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Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates: Doomed love

Today, November 22, is the day that Belfast-born author CS Lewis passed away, and the date that JFK was assassinated. And it was on this day, 20 years ago, that rock god Michael Hutchence died, leaving a legacy of pain

By Emily Hourican

Today it is 54 years since John F Kennedy was assassinated. On the same day, Aldous Huxley, prescient author of Brave New World, and CS Lewis, author of the Narnia books, also died. Seventeen years later to the day, it was Mae West, and exactly 17 years after that - 20 years ago this year - Michael Hutchence was found dead in a hotel room in Sydney.

His death was given as suicide - he was naked and had used his snakeskin belt - but his devastated partner, Paula Yates, mother of Hutchence's child, refused to believe it, insisting that his death was an erotic auto-asphyxiation game gone horribly wrong.

Brokenhearted, almost deranged, Paula survived only three more years, dying aged 41 of a heroin overdose in 2000. And then, 14 years after Paula, her daughter Peaches died, aged 25, also of a heroin overdose. Arguably, that too was part of the fall-out of Hutchence's death.

We expect rock stars and celebrities to have the kind of grand passions that become legendary. Most don't. They marry, cheat, fall in and out of love, but usually without any huge drama. If anything, it can all seem like a bit of a cabinet reshuffle at times - an extended, almost amicable game of celebrity wife swap.

Not so the Yates-Hutchence-Geldof triangle, which was horribly painful and polarising, with half of the UK and Ireland taking sides (usually Geldof's) and pouring judgment on Paula, who fared far worse in the court of public opinion than either of the men involved.

Partly, the judgment Paula faced was the usual media misogyny, but partly too it was her own fault, for dealing the press into her private life, probably without realising that once in, they weren't leaving. The tabloids were a considered part of her strategy in the bitter custody battle she fought with Bob over their three daughters - Fifi, Peaches and Pixie - as well as an effort to very publicly annex Hutchence, who had long been dating Helena Christensen by the time he and Paula first began their affair.

Paula was definitely bright and bold, maybe even a little brash, but she was vulnerable too, something the press didn't seem keen to acknowledge.

Brought up an only child in north Wales, her mother was a Bluebell dancer and sometime-actress who wrote erotic fiction. She was also absent for large parts of Paula's childhood - "I used to go to bed not knowing if she'd still be there in the morning," Paula once said, describing herself as "this whining, whining, clinging child ... I would lie outside the toilet if she went to the loo". The man she believed to be her father, Jess Yates, presenter of Stars on Sunday, left when Paula was eight, and later turned out not to be her father at all. Before she found this out, Paula gave a prescient interview in which she said she was astonished she was ever conceived at all. "I don't remember my parents together, ever," she said.

By her own account, Paula lost her virginity when she was 12, and started snorting heroin at the same age. By 14 she was a regular on the London club scene and by her late teens, when she first met Geldof, she was a mix of precocious, demanding and fragile. She seemed set to be a short-lived kind of brightness, a burst of colour doomed to fizzle out.

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The couple in London in 1996

Instead, she found purpose and security in him, and the life they built together, transforming herself from wild child to earth mother, but without losing her sense of fun. "Paula flirts with everyone," was one friend's verdict. "She flirts with her children, she flirts with me, she even flirts with my cats."

Paula's memoir is deeply sad, a shocking tale of neglect and emotional abuse. And yet she delivers it with a disarming kind of dash; no self-pity, and as much humour as she can squeeze.

That's because Paula was clever - far cleverer than she got credit for. "A smart girl who made a career out of pretending to be an airhead," according to one interviewer. For all her pretence of being ditzy, she would often get up at 4am to write, produced eight books as well as researching and interviewing pop stars five days a week for The Tube, once asking Diana Ross "have you ever had any fat bits?" - a perfect blend of cheek, silliness and daring.

She was also, and in reaction to her own miserable upbringing, busy creating the perfect home life, the kind of thing that comes in a catalogue for expensive baby furniture - an idealised blend of home baking, fairy lights and indoor swings, with Paula always ready to switch from perfect mother to sexpot wife.

But there too, she was astute. "We have been seduced by the glossy magazine ethic of having it all," she said, right back in 1993. "It is a great lie. It has caused women untold misery and generated a million guilt-ridden insecurities. No one can have it all; nobody ever does … I suppose I do have it all, more than anyone else I know ... People point the finger and say 'But you're doing this, this and this, how do you reconcile it?' I reconcile it because I'm willing if necessary to go with five hours' sleep …"

She couldn't have done it without Bob, but what first she welcomed as a steady, sobering influence in her life, later came to feel controlling, and by the time she fell for Hutchence, Paula was clearly ready to bolt. She had already had several affairs, including with Rupert Everett, but with Hutchence, it was immediately, devastatingly different.

They first met in 1985, when Paula interviewed him for The Tube. By then, she and Geldof had been together for 10 years - although they didn't marry until the following year - and had one daughter. Hutchence, the son of a middle-class Australian businessman, described in one school report as "rather immature, but very pleasant", was up-and-coming as frontman of INXS, but not yet madly famous.

