She was the TV presenter whose fiery wit and chronically flirtatious nature made her one of the most famous women in the UK. Second only to Princess Diana, who reportedly told the starlet: “I love it when you’re on the front page because it means I’ve got the day off.”
Having once declared, “I can’t imagine me ever going out with anyone who couldn’t fill a stadium,” her larger-than-life personality that dominated iconic shows The Tube and The Big Breakfast and her high-profile affairs with the biggest rock stars of the time, sent tabloids into a frenzy — with her every move headline news. What’s more, she was the OG celebrity-turned-business mogul, having capitalised on this attention via her own brand of lingerie, perfume and by writing books. One of these was titled Rockstars in their Underpants, perfectly summarising the audacious temperament for which she was so beloved.
From asking Kylie Minogue, “Is it true you had an affair with Prince?”, to convincing rock band Police’s frontman Sting to take his trousers off live on air, there was no one quite like Yates. Plagued by tragedy in her later life, which included a publicised divorce with UK national treasure Bob Geldof, a drug-fuelled, heartbreak-headed love affair with INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence and an untimely death in 2000 due to an accidental heroin overdose on her daughter Pixie’s 10th birthday — her legacy has been grieved by many.
Her incredible story is being unpacked in new two-part Channel 4 documentary Paula, through never-before-seen interviews with the late TV icon. The programme’s executive producer, Shaminder Nahal, called Yates, “a whirlwind of wit, verve and charisma”. She added: “Looking at what she achieved now, it feels like no one has ever quite matched her as a TV presenter.”
The mini-series features members of her inner circle, such as former Take That singer Robbie Williams, hairdresser Nicky Clarke and her best friend Belinda Brewin, all of whom will provide insight into her life.
This is the devastating yet brilliant life of Paula Yates..
A troubled childhood
Yates was born in 1959 in a small village in North Wales called Colwyn Bay. Her parents, the showgirl with a genius level IQ of 160, Elaine Smith, and former presenter of ITV’s religious show Stars On Sunday, Jess Yates, had a fractious marriage. One that her father refused to end — despite their growing resentment towards one another.
In her autobiography, Yates described her turbulent childhood which was rife with abandonment. “I used to go to bed not knowing if she’d still be there in the morning… I would lie outside the toilet if she went to the loo,” she wrote. The couple eventually separated, with Jess moving to Leeds where Stars on Sunday was being filmed, and Smith moving to London.
After being embroiled in a scandal with his 16-year-old lover, Jess was expelled from the industry and became Yates’ primary carer. A manic depressive, Jess would shut her in an orange box and practise the organ for hours, she said.
Yates later said that the neglect meant that she couldn’t speak until aged four, wasn’t potty-trained until five, had an eating disorder by eight, and was experimenting with heroin at 12. Her mother disputed these claims, saying: “Fiction is always more interesting than the truth.”
In a bizarre turn of events, in 1998 Yates discovered that Hughie Green — a hated and professional rival of her father’s — was in fact her dad after Noel Botham, a former journalist and drinking friend of Green’s, revealed that one of Britain’s most famous celebrities was actually Green’s child in an eulogy.
Following a nationwide “who-is-it?”, the News of the World ,which at the time was Britain’s best-selling newspaper, claimes it was Yates. The shocked presenter later took a DNA test to put the story to bed, but the results confirmed the allegations.
Yates’ first job was at music paper The Record Mirror, where she wrote a column called “Natural Blonde”. She first came to prominence in the 1980s as the co-presenter of The Tube alongside Jools Holland. The Channel 4 show platformed emerging ‘80s bands and was an important outlet for performers — for example, The Proclaimers claimed their performance of Letter from America on the show was instrumental in helping them to secure their first top-10 UK hit.
During this time she also released a version of Nancy Sinatra’s hit song “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” in 1982, appeared in a spoof documentary on pop group Bananarama in 1987 and wrote two books on motherhood. Paula, then teetotal, would get up at 5am in order to fit in a career alongside traditional family life with her husband, the Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof.
Her breakout role was undoubtedly her stint on The Big Breakfast, which was produced by Geldof. Here she became known for her “on the bed” interviews where the presenter would interview the biggest stars on, well, a bed. In fact, the notoriously giant pink, fluffy bed adorned with animal print became the site of one of her big tabloid scandals — but more on that later.
