The passions of Paula Yates
A decade has passed since rock star Michael Hutchence hanged himself in a Sydney hotel. Less than three years later, his lover -- and the mother of his only child, Tiger --died of an overdose. Paula Yates was pretty, bright and once married to another pop icon, our own Bob Geldof. The one-time teetotal devoted mother even invented the concept of the Yummy Mummy. How did such promise end in such tragedy? Sarah Caden re-examines the tale of the doomed lovers
Published 18/11/2007 | 00:00
ON THE morning of Saturday, November 22, 1997, a chambermaid at the Sydney Ritz-Carlton hotel knocked at the door of room 524. There was a "privacy please" notice on the doorknob, there had been no reply from the guest listed only as "VIP" when housekeeping had telephoned to see whether the room was ready for cleaning, and, before entering, the chambermaid knocked several more times, just in case. Eventually, the woman entered, calling out to alert anyone who could be within her presence. She may have known that the unnamed guest was Michael Hutchence, who had been spotted around the hotel the night before, seeming "spaced out", or have known that he'd subsequently partied in the room with friends into the small hours of the morning. Loudly announcing one's presence is a chambermaid's means of avoiding an embarrassing encounter with a naked and compromised guest, but Michael Hutchence was past caring.
What that Sydney chambermaid encountered in room 524 was the naked and dead figure of Michael Hutchence -- in his final years as famous for the soap-opera drama of his relationship with Paula Yates as for singing with INXS -- kneeling on the bedroom floor, his hands in his lap, a leather belt around his neck. The belt was tied to a spring-lever on a door, photographs of Yates and various pills were scattered around the room. There was no sign of a suicide note.
That Saturday morning in Sydney was still Friday night in London, when Paula Yates's friend Belinda Brewin came to tell her of Hutchence's death. Paula said later her first response to the news that her lover and father of her youngest, 16-month-old daughter, Tiger, was dead was to punch Brewin in the face. "Apparently they could hear me screaming right across Chelsea," Yates added. Still reeling with grief, she left London for Sydney with Tiger, vocally blaming ex-husband, Bob Geldof, for Hutchence's death, cursing him, trying to rip from him the "Saint Bob" tag. "What do I tell this little girl? How do I tell her that her daddy isn't here? That her daddy has committed suicide? Michael obviously flipped. He was worn down by three years of this torture."
Less than three years later, Paula Yates was dead from a heroin overdose. She had been tortured with grief over Hutchence, and had eventually rejected her original belief that he'd left her through suicide, choosing instead to believe that he had died during an auto-erotic game. In those three years, Paula Yates fell apart. Lost was the sparkling, electric presence so visible in the early-Eighties and her time on The Tube, through inventing the notion of the Yummy Mummy, through The Big Breakfast, to the Mrs-Geldof-becomes-Mistress-Hutchence years. All those incarnations were infused with essence of Paula -- fun, flirty, naughty-but-nice, while her final years were a disintegration of all that. In many ways -- which was the tragedy not only for Paula, but also for her four young daughters -- she died too that night in Sydney a decade ago this week, and while Hutchence's exit was swift and, some might say, ecstatic, hers was painfully slow and with a legacy that lasts yet.
Commonly, and inaccurately, the story of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence is thought to have begun on The Big Breakfast bed in October, 1994. In fact, it truly began in 1985, also on Channel 4, when Yates interviewed Hutchence on The Tube, she 10 years and one daughter into her relationship with Geldof, he a relatively little-known-in Europe singer with an Australian rock band. To a friend, Paula confided that Hutchence made her "feel quite feeble", and footage of the interview sees her almost squirm on her stool while he smirked, almost in awareness and appreciation of his effect on her.
That effect was not diminished when they met on television again, in 1994. There was no missing the message of their writhing, giggling interview on The Big Breakfast bed -- where, to be fair, Yates interviewed everyone -- but this was an encounter so charged with sexual energy it felt almost voyeuristic to observe. Fundamentally, it had the same energy of that first, Eighties encounter, but by the mid-Nineties Yates had been altered by age, motherhood and another nine years with her now-husband, Geldof. By this time, as Yates told one of the several friends who wrote about her after her death, she felt Bob was "the most controlling person" she knew. She said that what had seemed caring behaviour in her 20s, was smothering in her 30s, and she longed for some sort of freedom. She had enjoyed other affairs -- Rupert Everett's recent autobiography and confession of a long-running romance with Yates is proof -- but Hutchence was different. And, while The Big Breakfast interview suggested the start of something between the pair, the affair had, apparently, already been raging for some time.
The first time they spent the night together, Paula Yates said Michael Hutchence did "six things I was firmly convinced were illegal". It was a boast, and, according to one account, involved oysters, among other things. Before meeting Yates, Hutchence had a well-established reputation as a hedonistic sexual adventurer, the epitome of a rock 'n' roll star. He had a louche confidence that worked on women, was credited with the sexual awakening of Kylie Minogue during their affair and, when he began courting Paula, was long-time involved with Helena Christensen, then at her supermodel peak. An Aussie who had been raised as a rich expat kid in Hong Kong, before returning to Sydney and then moving to America when his parents separated, Hutchence was both cocky and faintly vulnerable, rough and raw but sort of sensitive with it. Women responded to this, Hutchence knew it, loved it, probably played on it and was committed to living the rock star cliche.
