The lady and the vamp

Kathy Lette has been producing savagely funny tales from the frontline of the sex war since she was 19. She tells Christina Patterson that it's time to call a truce
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The Independent Culture

I'm like an Antipodean princess," says Kathy Lette, sipping her tea delicately and crossing her extraordinarily long and elegant legs. She is talking about the convict ancestry that in Australia confers the status of royalty, but she might well be talking in more general terms. She looks, in fact, like the Princess of ChickLit, or perhaps the Queen, in her Moschino suit and impossibly high heels, perched on the edge of the sofa in this suite at London's Savoy hotel. The photographer has asked her not to wear black, but I don't think there was ever much danger of that. Kathy Lette is a riot of colour and animation. Huge pink roses leap out from the black and white trellis-print of her tiny, tailored jacket and a skirt that is clearly designed for maximum revelation. There's a faint trelliswork on her face, too. The laughter lines around the sparkling blue eyes and bright red lips are a cheering testament to the fact that the author of Nip'n'Tuck, a savage indictment of the search for plastic-surgery-enhanced perfection, is no hypocrite.

Some writers get stints at Milton Keynes library or Wormwood Scrubs. Kathy Lette is writer in residence at the Savoy. For three months, she gets to swan about the place, lounging around in her luxurious suite, with its panoramic view of London landmarks (the South Bank, the Millennium Wheel, the Houses of Parliament and, Lette points out, Jeffrey Archer's penthouse flat), tucking into gourmet cuisine and "drinking champers". The most onerous of her duties - to organise three literary dinners - does not sound excessively taxing. "I rang some mates," she explains. "I was only supposed to have three but I rang four, thinking none of them could do it and they all said yes and I couldn't choose between them. How could you choose between Richard E Grant, Stephen Fry - officially the world's nicest human being - John Mortimer - he's my toy boy - and Salman Rushdie?" Quite.

Hosting duties aside, she's planning to spend some quality time going undercover as a maid, using the guests' face creams and rootling through their drawers. "Heart attacks, love affairs, intrigues, thefts," she suggests, "they're always there in those Agatha Christie things set in hotels. It's going to be rich in material. Geoff always said that if he was ever made a lord he was going to buy me that Scottish island called Muck, so I could be Lady Muck. It's such a great title, so I think I might just have to use that."

Geoff is, of course, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, human rights lawyer and darling of the New Labour establishment. The Antipodean princess might yet be an British lady. Like that other famous power couple, with whom they used, at least in pre-Downing Street days, to have dinner, they are "juggling a lot of balls". While Robertson is grappling with atrocities in East Timor or (currently) Sierra Leone, Lette is ensuring that their children are fed, clothed and educated, churning out her own feisty and extremely lucrative brand of ChickLit and managing to squeeze in more than the odd party or dinner with the kind of "mates" mentioned above. It's a far cry from the lonely garret.

It is also a far cry from the beach culture in which she grew up. Lette was still a teenager when her first novel, Puberty Blues, became an overnight phenomenon. Written with a friend, it is a horrifying portrayal of a merciless world, in which girls are little more than sex slaves to their boorish, blond surfie boyfriends. It was based on personal experience. "I just wrote that book for my girlfriends," says Lette, "because I think they had no idea, they had no objectivity about what they were going through. They thought it was normal to be treated like that, as a sperm spittoon. That's what they were, the surfie girls, they were just human handbags - they were a life support system to the vagina." That first novel is still, apparently, a cult book in Australia, and has been reissued in Britain with a foreword by Germaine Greer. "It's sad in a way that the book's still relevant," Lette sighs. "It would be so good if the teenage pregnancies and drug-taking and chauvinism was passé, but unfortunately it's not."

Puberty Blues is not a wildly funny book. In its starkly moving, pared-down clarity it heralds a talent that could have developed in any one of a number of different ways. Lette's second book, Girls' Night Out, is also moving as well as funny. It offers cameos of a group of young women seeking love and fulfilment in a bewildering variety of situations: affairs with married men who are constantly on the verge of leaving their wives, a relationship between a feminist intellectual and an escaped convict and, most disturbingly, a story of a single mother who services an entire football team and is grateful for the fleeting moments of attention. "How relevant is that?" she shrieks, when I mention recent high-profile allegations of sexual assault. "When I heard, I thought 'I was writing about that 20 years ago and it hasn't changed'! That's how I think 'how can they call themselves post-feminist?' Hello! Wake up and smell the rape charge..."