The Geldof years
At 16 Yates dropped out of school and moved to London. Here she became a fixture in the blossoming punk scene where two years later, aged 18, she met Bob Geldof, then the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats. Following their party meet-cute the two became inseparable with Yates joining the band on tour before beginning a relationship with him.
Due to Geldof’s absent mother, who had left the family when he was seven, the musician was initially a notorious commitment-phobe — even after the birth of their first daughter Fifi. To counter this, Yates took to leaving notes around their house on which she had practised her signature ‘Paula Geldof.’
Taking the hint, in 1986 the two got married at the Little Church in the West in Las Vegas ten years after they first met. They had their union blessed later at the church in Kent near their weekend home, Davington Priory. The wedding happened fresh off Geldof’s infamous Live Aid concert so the pair became the It-couple of their day, and had two more daughters — Peaches and Pixie.
But things quickly turned sour. “She was determined to leave. She was desperately, desperately unhappy. She couldn’t just leave Bob, it’s so sad that she couldn’t just leave on her own merit,” alleges Yates’ former PR and close friend Gerry Agar Fennell of their later years.
“At the time after Live Aid, Bob wasn’t really doing anything, no money was coming in, he was a has-been, the excitement of Bob had disappeared,” she continued. “To leave, she needed something bigger and better, Robbie and Liam were the men of the moment. She needed that type of personality.
“I don’t think he wanted to be in anything so serious — or come up against Bob Geldof. Who in their right mind would want to be blamed for being the reason why Paula left ‘Saint Bob’?”
During their 20-year-relationship she had a year-long affair with American singer Terence Trent D’Arby, who Geldof famously confronted by turning up at his hotel and asking, “Are you knobbing my wife”. As well as a six-year affair with actor Rupert Evert, with the actor even reportedly proposing to Yates.
According to a paragraph in Gerry’s 2003 book: “Rupert had apparently announced that Paula was the only woman he had ever fallen in love with. ‘I cherished him,’ said Paula. ‘Enough to think very seriously about leaving Bob. Going out with a rock star was a bit like ‘living with a long-distance lorry driver,’ she said. ‘Did Rupert really ask you to marry him?’I asked.
“Paula laughingly replied, ‘I was pretty sure it was a proposal at the time, though he was treading the boards, so it was difficult to gauge whether he was in character or in Rupert.”’
As for Everett, the actor told Piers Morgan’s Life Stories that he thinks he was “in love” with Paula and simply “ignored” her husband Bob while they were together after beginning their love affair in 1982.
Michael Hutchence enters the room
Undoubtedly her most well-known affair was with INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence. The two first met during an interview for The Tube in 1985. “I’m going to have that boy [Hutchence],” Yates reportedly told the road manager of INXS, and began showing up at INXS gigs — and even brought her daughter Fifi along to one, too.
Nothing happened for the intervening nine years — apart from the odd, irregular correspondence — until 1994. It is not sure when exactly they consecrated their affair, but during a The Big Breakfast interview in October of that year, it was undeniable that something was going on between the two.
While lying on the iconic giant pink bed she announced: “For the first time, this is a guest I want to have my leg over.” She giggled that her dress had ridden up and he leered: “Did it? Not far to go.”
They didn’t try hard to hide the affair. At times Hutchence would boldly show up at the marital home of Yates and Geldof in Chelsea, with Peaches apparently once telling Bob that her mum was in bed with Michael when he telephoned the house.
By February 1995 Yates divorced Geldof to be with Hutchence, with Geldof left stunned and heartbroken. The nation, who had embraced Geldof for all his fundraising efforts, took a dim view of Yates’ decision. By the time Geldof and Yates had formally divorced the following year, Paula was pregnant with Hutchence’s daughter — Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily — who was born in July of 1996.
Spiralling into drugs and her untimely death
Hutchence lived up to the rock god stereotype all too well. “The good, sensible thing to do is to be completely drunk, take drugs and have sex all day,” he once told an interviewer. In an attempt to impress him, the once sober Yates began experimenting with alcohol and drugs.
“She only really got into drugs to impress Michael — it was a way to grab his attention, to be witty and sexy and a drugs buddy, and to keep up with him. But she couldn’t just pick it up and drop it, it got hold of her. She got more trapped into heroin than he did,” says friend Gerry Agar.
