James Hewitt: Desert love rat

The discredited former tank commander is permanently "between jobs", yet he retains a weird fascination for the public, having been part of a story too big to be forgotten. His brush with the law this week looked like bad news for him but, in the outer reaches of planet celebrity, it's likely to be grist to his mill
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Eighteen months ago James Hewitt was thinking of emigrating. "I'll probably leave England this year," he told an interviewer, "and try and start another life elsewhere." He was vague about where he might go - "somewhere around the Mediterranean, East Europe..." - but the idea was there and it was easy to see why.

He had been, as he put it, "between jobs" since retiring from his only real job as a tank commander in 1994, and despite his plausible manner he had few prospects of normal work. The old boy network would not help a chap who cuckolded the heir to the throne, and there were other things to give an employer pause, such as the way he was followed around by a man in a rat costume (courtesy of a red-top paper) and the way ordinary people yelled obscenities at him from passing cars.

But he didn't emigrate; he stayed on to fight, if not for his good name, then at least for his name. Last Thursday night, as he whiled away the hours in the cells beneath Notting Hill police station, he may well have been rueing that choice. For seven hours that day the National Cad had been followed and snapped by a freelance photographer as he and two women friends progressed from trendy restaurant to trendy bar in west London. One of the women, it is alleged, popped out at one stage to conduct a furtive transaction with a man in the street and then returned to the bar to shuffle small packages and exchange banknotes across the table. Visits to the lavatory ensued.

Seeing this through his long lens, the photographer "did not hesitate to call 999" (as the Mirror put it) and so Hewitt was in trouble again. While the confiscated white powder went to a police laboratory for analysis most of the pop papers cleared five pages for the story, and the other media had fun with it too. But if Hewitt is thinking life might be easier running a riding school in Bratislava or a taverna on Paros, he could be going too far. Fleet Street's Glenda Slaggs are in deepest "arnchasickofhim" mode, but as Max Clifford no doubt reminded him when they spoke on Friday, it takes more than that to sink a celebrity of his mettle - more, even, than a trip to jail, in the unlikely event it comes to that. If he keeps his nerve, "donchalovehim" status can be his again.

What Hewitt has developed, what shines out even from that compromising set of photographs last week, is a powerful desire to live his life in public view, and all the evidence suggests that television and the tabloids will never tire of that. Here was a well-known man in a public place not only handling suspect plastic packets but also encouraging his girlfriend to suck his finger as he made mobile phone calls and then apparently doing chimpanzee imitations with a lager bottle gripped in his teeth. He is not like us.

In fact, with his mournful, beefy face, his bouts of drunken bravado, his occasional self-abasement and his self-destructive propensities, the person whom Hewitt most calls to mind is Paul Gascoigne - and who can doubt that Gazza, currently on his 15th spin in the cycle of degradation and recovery, will be on our screens and in our papers as long as he draws breath?

Of course the backgrounds are different. Born in 1958, Hewitt comes from a military family and attended the grand Millfield School, where it is said that dyslexia held him back. At 20 he joined the Brigade of Guards and found his niche in the high-living, high-performance world of the modern cavalry. The pinnacle of his career was the first Gulf War, when he commanded 14 Challenger tanks as Operation Desert Storm liberated Kuwait - the moment for which a dozen years of soldiering had been preparation.

By then the platform for his fame was in place, although it was not until after the battle, when he was getting his breath back in a desert camp, that he first saw his name in a headline. At that stage his relationship with the Princess of Wales was an unconfirmed report, and it took three more steps to secure him the status of the vilest man in Britain.

First was the publication in 1994 of his "as told to" account of the five-year affair, in Anna Pasternak's soft-focus Princess in Love. Then the princess told Panorama she was "absolutely devastated" by the book and it was "very distressing for me that a friend of mine who I had trusted [Hewitt], made money out of me". Finally, two years after her death, he fell for a News of the World sting that showed he was ready to sell the letters she had written him, and he subsequently suggested a price of £10m. Boo, hiss.

Underlying this descent was a struggle to sustain the life style he had known as a Guards officer. His business ventures on leaving the Army did not prosper and a job was an impossibility so, though he didn't say as much, he seems to have felt he could scarcely afford to be the perfect gentleman. He never sold the letters but he soon discovered he had acquired something else just as precious: he was famous. It is like gold bullion in the bank: he had played an important part in the greatest personal drama to unfold in public in Britain since the abdication crisis, and so people will be curious about him as long as he lives.

Gascoigne's fame was built on his extraordinary sporting talent; Hewitt's on his share of a story too big to be forgotten. Like children picking scabs, television can't leave famous people alone, and caddishness is no more of an obstacle to a small-screen career than stupidity or a criminal record. So in 2003, presumably with Clifford egging him on, Hewitt reinvented himself. There was a fly-on-the-wall profile ("we're trying to make me less of a shit"), followed by a celebrity sport show ("a turning point ... there's been a huge shift in people, their ideas of me"), followed by a sub-Big Brother sweatbox competition called Back to Reality. In this he was up against the likes of Maureen Rees from Driving School, Rik Waller from Pop Idol and Big Brother's "Nasty" Nick Bateman - and viewers voted him the winner.

Lo and behold, the Love Rat had three dimensions. Now he seemed like any other ex-officer in his forties, with a funny accent, olde worlde manners and a modicum of physical fitness. He even had a catchphrase: "Ding dong".

And, as anyone who had heard his feeble excuses for the Pasternak book and the love letters fiasco knew, he also had a whiff of weakness about him. On television it seemed that perhaps all the Diana stuff, all that loving and losing (she ditched him, after all) and all that abuse, had left him vulnerable, soft at the centre. People stopped calling him an arsehole in the street and there were invitations on the mantelpiece and paid celeb appearances every other day. He began to relish it, in an edgy way, and the show-off in him came to the fore.

In the celebrity world, though, you have to renew yourself constantly and refresh your act, and if you don't you may wake up in a police nick one morning and find it's been done for you. James Hewitt may be a worried man but he can console himself with this: he was worth following with a camera and he was worth five pages of newsprint. And now that he has a fresh story to tell there will be a whole new cycle of daytime interviews, slots on moronic celebrity vehicles and nightclub openings. Ding dong.