With Hollywood movie deals and pals like Madonna and Demi has Courtney Love lost her cool?

IT WAS STRANGE and quite depressing to meet Courtney Love, self- appointed whore-queen of rock and widow of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. I had gone to see an icon who gained fame on her own outrageous terms, and found a woman who had had a makeover and Hollywood star lessons and would only talk in the presence of a minder.

The first indication of this unhappy transformation came in a fax from her publicists, announcing that Courtney Love would not answer any questions about "drugs or Kurt Cobain". The second came at the South Kensington hotel designated for the interview, where I was greeted by a posse of PR girls holding clipboards. One of these was the bouffant-haired American minder who, another fax informed me, would be sitting in on all interviews "at the request of Courtney Love's manager".

This publicist explained that the 31-year-old Love was "kind of voluble", so she was there to stop me when I got out of line. "Sort of good cop, bad cop," she told me. "It's not that she can't protect herself, but she doesn't want to have to." She revealed the new information that I was not allowed to ask any personal questions at all, and added that Love had a secret signal to tell her if such a question had been put, at which she would jump on me.

The minder and I then waited for Love, who had gone for a walk, and I wondered if she would make an eye-catching entrance. But she slipped into her suite quite unostentatiously and gave me a wary handshake in her leather gloves. As the interview went on, in fact, I realised that she saw herself as poised on the cusp of super-celebrity and was consequently torn between acting like a prima donna and being her old mouthy, iconoclastic self.

A glint of the pre-Hollywood Love certainly popped out at the beginning when she started shouting, to no one in particular: "Hermes! Hermes! Don't you just love it that Hermes do $300 gloves with bondage?" and waving the gloves around, which had little gold chains, or possibly handcuffs - I couldn't quite see - on the wrists.

She was wearing black trousers, loafers and a tight black top. Her nails were pink and her eyes green as marbles under her bleached fringe. She looked bursting with strength - the opposite of the fragility projected by her husband, who shot himself in their Seattle house in April 1994 when their daughter, Frances Bean, was not yet two.

Anyway, she is fantastically attractive - far more so than most pictures suggest - and I would defy almost any man to resist her. She was saying in her husky-creamy voice that she loved Hermes scarves ("it's, like, the next big thing") and that she often shopped at, of all places, Laura Ashley, for matching coats for herself and her daughter. I said I wouldn't have expected her to wear anything so conventional and she did a kind of ironic double-take. "On me?" she drawled. "How could it be?"

WE WERE there to discuss her part in the new Hollywood biopic, The People vs Larry Flynt, about the American entrepreneur who built and still runs a porn-magazine empire, but the trouble was that Love didn't seem very interested in talking about the film. She is pretty good, however, as Flynt's heroin-addicted stripper girlfriend (which is not so very surprising as Love is herself a former heroin-user and stripper). More to the point she has, I think, been very pleased with the Hollywood status it has conferred, and the Hollywood pals it has brought: I got the impression that the interview was a chore to be got through so she could have more of that lovely vertiginous celebrity.

This impression came from little things she said and things I discovered later, like her comment to Paris Match that Sharon Stone had invited her over and taught her "how to dress, how to present herself". She growled to me that her business sense was "not as good as I wish" and explained: "When you meet someone like Demi or Sharon Stone - they're like, no one messes with them, ever. People give them crap, but who really cares, they're incredibly big and powerful. I've been weak and a little submissive in business, and I've let more men than women do business for me and then I've been a little screwed. But I am getting tougher."

She went on - later I thought this was the key to her new way of looking at things - "Madonna looks at every single phone bill of her employees every month. She's not stingy. But she looks. She checks. I'm like, 'Oh my God, I am so far removed from doing that.' " "Do you think you should?" I asked in surprise, and she answered with equal surprise: "Oh, yeah! Especially when I hear she's a good tipper and she's not stingy at all, you know, so I just think, God!" I said: "So are you going to start?" but she sighed theatrically. "Oh, I don't have the energy for it. But I better. For my daughter's sake."

This anecdote suggests a fundamental shift in her attitude to Madonna, the star whom Love most resembles and whom she has loved to insult in the past. Madonna once wanted to sign Love's rock band, Hole, to her record company, and Love was quoted as comparing this to "Dracula's interest in his next victim". She added that she didn't want her to know "anything about me because she'll steal what she can" and once even claimed that Madonna had a hand in the infamous 1992 Vanity Fair article which suggested Love took heroin while pregnant, prompting the temporary removal of baby Frances by the authorities. ("When you fuck with Jesus or God or whoever she thinks she is, you pay a price.") Madonna rose coolly above it all. "Who," she enquired, "is Courtney Love?"

But now Madonna has been forgiven by Love, who may have realised that schmoozing in Hollywood could become a little uncomfortable if she kept having to dodge her at gala dinners.

"I've never said she's crap," Love protested. "I've never said anything crap about her ever, really, I just said I wasn't going to be on her label. That was in '90, '91 when everyone wanted me to be on their label. The truth is it wasn't her, that label offered me a crappy royalty rate... But I didn't say anything crappy about her, really."

Our minder was getting a bit shifty in the corner and said that I could have one more question on Madonna. Love agreed: "Yeah, because it's boring for both of us. Okay. Here's what I'll say. If she hadn't done what she did I couldn't have done what I did. I like her. She likes me. It's respect. It's fine."