What’s more, the tabloid siege they were under, which included paparazzi camping outside their home, their phones being tapped and even journalists desperate for a scoop climbing through their windows, meant that the two sunk themselves into opiates and booze. An unfortunate accident left Hutchence with a poor sense of taste and smell, leading him to a Prozac and extreme sexual practices addiction
Friend Richard Lowenstein said: “Ever since the accident, he was in a slow decline. I’d never seen any evidence of depression, erratic behaviour or violent temper before it. I saw all those things after it.”
After the birth of their daughter Tiger, Yates hoped that the two would settle down. But according to Hutchence’s brother Rhett, “Michael was never — not even in Paula’s wildest dreams — going to be that domestic person,” Rhett said. “When they were living close to Nick Cave he would say, ‘I’m going to see Nick…’ and do nothing but b***h 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.”
Things really went south when nanny Anita Debney stumbled across a bag of opium in a Smarties Tube and polaroids of the couple wearing fetish gear three months after Tiger was born. Although no charges were brought by the police, it radically altered the pair’s relationship with Geldof, who no longer thought it safe to leave the children with them
In November 22, 1997, Hutchence was found hanging by a belt from a door at the Ritz Carlton room 524. An autopsy showed that cocaine, alcohol and Prozac, along with other prescribed medication, were in his blood at the time of death.
Although the coroner ruled the death sucicide, Yates and the rest of his family thought it was auto-erotic asphyxiation — where lack of oxygen to the brain is used to support heightened sexual experience — gone wrong
Either way, Yates was completely devastated and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital with depression. A few weeks later, she lost custody of Fifi, Peaches and Pixie, which led to her being re-admitted to rehab after trying to hang herself. “It’s only the mothering instinct that makes you willing to suffer every day. Right now, I still think living is a noble gesture,” she said in an interview at that time.
On being discharged she moved back into her Chelsea home where she was in the throws of intense agoraphobia and an OCD compulsion to clean. It was reported that pedestrains would see her walking barefoot around the streets high on drugs, and was a a regular in a drug den in a council block off Portobello road. As she was spiralling out of control, she was sent her own obituary by accident by a tabloid. The headline, she says, was ‘Suicide Blonde.’
Her friend Belinda Brewin said: “She used to ring me at two or three in the morning and she used to say: ‘He did love me didn’t he?’ and I’d say: ‘Yes Paula, he did love you.’ Paula reveals in the unearthed interview: “It literally does feel like someone’s punched you or broken something? Your heart actually breaks, and you can feel all the time this pain.”
A coroner found that she had taken an ‘incautious’ overdose of heroin, characteristic of an ‘unsophisticated’ drug user. She was found dead on September 17, 2000, daughter Pixie’s 10th birthday.
Father Peter Geldard, the former vicar at Davington church where her later memorial was held, said: “She was incredibly distressed by Michael’s death and never got over it. That is what led to her death. She was a bright, intelligent and caring woman whose overwhelming priority in life was her children. She hated being criticised by everyone for the way she chose to lead her life. Paula, the poor thing, really did suffer a great deal and I felt for her.”
Peaches and the aftermath
Her memorial was held in September 2000 in Davington Kent and was attended by Annie Lennox, Nick Cave, Gary and Martin Kemp, Simon Le Bon, Roger Taylor, Kevin Godley and Paul Young. Bono sang and Jools Holland played piano.
The three children she shared with Geldof — Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Pixie, who were 17, 11 and 10 respectively at the time of her passing — had already been in the sole custody of their father for two years prior. However Geldof also adopted Yates and Hutchence’s now orphaned child Tiger.
Tragically their daughter Peaches died in similar circumstances on April 7, 2014, when she was found slumped across the bed by her husband Thomas Cohen while their two sons Astala, 5, and Phaedra, 4, were playing next door. The inquest heard how Peaches had puncture marks to the front of her right elbow and right thigh and had injected heroin with a purity of 61 percent compared to the usual street levels of 26 percent. With little tolerance due to her attempts to get clean, the dose would prove to be fatal — with the coroner ruling it an accidental overdose.
Her last ever Instagram post, which she shared the night before her untimely death, was a photo of Peaches and Yates captioned, “Me and my Mum”.