Spectator Life - Culture

The last interview: Peaches Geldof on fame, heroin and Elliot Smith

In what may have been her final interview, Peaches Geldof talked at length about fame, heroin and her daily struggle to control her public identity

One of the first things I told her was that I knew very little of her back story, and Peaches laughed in a fulsome way that I quickly came to see as an essential part of her personality. There was something overflowing about her. An avidity, combined with enormous mental energy. I think the laughter was partly surprise — intentionally, I hadn’t done my homework — and partly relief. ‘The worst thing,’ she told me, ‘is shaking someone’s hand and realising full well they have a completely preconceived notion of who you are. They know your whole life! And you know nothing about them. It’s an imbalance that’s frightening.’

This was, microcosmically, Peaches’s burden, the disconnect between the script foisted on her by others — sometimes accurate, sometimes not — and the alternative, fuller life she was struggling to write for herself. The British press told her who she was, and it was her job, almost daily, to agree or disagree.

Peaches Geldof Photo: Lorenzo Agius/ Contour by Getty

I got to know Peaches Geldof in the way people do these days. She followed me on Instagram. I’d published a book in October — Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith — and she wrote to say how much she liked it. Her paperback was beaten up and waterlogged from readings in the bath, so I sent her a signed hardback, along with all of my other books. Smith, a spectacularly gifted songwriter, was a heroin and crack addict in the last few years of  his life, and he died violently in 2003 of two stab wounds to the chest. We got to talking about Elliott’s music, his songs. Peaches was a serious fan. She said Smith had been a ‘constant anchor’ for her ‘when everything else was drifting further away’. It’s comforting, she said, ‘to have someone, even if it’s just a disembodied voice, who understands the unsayable’. His music, she felt, was ‘timeless’ and ‘perfect’. I agreed. The ‘sad deaths of virtuosos’, as she phrased it, had been on her mind recently. She was also a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom she called a ‘total genius’. ‘Heroin is such a bleak drug,’ she said. ‘It always makes me so sad to hear about people like Hoffman who were real masters and also family men who were just wasted by the constant, gnawing obsession with it. All heroin users seem to have the same core internal pain, though. It’s a fascinating concept — drug of choice.’ In the days following her death, articles highlighted Peaches’s Elliott Smith ‘obsession’, insinuating (simplistically, brainlessly) that it killed her. In fact, it did the opposite. She ‘sought solace’ in his music. Like a lot of great dark artists, he made suffering beautiful, he redeemed it.

Through March, Peaches and I spoke more and more — over Twitter, via text, via Instagram, then finally, for roughly two hours in the second part of the month, on the phone. There always seemed to be something chaotic going on — a cat dying, babies not sleeping, her phone running out of charge, or, by virtue of what she called ‘dyspraxia’, her email locking her out. In between false starts I mentioned my new project, on the psychology of fame, and it was that which became the basis for all our subsequent discussions. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she said at first, ‘don’t even get me started! I grew up in the worst kind of whirlwind where every mistake I made was not only watched by my parents but the whole of the public. It was scary.’ She confessed she’d never spoken to anyone about it, ‘even though many interviewers have desperately tried’. She said it didn’t ‘feel right’ to discuss ‘the fame thing and everything that came with it in Elle, for instance. It didn’t make sense.’ Yet for some reason I never understood or questioned, she did, with remarkable candour and real, unguarded spontaneity — and intelligence — open up to me, this naive (in terms of her celebrity) and far-off Oregon writer. We had a rapport and a connection. Maybe she was a little bored. Raising babies is tough, tedious work, a daily war, as she said, ‘against dirty nappies’. Maybe she felt that if Elliott Smith understood her, and I understood Elliott Smith, then I’d understand her too. Who knows? But we talked about our families, about trauma (she’d had the lion’s share), and about how to move past it to a state of relative composure. She felt she was on a solid track (something belied, it now seems clear, by released toxicology reports). Yet to me, she was flagrantly, fiercely alive. Funny, smart, incisive, always in high gear, her thoughts tumbling out in breathless, fully formed bunches.

