Everything You Know Is Wrong: How the media misrepresented Paula Yates and continues to do so
The emails arrive every year without fail, sometimes in a flurry, and often pegged to the anniversary of our friend's death. A new project is in the works that will finally show the real Paula Yates in all her glory. Typically the letter-writers flatter and cajole—we alone can ensure Paula's story is properly told. That happens to be, in large part, true. Josephine Fairley was Paula's best friend and I was lucky enough to become close to both of them.
Sometimes these pitches attempt to guilt-trip Jo and me. If we don't participate, the article or documentary or feature film will rely on the inaccurate testimonies of others. What about simply not writing that article or making that documentary or film? The option is never on the table.
Only once did Jo and I give interviews for a documentary. Shortly after Paula died, we took part in a tribute to Paula made by her friend Andrea Wonfor, who launched The Tube, a brilliant music show fronted by Paula and Jools Holland, and also helped bring the Big Breakfast to television. Clips of Andrea's film survive on YouTube. You can see that our eyes are red-rimmed with sorrow.
In 2017, 20 years after Paula's beloved Michael Hutchence killed himself, I wrote a piece about media complicity in what happened to them and to Paula's daughter, Peaches. Publishers suggested, not for the first time, that I write a book about these events. I would explain, patiently, that anything I put into the public domain, however carefully worded and contextualised, would not stay that way. Media outlets would cannibalise and sensationalise. People who barely knew Paula and Michael would put themselves forward as experts. And so the merry-go-round would begin again. I would also point out that these stories are not without impact, doing disservice to the lovely dead and inflicting pain on surviving friends and family.
It seemed to me that the only way to tell Paula's story was within the tightest of frameworks, as I had done with Michael—and I hadn't stopped thinking about how to talk about her because the irony of all of those importunate emails is that Jo and I would dearly love to "set the record straight" about Paula, her brilliance, her significance, her amazing qualities and achievements. We just know what happens if you try.
So, when Athena Stevens, then an Associate Artist at the Globe Theatre, approached me in 2019 about creating and performing a piece at the theatre for a series about women erased or traduced by history, I agreed. For months, I wrote and revised and cried every day until Dear Paula was ready. It takes the form of a letter addressed to Paula but also to a wider audience. I was to perform it on January 29, 2020.
On that date, my husband and love of my life lay dying. My friend, the actor Stella Duffy, performed the piece to a full house. Just weeks after Andy's death—and days before theatres and other public spaces closed in the first lockdown—I did perform Dear Paula, part of a fundraiser for Primadonna Festival. Jo stood by my side, ready to step in if I couldn't continue. We repeated this arrangement last November, when Dear Paula closed the inaugural Death Festival at the Attenborough Centre as part of an event called Letters to the Lovely Dead. I also had conversations with a number of filmmakers who asked to use it as the basis for programmes about Paula. Discussions foundered because always they wanted to include additional material, usually in the form of interviews.
Today I am publishing the script of Dear Paula on this blog, prompted to do so because another documentary about Paula is about to air. This one looks better-starred than most in featuring at least a smattering of people who actually knew her and, most importantly, film of Paula herself. However it has already spawned the kind of distorting coverage I describe in Dear Paula and there will doubtless be more to come.
Whether you decide to watch it or not, whether you are interested in Paula or not, hers is also a story about the dark side of media and celebrity culture. You may think this is nothing to do with your life, that people in the public eye—that women in the public eye—get what they deserve, a certain level of abuse the price of fame. I disagree. As I wrote in the Observer piece, if we accept the idea that individuals in the public eye are less than human, how should we insist on the humanity of those without names or profile? They too easily become migrant tides, aliens, collateral, unidentified and unidentified with. In depreciating celebrities while commodifying celebrity, we risk undervaluing everyone.
Note: I am publishing Dear Paula below in full. You may not quote from it or perform it without my written permission. The copyright of the text and most photos on this blog resides with me. The main photo of Paula is ©Josephine Fairley.
Oh dear. Paula.
Even after all these years, it’s difficult to think about you, impossible not to do so.
Dear Paula, with your rib-cracking hugs, your rib-cracking wit. Dear Paula, the Queen of Nicknames, the Duchess of Double Entendres. Hilarious and fizzing and vital.
