Michael Hutchence: in the eye of the blizzard

In this very personal essay, Catherine Mayer remembers her friend Michael Hutchence, and wonders if our hunger for is debasing our society

These days I know lots of dead people, but 20 years ago my ghosts were few and elderly. Then, on 22 November 1997, Michael Hutchence died, the first close friend of my age to do so. Grief doesn’t always manifest in tears and pain. For months afterwards, numb and fizzing with a demented energy, I strolled into walls and tripped over paving stones. The bruises multiplied as if my body was trying to tell me:” This hurts; this really hurts .”

Michael’s death also began to crystallise my malaise about renown and our relationship with it.

Eleven weeks earlier, photographers had pursued a vehicle into a tunnel in Paris, then stopped to take pictures of its dead and succumbing occupants. In the manner of her death, Diana the hunted seemingly left the media nowhere to hide from its culpability. In truth the events enabled a false distinction between mass-market press and the rest of my profession. As Michael’s friend, I had direct experience of the excesses of the paparazzi and the tabloids who paid them. I recollect trying to drive his Jeep with a photographer draped across the bonnet, firing a flashing firearm straight into my eyes in his efforts to capture an image of Michael huddled with Paula Yates in the back seat, attempting to shield their newborn- their tiny, new newborn.

Yet as a journalist- and a consumer of news- I couldn’t ignore the ways in which print journalists right across the spectrum, from red-top to broadsheet, falsified Michael. It wasn’t just about the mixture of sloppiness and invented detail, or even the crass reinforcement of every conceivable stereotype about masculinity and boulder stars. Their reports concealed toxic narrations that played out in unexpected routes after Michael’s death and define me wondering about the wider effects of .

Photographers outside Paula Yates’s funeral in Faversham in 2000. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/ PA

Sleepless, I would pace the street before dawn, passing newspaper hoardings that clasped sensational headlines as tightly as I held on to a stranger, sadder reality. Michael’s reach now extended to audiences that had hitherto shown not the slightest interest in him. Even people close to me, who surely ensure my distress, poked and probed for info, demanding pieces of him to share around. Almost nobody seemed to understand Michael as a real person, with real family and real friends. He was simply a tale.

Perhaps they thought I shouldn’t care. Our friendship had lasted less than three years, but gained intensity in part because it developed in isolation. We met after he rang my partner Andy Gill and invited him to play guitar on the solo album he was writing. Michael admired Andy’s band, Gang of Four, so much so that he called back a few minutes later to set the question he originally intended but felt too shy to ask: would Andy co-write the album?

Michael’s on-stage flamboyance wasn’t an act- in private he was given to grand gestures and exuberant stunts, on one occasion driving us across rather than around every landscaped roundabout between Nice airport and Roquefort-les-Pins- and singing Come Fly With Me as he did so. Yet he was also soft-spoken and self-effacing.

Andy moved into his French house for the first stage of writing and I would visit at weekends, travelling with Paula. Her relationship with Michael had sparked a craze of prurient, tutting editorialising masquerading as reporting. In Britain, paparazzi trailed them everywhere. In France, they found it easier to conceal, behind the walls of big estates or in plain sight among other tabloid targets who wouldn’t judge them or sell tales about them.

The author’s snap of Hutchence with her partner Andy Gill. Photo: Catherine Mayer

A fear of intrusion, along with the intrusion itself, shrunk their social circle to a small core and then shrank it again. People they regarded as friends did sell tales. We suspected that Paula may have encouraged some of the attention herself, though in the wake of the hacking scandal I wondered if she had actually said and done or just fallen victim to an earlier wave of surveillance. Surely her relationship with the media was far away from straightforward. It was a drug that could lift her spirits, but more often punched her in the gut. She was brilliant, hilarious and beautiful, but the woman “shes seen” reflected back at her was a cartoon, an avatar of female folly as depicted by a casually misogynist press. Scene editors lined her up against Michael’s previous fan, the supermodel Helena Christensen, literally anatomising the ways in which Paula, by their criteria, fell short. Columnists, often female, excoriated her for daring to believe herself entitled to love- a mother! At her age! With a rock starring!

Michael did adore her and she him, although both doubted the latter are worthy of the other.

They aspired to create not just a family but a haven, a dream all the more poignant given their histories. Both received from dysfunctional homes. When Michael was a adolescent, his mother took him and his younger friend Rhett to the airport, announcing at the deviation gate that she was leaving their father and taking only Michael with her to a new life in California. Michael was haunted by the memory of two brothers flinging himself against a glass partition as they headed to the plane.( Rhett has blotted out this detail.” Blocked forever ,” he emails.” I did hear I was weeping, and hollering:’ Take me with you’ and’ I promise I’ll be good .'”)

At the same time Paula was enduring the uncertain single-parenting skills of Jess Yates, a depressive Tv presenter links with religious and children’s programming and exiled from both after revelations of his affair with a young actress. Paula discovered in May 1997 that Yates was not her biological father. That distinction belonged to another television personality, Hughie Green.