Peaches was born famous. She never knew any other existence. ‘From day one it was super intense. I was hyperaware of it. But as  a kid, of course, I wasn’t mentally capable of understanding it. And the paparazzi freaked me out.’ She said her childhood was a ‘mind blank’. The absence of memory struck her as ‘bizarre’, a ‘weird sort of protective thing’. She recalled, vaguely, being treated oddly by teachers. They kept telling her she was no different from anyone else, that she wasn’t special, but that’s not how they behaved. It was the same with her peers. ‘Parents would always be starstruck by my parents and want their kids to be friends with me so they could come over and meet my father, a sort of knight in shining armour.’

Musician Elliott Smith
Musician Elliott Smith

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This sense of all eyes on you, of growing up and feeling understandably tender, all while ‘being on the front page of the world press’ was like a ‘fucking fire’, Peaches said. It never left her. It was an all-out assault on experience. But when, at 14, she was given a platform to write short opinion pieces in the Sunday Telegraph — ‘I was this 14-year-old famous person’s daughter’ — the fire burned hotter. ‘It was a little ego boost but it also annoyed people. No way did I aspire to be a model like a lot of kids of famous parents. I wanted to try something different. But I got a rep for being nothing. I got this stupid title as the voice of British Youth Culture. I had to work hard to make that dissipate, to create myself. I tried to establish myself as having a brain, as a serious person. But at the same time I was going out and it was a bit hysterical.’

By any average standard, it was abnormal — the excessive attention — but it was normal too, it was what she ‘grew up with’. And over time the greedy, remorseless dissections of her person — ‘There’s no in-between, you’re either a fat pig or a bulimic’ — shaped her beliefs about human nature. ‘It’s playground politics. It’s a base part of the human psyche. I took it as part of what people do. If someone, God bless them, has a bad life, they want to hear about the golden fucking goose getting the prize. People love the phoenix-from-the-ashes story. Someone you lust for but can’t have. It’s like reading a fantasy novel. That elusive thing, the unattainable. But they also love a downfall. Humans at their core are so rotten. They’re a hateful breed. It’s exciting to hate celebrities. It’s archaic.’

‘I don’t care if someone in Boise, Idaho thinks I’m a fat bitch,’ Peaches declared. But seconds later she added, ‘Anyone who says they don’t read their own press is categorically lying. You need to keep on top of it for your work. You cannot be in the public eye and not have it affect you.’

Celebrities, she said, are not ‘automatons’, nor are they deities. They are ‘human beings who happen to be objects of extreme attention. But because you are unreachable, people throw rocks at you, like stoning you.’ Part of the problem, she believed, was that she never apologised to the press for anything, she never participated in what, these days, seems like a more or less required public atonement, an airing of sins combined with pleas for forgiveness. ‘I was labelled rude because I didn’t conform to the unspoken, invisible rules.’

After Peaches’s death, there was sanctimonious frowning over her use of social media, her tendency, shared by many 25-year-olds, to post pictures of herself, or her boys, her home, her dogs, her books, her husband. This was reduced to neurotic neediness. It was seen as a sign of weakness. Her own take was more nuanced. ‘I guess it’s the selfie generation. People have an innate desire for the approval of others. You always want to be the alpha in some ways. It’s a buzz when people tell you you’re great. But if I upload a pic I always wonder, “Why am I doing this? It’s not a cool thing to do.” Cool would involve posting some bizarre, arcane image nobody has ever heard of. Yet there is something about seeing yourself in the mirror of the eyes of other people, projecting yourself.’ She said that, despite what people think, ‘I never actually chase it. I didn’t want, at first, to be suckling at the tit of fame. But when I got better known, I got caught up in it a little. If I’m on a train, for instance, and everyone is staring at me, I wonder, “Is there a part of me that likes the recognition?” If everyone loves you, it’s like a big happy family. This may be why I’m obsessed with cults. It’s the biggest cult of all — celebrity.’