Dear Paula, who misreads in the minimalism of the flat I share with Andy an absence, a need, and sets to filling it. Nothing makes you happier than to make others happy. You hang a spangled sari at our window, distribute bright cushions and ornaments. One day in December a taxi arrives, windows down to accommodate an enormous Christmas tree, already fully dressed.
Memories fade. Things fall apart. The sari at the window long ago leached its colours, crumbles at the slightest touch.
The pain, though: that’s as bright as ever, a cartoon starburst that first exploded when your cartoonified story ended and repeats whenever you slide into my daytime thoughts. This you do often. You are unquenchable, a restless ghost. There is no peace without justice, and that you never had.
Many nights you come to me, too.
In dreams, we reconvene on my bed and talk for hours. You offer advice, as you always did, a pick’n’mix of the brilliantly perceptive and the ridiculous. I remember you warned me that the world deals brutally with women who challenge its preconceptions; the world needs changing, you said, not women. You also insisted that pyjamas kill relationships. Turns out there are quicker ways to do that.
Twenty-two years ago, you cut us off forever. We who loved you. We who failed you.
“Everything you know is wrong.”
One night you paste this message on the door jamb at Redburn Street for the tabloid hacks and paps who will gather the following morning to take your life. If the message resonates with any of these men—and they are, to a man, men; cheeky chappies; all the bants; over here, darling! Smile! Cheer up, it may never happen!—it makes no difference. When dawn breaks, they break you, and the next day and every day they will do the same until you no longer exist. They take your life and break it into pieces for editors to reassemble into cartoon narratives.
You become cartoon Eve and Eve’s flyblown apple, cartoon Cleopatra and an asp with long eyelashes. You become Helen, the faithless wife bringing death and destruction, wanton and wild, except that you are not and never will be Helena. You are beautiful, but they erase your beauty. A glossy magazine features Helena Christensen on its cover, glistening and wholly innocent of the misuse to which she is being put, draped in a single headline: “Seriously, would you trade her in for Paula Yates?”
Poor, sad Paula Yates. Poor, sad, disgusting Paula Yates. Because who is sadder than a woman who is not a supermodel and yet who dares to love and be loved by the rock star who once loved Helena Christensen? Who is sadder than a woman who refuses to accept the value ascribed to her within a culture that measures her value by the inch: inside leg, hip, bust, waist?
What is more disgusting than the unabashed sexuality of a fully adult female—already in her late 30s!!!!—and (whisper it) a mother!!!?
The tabloids could “make Abelard and Heloise look like a Swedish enema video”, you deadpan, but even I start to recoil from their version of Paula Yates. She is not my friend, not dear Paula, not the Paula that Michael Hutchence, your Michael, cherishes, but a construct, a Halloween costume thrown together to scare little girls. They should be in no doubt: this is what happens to women who flout the rules.
I’ll tell you what’s sadder than this cartoon woman. What’s sadder is those other women, the columnists, who line up behind the hacks and paps, a chorus of disapproval inciting the audience to despise you.
The Meaniads of the red tops never wound you as deeply as their sisters, the broadsheet Furies. The Meaniads shill for money; they are paid by male proprietors and male editors to tut and fulminate. Even so, it’s tough to have your body and soul hacked at by such inept surgeons. You worry that your maltreatment cannot help but play out in your daughters’ lives. You are horribly prescient.
The broadsheet Furies, feminists all, cut with greater precision, to your quick. They’re enraged by your performative femininity, your augmented breasts, your burlesque rendition of the perfect housewife. You are subversive, but they mistake you for a counter-revolutionary, avatar and embodiment of everything they stand against. They cannot see past their upturned noses to your transgressive, ground-breaking talent.
They cannot accept a woman with contradictions and flaws. They do not grasp that accepting a woman with contradictions and flaws would in fact be an act of radicalism in a world that demands perfection of women.
They fail to acknowledge your achievements as a broadcaster and writer. They fail to understand that you are a performance artist.
They fail to see why you are a performance artist. You built your persona because you are a survivor. You are a great survivor until, one morning, on 17 September 2000, you aren’t.
Dear Paula, be proud. You survived a gothic childhood, of neglect and abuse, reinvented yourself, but never lost yourself. How fiercely you love, how fiercely you hug, how fiercely and ferociously funny you are. Such gifts you have, not least for friendships with women. Your cartoon narrative may be bracketed and defined by men—Saint Bob, Rock God Michael, your organ-playing, disgraced Dad—but it is women who are at the beating core of your life, your close friends, your favourite producers, your four daughters. Especially your daughters.
