As Sarah Palin's star rises, critics expose her dark side

In public she is the family woman in touch with ordinary Americans. But two new accounts allege that in private she's a two faced, mean-spirited bully

She tells lies. She's a lousy tipper. She billed the Republican Party more than $3,000 for the underwear she bought during the last Presidential election, including dozens of Spanx girdles. Oh, and for all the cutesy charm that Sarah Palin projects in public, she's got a nasty habit of bullying staff, losing her temper with friends and family, and, when particularly upset, throwing tin cans at her husband, Todd.

Fresh from a week that seemed to cement her status as the most valuable brand in American conservatism, and saw her both receive top billing at a vast "tea party" rally in Washington, and almost single-handedly alter the direction of a Senate race in her native Alaska, Palin is on the receiving end of a brace of vintage journalistic hatchet jobs from the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

The first, a vast profile of the self-proclaimed "Mamma Grizzly," which covers 18 pages of next month's Vanity Fair, devotes more than 10,000 words to a mixture of revelation, allegation and innuendo regarding both her public and private persona, detailing what it calls her "erratic behaviour," her "pattern of lying," and what the magazine's reporter Michael Gross describes as the "sad, mouldering strangeness" of her everyday existence.

The second comes courtesy of Meghan McCain, the daughter of Palin's former running mate John, whose new book Dirty, Sexy Politics, describes the former Governor of Alaska as a "a time bomb" who is addicted to attention and whose eccentric behaviour brought "drama, stress, complications, panic, and loads of uncertainty," to the 2008 campaign trail.

Like almost everything else that involves Palin – who, despite her habit of avoiding interviews in what she calls the "lamestream media," has still not ruled out a run for the 2012 Presidency – the broadsides are receiving endless attention. As befits an increasingly polarised nation, they are sparking outrage in conservative circles and a mixture of mirth and disbelief in liberal ones. Palin takes issue with the allegation and has responded with an attack on Vanity Fair, calling into question its facts and reporting standards.

In truth, Vanity Fair's article is a curious mixture of un-sourced innuendo and minor revelation which was mostly staggering for its sheer scale. The magazine spent four months trailing the former Alaska governor on the various speaking engagements that have helped her earn $13m since quitting last year.

It alleges she is "warm and effusive in public, and angry in private," that she is paranoid and vindictive towards former friends, and it revels the details of the occasional sense-of-humour failures which inspired the headline: "The Sound and the Fury."

The piece quotes a "friend" of Palin and her husband Todd, who once witnessed a domestic dispute. "They took all the canned goods out of the pantry, then proceeded to throw them at each other," recalls the friend. "As soon as she enters her property and the door closes, even the insects in that house cringe. She has a horrible temper, but she has gotten away with it because she is a pretty woman."

During the campaign, an un-named "aide" is quoted as claiming that Palin "lashed out" at the slightest provocation, sometimes screaming at staff and throwing objects. Asked about her temper, Todd told a staffer: "You just got to let her go through it... Half the stuff that comes out of her mouth she doesn't even mean."

Vanity Fair also claims that Palin signs the autographs in her books with an autopen, requires three hairstylists and make-up artists before public appearances, and despite her principled opposition to immigration, employs an Hispanic housekeeper.

She is also a bad tipper, the article claims. During a recent stay at the Hyatt in Wichita, she gave the bellboy just $5 for seven bags, making her the "all time worst tipper" of the famous people who have stayed there. She also failed to leave money for the maids who cleaned her room.

As suggested by Levi Johnston, the estranged father of her teenage daughter Bristol's child, the magazine also claims that Palin is a lousy and only occasional angler, who exaggerates her interest in fieldsports to win support in conservative circles.

"This whole hunter thing, for Sarah? That is the biggest fallacy," a friend of the family was quoted as saying. "That woman has never hunted. She never helps with the fishing either. It's all a joke." Bristol, by the by, has made several hundred thousand dollars from media appearances, and was this week unveiled as a contestant on the popular US television programme Dancing With the Stars.

The Vanity Fair article wasn't all tittle tattle. It also explored Palin's links to extremist Christians – the "prayer warriors" she often cites in speeches – and explored her somewhat opaque finances. It revealed that Timothy Crawford, treasurer of Sarah-PAC, her political action committee, is being investigated in Ohio for alleged campaign finance misdemeanours, and has refused to respond to a subpoena issued by the state's investigators.

Meanwhile, Palin's famously scant general knowledge may be even more flaky than originally thought. When McCain aides prepared her for television interviews in 2008, they allegedly found that – besides thinking Africa was a country rather than a continent – she had never heard of Margaret Thatcher. Palin now cites Thatcher as one of her all-time heroines.

Responding yesterday, Douglas McMarlin, a spokesman for Sarah-PAC, said: "The article is a collection of lies cobbled together by an outlet without standards. As the message continues to succeed, the messenger will continue to be attacked by yellow journalists seeking to increase sales."

Miss McCain, for her part, has attempted to put a marginally more sympathetic gloss on things. Her book reveals that the Republican inner circle was "waiting for her [Palin] to explode" during the 2008 campaign. She adds: "There was a fine line between genius and insanity, they say, and choosing her as the running mate was starting to seem like a definition of that line."