Time was when hippie parents were a cringe-making liability. But nowadays, if your folks weren't dope-smoking, free-loving commune dwellers, then your credibility doesn't stand a chance. If you've got them, flaunt them, says Eleanor Bailey
WHEN YOU were a child, if your mother had appeared naked in front of your friends chanting mantras, it would have been hideously embarrassing. Now it's something to shout about. Thirty years after the student revolts of May 1968, the hippie has been redesigned Nineties-style and we all want a piece of the inaction. Post-Prada bag, a hippie mum is the ultimate accessory, since to be a genuine, second-generation hippie is to have been brought up free-thinking and "alternative". You are 30 years ahead of the crowd.

"A hippie upbringing is the coolest of the cool at the moment," says Tina Gaudoin, Editor of Frank. "It assumes you have a liberal openness. It says that you are approachable and arty. Ten years ago it was important to have a dad who owned a chain of shops or worked for the MoD. Not now." Now you want a mother who sang Cat Stevens a cappella with marijuana floating from her nostrils.

This month sees the premiere of Hideous Kinky, the film of Esther Freud's novel, a semi-autobiographical piece which tells the story of a hippie mother's trail through Marrakech through the eyes of her long-suffering five-year-old daughter. In reality, Freud's mother, Bernadine Coverley, split from Lucien Freud and travelled to Marrakech before settling in Sussex with another partner and a new family. "What is there left to rebel against if your parents have already rebelled?" asked Esther wearily. But we needn't feel terribly sympathetic, for if it was disturbing at the time, it is certainly marketable now.

And if it is cool to have hippie parents, it's even cooler to whine about them. Children of hippie parents still protest that they craved a "normal" family. Indeed, many hippie children refused to talk for this piece. They had "suffered enough" already. Which is why it is cool. For if there is one thing we all have in common, it is the need to stand out, to have been unhappy in a special way.

Tiffany's (not her real name) mother was a herbalist who turned up at parents' evenings wearing shirts open to the waist and would think nothing of being naked in front of her friends. "I could do anything I wanted. I was encouraged to treat my parents as friends. They encouraged me to experiment sexually and to discuss it with them. There's a desperate neurosis about people who had hippie parents. They are desperate to achieve on an artistic level. I see the difference between me and people from normal backgrounds when I go into their houses and they've got a mantelpiece and soft furnishings, whereas I drift around." But everyone is interested in neurotic drifting and no one is interested in mantelpieces.

And many hippie children in fact go on to do awfully well on the back of their painful, exotic upbringing, envied by everyone else. The illustrious list of those with hippie backgrounds is long and cool. Sophie Dahl, daughter of Tessa and granddaughter of Roald, has the classic rule-bending self- confidence of the no-limits childhood. "Her mother used to wear orange all the time and go to an ashram" explains a friend. Bjork grew up on a commune painted purple. Tara Fitzgerald's parents were hippies.

Winona Ryder grew up on a Californian commune with seven other families, no TV, and drugs guru Timothy Leary as a godfather. "What inspired me the most" she says airily "was that though they [her academic parents] were both educated and smart and could have been anything they wanted, they chose something that made no money. But they were so happy, and I grew up with an abundance of love and conversation." So inspired was Winona by their unworldliness that she went on to make a fortune in Hollywood (as with all Nineties' ideologues, one takes the romantic values of the past and fluffs them up with the material comforts of the present).

Kira Joliffe, daughter of Wicked Willie cartoonist Gray Joliffe, describes her mother as "a new-age freak". She grew up in the archetypal "huge, dusty old house in Putney". While her mother was preparing macrobiotic dinners, her father was "drawing penises for a living". Kira is delighted with her background. "Mum and Dad were liberal and trendy. The house was full of antiques and tribal furniture. What it does is give you the freedom to think of the possibilities. You are set outside from everyone else, which is strengthening; if your parents were a bit subversive then you are not scared to do anything yourself."

Actress Kate Hardie talks of living in a Hampstead "commune". She complained: "My parents set no boundaries. I don't think that's a good idea." Not at the time perhaps but it inevitably makes her seem more interesting. Being raised with the wolves under the open sky, your mother singing ancient gypsy songs is much more of a conversation piece than being played Radio 2 under the great, suburban loft insulation. No wonder, as Gaudoin suspects, many people embroider the truth, exaggerating the lentil content of their childhood. "You hear a lot of people calling their mother a hippie," she scoffs, "when all she really did was wear an afghan coat. It's the perfect way to get an opinion piece or start a column." Or for writing one's first novel. Frances Hollingdale, Sales Manager of cult publishing house Serpent's Tail, says "an 'alternative' background helps sell an author. You need something to stand out."

One theory has it that the psychological effect of such freedom is to create adults who become resentful but successful materialists. Or they buy into their upbringing and remain artistic and unchained without fearing, unlike the rest of us, that it will all fall apart. Either way it works. Novelist Joanna Briscoe, who has written about her own hippie hell, describes her childhood as "so nomadic that, for us, heaven was a stationary semi in Purley". Purley is, of course, the ultimate in anti-hippiedom. Which is peculiarly apposite, because it just so happens that my parents live in Purley, in a semi - and a stationary one at that.

Suburbanites, of course, have the Minogue problem. Kylie made such a convincing middle-class girl-next-door in Neighbours that her subsequent transformation into on-the-edge pop siren was thoroughly unconvincing. All the smudged eyeliner in the world will not cover up a stable childhood. Ministry magazine features Dannii Minogue on the cover describing her as "screwed-up", but she looks thoroughly cheerful. It's a hopeless situation.

Hippie parents give their children a certain sense of Zen. That everything will be cool. That all is not lost if they don't have a killer career by 30. So their children don't understand how we suburban kids suffered. Imagine every evening to have your parents at home! Oh, it was dreadful. But the mysticism of Purley is always underestimated. Hippies had free love, Purley had key parties. (Not my parents, I hasten to add.) My mother put marigold petals in her salads and baked her own bread. My father had sideburns and did the weeding in his swimming trunks. So what if the influence was less Ravi Shankar and more The Good Life? Felicity Kendall had a nicer bottom.