The coroner's verdict on the death of Michael Hutchence was suicide. But Paula Yates, the singer's girlfriend, claims that other forces were at work. So what really happened on the night of 21 November 1997? And why?

Robert Milliken
Monday 17 February 2014 16:13

WHEN MICHAEL HUTCHENCE flew into his native Australia last November, there were few signs that his dazzling career was about to crash land, that he was about to kill himself.

The lead singer of INXS was returning to Sydney, the city where he was born, for a concert tour to mark the twentieth anniversary of the band's birth. Twenty years is a long time in rock. It implies stamina, steeliness and an instinct for survival, qualities denied to many in that business. And for Hutchence, at 37, this trip had a special purpose. He was preparing for the arrival of his girlfriend, the TV personality Paula Yates, also 37, and their 16 month-old daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. Hutchence had become exasperated by the couple's treatment at the hands of the British tabloids, and of the endless legal battles with Yates's former husband, the rock singer Bob Geldof, over her three children from that marriage. Hutchence planned to set up a base for his new family Down Under, from where he would embark on the next stage of his career as a solo singer and actor. As he approached 40, everything looked rosy. Or so he told his friends.

Underneath, though, Hutchence was a mass of insecurities. Ever since a freak accident in 1992 robbed him of most of his senses of taste and smell, he had become increasingly prone to bouts of depression. He would burst into tears for the slightest reason. In late 1995, he started taking Prozac, the controversial anti-depressant. He took it frequently from then on, sometimes with cocaine, ecstasy and other recreational drugs. Despite outward appearances, the aspect of Hutchence's life that was causing him the most inner turmoil by the time he returned to Australia in November was his relationship with Paula Yates. He felt trapped by it, friends say, in a way that he had never felt trapped before.

Hutchence flew in from Los Angeles where, accompanied by Martha Troup, his New York-based personal manger, he had spent a few days talking about possible film deals involving Michael Douglas and Quentin Tarantino. He landed in Sydney on Tuesday 18 November at 11pm, and checked into the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Double Bay, an upmarket neighbourhood in Sydney's eastern suburbs. Next day, INXS's Sydney publicist helped him to inspect an apartment for Paula and Tiger Lily's anticipated arrival before Christmas. On Thursday, he joined the other INXS members for rehearsals at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's television studios. That night, he skipped a film premiere and slept instead. There were more rehearsals on Friday, which broke up in the early evening with the band agreeing to reconvene the next morning. The Saturday rehearsal was crucial: it was the last before the start of the Australian tour. But Friday 21 November would be the last time INXS would ever play together.

After a drink at the Ritz Carlton bar, Hutchence joined his father for dinner at the nearby Flavour of India restaurant. Kelland Hutchence (known as Kell) is a successful Sydney businessman who lives up the road from Double Bay in Bellevue Hill, a neighbourhood of mansions overlooking Sydney Harbour that is home to some of Australia's richest people, including Kerry Packer, the media magnate. Kell is a friendly man with grey hair, a ruddy face and a passion for urban conservation. Over dinner that night, his one concern was his son. "I held his hand across the table," Kell said later. "I said, 'Mike, is everything OK? I know you're very happy, but you seem a little uptight.' And he said, 'No, Dad, I'm fine. Really. I've never felt better.' "

Kell Hutchence dropped his son back at the Ritz Carlton at 10.30, then drove home through the quiet, leafy streets of Bellevue Hill. For Michael Hutchence, the night was just beginning. He went straight to the hotel bar, ordered a drink and started flirting with two young women fans. At about 11 o'clock, Kym Wilson, an Australian actress, and Andrew Rayment, her boyfriend, arrived to meet Hutchence. Wilson, a former star of TV soap-operas, once had a romantic fling with Hutchence, and the couple remained friends, as Hutchence did with several old girlfriends.