The flirting was obvious - afterwards, she apparently said to the INXS tour manager, "I'm going to have that boy", but not nearly as blatant as their later, famous, 1994 Big Breakfast interview, in which she says, while draped across Hutchence, "for the first time, this is a guest I want to have my leg over". She looks so dishevelled in the clip, their conversation is so intimate, that it's as if she just has. "My dress rode up there," she says at one point, giggling. "Did it?" he responds, adding: "Not far to go."

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Troubled time: Paula Yates with Bob Geldof

By that second interview, nine years later, Paula was married, with two more children.

For all the posturing around being a domestic goddess, she was frustrated and feeling hampered. She had also come to feel that Geldof was "the most controlling person".

Hutchence, meanwhile, had become a bone fide rock god, with a string of glamorous girlfriends, including Kylie Minogue, Belinda Carlisle and Helena Christensen. But, he was also, apparently, suffering with depression after a freak accident left him with compromised senses of taste and smell, and would later add Prozac to the list of drugs he was taking.

In Paula, Hutchence saw someone funny, sexy, nurturing; the same endearing combination of rock chick and earth mother that she had always worked so well. As for Paula, it seemed as if she saw everything she ever wanted in Hutchence - at that stage of her life anyway. Where Geldof, beneath his rock star exterior, was actually sensible, responsible, socially motivated, Hutchence was rock star through and through.

"The good, sensible thing to do is to be completely drunk, take drugs and have sex all day," he once said, a remark so carefully outrageous as to be faintly embarrassing - and one that worked very well with his unruly curls, the shirts slashed to the waist, the swaggering, pouting and smouldering.

Paula later boasted that on their first date, Hutchence did "six things I was firmly convinced were illegal", one involving oysters. She was, to put it mildly, silly for him - he called her his "soulmate" - and threw herself into his world of clubs, drugs, parties and sexual experimentation. She didn't just leave her marriage, she changed herself in fundamental ways - the boob job being the most obvious. She was the same age as Hutchence, but that still made her older than his usual run of girlfriends.

She was then in her late 30s, a mother of three, and somehow, in almost all the photos of them together, she looks agitated and guarded, not the relaxed, confident women she is in photos with Geldof. A year after the Big Breakfast interview, and in the full glare of tabloid spotlights, Paula left Bob.

That she broke his heart, there is zero doubt. He didn't try to hide it, in fact he still doesn't. "I couldn't understand it," he said, of Paula's departure, quite recently. "I loved her profoundly. I didn't understand then that love is not enough." It is still a realisation that makes little sense.

Paula threw herself into her new life with Hutchence, but she wanted her daughters too - as did Hutchence, who loved the ready-made family that came with Paula - and that's where trouble started. The back-and-forth of custody arrangements went on, while Paula got pregnant and then gave birth to Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, her daughter with Hutchence, in July 1996. A few months later, while she and Hutchence were away with Tiger, the nanny, at home with Fifi, Peaches and Pixie, found a stash of heroin and opium, apparently hidden in sweet tubs, along with photos and sex toys. Paula and Hutchence insisted the drugs had been planted and indeed that their house had been bugged.

The battle for custody of Paula's daughters with Geldof intensified and Hutchence began to fear that Tiger - who he adored - would become caught in the crossfire and taken away from him. He was on Prozac for depression, he had money troubles, his career had hit a plateau - Noel Gallagher called him a "has-been" at the 1996 Brit awards, which can't have helped - and the strain of the high-voltage Yates-Geldof drama was taking its toll. According to the usual helpful 'friends' who spoke up after his death, Hutchence wanted to break up with Paula but didn't know how to extract himself.

"Michael was never - not even in Paula's wildest dreams - going to be that domestic person," his brother Rhett said recently. "When they were living close to Nick Cave he would say, 'I'm going to see Nick ...' and do nothing but bitch about the missus and the family. Anyone who thought Michael was going to be this tame, domestic hubby with the kids was just kidding themselves."

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Paula Yates with her daughter at Michael Hutchence's funeral

When he flew to Sydney in November 1997, Hutchence was expecting Paula and the girls to follow him, for a three-month stay. When that was postponed, due to the ongoing custody problems, he was enraged, ringing Geldof and cursing him mightily shortly before he died. In her statement to police, Paula described him as "frightened and couldn't stand a minute more without his baby".

After his death, Hutchence was said to be practically bankrupt, although a complicated series of trusts and holding companies was later untangled, revealing an estate of around £8m, of which half was left to Tiger Lily, and the other half to be divided between Paula, his father, brother, sister and mother. His ashes were similarly divided - between his family, Paula (who kept them in a pillow) and Tiger Lily.

To mark the 20 years since Hutchence died, a new album of songs is to be released, along with a documentary based on his diaries and a new biography. His daughter, who was brought up by Geldof, recently turned 21 and moved to New York. After many years of staying well out of the spotlight, she posed naked for photographer Kate Bellm. Paula unravelled so thoroughly after Hutchence died that she would sometimes go and stay the night with Geldof and his partner Jeanne Marine. She made repeated efforts to refocus her life, but would then relapse into despair.

Her death, the coroner said, was the result of "foolish and incautious" behaviour; an accidental overdose. Tiger, then aged four, was alone in the house with her mother. A year before she died, Paula said in an interview: "It's only the mothering instinct that makes you willing to suffer every day. I know it sounds like a Victorian novel, but it's true. Right now I still think living is a noble gesture."

It wasn't, alas, a gesture she was able to stick with.

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