Sunday 30 April 2017

Tara was an It girl with heart but no happy ending

Born on the same day we shared many things but Tara's life ran on very different lines in the end, writes Emily Hourican

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and her sister Santa Sebag-Montefiore arriving to attend the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton in April 2011. Photo: Jasper Juien/PA
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and her sister Santa Sebag-Montefiore arriving to attend the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton in April 2011. Photo: Jasper Juien/PA

Emily Hourican

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and I were exactly the same age, born on the same day - December 23, 1971 - and maybe that is why I always felt more than simply passing interest, and sympathy, for her.

When Tara was tearing up London with her cocaine-fuelled partying, I was having my own party years here in Dublin. So much tamer, so much less glamorous than hers, but undoubtedly motivated by the very same desire: to have fun, to celebrate youth and opportunity; glorious freedom from childhood without, yet, the responsibilities of adulthood.

I drifted away from mine unscathed, and Tara did not. But she seemed, I always thought, a decent person. Wild, obviously, probably impossible, but sweet-natured and enthusiastic rather than arrogant or demanding. And, for a drug-addict, strangely guileless.

I interviewed Tara in October 2010, when she launched her first novel Inheritance. By then, she had been to rehab, had her septum reconstructed after it collapsed due to cocaine abuse, and had tried, without huge success, to get a TV presenting career off the ground.

I told her that she and I were astral twins. We agreed December 23 was a rubbish birthday to have, and she said she would text me to wish me Happy Birthday that year.

That day, in the Morrison Hotel, she was jumpy as a cat, pacing around the room, smoking, taking slugs of white wine and bites of a club sandwich, although she finished nothing; even the cigarettes were put out after a few puffs, or left to smoke themselves. Awkward, nervous, twitchy - constantly brushing non-existent hairs off her face - she was also touchingly desperate to be taken seriously. For someone so well-educated and well-connected, she seemed surprisingly unsure of herself.

Her commendable honesty - always a feature with TPT, one that often got her into trouble (going on record in 1999 to deny she had slept with Prince William, then a teenager, was one example of something that would have been much better left unsaid) - wouldn't allow her to claim she had actually written the novel, but she was clear that the story was hers, or mostly hers. Inheritance is about a charming but undisciplined aristocratic girl who falls into a very public drugs hell, then picks herself up and makes good with her life. Even then it struck me that the end was more wishful thinking than reality-based.

I asked her why she bothered trying so hard to find herself a job, saying that if I had as much money as her (she once boasted that "my grandfather left us a lot of Leicestershire", although really, who knows how these things actually work), I would disappear off into that round of summers-in-Mustique-winters-in-Klosters that the very rich favour.

"You have to consider how somebody might feel when they go to bed at night," she said, twisting her hands. "Feeling self-worth, to me, is incredibly important. Having self-worth and self-esteem, which I haven't had in the past - I mean, hey, that's why you become a drug addict, you're not a happy person. Going home and thinking, 'I got a ten pound pay rise today,' is great, no matter how many millions you're got in the bank."

That, I suppose, is the whole point - we all need self-esteem and if, for some reason, it is in short supply naturally, then we do what we can to get it. For Tara, that meant faking it at first, with the help of cocaine, then trying to earn it.

By the time I met her, Tara's schtick had worn pretty thin in London. The years of falling out of nightclubs with boyfriends who included Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, Matalan heir Jamie Hargreaves and Robbie Williams, wearing designer clothes and clutching cocktails, had made her a figure of fun.

With her usual self-awareness, she admitted: "In London, people had started to resent me, but when I came to Ireland, they just thought it was hilarious and they loved it, so I loved coming here. Look, you go where you're popular and where people are pleased to see you, and people were not that pleased to see me anymore in England!"

Tara never really did the whole chest-beating mea culpa thing. Again, too much honesty, I suspect.

"I'm not saying I'm proud of it," she told me that day, about her cocaine addiction. "It's not something that I condone or advise, but the first part of it was such good fun. I'm not going to be a liar - you don't become addicted to things that are horrible. I suggest don't touch it, but I can't say 'oh my God it was the worst thing in my life!' Listen, I had two years that were absolutely… I thought I was fabulous!"

She was excited that day, talking about the second novel (hers was a two-book deal) projects in America, TV gigs, a clothing line, an album. "I would like to make it clear, I have a perfectly good brain," she said, adding "It's a shame I have to be 38 and just getting round to proving myself now…"

I guess she never did prove herself. Not the way she seemed to want anyway.

But she was loyal to the end. Her publishers, she admitted candidly, would have preferred her to write an autobiography rather than a novel. Of course they would; it would have been full of the royal family, as well as a literal who's who of British society - but "I would never name names, or kiss and tell," she said. And she stuck to that.

The one thing that might have guaranteed her the kind of fame she sought, that would have got everyone talking, was the thing she stayed away from.

Tara never did text me on my birthday, but I often thought of her on the day as we both clocked up the years. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour just two months after I was diagnosed with a tumour of the tongue base. Hers was benign, but it may have killed her.

There was something dignified as well as very sad about Tara's death. In the years before she died, either due to the brain tumour, or a relapse into drug addiction, or indeed both, she had become frail and reclusive, possibly lonely.

"The party world scares me," she said last November. "I am a very quiet person now. I have a better perspective on life."

She never did get the happy ending she wrote about, but in her own funny way, TPT made a big impression. An It girl with heart.

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