He invited Wilson and Rayment to his room, saying that he wanted to stay close to his telephone in case of calls from Britain about the latest legal ruction between Yates and Geldof. The original plan had been for Paula to go to Sydney for Christmas and stay for three months. But she could do so only if she could take two of her and Geldof's daughters - Peaches, eight, and Pixie, seven - with her. Initially, Geldof had agreed. Then he changed his mind. So the couple were due in court again that Friday - or early Saturday morning, Sydney time: about now. For Hutchence, the stakes were high indeed. No Peaches and Pixie meant no Paula - and therefore no Tiger Lily, the daughter he loved more than anyone else in the world.

Kym Wilson and her boyfriend stayed in Hutchence's room for almost five hours, until dawn was breaking on Saturday. Only two people have spoken about what happened in those hours: Derek Hand, the New South Wales coroner, and Wilson, who sold her "exclusive" account for a fee reported to be around Au$100,000 (pounds 40,000) to Woman's Day, a magazine in Kerry Packer's empire. (The magazine said that Wilson "will donate her fee" to a trust fund for Tiger Lily.)

As they partied into the small hours, the threesome drank vodka, beer, champagne and daiquiris. "Michael talked about how he desperately wanted the girls to be with him, and that was what they wanted too," says Wilson. "Michael wasn't very fond of Bob Geldof. He didn't paint a good picture of him at all." As things turned out, that was putting it mildly.

By 4.30am, Rayment was falling asleep at the foot of Hutchence's bed. "Michael just looked at him," says Wilson. "He looked at me trying to keep up the conversation, and said, 'Oh, look, you two go home'." They did, and when they woke up later that day they turned on the radio to hear that Hutchence was dead.

Left alone in his room, Hutchence sank into despair. The trigger was a phone call from Yates in London about an hour later. She told him the custody case had been adjourned, so she would not be going to Australia with the children after all. Hutchence sounded "desperate", according to Yates. He rang Geldof almost straight away and begged him to let the children go to Australia. Geldof later described Hutchence as "hectoring, abusive and threatening". A woman in the room next to Hutchence at the Ritz Carlton was woken up by Hutchence shouting and swearing at Geldof down the phone.

Hutchence then rang the two women who friends say were closer to him than any other, Yates included. They were Martha Troup, his New York agent, and Michele Bennett, an old Australian girlfriend from the days before he was famous, who had remained his closest friend and confidante. She arranged Hutchence's last birthday party, in January 1997. Bennett, now a Sydney film producer, lived only a few streets away in Bellevue Hill. But, at a critical moment when Hutchence needed to reach these women, he only got their voices electronically. On Bennett's answering machine he left a message that she said later sounded "drunk". Then he rang Troup in New York and spoke to her voice-mail. "Martha," he said. "Michael here. I fucking had enough [sic]." That was at 9.40am in Sydney. Troup picked up the message a few minutes later and rang Hutchence's hotel room immediately. There was no answer.

At 9.50, Hutchence rang another of Troup's numbers. He left a message on that machine which Troup said "sounded as if he was affected by something. It was slow and deep." She was so worried when she heard it that she rang John Martin, INXS's tour manager in Sydney, who was getting ready for the Saturday rehearsal.

Meanwhile, Hutchence made his last call to Michele Bennett at 9.54. She answered this time. Hutchence cried down the phone, and she told him she would come straight away. But when Bennett knocked on his door, there was no answer. She tried unsuccessfully to ring the room. With long experience of Hutchence's wayward and unpredictable habits, Bennett assumed that he had pulled himself together and gone out, or simply gone to bed. She left him a note at reception and went home.

In fact, Hutchence had tied a belt around his neck, attached the buckle to a door handle in his room and hanged himself. The buckle broke away, and, when a maid went into the room shortly before midday, she found Hutchence's naked body kneeling on the floor facing the door. Bennett has never spoken publicly about the drama. "I'm still dealing with things in my own way," she told me.

WHEN THE death was announced later that day, Australia was shocked. Hutchence was the greatest rock star, and INXS the biggest band, the country had ever produced. Although another Australian act, the heavy-metal group AC/DC, could claim to have sold more records, INXS were far more stylish and had a much greater appeal across a mainstream music audience.

