The original party girl, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was fun... but she suffered dark days too
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who has died at the age of 45, was the original 'It girl' who lit up the London party scene for a generation. Charlotte Edwardes bids farewell to the 'magnetic' woman she knew.
Not long ago, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson took a group of friends to her penthouse in Klosters, the ski resort in Switzerland, a new-build apartment that her mother helped to interior design. She mused that she'd like to retire there permanently, until someone pointed out how bored she would be in summer.
At night, she insisted they go dancing, and out into the cold she dragged them. No one could visit the royals' favourite ski resort without going to the famous Casa Antica Club, she said.
And dance they did. "Tara on top of a table," says her companion. "That's what she was like, the sort of person who could both play the piano beautifully and then get up and dance on top of it. Even sober, she was the life and soul."
Our paths crossed many times, from schooldays to the party scene, to two years ago when we chatted at length about doing an interview and her parents' anxieties about her talking to the Press.
It's said everywhere that Tara was privileged - her parents, Charles and Patricia, are close friends of Prince Charles and she grew up on a crumbly estate in Hampshire.
But her background was old money, unshowy and unpretentious (her father, she'd say, would rather glue a plate back together than replace it). She was a product of the stiff upper lip ("you'd have to break both your legs or fall off a mountain to get any sympathy") and a boarding school education.
Klosters was where she skied (brilliantly) and Hampshire was where she grew up, but London was where she partied throughout the Nineties and the Noughties.
In some ways, she defined the party scene - not just in the velvety decadence of Tramp or Annabel's, but weaving through the sweaty scenes at SW1 or the Embassy Club or Hanover Grand, dressed in Chanel: always a little skirt and heels, always a little handbag.
She was on the club scene long before Tatler officially declared her an 'It girl' and set her on the path to fame. "And then, as partying was what she was good at," says an old partner in crime, "she graduated to the more glamorous galas and launches, the openings and the premieres as well as the society functions."
Her nebulous draw was not just her prettiness, according to the celebrity party photographer Dave Benett, who grew to know her well, but her personality. "Her character was so strong, attractive and sexy," he says. "She was one of our best party girls ever - always made us laugh and was always ready to be funny."
He describes her as "a Sixties girl in the Nineties. She was like a Twiggy or a Jean Shrimpton - there was an innocence to her," but she was also an early incarnation of the modern celebrity: someone famous for being famous. She posed, she pouted and she pranced for the paps, "and then she'd make us give her a lift to the next party," says Benett.
She radiated naughtiness. In three high-octane decades, she saw everything from the inside of Highgrove to the inside of a police station. And she was proud of it. She even wrote a book entitled The Naughty Girl's Guide to Life.
Journalists were among her good friends - in those days they partied with her - and a column was forthcoming. First in The Spectator (in some ways she was an obvious successor to Jeffrey Bernard) where she described herself as a "broad with a broad mind", then in The Sunday Times' Style magazine, where it was titled, Yaah - Diary of an It girl.
There was also the 'modelling' - or at least being seen and photographed in clothes given to her by fashion houses who wanted a piece of her brand.
"She had so much energy, she was electric," says one PR who worked with her. "It was the early days of the freebie and she was up there for a long time."
Yes, her roaring cocaine addiction is well-documented, "although taking drugs in the Nineties was not exactly an anomaly," a friend points out, but her unflagging zest for life was genuine throughout the ups and down and rehab.
Reality TV followed - she came second in I'm a Celebrity in 2002 - and regular gigs as a panellist and off-the-wall commentator.
Later, she would say in interviews that the drugs made her feel confident in social situations. But she was always popular, even at Sherborne Girls. "At school Tara was cool," says a friend, "or as cool as you could be in a Sloaney all-girls environment in Eighties Dorset." With her rook's nest bouffant, patchy fake tan and sloppy shoes with the backs trodden down, Tara was always surrounded by friends.
Her sister Santa, two years older, may have had the "golden limbs, golden bracelets, golden hair" and become a tennis goddess with a killer serve, but Tara was funny. "She was bright, theatrical, creative and naughty. And the boys loved her," remembers a good friend. "She went out with all the best-looking boys."
One of her oldest male friends agrees. "She was so alive, and being in her company was enlivening. She was magnetic. For years and years I hung out with her nearly every day."
Such was her generosity, even then, that Tara would invite great gangs of friends back to her parents' house for parties.
"In the summer we'd take the train up there and swim in the pool. They had a big barn in the garden with a snooker table, and we'd have discos in there - maybe 40 or 50 people - and stay the night in sleeping bags." Her bedroom was a window on to her childhood - pictures of horses, photos of friends, posters of pop stars. She was artistic, she could draw really well, and she was musical.
She loved practical jokes, her friends says, "she'd pretend to swoon and she did it really well. When I first saw her do it I thought it was real."
Her parents, her friends all agree, were "loving, warm, open and open-minded". Her sister "adored her" and her brother James "was really sweet".
One friend remembers answering their phone to Prince Charles. "I said: 'Can I take a message?' It was a bit of a shock to hear who it was and that familiar voice - although none of her friends really cared about the royal thing."
She arrived in London "in a whirlwind" on the cusp of an era when partying in the capital was coming to a rolling boil. "Chelsea was a village dominated by indigenous people," says one of her closest friends from that time.
"The pubs were full and there was a party, something going on, every night. Back then, London was less about money and more about fun.
"Tara could talk to everybody. She was fun and glamorous, head-to-toe in Chanel, with all her powerful femininity. I remember the day that she walked into the club SW1: she made it."
Her flat in Bramham Gardens was the setting for drinks, barbecues and after-party late nights. It was dominated by a grand piano and cluttered with photographs of her family.
"She'd invite everyone back and tell stories from her wilder days," remembers another friend.
But she started suffering from "dark days" and friends remember that she could be quite tortured.
"She often said that she felt like she didn't fit in anywhere," one says. "But she wasn't always morose by any means."
She was "frank" and "very honest" and, while remaining completely discreet about the royal family and revealing nothing of substance, she'd happily engage in conversations such as fancying Prince Harry, "just like everybody else".
An enduring theme was her power to bring people together. Yesterday many of her friends got back in touch for the first time in years. "She always connected everyone back then," says one. "And now, in a way, she's connected everyone again."