"The good, sensible thing to do is to be completely drunk, take drugs and have sex all day," Michael Hutchence once said in an interview, omitting to consider how history shows this lifestyle often ends early and tragically.
Despite her incorrigibly flirty personality, her self-confessed groupie disposition -- early proof of which was her adolescent, sexually precocious pursuit of Bob Geldof, Boomtown Rat -- Paula Yates was an innocent compared with Michael Hutchence. Before him, she didn't drink or take drugs, and alleged flings aside, she'd been committed to Geldof and their family for decades and she had carved out a niche that allowed her to play at being naughty but from a very nice and safe base. That she allowed friends overhear telephone messages from Hutchence, in which he promised to tie her up and torture her with pleasure, spoke of her pride in being found sexually exciting -- and by such a universally sexually exciting man -- but setting up house with him was a different matter. And when, in 1995, Paula Yates left her marriage to be with Michael Hutchence, it was then the path began not only to his death, but to hers too.
The great obstacle to their great romance was Bob Geldof. It takes no stretch of the imagination to imagine his hurt at being left by the woman Geldof says he loves still, but how he felt about their children sharing a home with Hutchence was a different matter. That was father bear protecting his cubs' territory, based on Hutchence's well-known love of a narcotic good time, and the changes in Yates that were obvious for anyone to see. It wasn't just the boob job -- which altered her petite, gamine figure to the point of turning her into a different person -- but the change in her behaviour. As Yates put it herself in a documentary she made after Hutchence's death, which she made to contradict a coroner's verdict of suicide, her late lover believed she was "a combination of someone who wore baby-doll nighties but, at the same time, had a lot of children, and he liked the idea that he could have everything." That is not necessarily who Paula Yates was, though, and a friend of Hutchence's who spent time with them in 1997, observed that if he'd believed one of them would die, it would have been Paula, who was "on [Hutchence's] bandwagon", ill suited to it, and suffering for it.
As a woman who had written two books about motherhood and was absolutely devoted to her three Geldof daughters, Fifi (now 24), Peaches (18) and Pixie (17), Paula Yates felt a strong pull to have Michael Hutchence's child. For her, perhaps, it was the ultimate proof of love, a living extension of it, but this was a responsibility Hutchence had long resisted. He came around, apparently, as result of becoming an uncle and through interaction with Yates's girls and in July 1996, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence was born. The little girl was -- and is -- a stunning blend of her parents' looks, and was beloved by them both, but this was not a picture-perfect, pretty, domestic set-up.
In the autumn of that year, police had investigated claims that opium had been found at the London home shared by Yates and Hutchence. It was said that her nanny had tipped off the newspapers to the presence of drugs in the house and around the four children, and the papers had in turn alerted the police. Later, a close friend of Paula Yates -- yet another who wrote a book -- elaborated on what had occurred when she called to collect her daughter from the house and found the assembled children playing with "waxy brown sticks" that had been packed into Smarties tubes and delivered by courier. The friend and the nanny phoned a drugs helpline, who told them the substance could be opium and a further search of the house -- undertaken for reasons unexplained -- unearthed yellow powder they took to be ketamine, cocaine and charred foil that may have been used for smoking heroin. Further, they discovered a hoard of Polaroids, apparently left where the children could find them, of Yates and Hutchence in latex suits and in a variety of sexual situations, using various extreme S&M sex toys.
In the face of this, it is hardly surprising -- all other hurt aside -- that in the year of Michael Hutchence's death, Bob Geldof continued to battle Paula Yates for custody of their daughters. And it was that battle, Paula said, that tipped Michael Hutchence towards suicide.
The week he died, Michael Hutchence arrived in his native Sydney to begin rehearsals for an INXS tour celebrating 20 years together. Friends observed he was not in great shape, there was speculation he was using heroin, that he wasn't coping, that the stress of his relationship with Yates -- and, therefore, Geldof -- was taking its toll. He was, as always, friends said, involved with other women and that, separately, was taking a toll on Paula, who had hoped to bring the girls to Australia with her and Hutchence, but had been prevented by the continuing custody issues.
Hutchence felt, he told friends, that everything would be fine if he could get Paula and the kids to Oz, where they could start afresh, but that was naive, to say the least, and unlikely. The night he died, Michael Hutchence ate dinner with his father and stepmother and then returned to his hotel, where he drank alone in the bar, was observed seeming "spaced out" by fellow guests and later retired to his room to drink into the early hours with an ex-girlfriend, actress Kym Wilson, and her boyfriend.