In Britain, the tabloids went ballistic. By the time he died, Hutchence was known less for his music and more for his turbulent lifestyle. He was the leather-clad, decadent rock star who was responsible for Kylie Minogue shedding her goodie-goodie Neighbours image and, as she said, "introducing me to sex". He was the man who seduced Paula Yates while she was still married to "Saint" Bob Geldof, propelling himself into a running battle with the paparazzi ever since.

With Paula in London and Michael in a hotel room on the other side of the world - where he spent his last night with an actress (albeit in the presence of her boyfriend), left pills scattered across the floor and was found dead with nothing on but a leather belt around his neck - the mix was too potent. Some London tabloids suggested that Hutchence and Kym Wilson had had sex that night. While others claimed that his death resulted from a bungled act of solitary auto-eroticism. Wilson has denied the first charge. "There were definitely no drugs in the room when I was there," she says. "And there wasn't any sex either."

The coroner has discounted the second. In the report in February of his inquest into Hutchence's death, Derek Hand said of the auto-eroticism theory: "There is no forensic or other evidence to substantiate this suggestion." He concluded that Hutchence had committed suicide, had intended to do so, and that no one else was involved.

Paula Yates refuses to accept this verdict. In Australia last week, where she presided over the christening of Tiger Lily in a Sydney church, she also gave her first extensive interview since Hutchence's death to Channel Nine, an Australian commercial television network which had flown her over from Britain first-class. She said that Hutchence regarded suicide as "the most cowardly act" and that he would never have left their baby. She suggested that the auto-erotic theory was the right one. Of Hutchence's sex life, she said: "I think he had tried everything. I hope he had. I just don't think he killed himself. He did in the end, but it was accidental. I knew him so well."

How well? When the shock of Hutchence's death died down, people started to look at it more clinically. They called it selfish, sordid, self-indulgent and wasteful. Of all the people with problems, they said, Hutchence was better-placed than most to deal with them. He was rich and famous, with loving, attendant parents, friends he could call on and the support of a band that had been his "family" since he was a teenager. Everyone had a theory: that Hutchence was the classic fading rock star afraid of growing old, that he saw no future for himself beyond INXS, whose days were numbered anyway.

But was it really that simple? Were there darker forces involved, the demons of a deeply depressed and paranoid man from a macho culture who had finally given up on trying to present a front to the world about who he really was? "Martha ... I fucking had enough." Those words say a lot, and so little as well. Enough of what?

Of all the possible causes of Hutchence's final depression, the one that the coroner highlighted was his relationship with Paula Yates and the pressures of the dispute with Geldof. The coroner concluded that the depression was also caused by a cocktail of drugs found in Hutchence's blood: alcohol, cocaine, Prozac and what Hand described only as "other prescription drugs". What were these? And how harmful were they when combined with a drug like Prozac? The coroner's report raised more questions than it answered.

There were few gloomy portents in Hutchence's childhood in Sydney, where he was born in January 1960. His family later moved to Hong Kong, where Kell ran an importing business and Michael spent eight years at a school for expatriate children. His main school interests were acting, athletics and stamp collecting. "Rather immature, but very pleasant" was the school's verdict on his report card when he left.

The Hutchences returned to Sydney when Michael was 12, but his parents' marriage did not last. They divorced in 1975. Both have remarried. His mother, Patricia, moved to Los Angeles to work as a make-up artist; and in his last years, Michael was estranged from her. Michael went to school in the pleasant, affluent suburbs of Sydney's northern beaches, where he met three brothers, Andrew, Tim and Jon Farriss. With their friends Kirk Pengilly and Garry Gary Beers, they formed a band called The Farriss Brothers. In 1977 the band was rechristened INXS, and for the next nine years they rocked around Australia's pubs and clubs and released a series of moderately successful albums.

It was during this period in the early Eighties that Michael Hutchence met three people, all outside the band, who were to be among the most constant figures in his life, and to whom he would often unburden himself: Michele Bennett, Greg Perano and Richard Lowenstein. Perano co- founded Hunters and Collectors, another big Australian act of the Eighties. Lowenstein was a noted film- maker and rock-video producer whose 1983 feature, Strikebound, so impressed Pete Townshend, of The Who, that he flew Lowenstein to Britain to make a short film, White City.

