Baby, Baby, Baby: Paula Yates, the rock chick who married Bob Geldof and interviews people in bed, has set herself up as an expert on motherhood. Is she serious, or is she just flirting with it, the way she does with everything else?
'Paula flirts with everyone,' explains her great friend Sue Godley, wife of the musician Kevin Godley. 'She flirts with her children, she flirts with me, she even flirts with my cats.'
'The only person who refused to get on this bed with me was Cecil Parkinson,' announced Paula, wide-eyed and pouting; I quickly scrambled up. On this bed, Paula conducts daily interviews for The Big Breakfast, Channel 4's anarchic, cultish hit. Here she has probed Diana Ross - 'have you ever had any fat bits?' - and pressed Claudia Schiffer about what luxury she would take to a desert island.
'A bikini,' Claudia decided - astonishingly stupidly, given that there would be no one there to see her; Paula rolled her eyes, then gurgled to camera: 'This is the lesbo-action bit of the show.'
Flirty, flirty Paula. Even her job sounds a bit naughty, the way she talks: 'I don't think,' she says, 'that sleeping with one of the owners gives you the advantages people think it does.' This is a reference to the fact that Bob Geldof, her partner of 16 years, husband of seven years, and father of her children, owns a third of the company behind The Big Breakfast and The Wednesday Weepie, an afternoon show in which couples talk about their love-affairs: Paula presents - from bed - drowning in red velvet.
Now 32, Paula Yates is most famous for once having given Bob Geldof a blow job in the back of a taxi (or so he says in his autobiography; she seemed rather startled when I mentioned it). She has since modelled, designed lingerie, marketed perfume, and compiled a book called Pop Stars In Their Underpants. She has been a television presenter - on the music show The Tube and the London arts programme 01 - and an author, most recently of two books about motherhood. Motherhood? Daffy Paula, tattooed peroxide pet, is remaking herself as a professional mother? But she's such a girlie.
AT 23, Paula Yates produced Fifi Trixibelle, now nine, then Peaches Honeyblossom, four, and Little Pixie, two, and became something of a self-appointed expert on mothers. In The Fun Starts Here (1990), 'a practical guide to the bliss of babies,' she suggests that working mothers are 'at best irresponsible and at worst selfish' and continues: 'It seems to me obvious that there is a clear stark choice: to have a career until such time as your desire for children overrides your desire for work . . . Or the converse: you have your children now, wait till they've grown, then begin your work outside the home.'
To those who cannot afford this stark choice, this seems at best irresponsible. What's more, it comes from someone who does work - a lot - and for whom feeling fulfilled must presumably be something of a breeze.
The Fun Don't Stop, just out in paperback, is an exhausting catalogue of activities for all those mothers who don't have a job, but do have a large income and plenty of space. A nanny - Paula has employed the same one for nine years - would also be useful. 'You might think about putting some heavy-duty hooks into the ceiling joists and beams so that you can have a rope ladder, or a small swing inside your house,' Paula suggests. 'In the kitchen, we let Peaches have one cupboard at ground level filled with empty boxes and containers to sort through and rearrange, while I cooked.' And so on. All very well if you have a converted priory in Kent and a house in Chelsea.
The proselytising for parenthood, like the manic flirtation, is, Paula would tell you herself, a consequence of a weird and lonely childhood up a Welsh mountain. Her mother, a starlet, was never there; her father, Jess Yates, played the organ on the God-slot television programme Stars on Sunday, and later became the subject of a tabloid scandal when he ran off with a showgirl 30 years his junior. Paula thinks it is amazing she was ever conceived. 'I don't remember my parents together, ever: my father was much older, and really only interested in collecting magazines and bathroom suites; we were the only family in the area to have a bathroom suite on the lawn. My mother was always in those films where it's the end of the world and a meteor's about to hit London; there's only six people left, and one of them's in purple underwear. That was always my mother, running from this meteor in purple underwear and spraining her ankle.'
All the running away from meteors meant she was never at home. Paula became 'this whining, whining, clinging child; she must have been driven almost mad by it. She would come back from being off, and I would lie outside the toilet if she went to the loo. She must have felt that she was coming back to my dad and his bidets, and me and my whining - so in the end, to avoid the confrontation, she'd leave in the night. I used to go to bed not knowing if she'd still be there in the morning, and then whether she'd be back for six months.
'I spent a lot of time looking at 1955 editions of the Saturday Evening Post - my dad had this whole room devoted to magazines - and they were the formulation of all my ideas about families. Everyone had a white picket fence, a mum in a fucking apron, and a big fridge.'
And so she developed a powerful morality about the responsibilities involved in parenthood, and a yearning for the security of an old-fashioned family. Nothing wrong with that. Her evangelism about it, however, is wildly out of touch with the complicated feelings many women have about managing motherhood and a life outside the home, feelings with which she, by and large, does not have to contend.
Yates is a smart girl who has made a career out of pretending to be an airhead. She talks a lot about hanging out in nightclubs when she was 14, less about the fact that by then she already had her O-levels. How many? 'Oh, eight or nine,' she says vaguely. She implies that she abandoned school altogether in her mid-teens, when her mother (who had switched career to become a writer of bodice-rippers) carted her off to live in Spain; but if you press her about the legalities of not attending school, she mutters: 'Oh, I think I went occasionally. I remember it being fairly lax, y'know, for a couple of years.' She returned to England to do A-levels at an Oxford crammer; ask her which subjects and she claims at first that she can't remember, before finally admitting to English, History, Art and History of Art. Nowadays, she claims, 'my interest in work is fairly minimal. If I didn't need the money all the time, I'd be quite happy staying in bed.'