He made phone calls to Yates and to Geldof and left a message on the answering machine of another ex, who was sufficiently alarmed by his distressed voice to call to the hotel room door, where she received no answer. The next morning, Michael Hutchence was found dead, naked, asphyxiated by his leather belt and apparently with traces of semen on his bare legs.
Though she initially believed her lover had killed himself in despair and despite the Australian coroner ruling Hutchence's death a suicide, Paula Yates spent nearly three years, the final ones of her life, battling this conclusion. You could even say that her tormented rejection of it killed her. Very obviously, Yates was destroyed by grief. Her looks became ravaged, she was frequently out of it and distressed in public, she became lost. In 1998, it was reported that a friend found her with a noose around her neck. It was a cry for help, apparently, suicide resisted only because Yates's devotion to her daughters remained intact. But she numbed the pain with drugs and was treated for use of them in the Priory the same year. She fought Geldof for the three older girls, she fought the Hutchence family for custody of Tiger, she fought any suggestion her lover had chosen to leave life and leave her, giving bizarrely boastful pronouncements on his curiosity about auto-asphyxiation, which stemmed from his unfettered sexuality, of which she had been part.
In mid-September 2000, Yates' friend Belinda Brewin called to her home and found her befuddled. Brewin has said she could tell her friend had taken something and was cross with her for lapsing into behaviour from which she seemed to have been recovering. The next day, September 17, was Pixie Geldof's 11th birthday. Another friend, Josephine Fairley, rang Yates several times to prompt her to ring Pixie and got four-year-old Tiger each time, who said her mummy was "still asleep". Concerned, Fairley went to the house and found Paula Yates dead in her bed, killed by an overdose of heroin.
Michael Hutchence's death left Paula Yates lost and, in turn, Paula Yates's death left four young girls without a mother. Fifi, Peaches, Pixie and Tiger had, undeniably, been robbed of her somewhat during the previous three years, but in death, there was no hope of healing or redemption for Yates. It was a dark and horrible time, Bob Geldof has said since, revealing as much as is dignified about the pain of losing his wife to another man, followed by losing her entirely and finally. In the few words he has said on the subject in the seven years since, Geldof has captured the terrible waste of it all, but in raising Tiger in London, with her three sisters, the Dublin-born rocker did the right thing, the decent thing, something uncommonly respectful of his late wife's last love affair, one that almost destroyed them all.
Little girls when their mother died, the older Geldof girls are not quite all grown up, but certainly acting that way. The past three years have seen the emergence of Peaches, in particular, as a young woman to be reckoned with, a social scene fixture, self-styled celebrity, a personality in pursuit of validation by public profile. While her older sister, Fifi, has kept a low profile, with a job behind the scenes in media and a steady, non-celebrity boyfriend, Peaches burst into the public consciousness as an outspoken adolescent, who as a 15-year-old had the audacity to call Trinny and Susannah "upper-class bitches with no fashion sense".
Since then, Peaches has had her own TV shows and newspaper columns, has launched herself as a DJ, graced the London Fashion Week catwalk and is a must-have at any London -- and now New York -- event. She is, it is often said, the Geldof girl closest to the image of their late mother, though Pixie, who has been snapped in and out of London clubs for well over a year now, is snapping at her heels. Friends of Yates have bemoaned Bob's lack of control over his daughters, while he has insisted they're under control and no different to other kids, but the difference is not only that the modern celeb-world is very different and that these are kids undoubtedly affected by the toll her very public life took on Paula Yates. When Paula craved fame, celebs weren't snapped at every turn, every day. When she was a teenager on the scene, she wasn't sent tons of free clothes and goodies -- of which Peaches says she wears five items out of every 500 she's sent -- and wasn't scrutinised to the extent to which her daughters are now, before they have even emerged from adolescence. And why Paula Yates's girls should even want a public profile and fame is baffling, given it did their mother no favours in the end.
As Peaches has written, "we emulate those closest to us, so if Mummy dearest drinks, smokes and reads stacks of fashion and celebrity magazines, then aren't we likely to turn out that way?" Surely this is the kind of comment that causes Bob Geldof's blood to run cold and could, you would imagine, drive him to steer his girls clear of the taste for partying and rock 'n' roll bad boys which they have exhibited already.
It's possible, of course, that these young girls are just having the kind of youthful fun everyone grows out of, but, sadly, the shadow of how things ended for Hutchence and their mum hangs over everything. When Paula Yates died, it was commented far and wide how impossible it seemed that someone so sparkling as she could end up that way. For her daughters, there is always that shadow that the worst can come of something that seems the best, the most brilliant, the fatally irresistible.
The inquest into Paula Yates's death found that the 40-year-old had 0.3mg of heroin per 100ml of blood in her system. Had she been an addict, or even a regular user, this dose would not have killed her. It was an accident, the coroner concluded, a result of "foolish and incautious behaviour". Such words that describe not only the events of that night, but the night of Hutchence's death a decade ago and, perhaps, the essence of the time Yates and Hutchence spent together, and, perhaps, their legacy.