Lowenstein first met Hutchence in April 1984 after Hutchence had been impressed by Talking to a Stranger, a cutting-edge video that Lowenstein had made for Hunters and Collectors. INXS were on tour in north Queensland and Lowenstein, who was down in Melbourne, was leaving for the Cannes film festival in four days. Hutchence insisted that Lowenstein and his crew fly to the "sunshine State" beforehand to make a video of an INXS song, "Burn for You". Lowenstein relented, and still remembers his first meeting with Hutchence vividly: "I came face to face under the Queensland sun with six bronzed males and their girlfriends, wearing Hawaiian shirts and board shorts. The most effusive of these males stood up and loped over, shaking our hands with an eager puppy-dog gleam and a smile to die for. He said his name was Michael."

Lowenstein cast Hutchence as a junkie in his next feature, Dogs in Space, a 1986 cult film about a group of post-punk deadbeats in Melbourne. But life for Hutchence and INXS was about to change dramatically. With their 1987 album, Kick, the band finally hit the international big-time. Kick sold nine million copies worldwide, and gave the group their first American Number 1 hit, "Need You Tonight", for which Lowenstein also produced the video. As they toured Europe and America into the Nineties, Hutchence the new superstar also took on the identity of an international superstud.

His 10-year relationship with Bennett safely behind him, he embarked on a series of flamboyant affairs with high-profile women, including Kylie Minogue and the Danish model Helena Christensen, and a series of lesser- known beauties. Being attached never stopped him having other affairs on the side, however. Lowenstein believes Hutchence's sexual permissiveness masked an essential shyness and insecurity.

"He would flirt with everybody - women or waiters in restaurants," says Lowenstein. "He had a magnetic effect on men as well as women. The attraction to women wasn't as a conventional male stud, but as a man who had feminine qualities and feline body language without being effeminate. That was hugely attractive to women, along with the direct eye contact that he gave everyone. He wanted to seduce everyone, if not physically then metaphysically." A Sydney artist who encountered Hutchence at parties in Sydney and New York concurs: "He loved women. But he had a very fluid sexuality."

Hutchence and Paula Yates had met during the Eighties, but they only got involved after he appeared as her guest on Channel 4's Big Breakfast show in January 1995. She left Geldof and he ditched Christensen. He called her his "soul mate"; she described him as the "Taj Mahal of crotches". Up to then, Hutchence had gone into most relationships on the cavalier assumption that they would end after a few years, and his friends expected he would eventually find a way to move on from Paula as he had from Kylie and Helena. But a series of complications arose that made that option, for the first time, very problematical.

The first was the arrival of Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily in 1996. Hutchence's friends insist that parenthood with Paula was not on his agenda, any more than marriage to her was, despite her tearful claims after his death that they were planning to marry in January this year on the Pacific island of Bora Bora. Last week she repeated her claim, saying she was "certain" they would have married "around Christmas". She also dismissed suggestions that Hutchence never wanted a child with her. "We had a year of fertility treatment," she said.

But Kell Hutchence maintains that his son had no intention of marrying Yates. Lowenstein says that, if his friend ever got married to anyone, it probably would have been to his old flame, Michele Bennett, the one woman on whom he felt he could rely. "I always felt that, after everything, he'd go back and marry Michele and have a baby with her."

Once Tiger Lily did arrive, however, Hutchence was smitten. He experienced a form of unconditional love for the child that was new to him. For that reason, Hutchence grew increasingly paranoid about a parallel complication in his life centred on Yates's bitter and public custody battle with Geldof over their three children. He grew terrified that Tiger Lily would become a victim of this and possibly be taken from him.

Hutchence's fears reached a height in late 1996, when he and Yates were arrested after opium was allegedly found in their London home. They claimed it was planted to discredit them; the case was dropped. Geldof won a temporary custody order at the time over his three daughters. Hutchence and Yates claimed later they found electronic bugs in their home, which they believed were planted to get evidence against them.

