Royce Corniche or his own £250,000 1963 Bentley Flying Spur, part of a fleet of 20 classic cars (plus a red Ferrari powerboat). Today’s £32 journey was made on National Express.
‘This is a different world to the one I’m used to,’ he says. Last night’s dinner was a ploughman’s roll from a bus station cafe, otherwise it’s often a £3 sushi box from Lidl. ‘It helps having survived Eton,’ he adds. ‘This is a walk in the park compared to an English boarding school.’
So how does a man who once had a £20 million property empire end up washing his smalls in the sink of his budget hotel bathroom? ‘I’ve only myself to blame,’ he says. ‘I was living way beyond my means. I was in complete denial about what was going on and I buried my head in the sand.’
The fatefully risky advice Smart was given by his father, a keen gambler who became a property investor, was that money comes and goes but it comes back again.
His father was the youngest of 11 children born to Billy Smart, a former fairground operator who, in the 1930s, set up a successful travelling fair and, after the war, a world-famous circus with elephants, polar bears and lions
He arrived in Bournemouth this morning, he tells me, after spending a freezing night at Victoria coach station. Pictured, BJ Smart at his Bournemouth Hotel
However, it never occurred to him, he realises now, that one day it might simply run out. ‘I kept telling myself that everything would come good in the end,’ says BJ. ‘I took my eye off the financial ball.’
His father was the youngest of 11 children born to Billy Smart, a former fairground operator who, in the 1930s, set up a successful travelling fair and, after the war, a world-famous circus with elephants, polar bears and lions.
When he died in 1966, Billy Jr and two older brothers took over the business, launching Windsor Safari Park in 1969 on the site now occupied by Legoland Windsor. After the circus stopped touring in 1971, the Smarts produced a popular televised Christmas show.
A legendary lothario once linked to Princess Margaret and the actresses Ursula Andress and Diana Dors, Smart Jr married BJ’s German-born mother Hanna, a Pan Am air stewardess, two weeks after meeting on a flight in 1973.
Nothing about BJ’s childhood was normal. As a toddler, he was allowed to share his bed with a lion cub. He fed bananas to baboons which rode around in the back of his mother’s car. Holidays were spent in Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados or skiing in Gstaad in Switzerland, while Christmas was often at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. Shirley Bassey sang at one of his birthday parties.
Billy Jay Cott slept rough in a 20-year-old Nissan Micra, pictured, for several months
One of his earliest memories, aged three, is of riding an elephant in front of the late Queen and Prince Philip at The Royal Windsor Big Top Show during the 1977 Silver Jubilee.
‘I had my own bespoke clown suit and shoes when I was four,’ he says. ‘The clowns would throw me around or I played with the chimps in front of the crowds.’
Long before he was old enough to have a licence, he drove motorbikes and his mother’s Range Rover around the 28-acre grounds of the family home, Hawthorne Hall in Windsor.
Visitors included Michael Caine and his wife Shakira, his sister’s godparents, with whom Smart sometimes stayed during school holidays. Comedian Ernie Wise bought him the drum kit on which Ringo Starr taught him to play when he was six. Other family friends included Prince Rainier of Monaco and his son, Albert.
While BJ’s father had spent his childhood living in circus trailers and taught himself to read, his son went to private prep school in Windsor and then Eton, where contemporaries included Viscount Macmillan and the Crown Prince of Nepal. After A-levels in 1992, he studied at Duke University in North Carolina but dropped out after a year.
‘I was rather aimless,’ he says. ‘My mother, who kept horses, wanted me to be an equestrian vet but aside from being a racing driver I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life.’
He got a law degree in London but failed to secure a training contract with a law firm.
Instead, he worked as an estate agent for six months before deciding to try to make money from property – starting by selling the house in Belgravia which his father had bought for him.
‘My sister and I used the cash, and another lump sum from my father, to buy a house for £1.75 million in Ascot in 1997,’ he explains.
That was sold, four years later, for almost double the price. It was the beginning of a string of property investments, all made with money from his father.
