She lived her life like a Harold Robbins novel, each chapter more dramatic and fantastical than the last

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In the end she died as she had lived, with sad and unnecessary drama. Paula Yates, 41, whose body was discovered yesterday in her home in Notting Hill, was a TV presenter, naked Penthouse model, Sun columnist, and perhaps most famously the mother of a quartet of girls with the exotic names: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches, Pixie, and Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. And yet that was only the start of it.

In the end she died as she had lived, with sad and unnecessary drama. Paula Yates, 41, whose body was discovered yesterday in her home in Notting Hill, was a TV presenter, naked Penthouse model, Sun columnist, and perhaps most famously the mother of a quartet of girls with the exotic names: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches, Pixie, and Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. And yet that was only the start of it.

Having caught the headlines with her starburst style of preposterous extravagance she retained them in an altogether grimmer fashion - with a messy divorce from Bob Geldof, the strange and shocking death of her rock star lover Michael Hutchence, binges of booze and pills, and a nervous breakdown, a series of rebound love affairs in which her judgement seemed to grow ever moreerratic.

"It was like living in a Harold Robbins novel," Bob Geldof once said, without a spark of humour. If so, it was one which Paula Yates seemed to be writing herself as she went along, ever-determined to make each chapter more fantastical and dramatic than the last.

It was a tendency which I first noticed in her when I was a frequent visitor to her home in the years just after BandAid when I was working with Geldof, ghosting his auto-biography. One day we arrived at their Chelsea townhouse to find her sitting on the sofa, with her hair in bunches, dressed like a 14-year-old. She had her thumb in her mouth. She was watching a Take That video and joining in the songs with glazed enthusiasm. She refused to speak to Bob, who shrugged and left the room.

The previous time I had seen her, the week before, in their home in the country, she had had her hair up in a bun, and was floating round the place in a Laura Ashley dress, reading Enid Blyton to the children, talking about giving up work and making jam at the local WI, and generally aiming to become the perfect Fifties mother so that she could write a book on how to bring upchildren.

From time to time Paula Yates would utterly reinvent herself, swapping not just clothes but personality. Sometime it was just innocent fun. When The Big Breakfast was launched in a blaze of publicity in 1992 Paula set the tone when she turned up to meet the press in a dress made of artificial turf and covered in daisies and veg. In the programme's heyday she transformed herself into a coy temptress, interviewing pop stars lying on a double bed. There were rumours at the time that sometimes she did more than interviews with them on the sheets. But Geldof, infatuated with her elfin exuberance, refused to believe them. He learnt the hard way that there was a darker side to her role play too. When after 10 years of what he thought was a happy marriage she filed for divorce he was visibly shaken when he received the petition. It was years before he was to acknowledge that his wife's games had turned into a disorder. There were unpleasant custody hearings over the children but Geldof was still very much in love and continued to protect her - only becoming disillusioned when heroin was found in the home she shared with Hutchence. It was hidden in a Smarties box in the children's bedroom.

But once the media-savvy pop star was gone Paula found herself unprotected - from herself as well as the media. Then in 1997 Hutchence was found dead in a hotel room in Sydney - naked, with a ligature around his neck.

The coroner said it was suicide but Paula insisted he had died in an act of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Better, she said, for their little girl, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, to learn that her father was a sexual deviant than to believe that he would desert her through an act of suicide.

There was something of her old play-acting in the role Paula then adopted as the grieving widow. That is not to say that her grief wasn't genuine, only that she threw herself into playing the part of the bereaved woman with a familiar extravagance.

The problem was that those around her eventually became fed up or disenchanted as she switched parts and presented not as she had first sold herself. Hutchence's father became slowly disillusioned. There was never a reconciliation between Paula and her mother, Helene Thornton, who protested that the portrait her daughter used to paint of her unhappy childhood was a fiction. Indeed the rift between them deepened three years ago when it was revealed Paula's father was not Jess Yates, who presented the popular Seventies religious talent show Stars On Sunday. Rather at the funeral of Opportunity Knocks host Hughie Green a rumour began that he was Paula's real father. Her mother denied it. In a distraught attempt to disprove the rumour Paula underwent DNA testing with Green's other children. But the tests proved positive. Here was one role Paula Yates did not relish playing. The shocking revelation, her mother feared, further disturbed her delicate mental health. (In 1998 there were reports that she tried to hangherself in emulation of Hutchence's macabre death). She regularly abused alcohol and drugs and tried expensive clinics, therapy sessions and other relationships to try to stabilise her life.

But she always seemed in difficulties. She worked her way through a £150,000 advance for her "quickie" autobiography. She was always short of cash. But the problems were not just financial. She attracted considerable ridicule immediately after the book was published, when she had a breast enlargement operation and dyed her hair a vivid orange.

Ironically in recent times things had begun to pick up. "I think the worst is definitely over," she told one interviewer. "Not every day is thoroughly positive, but it's nothing like it was even six months or a year ago."

Bob Geldof, who last saw her on Friday, said: "She looked a bit of a mess but she had just signed a deal with a new agent and was very bullish. She was getting it together." Yesterday she had been due to have lunch with their daughter Pixie. She was not in a suicidal frame of mind. But she never gave up taking drugs and drink to excess. Taking life to the edge, as Michael Hutchence found, can be a mortally dangerous business. "I loved her madly, the girl that she once was, all those years ago,"said Geldof, whose own mother died when he was seven and who now faces the task of bringing up their daughters alone. "When you write about her, be kind to her."

Paula Yates's problem was that she was never a woman who could be kind to herself.

* Paul Vallely is the author of Bob Geldof's biography 'Is That It?'

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