Monday 24 April 2017

So long, Tara...gone - but never forgotten

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was god-daughter of a prince, an inveterate party girl and a cocaine addict - but she was also a compulsive sharer of life's joys. Barry Egan met her many times and recalls a lovely and vulnerable young woman who was constantly looking for love

TPT in Dublin in 2002. Photo: David Conachy
TPT in Dublin in 2002. Photo: David Conachy
Tara, her sister Santa, Prince Charles and Prince William on a ski trip in 1997. Photo: John Stillwell
The socialite in 2007. Photo: Gerry Mooney

They say that even in the harsh darkness of the world, amid the emptiness of existence, there is the lovely song of life - if one knows how to hear it.

Sometimes Tara Palmer-Tomkinson appeared to have that song in her heart. Other times, her pain seemed to block it out completely. Anyone who knew TPT, as she became known, preferred to see her as the former.

Victoria Smurfit put it best last week when the tragic news that Tara had passed away at just 45 years of age after losing her battle with a brain tumour emerged: "Saddened to hear about Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. She was a vibrant spirit to be around."

Author Simon Sebag Montefiore, who is married to Tara's sister Santa, echoed this sentiment, when he posted on Twitter: "Thinking about my 'supersonic' sister-in-law and the vanishing of her exuberant idiosyncratic unforgettable presence."

Tara, her sister Santa, Prince Charles and Prince William on a ski trip in 1997. Photo: John Stillwell
Tara, her sister Santa, Prince Charles and Prince William on a ski trip in 1997. Photo: John Stillwell

Tara was a compulsive sharer of life's joys. Anyone who crossed her path down through the years met (as I did in London and Dublin with Irish fashion guru Ian Galvin) a radiant young woman who lit up a room by walking into it. This was usually done with her wit ("I would never go out with a man who, when boarding an aircraft, turned right",) and her joie de vivre ("I don't like to look too much into things. Hey, after the rain there's always sunshine.") with a little bit of her special tongue-in-cheek Sloane-y madness that Tara had in spades ("I often pay homeless people to come round and clean my car.")

Under that wit and that intelligence, however, was a vulnerability and resignation that was hard to disguise emotionally. Even harder when the illustrious It Girl of London became addicted to the party chemical of choice, cocaine, and was in and out of rehab, starting in 1999 at the Meadows rehab clinic in Arizona.

The daughter of the future King of England's ski instructor was doing more white stuff than you could find on the Alpine slopes. In 2006, after years of excessive use of the Class A nose-powder, the wall of cartilage in Tara's nostrils finally collapsed. She had thousands of pounds worth of cosmetic surgery to get it fixed but she never quite looked the same again.

"I've been destroyed by the things people have said," she once told me in reference to that surgery on her nose. The pain was also reflected in 2012, when she tried to launch a music career. "This heart will fall apart / in five seconds", sang Tara. "This girl will fall apart."

The search for happiness and love with a partner always eluded her privileged, troubled life that was as documented in the tabloids as much as it was in Vogue or Tatler. One of her exes even wrote a song about - and for - her.

She's looking real drab just out of rehab

The socialite in 2007. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The socialite in 2007. Photo: Gerry Mooney

I'm talking football she's talking ab fab...

You sound so funny with your voice all plummy

Now your cheque's just bounced better run to your mummy

- Life Through A Lens Robbie Williams

In a 2014 interview, Tara said she didn't want children "as they scare me. I have such admiration for working mothers who don't get any help - they must be exhausted. I do believe in love, but I don't see myself settling down. I was in love once, years ago, but I was left a bit heartbroken and I never got that feeling back. The right guy just hasn't come along. I also see the way men behave with me as a single woman when their wives are in the kitchen next door. That puts me off".

Growing up on the 1,200-acre Dummer Grange, her parents' estate in Hampshire, Tara's childhood was one of weekend hunting shoots with various Royals, chief among them Prince Charles, whom Tara's father, former Olympic skier Charles Palmer-Tomkinson stayed chums with after teaching him to ski in the 1970s.