The Furies believe that in attacking you, they are defending women. They believe they are dismantling the very system that they are in fact feeding, with bleeding chunks of you.
“Help me,” you beg me more than once. Michael pleads with me too. As a journalist, surely I must know how to navigate these treacherous waters. The voices serenade you with a ballad of sweet redemption. You can “set the record straight.”. All that is needed is another interview, another exclusive.
I know that this siren song beckons not towards salvation but a whirlpool. One or two accurate stories can never prove a match for the prevailing currents. So I prevaricate, do as little as possible.
There are a few requests I can’t swerve. I agree to a secret meeting in a hotel room at Tower Bridge, with a tabloid editor who will later serve time for conspiracy to hack the phones of people just like you. He sounds sympathetic, but of course the tenor of the reporting doesn’t change. These days I wonder if you were surveilled too. Conventional wisdom holds that you routinely tipped off the media, but then again, conventional wisdom traduces you at every turn. Everything it thinks it knows is wrong.
Everything I know leads me to the wrong decision. I delay. When finally I reach out to a broadsheet to suggest they investigate the drugs bust at your home, it is too late. Michael is always adamant; he would never have left drugs where your children might find them. We believe him. The newspaper investigation throws up inconsistencies, unreliable witnesses, false friends and some who loved you and in trying to do the right thing appear to have made dubious choices. A source at the Crown Prosecution Service tells the broadsheet that the police have been manipulated.
The case never proceeds but the damage has been done. By the time I contact the newspaper, Michael has killed himself, though this is not a version of events that you accept. You cling to the comfort of a tabloid fable, a sex game gone wrong, because if his death is not an accident, then we are all to blame. One of our friends tells the newspaper that if the reappraisal of the drugs bust “had been published earlier, [Michael] might still be alive”.
I live with this guilt. You choked to death on it.
Or maybe you died laughing. Here’s a joke that someone told me days after a chambermaid found Michael hanging from a door at the Ritz-Carlton: “What cost thousands of pounds and won't be played with this Christmas?” “Paula Yates’s tits.” Hold my aching sides.
Cup my aching heart. I should have done more and sooner.
Your death is accidental but, after some point, it is also inevitable.
The day I realise how broken you are starts well enough.
By now you have moved into Michael’s house in Smith Terrace. I arrive to find the living room tidy, you washed and dressed, a hint in the air of bleach and of something else, purpose. These past weeks you’ve been listless, even when news comes that cuts you adrift from one of the last remaining anchors of a life in flux. Your father, a man you were determined to love despite his whirling rages, his abject failure to care for you and protect you, was not your father. You were sired by a different monster, a man with a TV show and a catchphrase about sincerity.
You heard this a few days ago but today your eyes are bright. You’re telling me how you fooled Michael’s family. They wanted to divide his ashes with you. You hated the idea. They don’t know it, but the ashes they scattered over Sydney Harbour were the remains of a barbeque, as Australian as Michael but not Michael, you say, because your humour never evaporates, just gets bleaker. You open a pillowcase to show me ashes, Michael, all of him. You will clutch him to yourself for the rest of your life.
Dear Paula. I still don’t know what I should have done, just that I should have done more and sooner, to defend and protect you and to assert who you are, who you were. Because you and I both know what happens in the coming months, as the anniversary of your death draws near and the forces that hounded and caricatured you return to their noxious work. The media loves an anniversary and even at this remove, they’ll dredge up something.
I stood by while they made you into a cartoon, a shadow, a one-dimensional, normative morality tale, and soon they will repurpose you for a new age. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The print press may be enfeebled, but misogyny, robust as ever, finds florid expression in an ever-increasing universe of channels and platforms. You will be misremembered and misrepresented. All the happiness you had and brought will be denied. Your achievements, your incandescence, will be overlooked and minimised.
There is indeed a moral to your story: the world needs changing, not you.
So I lie on the bed as we used to, and I summon you to me, no matter the starburst fusillade of pain. I start by re-reading a novel you wrote but never published. The protagonist is a hand and foot model whose two claims to fame are as “the hand holding the sprout aloft in the constructivist EAT MORE VEG campaign” and as Jerry Hall’s stunt double from the ankle down (“How else do you think a six-foot woman stands on size four feet? I’m always Jerry’s feet”).
