Paula Hamilton lost her modelling career to her bingeing on bottles of vodka. For 20 years she's been on and off the wagon, and only now can soberly reflect on the price she paid for her excessive drinking, as she tells Jonathan Owen

Paula Hamilton was an Eighties icon, the impossibly glamorous woman in the Volkswagen Golf television advert who blithely discarded all her worldly possessions except her car keys. But for more than 20 years, the model has struggled to overcome her addiction to alcohol, a disease that derailed her career, destroyed her relationships and nearly took her life.

Her first drink was at the age of five when her nanny gave her a hot apple cider. At the age of 13, she got drunk for the first time. By the age of 24, Hamilton was bingeing on bottles of vodka. "I knew it was a naughty thing to drink so much but I liked the way that it made me feel. I didn't feel conscious of my body and whether I looked pretty or not," says the former model who was discovered by David Bailey and partied with Jack Nicholson.

"As you get older, you learn that it [alcohol] can take away painful feelings. If the alcohol hadn't been there I'd have committed suicide as a teenager. It's like being tortured and your mind says 'drink or die'."

Like many damaged people, her way of coping was to run away in the hope that a new life in a foreign country would solve her problems. Hamilton fled to New Zealand but her sobriety was short-lived. Within months, she had started drinking again and was arrested for drink-driving. By 2003, she had to return to the UK for treatment.

Her relapse was a "desperate time" and the "lowest point of my life". "You can't imagine how mind-numbingly disappointing it is and you are just so ashamed of yourself," she says. "I didn't have any money left - it all went on treatment and alcohol. I don't know how I got back to the UK. I was on autopilot and I don't remember going home but I do remember waking up in hospital and thinking 'what am I doing here?'. I was dying and didn't know if I could hang on."

After six months waiting for detox, Hamilton was given a place at Broadway Lodge, a clinic in Weston-super-Mare, and then spent 10 months at a treatment centre in Cornwall so she could face the world again. Her alcoholism has not only cost her in health terms but also financially: she estimates that she has spent more than £500,000 over her lifetime on treatment.

Today the 44-year-old is sober and has been for the past two and a half years. And Hamilton has made an unlikely return to prominence as a judge on the television series Britain's Next Top Model, thanks to a chance encounter with an old friend from her modelling days.

The experience has been mixed. On one hand, the show has restarted her career only 18 months after coming off benefits but, on the other, it has reminded her just how lonely and isolated she felt as a young woman struggling with her demons in a ruthless industry.

"It was very difficult growing up in my industry as an alcoholic; it was very loathsome. In this country we love to label people. I like myself today. I don't let people in the industry bully me or make me insecure."

As a survivor, Hamilton, who now lives in Berkshire, is keen to show there is real hope for sufferers, although she admits that the road to recovery is hard. She is also savagely critical of the lack of treatment available in Britain, especially for women, and likens alcohol to "legal social heroin". "It's horrific to be on the receiving end of this illness and to be a British citizen. In Buckinghamshire, for example, there's just one bed for alcoholics in detox. There are thousands of alcoholics waiting to go into that one bed and in the meantime their families are falling down because they cannot cope.

"We are actually a very alcoholic country - other countries don't seem to have problems with it on the scale that we do in England. But we are being mocked by the rest of Europe for our short-sightedness and our ignorance about an epidemic of alcoholism that is taking its toll of our young.

"There's a lot of binge-drinking now in this country with kids openly drinking on the streets. That just didn't happen in our time. Where are they getting the money from and where's the discipline at home?

"There are people out there who have low self-worth and for whom alcohol is deadly because the rest of our society will shame them into their own death. It is horrific, and if we don't help them England is going to end up flat on its face. Alcohol leads to mental health problems. People who abuse it will end up in the mental health system."

The rise in women drinking does not surprise her.

"We used to play different roles in life [to men] but now we're not playing such different roles. The roles are blending and there's nothing wrong with that. But it means that women now drink like men and we don't have the livers for it. We do things we don't want to do, sleep with people we shouldn't; we wake up ashamed and don't talk about our hangovers. It's a crazy existence."

Hamilton is now driven to do for drinking what Jamie Oliver has done for school dinners by educating young people about how to have a good time without drinking.

"I'm an alcoholic turned good. Let me help the Government turn it around," she says.

"We've got programmes on nannies. Jamie's teaching us how to cook. Don't we want a programme about how not to drink and have a really good time or how to drink normally and have a good time?

"We need to have warning labels and education about this drug. We need people like me to be employed to go into schools and help to educate children of the dangers. The Government should take people like me as seriously as they do Jamie Oliver rather than judging us."

Staying sober will always be a matter of life or death for the former model - "it would be absolute suicide if I picked up a drink" - but she is happier now than she has been for many years.

"When you go into sobriety, as I did many times, the illness progresses. I used to be a binge-drinker but then got to the stage where if I picked up a drink I would drink every day until I passed out and then get another bottle. For me, it would be absolute suicide if I picked up a drink.

"The most joyous thought last week was that I woke up and giggled at my reflection in the mirror. In the past I did everything to get away from myself but now I am content. The last year of my life has been the happiest - the only real happiness that I have ever known.

"This [excessive drinking] is a social illness. There is not one family in England that can stand up and say honestly: 'We don't have an alcoholic in our family'. There's always Auntie Jane stuck in a cupboard somewhere that nobody really talks about."

ONE OVER THE EIGHT: 9 REFORMED DRINKERS

" I am a recovering alcoholic. To stay sober I go to a lot of AA meetings. I have to keep a permanent check on myself "

Trinny Woodall, TV Stylist

"All the fame and attention - I didn't handle it. I dealt with it by getting out of the system and living in a mountain"

Cerys Matthews, Singer

"There was my divorce, my dad dying, Matt dying and I was trying to cope with being famous. It was too much"

Caroline Aherne, Comedian

"At its worst, it meant ending up with my knickers around my head in a bed I didn't recognise, surrounded by vomit and having not the faintest idea where I was "

Anne Robinson, Journalist and TV Quiz Show Host

"I was in hospital 32 times and nearly died. I was drinking three or four bottles of vodka a day"

Mary Coughlan, Singer

"I had no friends left. I was more and more isolated, more and more paranoid. My health was gone "

Marian Keyes, Author

"I'm still a recovering alcoholic and I will avoid anything that might drag me down "

Sophie Anderton, Model

"Everyone who has a glass of wine when they get home from work to relax is an alcoholic, and then there's the binge alcoholic, which is what I am "

Kerry Katona, Former Atomic Kitten

"My friends would wake up with just a hangover but I was suffering blackouts "

Denise Welch, Actress

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