‘My parents were very generous,’ says Smart, who has never married and has no children. ‘There was an attitude of “what’s yours is mine”. I think that was probably a mistake. I didn’t have to strive for anything. I didn’t learn a sense of responsibility around money.’
He pinpoints the start of his financial downfall to his father’s terminal cancer diagnosis in 2004.
‘While he was ill, no one kept an eye on his finances. I was in a bad place. I was more concerned about finding a cure for him. He invested heavily in tech and a lot was lost with the dotcom bubble crash. If there was a fortune, much of it was lost at that point.’
Whatever was left behind when Billy Jr died in 2005 was enmeshed in a ‘family pot’ shared with his mother and sister.
Properties owned by the trio included two villas in Palm Beach, Florida, a condominium in Aspen, Colorado, a shop in the Spanish resort of Puerto Banus, another house in Belgravia and four investment properties in South East London.
He borrowed £3.5 million against the Belgravia house to buy Nazeing Park House where all three of them lived until his mother’s death in September last year.
While his sister pursued a career as an artist, Smart carried on spending, splashing out on luxury cars including a £250,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI and two racehorses. Thousands more were spent each month on staff and bills.
He invested heavily in business ventures, financed by remortgaging family properties. He patented an automated docking system for super-yachts and threw money into designs for a toaster which wouldn’t burn toast.
Plans to bottle and sell water from Nazeing Park’s ancient well and set up a micro brewery never got off the ground. ‘I always knew I would never be as successful as my father but I wanted to make my own mark,’ he explains.
Debts spiralled after he took a high-interest £4.2 million loan in 2014. When he failed to make repayments, the lender sued and by the time the dispute reached court last January, he owed £9 million.
To complicate matters, he became caught up in a parallel dispute with his 44-year-old sister who claimed a 50 per cent stake in Nazeing Park House on the basis that half the money used to buy it was hers.
Smart, who doesn’t dispute her claim, agreed to the house sale as part of the settlement.
By then he was sleeping on a friend’s sofa and unable to afford a lawyer. For the hearing, he appeared via video link, surrounded by bin bags filled with his possessions, leading the judge to comment: ‘That doesn’t look as nice as the accommodation you had before.’ Smart says: ‘It was a relief to walk away in the end. I messed up. I still love my sister. I’d do anything for her.’
In the aftermath of his mother’s death, he was evicted from Nazeing when bailiffs changed the locks at the behest of his sister’s lawyers who accused him of hindering attempts to sell the property. They had been unaware that at the time he was on the roof, doing repairs.
After he climbed out through a window, he drove off in the Micra to Harlow and slept in the car for four weeks. He recalls: ‘I didn’t shower for a month.’
Now, a year on, he is surprisingly optimistic about the future.
He rarely drinks and goes for a long walk or a run every day. He tries to fill up on food from hotel breakfast buffets or buys something cold from Aldi or Lidl.
Sitting in the hotel’s cheerless and otherwise empty lounge, the recent purchase of a £5.50 suit and £2 pair of shoes from a charity shop is enough to bring a smile to his face.
‘I honestly don’t feel my current situation is that bad,’ he says. ‘I have a roof over my head. When you close your eyes at night, it doesn’t matter where you are. If I ever achieve success, this won’t be a wasted experience. I will be a damn sight more careful next time.’
Because, despite everything, he firmly believes this ‘next time’ lies just around the corner.
Most people in his situation might consider getting a job with a salary, but Smart, who refuses to claim benefits, spends his time working on plans for an on-street parking reservation system.
‘I wouldn’t rule out finding work,’ he says, ‘but first I want to try to make a significant amount of money as some sort of restitution. I really believe that if I can get my business off the ground I can make a success of it.’
What lies at the heart of this sorry saga, then, is a cautionary tale about the devastating effect that parental wealth can have on the lives of children. What would his grandfather, and his father, think if they could see him now?
‘I don’t think they’d be very impressed,’ he says. ‘But I still hope that one day I’ll achieve something that would make them proud.’