Paula Yates as inconsolable suicide blonde

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Just Over a year ago, when a quantity of opium was allegedly found at the house in Chelsea that Paula Yates shared with Michael Hutchence, the former television presenter happened to be in Australia. She hurried back to England, accompanied by headlines - "Paula: I'll fight to keep my children" - which suggested she was about to become embroiled in a custody battle with her ex-husband, Bob Geldof, over their three daughters.

In the end nothing came of the supposed drugs find. And yet, at this sensitive moment in her career, Ms Yates was photographed arriving at Heathrow in a black cocktail dress with a plunging neckline, looking like someone emerging bleary-eyed from a nightclub at dawn. The pictures could hardly have been less flattering and there was an unspoken sub-text, suggesting this was not a proper way for a mother of four young children to behave. To make matters worse, she had left her two-month-old daughter by Hutchence, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, in Australia with her father.

This week, newspaper reports of Ms Yates's reaction to the death of Michael Hutchence in a hotel room in Sydney have been much kinder. "Brave Paula Yates holds her head high at St Andrew's Cathedral yesterday as ... she begins the harrowing trip down the aisle to take her seat at her lover's funeral", the Sun reported on Friday. The Mirror filled its front page with a photograph of Ms Yates looking dazed and holding Tiger Lily.

And yet the tabloids could not resist turning the funeral into a soap opera, revealing a rift between Ms Yates and an Australian actress called Kim Wilson, who was with Hutchence only hours before his death. They reported that Ms Wilson had ignored Ms Yates's request that she should not attend the funeral, turning a story about grief into one about rivalry between "the Hutchence women", as they were almost universally labelled.

The pictures of Ms Yates, sobbing during the ceremony, reminded me of a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe which appeared on the cover of a biography of the film star in the mid-Eighties. It showed her with lowered head, wiping away a tear, an image which powerfully emphasised her fragility. Inside, the author included a photograph taken after she died, with post- mortem lividity clearly exposed - as was the extent to which, by living her life in the glare of lenses and flashbulbs, she had forfeited her right to privacy, even in death.

The funeral of Michael Hutchence was a public event and Paula Yates has, throughout her adult life, assiduously courted publicity. The issue here is not so much invasion of privacy as why we are riveted by the spectacle of famous women painfully exposing their vulnerability. Of course we know, at some level, that they are so needy that they feel compelled to place every aspect of their existence in the public domain, making dramatic appeals for our attention and sympathy.

That is how we came to know about Ms Yates's operation to enlarge her breasts, her battles with Bob Geldof, even the details of her first sexual encounter with Hutchence. She is not alone in this pitiful addiction to self-exposure and the comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, not to mention the Princess of Wales, are compelling. Childlike, insecure - the adjectives Earl Spencer used about his sister apply to all three women - their lives are characterised by a craving for affirmation which turns them into public property. More often than not, it also destroys them.

"People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person," Marilyn Monroe once wrote. Because the course they have chosen is so dangerously self-destructive, I have come to think of them as suicide blondes, perhaps the most baleful female archetype of our century. This week's coverage of Paula Yates's doleful pilgrimage to Sydney demonstrates that, even in the aftermath of the death of the Princess of Wales, we have yet to acknowledge the Faustian pact we make with such women. Or our inability to console them.

ISN'T IT curious, by the way, that the character traits Earl Spencer admired in his sister struck him as rather less appealing when he detected them in his wife? Lady Spencer, according to a letter read out in court in Cape Town, was "immature" - another way of saying "childlike" - and unable to cope with her marriage except by "going on hunger strike" and drinking to excess.

Drinking aside, there is a pretty close parallel here with what happened to Princess Diana during her marriage to Prince Charles. This leads me to make one of those generalisations I usually avoid, except on occasions when they are irresistible: what is it about men that prevents them making connections which should be obvious to a babe in arms? The Earl has always struck me as an unlikely champion of wronged wives, just as I could scarcely believe my eyes when Senator Edward Kennedy emerged, six years ago, as the staunchest defender of Professor Anita Hill and scourge of sexual harassers everywhere.

It has given me an idea, however. After Prince Charles's hugely successful gig with the Spice Girls in South Africa last month, he should seize the opportunity to enhance his reputation by springing to the defence of Lady Spencer. In public. As soon as possible. And with lots of tributes to her vulnerability, her struggle with anorexia, and her courageous attempt to put an unhappy marriage behind her.

JUDGING by some of the speeches made in the House of Commons on Friday, there are still quite a few MPs who haven't got the point about hunting with hounds. We heard all the usual stuff about tradition, a way of life being under threat, and the thousands of jobs at stake if blood sports are banned.

The tide is running against hunting, as we saw from the size of majority in favour of Mike Foster's Bill. Blood sports combine pleasure and savagery. Like cock-fighting and bear-baiting, they are a relic from an older, crueller age. The Bill needs parliamentary time to pass through its next stage and I can't think of a better way for Tony Blair to demonstrate his commitment to modernise the country he was elected to govern.