Portas was brought up in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, in a family of five children. Educated at St Joan of Arc Convent, Hertfordshire, she looked after her youngest brother following the death of her mother when she was 16. Her father, who died two years later, was sales director of Brooke Bond, the tea manufacturer.
Portas discovered a passion and talent for drama at an early age: she was awarded a place at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but the sudden death of her father prevented her from taking it up.
Portas started her career in retail with a Saturday job in John Lewis. She then had a part-time, and later a full-time, job with Harrods where she was responsible for window displays for about three years, before joining TopShop as display manager. While in this job, she was spotted by Burton Group chairman Sir Ralph Halpern.
Portas is credited with turning Harvey Nichols into a leading modern fashion brand. She created the Harvey Nichols show windows that became part of the guided tours of London ... one of her most famous displays was of mocked-up pop bands, including Gary Glitter. She then persuaded the store's owners to use younger designers, and gained publicity in the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous series in the 1990s, after promising writer and star of the show Jennifer Saunders the run of the store for research in return for Saunders namechecking the business. By the age of 30, Portas was a member of the company's board.
Portas left Harvey Nichols to launch Yellowdoor, a communications agency that she now runs with Peter Cross. Portas is Creative Director and Cross is Managing Director. Yellowdoor advises clients in fashion, retail, and beauty brands on PR, Communications Strategy and marketing.
Portas is claimed to be one of the UK's foremost authorities on retail and brand communication. She regularly travels around the world advising on retail strategy and frequently lectures on the theme of brands and retail.
On 19 June 2009, in a ceremony at Galashiels, Heriot-Watt University awarded Portas a Doctorate of Letters in recognition of her career and her contribution to the advancement of marketing and brand communications within the retail sector.
Portas's first book, Windows ... the Art of Retail Display, was published in five languages. She writes a weekly column, Shop!, for the Daily Telegraph magazine, reviewing shops across the country. She started writing the column in 2005 and it was her critiquing of shops that was the inspiration for the BBC documentary and accompanying book.
After getting her TV break on Richard & Judy, BBC 2 began airing Mary Queen of Shops in June 2007. The first series comprised four episodes in which Portas visited a number of ailing shops, aiming to help the owners revitalise their businesses. The BBC published a tie-in book, entitled How to Shop with Mary Queen of Shops. The second, six-part, series was aired from June 2008, and the three-part Mary Queen of Charity Shops in June 2009. A third series of Mary Queen of Shops began in June 2010 and dealt with independent shops including a bakery, a local village shop and a grocer.
Portas was married to chemical engineer and Unilever executive Graham for 14 years and they have two children: son Mylo and daughter Verity. Portas now lives with her civil partner Grazia magazine fashion features editor Melanie Rickey in Maida Vale with her children, after an amicable divorce from her husband,.
She spends her money on art, wine, theatre and chocolate; enjoys gardening.
Don't stand for shoddy service. If you're not being served, simply walk out of the shop. There are few stores selling an item that can't be found elsewhere. It may be an inconvenience, but these shops won't improve their standard of service until their sales figures give them reason to.
Never shop on a Saturday. OK, you've got the day off, but so has the rest of Britain. By the afternoon, the merchandise can be all over the place and the staff are flagging.
Dress the part. Wear flat shoes, jeans and vests so you are as comfortable as possible when you are walking up and down the High Street. And go shopping on a good hair day ... if your hair looks bad, the whole outfit won't feel right. The same applies with make-up.
Go online first. Use the internet to do your research before you go out to the shops. Log on after the major catwalk shows to get ideas for what's coming up and check out the season's key fashion pieces.
Don't buy in haste. If you're not sure, don't buy it. If you've got time and don't mind taking the risk, put everything back ... except exceptional items ... until the end of the day before making a choice.