SO HERE we have a woman who boasts of being lazy. Yet she has three children, and people who know her insist she is an extraordinarily attentive and devoted mother. She interviews someone every weekday, for which she has to do a reasonable amount of research - 'for example, if it's an author, I always read the books'. And she churns out books herself: her next, out this autumn, is about a year of living in the country, for which, she says in a throwaway aside, she has just 're-read Cobbett'. She has to get up at 4am to write. This is not merely a woman who is not lazy; this is a woman who is phenomenally energetic.
Or take the voice. In person, she speaks like she writes: punchily, with a developed, pacey sense of timing. On television, the vowels become flatter; the public school accent, which, she admits cheerfully, 'has been beaten into submission', is overlaid with Northern and cockney, and veers alarmingly between them. 'Yeah, it's bizarre, the voice: I think from living with Bob maybe, and working up North for about five years. I've no idea. It's a bit weird - 'cos I'm a real public school kid.'
She is a woman who appears to be having it all ways - bright but dumb, lazy but productive, rich by most people's standards, but claiming she only works because she needs the money; a privileged person bringing street-cred to the small screen. She takes Pixie into work with her every day, and the others sometimes in the holidays. 'We love her children, even when they wander into the make-up room and try out all the colours,' The Big Breakfast's editor Sebastian Scott says sweetly. But as Paula's nanny once remarked to me when Paula was first taking Fifi to work at The Tube, 'Of course, she can get away with taking her child. It might be different if the make-up girl wanted to do it.'
And yet she can inveigh, in The Fun Starts Here: 'We have been seduced by the glossy magazine ethic of 'having it all'. It is a great lie. It has caused women untold misery and generated a million guilt-ridden insecurities. No one can have it all; nobody ever does.'
She comes closer than anyone. 'I suppose I do have it all, more than anyone else I know . . . But I still get irritated by all this juggling bollocks, this idea of having a job and then going home in the evening and dancing round in a pair of mink-trimmed split-crotch knickers. People point the finger and say 'But you're doing this, this and this, how do you reconcile it?' I reconcile it because I'm willing if
necessary to go with five hours' sleep to live by this thing that I believe in - but it's just something I believe in for me, for obviously personal demons, to do with when I was little. All I was really saying in the book was that everyone should be in a position where if governments were more aware and employers were more aware, everyone should have that luxury . . . To spend five years with your kids? It's not very long.'
Ah, but here we have a very different argument. Protesting that the Government could provide more choice is very different from accusing women who work of being selfish. Unfortunately, she lacks much in the way of concrete proposals: 'I think they could do millions of things. You'd only have to sit down for half an hour and we could come up with 20 ways they could make it easier . . .'
PAULA, all her friends testify, is generous, funny, hard-working, devoted to Bob and the kids; and these days, has hardly any social life. She is, however, a prime victim of what might be called Celebrity Fallacy: being famous, she is inclined to think that something which seems momentous to her will be similarly interesting to everyone else. Giving birth always feels extraordinary, but it is also the most mundane of events. Beforehand, it is a mystery; afterwards, one is inclined to feel in possession of secret, surprising knowledge. The famous can forget 20 million others may have it too.
And being a notorious flirt, saying 'fuck' a lot, and being celebrated for blow jobs doesn't make your experience of motherhood especially interesting, still less applicable to other people. Paula is most certainly not stupid. But she abuses her intelligence by failing to take account of what the world might look like beyond her own remarkable life. Her opinions elevate gut reaction into system of thought. 'One of the main problems in this country,' she asserts for example, 'is that no one breastfeeds any more, or hardly anyone does' - a view which must have more to do with her failure to breastfeed her own first two children than with any national trend, which, as midwives will confirm, and anyone who has dined with young parents probably knows only too well, is towards the getting out of breasts at every available opportunity.
Her obsession with motherhood as opposed to fatherhood seems a similar reflection of her own experience: 'Bob's involved,' she says, 'but in quite a distanced way. I find him scuttling into the library, where he lies with the Spectator over his face. I think he rather admires Evelyn Waugh. He was reading Evelyn Waugh's letters when I was having the last baby, and he found this one which said 'Have you had the baby yet? And what have you called it?' He said: 'Look at this: this is rather excellent.' '
Bob, she claims, is responsible for the names. 'He waits until they're born to see what they look like, then he puts on a Southern accent: 'Hey, baby, ah'm a-comin' rahnd, I wanna see Peaches Honeyblossom.' Of course, we don't know anyone who talks like that. We live in fucking Kent.'
There is nothing wrong with bottle blondes who specialise in girlish, flirty behaviour having views about the best ways to bring up children; and when Paula says, 'I am a bit sneery about the way English people can't reconcile being sexy and a mum, the old Madonna-whore thing,' it is impossible not to sympathise. But what people who feel outraged by her pronouncements (which are all the more upsetting because working mothers do feel ripped apart by conflicting demands) chiefly object to is the aggrandisement of personal prejudices into a general system of morality.
'I'm not wrong]' Paula cries defensively, clutching her pillow: 'I'm not wrong about anything I say] How could anyone disagree with anything I say? Who could disagree?'
Well, I suggest, people could disagree with the sense that there is a right way to do it.
'I'm not like those experts in the 1930s,' she responds, 'preaching that you should do bizarre things with your children, like feeding them every four hours and leaving them out in the cold . . . but I think there probably is a correct way of doing things, just from the point of view of ignoring experts and trusting one's own instincts. If you truly just went by your own instincts, you probably would just sleep in the bed with your baby, and breastfeed it, and keep it close to you and just be with it. If you just trusted your instincts . . . that's just the way it should be. So in that sense, I'm not wrong.'-
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