There’s a story about Paula Yates bumping into Diana, Princess of Wales that Yates’s friend Belinda Brewin recollects in the documentary Paula this week. The People’s Princess turned to Little Miss Hypocrite (I’m selecting two of their tabloid epithets from a smörgåsbord) and said: “I love it when you’re on the front page of the papers because it means I’ve got the day off.” Yates was the Diana of the dark timeline: two epoch-making blondes, one bottle, the other natural; one bawdy, the other demure; one flirtatious, the other innocent; one outspoken, the other reserved; a classic whore and madonna dyad. Perhaps neither one would have been as relentlessly surveilled and scrutinised without the counterpoise of the other, but we can never know, because as a direct or indirect result of that surveillance and scrutiny, by the turn of the century both were dead.
Billed as a documentary about the rise and fall of Paula Yates, centred on her testimony to the journalist Martin Townsend, which has never been heard before, this is, as is so often the case with rise-and-fall narratives, really a story about the British media. Her life story – tragically cut short in 2000, three years after the death by suicide of Michael Hutchence – is typically characterised as a sad one, but at the end of Paula I didn’t feel sad, I felt really angry. This emotion is the only respectful homage to a woman who, with her charisma, biting wit, trashy innuendo – demonic, lithe, ferret-like – redrew the limits of what femininity was supposed to look like. She wouldn’t want you to pity her; she would want you to be furious.
Paula Yates was the tabloids’ darling for a while, when her on-screen flirtatiousness was neutralised by its distinctive Carry On Interviewing vibe and the fact of her rockstar boyfriend, Bob Geldof, of whom surely no woman could ever tire. When she had an affair with Terence Trent D’Arby in the late 80s (she had been with Geldof for 12 years by then; they had met in 1976), the disapprobation from the press felt neurotic, as if a collective ego wound had been inflicted. But we might still look at the headlines – “Bob’s Paula caught with black star”, in the News of the World – and think some progress has been made in the world, which it has. That cocktail of racism and sexism – they acknowledge Trent D’Arby is a star, yet it’s still more important that he’s black than what his name is. Paula Yates is Geldof’s chattel. Probably wouldn’t get past the subeditors now.
It was only when Yates left Geldof for Hutchence in 1995 that Fleet Street turned remorselessly against her, and the battle plan was indistinguishable from the treatment you would see, say, the Duchess of Sussex get today, or some other poor schmuck tomorrow. There was a news-gathering wing, the 60-plus photographers camped permanently outside her house, rendering normal life, let alone normal parenting, impossible. These are the neutrals, the white helmets of the operation. Theirs is not to reason why; they’re just there to give the people what they want: they talk about this commercial imperative as though it’s a physical force, which becomes the phrase “it sells papers”. Everybody involved is passive, abstracted: the subject isn’t a real person; it’s an “it”. You and I aren’t buying the papers; nobody is: they are merely being sold.
Then the voices of the moral majority chime in, the “who does she think she is?” brigade. Then the supposedly sympathetic media wing, the feminists, the satirists, bring up the rear: “You seem like such an intelligent woman, why did you flaunt yourself in this way?” is often the subtext or, in the case of the Jackie Collins interview, the text. There is something so chilling about watching Paula Yates on Have I Got News for You, as Ian Hislop and Paul Merton tear into her for her attention-seeking. By 1997, the most appalling tragedy has struck: she has lost the love of her life; and in the same week the red tops have broken the story that her putative father wasn’t her father. She attempted suicide the following year, as a result of which she lost custody of her children to Bob Geldof. And still it doesn’t stop. “Pathetic Paula makes mockery of love and loss”; “Why poor Paula is only as good as the last man she slept with.” She tells Townsend at one point that she got sent her own obituary by accident, by one of the tabloids: “Headline, suicide blonde.” But that was sent in the post, to her address: how was that an accident? The cruelty was unmitigated, and the responsibility wholly distributed.
The fundamental charge, here, is not that Yates was promiscuous or adulterous; culture was not united, certainly by the mid-90s, on promiscuity being an untrammelled evil. No, it was that Paula Yates was an attention-seeker, uppity, spoilt, self-promoting. This, everyone could get behind; she wanted the attention, have at it. Everything is justified by sheer disgust at the woman who chases the spotlight rather than seeks to evade it. The perfect woman is the one who remains mysterious, keeps quiet: the Kylie, the Kate Moss. How do you get attention, if to seek it is repulsive, and to show your personality is impure? By being beautiful, of course. The values replicated here are as old as time: a woman’s highest value is her appearance. But media wouldn’t be able to replicate those values, in the face of a much more emancipated wider culture, without a complete absence of other values – like empathy, like compassion.
A coroner found that Paula Yates had not tried to take her own life when she died: she was the victim, rather, of her efforts at recovery. She had fallen off the wagon after rehab, and if she had been a habitual drug user, that amount of heroin wouldn’t have killed her. “When I read all these headlines, waiting for me to die, I just think, ‘Well fuck you, I’m not dying,’” she said in the Townsend tapes. The press didn’t kill her, but a lot of people should be asking themselves why they tried to, and so hard.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 988 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org