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 was unpacked in a new two-part Channel 4 documentary Paula, through never-before-seen interviews with the late TV icon. This was broadcast on Monday and Tuesday and is available to watch on All 4.
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.
Here’s all you need to know about 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. Her father refused to end it — despite their growing resentment towards one another.
In her autobiography, Yates described a turbulent childhood 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. Her parents eventually separated, with her father moving to Leeds where Stars on Sunday was being filmed, and her mother moving to London.
After being embroiled in a scandal with his 16-year-old lover, her father was expelled from the industry and became Yates’ primary carer. A manic depressive, he 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. This came 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 them securing 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. Then teetotal, she would get up at 5am to fit in a career alongside traditional family life with her husband, the Boomtown Rats frontman Geldof.
Her breakout role was undoubtedly her stint on The Big Breakfast, which was produced by Geldof. She became known for her “on the bed” interviews, where she would interview the biggest stars on, well, a bed. 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. She became a fixture in the blossoming punk scene where two years later, aged 18, she met Geldof. The pair became inseparable following their party meet cute, with Yates joining the Boomtown Rats on tour before beginning a relationship with Geldof.
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 left 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 10 years after they first met. They had their union blessed later at the church in Kent near their weekend home, Davington Priory. The wedding came a year after Geldof’s legendary Live Aid concert, so the pair became an It couple 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 [Williams] and Liam [Gallagher] 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?”. Yates also had a six-year affair with actor Rupert Everett and he even reportedly proposed to her.
Agar Fennell wrote in her 2003 book, Paula, Michael and Bob: Everything You Know Is Wrong: “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, he said on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories that he thought he was “in love” with Yates. He said he simply “ignored” Geldof while they were together after beginning their love affair in 1982.
Michael Hutchence enters the room
Yates’s most well-known affair was undoubtedly with INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence. The pair 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. She began showing up at INXS gigs — and even took her daughter Fifi to one, too.
Nothing happened for the intervening nine years — apart from the odd, irregular correspondence — until 1994. It is not known when exactly they consecrated their affair. But, during a Big Breakfast interview in October 1994, it was undeniable that something was going on between the pair.
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. Peaches apparently once told her dad that her mum was in bed with Hutchence when he telephoned the house.
In February 1995, Yates left Geldof to be with Hutchence. Geldof was stunned and heartbroken. The nation, who had embraced Geldof given all his fundraising efforts, took a dim view of Yates’ decision. By the time the couple had divorced the following year, Yates was pregnant with Hutchence’s daughter — Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily — who was born in July 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,” Agar Fennell says. “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.”
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 they 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.
“Ever since the accident, he was in a slow decline,” his friend, Richard Lowenstein, said. “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. 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 the police brought no charges, the incident radically altered the pair’s relationship with Geldof, who no longer thought it safe to leave the children with them.
On November 22, 1997, Hutchence was found hanging by a belt from a door in room 524 at the Ritz Carlton in Sydney. An autopsy showed that cocaine, alcohol and Prozac, as well as other prescribed medication, were in his blood.
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 devastated and admitted to a psychiatric hospital with depression. A few weeks later, she lost custody of Fifi, Peaches and Pixie, which led to her being readmitted 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 to her Chelsea home, where she developed intense agoraphobia and an OCD compulsion to clean. It was reported that pedestrians would see her walking barefoot around the streets high on drugs. She was also allegedly a regular in a drug den in a council block off Portobello road.
As she spiralled 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’.”
Yates reveals in a previously unearthed interview shown on the Channel 4 programme: “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, her 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. It 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 before. However, Geldof also adopted Yates and Hutchence’s now orphaned child Tiger.
Tragically, their daughter Peaches died in similar circumstances to her mother on April 7, 2014. She was found slumped across a 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 per cent, compared with the usual street levels of 26 per cent. 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 Instagram post, which she shared the night before her untimely death, was a photo of Peaches and Yates captioned: “Me and my Mum”.