Prince Charles became Tara's godfather ("I have kissed Prince Charles every single day since I was four years old"). A bond was forged in life that lives on in Tara's passing: Charles and Camilla released a statement through Clarence House last week, saying: "We are deeply saddened and our thoughts are so much with the family."

Tara, who attended the Royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April, 2011 at Westminster Abbey, once told me the story of when in the late 1980s she drank her finger-dipping bowl at Balmoral Castle, thinking it was soup.

That wouldn't have been so bad, Tara laughed, had she not turned to the Prince of Wales and said: "What fantastic soup. You must let me have the recipe." The heir to the throne, Tara remembered, "just let me drink the whole thing. He thought it was really funny. My mother was in hospital with two broken legs. She had fallen down in an avalanche", Tara told me, referring to the tragic incident on March 10, 1988, when her mother Patti was seriously injured in an avalanche on Gotschnagrat Mountain while accompanying Charles, Prince of Wales, on a holiday in Klosters, Switzerland which killed the royal equerry, Major Hugh Lindsay.

"So, I was up there in Balmoral on my school holidays. Y'know, my mother had always told me to just work from the outside and move in, and I still had a spoon left. So I thought, 'well, this simply must be soup'. I was only 16."

Ironically, despite her pampered aristo reputation - which she played up to in 'real' life, in her column Yah! in the Sunday Times and in her book The Naughty Girl's Guide To Life - Tara was very much at odds with that perception.

"When I got the It-Girl tag it was all about timing," she said. "They wanted a real-life Ab Fab person. That was only a small part of who I was. I didn't come from the Paris Hilton world. Mine was privileged, yes, but it was old money. Our house was - is - held together with Super Glue. If a plate breaks, my father fixes it. You'd have to break both your legs or fall off a mountain to get any sympathy." The posh young ladies who were educated at Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset and grew up at gymkhanas were groomed for a quiet family life in the Shires doing nothing more showy than wining the jam-making contest at the local church hall. They weren't supposed to star in Walkers Crisps ads or finish runner-up on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! as Tara did back in 2002 - or, worst of all, end up sobbing on The Jeremy Kyle Show on TV telling the nation about how she almost died after taking a cocaine overdose, as Tara did three years ago ("I remember timing my heart because I knew it was going to stop. I remember my telephone was there and I remember crawling on my hands and knees to pick up the phone and call, and then I woke up in hospital.") Tara's celebrity reached such a level that the caves where Osama bin Laden was supposed to be hiding in Afghanistan - Tora Bora - were renamed "Tora Bora Tomkinson" by British Special Forces in 2001 trying to find him.

I recall one afternoon in the Clarence hotel in Dublin about a decade ago. It was not yet 1.45pm and TPT already had two Bloody Marys. A bundle of manic restlessness, she twitched at her clothes, at her skin, constantly. She swore she'd given up coke. ("I am blood- tested most of the year anyway for the shows that I do. I am kind of eccentric by nature and people misinterpret that.")

Bloody Mary was her thing now. When it is time to leave for the airport, she wanted to change her clothes, and instead of changing in the other room, she simply strips down to her bra and knickers and puts on jeans and a top and finishes her Bloody Mary before running out the door. Before she left to catch her flight - she was already sky-high - Tara waxed philosophically about "being rehabbed".

''I am very good at being accountable for my actions," she said that afternoon, "I can own my own sh*t".

Being rehabbed was, she said: "Good, if you don't preach it to everyone else. I don't preach it, because I was rehabbed and then I stopped everything for three years. And then I started drinking again because drink was neither here nor there to me. I could take it or leave it," Tara Palmer-Tomkinson laughed glugging her Bloody Mary. One day they put her in solitary confinement in rehab, "and I wasn't allowed to talk to anyone for 30 days. It was the most horrifying, lonely place I could ever be. I was so far away from home. I had to wear a sign that said 'No One Can Talk To Me'."