If anger was the main motivating force behind those early works, it has clearly only increased over the years. The unadorned compassion of those first two books has given way to satire that has, if anything, become ever more savage, exploding with virtuoso displays of what Lette calls "punnilingus". "I think I get angry that things haven't changed" she declares, "and I've become angrier, too, because feminism is now so demonised that it's the ultimate F-word... I did think I was getting too angry. In Nip'n'Tuck I was so furious that it became occasionally a bit of polemic. I was furious about turning 40 and seeing what all my girlfriends were doing to themselves. And even I, at 39, was thinking, 'Well, I'll have to have breast implants I suppose because my tits have gone from breast-feeding.' After I turned 40, I thought, 'What were you thinking, woman? Even you, a brassy old broad like you, could have your confidence eroded.'"

The targets for Kathy Lette's anger are certainly wide-ranging. In The Llama Parlour, it's the stellar bitchery of Hollywood; in Foetal Attraction the horrors of pregnancy, childbirth and the English class system; and in Mad Cows (made into a dismal film with Joanna Lumley and Anna Friel), it's the lonely misery and physical discomforts of new motherhood. It is, in fact, whatever subject is exercising her at the time. Lette's readers have journeyed with her through the agonies of single girlhood, marriage, pregnancy, mother- hood and now ageing, and at each stage they have been invited to share the experience in graphic and often hilarious detail.

Even Kathy Lette, however, has not been sent to a desert island as part of a reality television junket involving not just a blind date, but a blind marriage, a big cash prize, a con-man who has kidnapped his daughter, a coup and international terrorism. These are the ingredients of her new novel, Dead Sexy (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), in which music teacher Shelly Green is set up by her pupils to take part in the TV show "Desperate and Dateless", and finds herself instantly married to Kit Kinkade, a hunky American with diamond-studded ears and a "chiselled physique". In the limo on the way to Gretna Green, Shelly finds Kit's practised touch unleashing a "hormonal reveille" that whips her into a frenzy of desire. But the path from cunnilingus to consummation is fraught with obstacles, adventure and an incessant flow of wisecracks.

"You might discover the legendary lost temple of the Xingothuan tribespeople down there, you know," says Shelly to Kit in the limo, shamed by the "very tropical jungle between her legs". Later, she admits to "masturbating so much she needed terry towelling sweatbands on her wrists", and explains her irritability to Kit as the result of "having a wide-on for... exactly 120 hours". It's the classic Lette formula, in which taboos are shattered with the kind of graphic detail that makes you laugh and wince at the same time. But Dead Sexy offers signs of progress: not just the articulation and expression of female desire, but perhaps a more general thawing in the war between the sexes. "I did think I had become too angry with men," Lette admits, "and I did think I needed to exorcise that a little, because I didn't want to become bitter. The sex war has been going on for 5,000 years and there is no cease-fire in sight. So could we not start to think about a truce? And the only way that's going to happen is for men to start negotiating the terms for surrender, because we are winning it slowly."

The sex war is, of course, not just about sex. Lette's women characters may seek their multiple orgasms in some unlikely places, but they are also searching for love. They are, in fact, old-fashioned romantics. Is she? Lette laughs nervously. "Isn't it embarrassing?" she whispers dramatically. "People think you're this sort of sassy satirist, but it turns out you're this sad, pathetic, closet romantic. Look, I do believe in love, I do, and if you find it you are in a state of grace, but I think we should learn to love more realistically."

Beneath the brittle, wisecracking exterior, and the relentless volleys of (now familiar) puns, there is a woman with an extremely soft heart, who is clearly capable of writing with great compassion and depth. Does she ever feel trapped by the need to be funny, by the Kathy Lette brand, in fact? "No, it comes naturally," she replies, perhaps a little too quickly. "I think that is how women talk to each other... Women don't tell jokes, we strip off to our underwear. It's a psychological strip-tease that reveals all, often self-deprecating, always confessional and always cathartic."

Well, yes, but isn't there a danger of undercutting the darker, sadder strands that are lurking beneath the surface? At long last, Lette pauses. "I do want to write something more serious," she confesses, "but my only commandment is 'thou shalt not bore'." I tell her that I think she should try. "Ah," she says with a sweet, nervous smile, "but will I have the courage?"

Biography: Kathy Lette

Kathy Lette was born in Sylvania Waters, Australia, in 1958. When she was only 19, she "went from nonentity to overnight notoriety" with the publication of her first novel, Puberty Blues, still a cult book in Australia. After several years as a singer in a rock band and a newspaper columnist in Sydney and New York (collected in the book Hit and Ms), she moved to Los Angeles where she was a television sitcom writer for Columbia Pictures.

Long before Bridget Jones, she "kick-started" the chicklit genre with books such as Girls' Night Out (1988), The Llama Parlour (1991) and Foetal Attraction (1993). Her other books are Mad Cows (1996), which was made into a film starring Joanna Lumley and Anna Friel, Altar Ego (1998) and Nip'n'Tuck (2001), all bestsellers. Her new novel, Dead Sexy (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), is published this week. Lette is also a playwright. She lives in London with her husband, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, and their two children.