Where were you when River Phoenix died?: The vegan James Dean is being mourned by teenagers from Ilkley to Bristol, says Rose Rouse
Sunday 07 November 1993
'My mum told me on Monday morning and I just couldn't believe it. I liked him because he was different to the other brat-packers, he was more honest. He was good- looking and very talented, he was the kind of man you wanted to marry. And he was a vegan.'
'He wasn't like Christian Slater, who comes from a rich, middle-class background,' says 15- year-old Selina Laye from west London. 'He came from a big family who had odd beliefs and spent a lot of time moving around.'
On Sunday night, Selina and her friends were distraught with disbelief. 'We were all crying on the phone to each other. He was so young, we couldn't believe he had died.' In Bristol, 13-year-old Faith Caton burst into tears when she was listening to The Six O'Clock News on Radio 4. 'I was crying because it was like someone I knew dying,' she says.
At Godolphin & Latymer School in Hammersmith, communal crying broke out on Monday morning. 'Everyone was upset,' says 13-year-old Sarah Owen, 'because we were never going to see him in a film again. Everyone thought he was so pure and good.'
For the legions of teenage girls weeping for him last week, River Phoenix, with his dreamboy looks and ecologically-sound views on the environment, was more than a screen idol, he was considered part of their peer group. Teenage magazines - Just 17, Sky, Smash Hits - featured him constantly and he felt like a friend. 'He was so close to our age,' says Phoebe Coleman from north London. 'We all go to clubs and it was disturbing to hear he dropped dead outside one.'
Just 17 has been receiving letters all week from devastated readers. One was addressed to the magazine's agony aunt because the girl was so depressed she couldn't cope; others simply requested a tribute to him.
'Later in November, we will have a four-page tribute to his career including an exclusive interview,' says Just 17's picture editor, Sue Miles, who is a particularly big Phoenix fan herself. 'It's so weird, so sad that he has died, because he was such a good person.
'It's hard to believe he took drugs when I read that he wouldn't go out with a meat-eating girl because she could have meat impurities in her saliva.'
Theories about the cause of his death are rife. There are those, like Hannah Gill, who are waiting patiently for the results of the autopsy, and others who insist that someone must have spiked his drink. 'We're in a state of denial,' says Mille Buckle from Godolphin & Latymer, 'we can't believe he took drugs'
But others think he could have easily been led astray. 'It might have been the pressure of having to live that Hollywood lifestyle,'
says 13-year-old Suna Sezer, understandingly.
Individual tributes are being planned. 'We're going to have an evening watching his videos together,' says Faith Caton, 'I've already put a poster of him in pride of place above my bedroom door.'
At Godolphin & Latymer they are planning to write about him in their school magazine. 'I burnt a candle for him,' says 13-year-old Philippa Abbot. 'This is the death of our dream.'
Analogies with James Dean have abounded all week. The youth, the tragic death, the beauty - it's the perfect combination. However, at the private girls' school Benenden, in Kent, caution prevails. The third year pupils had planned an assembly in River Phoenix's honour.
'After reflection, they decided to wait until the cause of death has been established,' says Benenden's Registrar, Mrs Deborah Price.
'He was an inspirational figure and we need to think about it.'
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