You're making that up, Tara, I told her.

"I'm not," she insisted. "It was awful. I will never forget the way I cried that day. I just couldn't believe that I was here in this place in America. 'I haven't got any drugs! And now I can't talk to anyone!' It was awful." The only person she could talk to was, she added, her therapist, because they said that Tara was telling all the other patients about the paparazzi and her high-flying exploits among the world's glitterati. They told Tara that she was "not here to entertain people".

"Being rehabbed is quite good," she continued, taking a slug out of her Bloody Mary, "because you do learn about people's behaviour patterns".

I asked what did she learn about her own behaviour patterns? "That I possibly grew up feeling unworthy and that the reason I was doing what I was doing was to escape. Which is probably why most people take drugs," she answered, "to escape something or other; or to feel better about themselves. But rehab helps you deal with things. In the old days, I might have had a screaming argument with someone and become incredibly volatile. Now, I would actually address that person differently and confront them in a different way. It made me comfortable in my own skin". I said to her that she always gave too much of herself away on TV and in print, and that she needed to hold a little bit back for herself.

"I lied so much when I was a junkie," she says. "They lie to themselves and they lie to everyone else. They lie where their money is going. They lie about why they are sick. They lie about everything. I spent six years of my life lying to the people I love most in the world. So the game's up. I'm honest now! But I'd rather be too honest than the other one - being a liar. I hate liars."

When was the last time she said, "I love you" and didn't mean it?

"Oh, I've done that. I was with a man for two years. I didn't love him. I just thought it was time to settle down with a property developer. But I never loved him, no," Tara said, adding that when they unsurprisingly broke up, she sneaked up to his house in Knightsbridge at 2.37am and threw a brick through his window. When he called the police, she had to hide under a car for two hours until she could make good her escape. "My getaway driver didn't show up, so I had to stay under this car listening to all the commotion until 4.37am. I remember the time precisely."

Perhaps the terrible irony of her death from a brain tumour last week is that Tara had appeared to have achieved that most difficult of things: she had turned her life around and (again appeared) to have put her hedonistic habits behind her, to become, as The Telegraph's Fashion Director Lisa Armstrong described her, "like a millennial Lady of Shallot, she keeps herself more or less occupied within her penthouse''.

One of the original IT girls, Tara said recently that: "I'm not the person I was, I've gone completely the other way. I'm a very quiet person now, and I like being that person." No one really believed her. Least of all, sadly, Tara. She was the poor little rich It Girl who had everything but in hindsight had perhaps nothing worth having.

In the mid 1990s, I blew most of the budget of a magazine I was editing for The Sunday Independent on Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. ( It was inarguable that she blew most of the sizable fee for the article - which I ghost wrote - up her smart hooter.)

She was a big star at The Sunday Times magazine and yet here she was writing a big piece on London for us. The article was held up with a photograph of her in front of Harrods, beneath the headline: Tara! Tara! Tara! - a play on the words used by the Japanese pilots attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 in the film Tora! Tora! Tora!

The joke was that Tara was in a destructive dive-bomb mode. She thought it was funny. She was not, of course, above making jokes at the expense of both herself and the myth that the media had built up about her. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson could talk against herself. She would point out the reference for you, too: in Vile Bodies one of Evelyn Waugh's heroines reacts to the announcement that there is a Workers' Revolutionary Party by asking why she has not, in fact, been invited.

Tara put this in the self-deprecating context by recalling in 1996, when an announcement was made earlier that year of Jimmy Goldsmith's 'party', that she believed it was a soiree and not a political movement. "And history may well judge that Jimmy will be better remembered for his parties than his party," she harrumphed, wisely.

I'd like to think that history will remember Tara Palmer-Tomkinson as the girl who brought life and soul to the party.

RIP TPT.

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