I asked Love if her fame had taken a leap because of The People vs Larry Flynt, and she said eagerly: "Yeah, it kind of did." What was that like? "Oh" - she made a face - "I have to sell my house, which really makes me mad." In Seattle? "Yeah. I have a nice house that I like, but I can't live there any more." Why? "Kids! Everywhere kids all the time!" Do they try to get in? "No, they're just there. And I have a child who didn't do anything. And I love waking up and seeing the mountains, I just love it. That's my big heartbreak at the moment."

It probably is, although Love didn't sound too broken-hearted. But selling the house, still a place of pilgrimage for Cobain's teenage fans, symbolises how she is swapping grunge and rebellion for the coiffed world of Hollywood glitz. Things have changed since a Japanese buyer offered $4m for the house two years ago. ("Of course, I was like, 'Go fuck yourself!' They were never even going to live here. They just wanted it. As what? As a fucking museum? Kurt wanted me to stay, or he would not have done it in the greenhouse...")

But now she is moving to LA, she says, "and I'm going to get a place in Olympia [near Seattle], a horse farm." She seems matter of fact about this and all it reveals, not least the letting-go of the life she led with Cobain (although one has to wonder if she would have grown out of him had he stayed alive). Is it good to be famous? "I'm alright at it. I get really embarrassed 'cos for so long I've been cool. And I've had so much cred it just sort of gets embarrassing." Not to have cred any more? "Well, I don't ever need to worry about that. But sometimes... Like, I was sitting next to Madonna at the Golden Globes and I was thinking: 'I'm Art! You're Commerce! Let's just change! You need the cred; I wouldn't mind a bit of that!' " - she acts out the swap; she can be very funny when she lets go - "so I just get embarrassed. Other times my inner patsy kind of tunes on, so - it's a little bit of a conflict. I've always been a bit of a poser, thank God, or I'd really be in trouble."

THIS EXHIBITIONISM must have kept her going when she was knocking around on the fringes, hoping to get famous. She was brought up in New Zealand by her therapist mother Linda Carroll and placed in a reform school at 12 for stealing. Thereafter she picked up work where she could: stripping in Japan at 14, and then in Alaska and Taiwan, hanging around pop groups in Liverpool (as she would do later to Cobain, she pursued and moved in with Julian Cope, lead singer of the Teardrop Explodes, but he chucked her out - "Free us from Nancy Spungen-fixated heroin A-holes who cling to our greatest rock groups and suck out their brains," Cope declared). She played in bands in New York and Minneapolis, and landed her first major part in Alex Cox's 1986 movie Straight to Hell.

She always wanted fame, she said, but I think wealth has been as important - the only time she admitted fear was when I asked her what it was like to have money. "You're afraid you're going to lose it all the time," she replied unexpectedly. "I drive past where I used to work and think: 'I don't have to do this! I don't have to do the minimum wage any more!' You think about it all the time."

I asked what those years were like, but it was a mistake. The atmosphere suddenly darkened and Love's signal to the minder became clear - she positively glared at her. So that topic was dropped. I was intrigued, however, to read her mother's description of Love as a girl. "Courtney came with a tremendous amount of pain in her," Linda Carroll told Vanity Fair. "My deepest fear about her is that what always made her life so torturous - this kind of psychic pain - is what is making her famous."

It might not surprise her mother that Love is obsessed with Blanche DuBois, the anguished central character in the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. That night Love was off to watch Jessica Lange play Blanche, and she confided: "When I was 16 that was the first film that was ever, like, really huge for me. I thought that I was Blanche, only I was a little too young to be Blanche!" Later, she admitted that she was drawn to women who were "kind of crazy and demented... women that never find themselves, that express themselves in a relationship with some successful man, and can never find their voice".

She continued: "I get very - and this is a Blanche thing - I get very obsessed with those kind of women, 'cos maybe in myself I always feared that would happen to me and, um, there have been times when it was near." She wanted to sort these women out, she said, "I want to get them guitars or something - I want to fix them, I want to save them."

It is certainly true that Love is known for intense - and sometimes short- lived - female friendships. For example, Amanda de Cadenet, former presenter of The Word and wife of Duran Duran's John Taylor, hit the headlines recently when she was seen out on the town with Love. But Love now denies the two were ever close ("she had a good publicist"). And anyway she is busy saving herself. She reported that she was "squabbling" over her salary for two more films, and one of them, she added with relish, would be an action movie in which she robs a bank. Then she would become mainstream, I observed. "Yeah, that's okay! How long do you have to be cool? Like, forever? Until you're 35? Until you're 40? I mean, come on! How long do you want not to be married and not have kids and not have a family and not be grounded?"

I asked her what else she wanted, and she said more children, and to make another record. "I just want a good record. I just don't want to do crap. I don't ever want to have to do crap, I never want to have to do it." She stopped, out of breath, and I wondered if the "crap" referred to the stripping and humiliation she must have endured in her teens.

So would she do the action movie? "I can't tell you. I might. I think if you want to have a real career you have to do one for them and one for you. That's what the ladies have told me, the divas. They're giving me diva lessons, so that's what they've told me." And who are the divas? "Just the ladies I mentioned before. They're just really nice to me and want to be friends with me. That's really cool."

! 'The People vs Larry Flynt' (18) opens on 11 April.

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