By Jill Smolowe
October 02, 2000 12:00 PM

For more than 20 years Paula Yates was a fixture of British pop culture, a hybrid of rock groupie and Kathie Lee Gifford who generated controversy. In 1977, at 17, she began dating Irish rocker Bob Geldof. Six years later Yates was tapped to cohost the popular TV show The Tube and then went on to cohost The Big Breakfast, a zany morning gabfest where Yates interviewed celebrities on a candy-colored, king-size bed. But after Yates quit her nine-year marriage to Geldof in 1995 to run off with Michael Hutchence, an Aussie rocker whom she described as “a sexy love god,” the fun seemed to fade: Yates was linked to alcohol and drugs, and Geldof secured custody of their three daughters. After Hutchence took his life in ’97, there was her own suicide attempt—then this sad statement in 1998 when Yates was asked her future goals: “To stay alive for another year.”

On Sept. 17 the wild ride that was Paula Yates’s life came to an end. That morning, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, 4, her daughter with Hutchence, reportedly entered Yates’s bedroom and said, “Wake up, Mummy.” When Yates, 41, didn’t stir, the child began to play. Shortly after 10 a.m., Jo Fairley, a close family friend, let herself into Yates’s two-story London house and found Yates’s inert body, an empty vodka bottle and a half-empty bottle of barbiturates nearby. At 11:15 the police pronounced Yates dead. After noting there was no sign of violence, Detective Inspector Mike Christensen said, “We can’t speculate on the cause of death.” Later, a postmortem proved inconclusive, and the results from toxicology and blood tests aren’t expected for weeks.

Even as Geldof implored the press to leave his children “with their loss and Paula with her dignity,” speculation was rife that Yates had killed herself—but whether by accident or intentionally was unclear. Shahid Shafi, 37, a local convenience store clerk who claims that Yates typically bought 14 airline-size bottles a day, says that around 10 the prior evening, Yates showed up barefoot, disheveled and possibly intoxicated. Friends, conversely, noted both the absence of a suicide note and Yates’s improved outlook in recent months. “This was an accident,” insists Jasper Conran, who designed Yates’s wedding gown. “Paula was not a woman in despair.” Geldof, 45, told Britain’s The Independent, “She had just signed a deal with a new agent and was very bullish. She was getting it together.” Adds friend Craig Sams: “I think the shock is [that it came] just when everybody wasn’t expecting it anymore.”

It was always impossible to know what to expect from the witty and flirtatious Yates. Born in North Wales, she was the only child of Helene Thornton, a celebrated beauty who later penned romance novels under the name Heller Toren, and Jess Yates, a presenter on a religious TV program. Yates, who was not yet a teen when her parents split up, battled anorexia as a youth and claimed to have experimented with heroin by 14. At 16, she moved to London, where she became a rock groupie, quickly hooking up with the older Geldof. After a brief nude-modeling career she found fame on The Tube and later broke new ground in 1992, when Geldof, by then knighted for organizing the ’85 Live Aid concert, created The Big Breakfast.

Fame turned to notoriety after she ran off with Hutchence, one of her most provocative mattress interviews. Yates blithely announced that she had enlarged her breasts from 34B to 34C to give her lover a thrill, and trilled, “The first time we went to bed, he did six things within the first hour I was sure were illegal.” She also took a whack at Geldof’s sainted image, claiming, “Bob is the most controlling person in the world….I was always quite scared of him.”

Her decline was no less colorful. Geldof booted Yates from The Big Breakfast and in October ’96 won custody of their daughters Fifi Trixibelle, now 17, Peaches Honeyblossom, 11, and Pixie, 10. Five days later Yates was arrested for opium possession, a charge that never stuck. Then, just three weeks after Hutchence’s November ’97 death, which Yates insisted was from accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation, she was shocked to learn that TV presenter Hughie Green, a show business rival of her dad, Jess, was actually her biological father. Several months later she herself attempted suicide. After bouncing in and out of rehab centers, she battled with Hutchence’s family over the INXS lead singer’s ashes, his estate and even custody of Tiger.

For now a court has granted “interim care and control” of Tiger to Geldof. But last week Hutchence’s mother, Patricia Glassop, in Australia, and his half sister Tina Shorr, in California, began legal moves to pursue custody. “I will go as far and as long as it takes to win this battle,” Shorr said. Geldof, meanwhile, put out the word, “Paula would have hated to see her girls split,” a sentiment seconded by Hutchence’s father, Kelland, who is divorced from Glassop. Though Yates is gone, the controversies that surrounded her, it appears, will continue.

Jill Smolowe

Pete Norman, Suzanne Male and Caris Davis in London