Soon after this incident, Lowenstein had dinner with Hutchence at the Latin, a fashionable Melbourne restaurant. They talked of setting up their own film company. Back at Hutchence's Melbourne hotel, he grew agitated over the legal battle in Britain, flew into a rage against Geldof and punched the wall of his room. "He struck me then as one of the loneliest people I had ever come into contact with," says Lowenstein.

The stormy public relationship with Yates was not only eating away at Hutchence inside. It also highlighted a gulf that had grown between him and the other members of INXS. As they approached 40, most had settled down to stable domestic lives in Australia - two to the obscurity of cattle farms. Hutchence, by contrast, was still jetting here, there and everywhere, the perennial rock star, living between his houses in London, Hong Kong, the south of France and Australia. "INXS had peaked and didn't have the same creative energy any more," says Greg Perano. "The others were content to grow old, but Michael never really grew up."

HE MAY WELL have survived all this had it not been for a bizarre accident that had seriously, and possibly fatally, affected his mental well-being. In 1992, Hutchence was riding a bicycle home from a nightclub in Copenhagen when he got involved in an altercation with a taxi driver, fell and hit his head. The result was a fractured skull and severed nerves that left him with only about 10 per cent of his senses of taste and smell. His friends are convinced that the accident was a turning point that led to increasing bouts of depression and reliance on Prozac.

"Ever since the accident, he was on a slow decline," says Lowenstein. "I'd never seen any evidence of depression, erratic behaviour or violent temper before it. I saw all those things after it. One night in Melbourne, he broke down and sobbed in my arms. He said, 'I can't even taste my girlfriend any more.' His girlfriend then was Helena. For someone who was such a sensual being, this loss of primary senses affected his notion of place in the world and, I believe, damaged his psyche."

Hutchence grew increasingly sensitive to criticism and conflict. The tabloid dramas of his life with Paula affected him deeply. So did public put-downs such as that by Noel Gallagher of Oasis, who called him a "has- been" at the 1996 Brit awards. "He was a lost soul, to tell you the truth," says Perano.

By the time of his death, many of the conflicts of Hutchence's life were closing in. He was still estranged from his mother. He was caught in an unbearable war between Yates and Geldof. He feared losing his daughter. His own professional future was uncertain. A big question that arises is: what was the link between the drug cocktail in his body that night - Prozac combined with alcohol, cocaine and "other prescription drugs", a cocktail that the Sydney coroner said helped to cause Hutchence's "severely depressed" state - and his suicide?

Prozac is from a relatively new generation of anti-depressant drugs. In the latest annual edition of Mims, a standard medical-reference journal, the manufacturers of Prozac, Eli Lilly Australia, warn that doctors should prescribe Prozac in "the smallest quantity consistent with good patient management in order to reduce the risk of overdose". The drug "may impair judgement and thinking". People who take it, the warning says, should tell doctors if they are also taking other prescription drugs or alcohol, itself a depressant. How much of this regimen did Hutchence follow?

Richard Lowenstein is convinced that his friend's erratic use of Prozac contributed to his death. "He took it like candy. He was always travelling and there never seemed to be one doctor monitoring his doses or even asking if it was the right medication. I don't believe Michael intended to kill himself. He loved life too much. I believe his action came about in a sudden fit of anger and frustration from a chemical onslaught in his brain."

Hutchence's other close friend, Greg Perano, disagrees. Perano, a man who has suffered from depression himself and was once close to suicide, talked frequently to Hutchence about the condition they had in common. Hutchence wept to Perano, too. "You get into such a dark hole that you can only see one way out," says Perano. "And that is to stop whatever is causing it."

He says: "I believe that there were just a few minutes in which Michael wanted this to happen. A few minutes later he might not have wanted it. It may sound horrible, but I think it's what he wanted. He was at his peak. He was still charismatic. He hadn't grown fat, bald or old. People still thought of him as young."