A media onslaught takes its toll on anyone that is its focus. For two people in different ways so fragile, the experience was devastating. The barbs corroborated Paula’s anxieties about herself and about Michael’s commitment. Michael felt responsible for her anguish. So did I. It wasn’t enough to tell myself that I wasn’t that kind of journalist. Broadsheets operated stories about my friends, too, picked up second-hand from the tabloids and embellished with additional mistakes, as if dedicating resources such as fact-checking to the subject forced them to acknowledge their accelerating tabloidisation.

More difficult still, Michael and Paula imagined that I could deploy my professional skills to help them. Michael urged me to write a piece to clear his name after medications discovered in the house he shared with Paula. A great deal about the bust seemed fishy, but I refused.

Paula reproached me for this after Michael killed himself, and I did assist a Sunday Times investigation. Getting closer to the truth didn’t make her feel better. Now she craved one final media untruth to salve her pain. She wanted me to help her build the lawsuit that Michael had died in road traffic accidents, something she urgently wanted to believe. Yet Michael had called only a few days before he died, weeping so hard I couldn’t make out every term, talking of legal combats and the endless, relentless press attention and his own demons.

In any case, I had no religion that the piece Paula wanted me to write would make a difference.

There’s a weasel form of words some journalists favour. They invite their targets to “set the record straight”. The expression is at best naive- a single article almost never changes the mood music, especially amid a blizzard of what might now be called ” fake news “. Furthermore those most likely to use the phrase are routinely implicated in the coverage in need of correction. On the working day Michael died, a journalist echo me as I tended to Paula to demand I put her on the phone to “set the record straight”. The journalist said if she did not, he would write that Michael had killed himself because he’d detected he was HIV positive.( This was a fiction, as the journalist knew .) On the working day Paula died, a newspaper sent me a large bunch of blooms and, hidden in the stems, a letter, inviting me to “set the record straight”. If I didn’t give them an interview, they’d speak to people who loved her less and if they got things wrong, well, that would be my fault.

I had no desire to talk about her unravelling, or even to share glimpses into the happier times. I still don’t. As the anniversary of Michael’s death approaches, I have turned down requests to participate in memorial films. Yet I chose to write this piece, because I have come to see that what happened to Michael and Paula matters beyond the bounds of friends and family, beyond the private sphere.

Paula Yates with the author and her husband Andy on their bridal day in September 1999. Photograph: Brian Moody/ OK! Magazine/ N& S Syndication

There’s a anthem on Michael’s solo album that drives this phase home. The album wasn’t finished when he died so Andy worked to complete it, sitting for hours in the studio, polishing rough mixtures and salvaging smaller fragments, and often pinioned by loss as the music gave style to spoken interludes, Michael joking, Michael giggling. The way they had written the anthems was that Andy generated the instrumentation and then Michael would sing, and they’d usually work up the lyrics and top line together. There were rough mixtures of most ways, ballads about Paula, love anthems, and other, darker songs. Slide Away, by contrast, had a chorus, but the verses were only sketches. Even so, when Andy listened to it again, he realised how compelling it was. He asked Bono, another close friend of Michael’s, to supply additional vocals to create an extraordinarily lovely duet.

” I just want to slide away ,” Michael sings.” And come alive again .” Listening to those words in the immediate rinse of heartbreak, this sounded like a passion for resurrection. Now I hear a lament. Michael wanted to slide away, out of the spotlight, out of an intractable situation. If I didn’t understand his impulse for flight and the dehumanising effects of notoriety back then, subsequent events have brought a brutal clarity.

I recollect a woman I liked, who I guess liked me and knew I was one of Paula’s best friends, remarking conversationally of an incoherent TV interview Paula gave after Michael died:” Frankly I just wanted to reach through the screen and punch her .” The female took her cue from the dominant narration. Even then I still assumed that narrative to be dictated by mass-market newspapers, treating OK ! magazine’s presence at my wedding to Andy as an amusing adjunct to the amusement. Days before our first anniversary, I switched on the Tv to assure Paula’s body carried out of her house. The coverage of her demise across all types of media, untainted by facts or insight, eventually dispelled any notion of a benign press or a quality press where the famous are concerned. Subsequently, we watched helplessly as a similar lazy consensus damned Paula’s daughter Peaches as spoiled and indulged, a judgment as far away from the truth of her short life as it’s possible to imagine.

Peaches lived online and died in the digital era. It was easier to advocate for free speech, as I still do, before so many exerted it so avidly. Issues of privacy and public interest are becoming increasingly intricate and journalism- the kind that invests in establishing facts, or even recognises the value of doing so- is jeopardized, in turn threatening democracy. Celebrity is rapid-cycling and more double-edged than ever. The transaction confers certain privileges and responsibilities while apparently stripping the recipient of the basic right to be recognised as a person rather than a cipher.

The famous are by no means the only ones to suffer as a result. If we accept the idea that individuals in the public eye are less than human, how should we insist on the humanity of those without names or profile? They too easily become migrant tides, aliens, collateral, unidentified and unidentified with. In depreciating celebrities while commodifying celebrity, we risk undervaluing everyone.

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