I read or rather you read it to me. Every sentence is written in your distinctive voice, a distillation of who you are, engaging, fluent, uproarious. Perhaps it takes a writer to understand how difficult a trick that is and to revere your ability to turn out one book after another, 12 published, no matter what else was going on in your life.
I turn now to your autobiography, delivered during a year of turbulence and serial house moves. Your whole life is a narrative of turbulence and house moves, of invention and reinvention, ideas, most good, others less so, and many friendships. There’s an inscription to Andy in this copy: “The thought of you makes my gusset tremble, you love hound,” it says; you say.
As Michael fondly observes, you flirt for England and with everyone. We watch, laughing, as you sit on Andy’s lap, feign excitement at the asthma inhaler in his pocket, make him the centre of the world and all of us part of an alliance against reductive ideas of woman as temptress, woman as foe to other women.
You are a friend to women, not a foe, a woman who loves women and who has something to say about women, about complexity, about imperfection. A woman who gets things wrong but a lot more right. A woman who appears on TV in a froth of pale pink tulle, explaining to viewers that for the next five months, they’re going to watch her getting bigger. Even today you don’t often see pregnant women on your screens, or women presenting rock shows, and certainly not doing both at once. Back then it is revolutionary. Guess how the NME, that bible of cool, responds? “The only saving grace would be if she miscarried.” Jools Holland, who adores you, extracts a limp apology from the editor.
You are brilliant on The Tube and later on the Big Breakfast bed. Americans instantly spot what some of your compatriots refuse to recognise. Two years’ running, you win awards at the New York Film Festival. You are skilled at drawing out your guests, not least because you are kind. (Well, apart from your memorable encounter with Nashville musician Garth Brooks. “The man who put the cunt in country,” you call him, off-screen.)
The Sex Pistols’ John Lydon tells you Sid Vicious “was a bit stupid and easily led, but that’s how I like most of my friends to be”. “I prefer boys like that as well,” you trill and for a moment, Lydon’s punker-than-thou mask cracks into a grin. You lie, legs entwined, with a confessional, comfortable George Michael, a soul who normally recoils from the limelight. Famously you do the same with Michael, hussy that you are, but it is your interviews with women that are particularly fine. You have an instant rapport with Coronation Street’s Liz Dawn. You connect with Donna Summer, who speaks of how tough it is to be a woman in the public eye, something you know only too well.
You want people to feel good. This impulse animates much that you do. Not for you self pity or blame. In your memoir, you circumlocute and anecdotalise, squeezing amusement even from that brutal childhood of yours.
You are not completely honest and, to be honest, honesty could never be counted among your primary virtues. You have a habit of spinning harmless tales, originally a protective mechanism I suppose. This is confusing not least because many of the most unbelievable things you tell us prove true. “Brad Pitt’s going to call,” you say, and he does.
I doubt your stories of a liaison with Rupert Everett, who is gay. At your lowest ebb, Everett rings to offer support and after you die, he memorialises your relationship as a “strange love affair of utter misfits”.
To spend time with you is to believe as many as six impossible things before they break you, the tabs and the paps and the Meaniads and the Furies, the false friends, the human instruments of a woman-hating culture.
Everything they know is wrong.
We too share responsibility for this. We who loved you. We who failed you.
Dear Paula. Vivid and clever, bold and, in the best ways, brazen. Breaker of rules, mistress of mischief. Blazer of trails.
Dear Paula, Christmas day 1996, your turn at charades. You’d be better at this game than me, except that you can’t help yourself from helping the other team.
A book? A film? No, a play. One word. Four syllables. First syllable? Insects? Ants? Ant. Second. Sounds like knee. Third and fourth? Leave? You’re leaving, you’re leaving, you’ve left.
Antigone! Flushed and happy, you take a bow.
Dear Paula, summer in France. Lying on the terrace in the warmth of family and of love, nowhere else you want to be, drowsy with contentment, making us laugh. A moment in the sun.
Dear Paula. A moment in the sun.
A reminder: You may not quote from this text or perform it without my written permission. All photos and text ©Catherine Mayer apart from main photo which is ©Josephine Fairley and reproduced with her permission.