Intentional or not, Hutchence seems finally to have succumbed to a streak of self-destructiveness that put him in a pantheon of other rock gods, for whom the pressures and prices of fame over the past 30 years proved too much to handle: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison of the Doors and Kurt Cobain.

Hutchence's affairs in death are as tangled as they were in life. In the last few weeks, it has emerged that his estate, worth about pounds 8 million, has been hidden in a complex web of discretionary trusts and holding companies stretching through Hong Kong, Australia, the British Virgin Islands and Europe. His will gave half his estate to Tiger Lily with the other half divided equally between Paula Yates, his father, brother, sister and his mother, even though he remained estranged from her. But, when he died, Hutchence was technically bankrupt.

The web of companies controlling Hutchence's assets was reputedly designed to minimise the tax liabilities on his income. Many of the companies have as a director Colin Diamond, Hutchence's New Zealand-based financial adviser and a co-executor of his will. But the impact of the financial arrangements that Hutchence left in Diamond's hands means that the beneficiaries may face a long battle in securing assets that they believe are rightfully theirs. Hutchence owned houses in Smith Terrace, London SW3, and Antibes in the south of France. These and other properties in Australia are not listed as part of his estate. The London house, for example, is owned by a company in the British Virgin Islands.

Patricia Glassop, Hutchence's mother, is now threatening legal action against a company that is planning to sell one of her son's three properties in Queensland. "I feel like I have lost Michael twice," she told the Sydney Morning Herald last week. "His houses have been closed down. I do not even have one of his shirts to remind me of him." Diamond and his solicitor brother, Stephen, are reported to be negotiating with Kell Hutchence and Yates, but refusing to deal with Michael's mother.

Why did Hutchence leave his affairs this way? His friends believe he was concerned above all to secure Tiger Lily's inheritence from legal challenge by others, and that he understood the complexities of the way his fortune was being handled. Others are not so sure. Last week, the company that arranged Hutchence's funeral in Sydney last November was threatening to sue his estate for its bill of Au$50,000 (pounds 20,000), which is still unpaid.

The funeral angered INXS members and many of Hutchence's old friends. Acting for Hutchence's mother, Harry M Miller, a Sydney celebrity agent, negotiated the live television rights with an Australian commercial network. Nick Cave, the Australian singer, sang for his friend but refused to let his segment be televised. Paula wanted Tom Jones to sing "What's New Pussycat?", Michael's favourite song by his favourite singer, but his family refused. Jones attended and wept instead. Greg Perano later wrote a letter to Tiger Lily, which Paula is holding for the child, bemoaning the funeral's tone. "It was your father's last show," he wrote. "He was so bored his mates had to carry him out in a box."

After his cremation, Hutchence's ashes were divided between his family and Paula and Tiger Lily. Sacrilege to some, but an unavoidable outcome, it seemed, of his stormy, unreconciled life.

A few weeks later, the surviving members of INXS, together with Michele Bennett and a handful of Hutchence's old friends, joined his father and brother on a yacht in Sydney Harbour. It was 21 January 1998, the day Michael would have turned 38. They swapped stories about him; then, as a Maori singer sang "Amazing Grace", Kell and Rhett Hutchence moved to the bow of the boat. They held each other as they tipped their son and brother's ashes overboard. As the boat moved slowly away, the evening sky turned bright red and the waters of Sydney Harbour went perfectly still. Main picture: Michael is interviewed by Paula Yates on the set of Channel 4's `Big Breakfast' show, the meeting that led to an affair. This page (clockwise from above): Michael in 1985 with Michele Bennett, the long-time girlfriend who remained his closest friend and confidante; with the Danish model Helena Christensen in 1994; holding Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, the daughter he loved more than anyone else in the world, in 1996 at the Chelsea house he shared with Paula Yates; posing with fellow members of INXS in 1996; and stepping out with Kylie Minogue in Sydney in 1990

Mourners at the funeral on 25 November included Paula Yates (top), Michael's father Kell and step-mother Sue (middle), and pall-bearers including fellow members of INXS and Michael's brother Rhett (above, in stripes)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments