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Life Post-Groupie: Fast Times and a Slow Burn


As "Almost Famous" opened in Los Angeles last weekend, celebrating the 1970s rock 'n' roll groupie Penny Lane, the consummate rock chick died in London. She was Paula Yates.

Yates was little known in the U.S., but in Britain she was bigger than Jerry Hall, bigger than Bianca Jagger. She stole rock stars from super models. And she wasn't even particularly pretty. But even at 40, and a mother of four, she never lost the rogue sparkle of a groupie.

It is hard to quantify the allure of these women. The movie only hints at their strange mix of effervescence and ennui. It leaves its heroine's past a secret. Yates enjoyed no such delicacy.

After attaching herself to Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats in 1976, she clung so tenaciously to the Irish rock star that his friends nicknamed her "the limpet." Nude photographs followed for Penthouse, and to judge by the number of porn sites her name brings up on the Internet, she did more of the same sort of modeling after that.

By 1982, at only 23, Yates was made co-host of "The Tube," an English pop music show launched by what was then a new alternative television station. Scottish co-host Muriel Grey recalled for the Guardian newspaper, "The first time I met Paula Yates, I knew it was my duty to turn up my nose." It wasn't cool in the early 1980s, said Grey, "to wear frilly cutoff ball gowns, kitten heels, or admit to fancying pop stars."

Until, that is, Yates made it cool. "At a time when television's version of womanhood was either brainy and plain, or pretty and dumb, she broke the mold by being precisely what she wanted to be," said Grey. She was, said her friend admiringly, "a Holly Golightly who swore."

After she and Geldof married in a Las Vegas chapel in 1986, he pioneered Band Aid for famine relief in Africa and was knighted for his efforts. This transformed Yates, at least on her American Express card, into "Lady Paula."

While rock stars jockeyed to be seen as compassionate and cool, Yates blithely painted a large swath of pink. The three children she had with Geldof seemed to have been named with the wave of a fairy wand: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches and Pixie.

On TV, she took to interviewing pop stars while propped in a bed, wearing sexy nighties. For an interview with George Michael, who was not in the studio, she nestled into a satin pillow with a phone to her ear.

But when she interviewed Michael Hutchence, Australian star of INXS, they were both in bed, legs interlocked. Soon Hutchence had left his partner, supermodel Helena Christiansen, Yates had left Geldof, and there was a fourth daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily.

Then Yates' perpetually fizzy world began to go flat. Attempts to hold her own on the quiz-show circuit failed. When she sparred with the wits behind the satirical magazine Private Eye, the sharpest retort she could muster was to refer to a foe as "sperm of the devil."

Vicious tabloid stories followed, alleging that she had tricked Hutchence into the pregnancy. There was a custody struggle for the three daughters by Geldof when opium was found in a candy container in the home that Yates shared with Hutchence.

In May 1997, Yates was further humiliated by the revelation that BBC television host Jess Yates, whom she had grown up believing to be her father, was not. DNA testing confirmed that her mother, a former beauty queen at a seedy seaside resort, had been impregnated by a man named Hughie Green, host of the British TV game show "Opportunity Knocks."

The insult was compounded when her mother, by then divorced from Yates, remarried and living in France under an adopted name, insisted to the press that she must have been drugged during her daughter's conception or that the DNA test, which disproved Yates' paternity, must have been faked.

Yates quit speaking to her mother. Within six months, her life was a living hell. In November 1997, during a visit to Australia, Hutchence was found dead in a Sydney hotel room. He had asphyxiated himself with a belt, an act believed to be a sexual stunt gone wrong, not a suicide.

Dogged by reporters as she traveled from London to Sydney for the funeral, Yates howled insults about Geldof and the custody battle and flung champagne at Thai flight attendants.

It has been reported in the British press that when the now 4-year-old Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily tried to wake up her unconscious mother last weekend in their Notting Hill home, there was a bottle of vodka, heroin and a jar of prescription pills beside her bed.

But there was no note.

While not above reaching for a spot of oblivion, Yates was not the Goodbye Cruel World type. She was anything but self-pitying. She was a consummate groupie, who in her flouncing genius and weird, weird bravery, became a sort of sleazy goddess.

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