Peaches in the arms of her late mother Paula Yates. Peaches posted this photo on Instagram days before her death
Peaches in the arms of her late mother Paula Yates. Peaches posted this photo on Instagram days before her death

Throughout our conversations one theme recurred. It had to do with a sort of epic battle over The Image. Peaches was fighting to author her own identity. Like any young adult, she was finding out who she really was. At the same time, however, faceless others forced on her alternative, clichéd, distorted scripts. ‘I’m young,’ she said, ‘but people all know the same information about me. That’s the worst thing, the preconceptions.’ She felt like a ‘character. It’s like I’m someone in a book. Your life, they keep telling you, is pre-ordained: “I’m going to die like my mother, she’s going to end up like her mother.” And people expect you to spew these intimacies to them. Like you are in a church confessional. It’s an interview, not a therapy session.’ Having kids, she felt, switched the narrative up. ‘Suddenly I was this earth mother. It was an overnight transformation. It was so profoundly hateful. Then, out of nowhere, it was “Dang. We can’t hate you anymore. Here she is in her golden hair, etc.” Now, for the first time ever, there was gushing adulation.’

Long ago, she told me, celebrities were famous for a reason — talent, accomplishment, genuine distinctiveness. They weren’t only personalities; they weren’t mere amusements. ‘Now it’s just socialites and people with big tits. It’s very blurred.’ This dynamic, the shifting landscape, was something she was in the process of taking on directly, asking herself the hard questions. ‘When you’re a celebrity it’s like, “Who are you? Why are you being celebrated?” You start to think that if people pay attention you must be good at something. But I did not want to be just a personality. I wanted to be something more.’ In the end, she said, ‘It’s like trying to prove your whole existence to yourself.’

I found out Peaches was dead in the same way I found out Peaches was alive — on social media. I’d just spoken with her, and I was planning to check in the very next day, so what I felt, at first, was confusion. My instinct was that this was some demonic, belated April Fool’s hoax. I sat in my office and cried, for this lovely, brilliant, generous person I’d never met, this powerful life force impossibly extinguished. It seemed absurd, but I had a class to teach in 30 minutes. I was to be talking about John Lennon, how he’d used his music — songs like ‘Julia’ and ‘Mother’ — to process and work through feelings about his own loss of his own mother when he was a teenager. I said, melodramatically, I’ll do this for Peaches. It will be about how one can move on, dispatch grief. But I couldn’t speak. I cried again, in front of 20 bewildered undergrads.

Today what’s left is regret, death’s debris. I knew one Peaches. They were others only she knew. I wish I’d seen them. Either I didn’t want to, or she wouldn’t let me. Or both. Probably both.

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Show comments
  • NicolaiFriedrichdelaMotte

    Who cares about what the great scholar Peaches Geldof had to say.

    • Cogito Dexter

      As a member of the human race, I do. Every person has their story and every story deserves to be told to someone who’s willing to listen. You may be an unfeeling block of stone, but that says more about you than anyone else.

      • NicolaiFriedrichdelaMotte

        I know, I know. I am completely wrong. We should be glorifying her. Just as we should be glorifying the Kardashians.

        • Cogito Dexter

          No, we shouldn’t be doing that, but neither should people be demonising her. A little basic humanity and common decency, please.

      • La Fold

        What mewling maudlin sentimental nonsense.
        I had absolutely no interest in what she had to say when she was alive and I still dont now she has passed away..
        The thing is with all the bagheads i know or have known, is that each and everyone of them, regardless of their background, upbringing, social status etc are utterly selfish, completely self absorbed with a sense of ego only equal with their sense of entitlement.

        • Elsp

          You’re so right, you’d be completely different in that situation.

          • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW5pPXGrdTY Puss in High Wedgies

            I don’t know what a ‘baghead’ is, but I sense that the writer’s point is that he wouldn’t be in ‘that situation’, having more virtue. Virtue: remember that?

          • La Fold

            Ha ha, think thats the first time ive ever been called virtuous but having seen the damage that class A drugs can do to people first hand ( and I dont mean the usual “im so right on even my cocaine is fair trade” trustafarian brigade). If she had been a single mum in some housing estate in Edmonton or Toxeth all the people defending her here would be crucifying her right now.

          • Liz

            You mean you’d be able to vent more of your spleen and feel less self-conscious about it, hateful troll boy.

          • La Fold

            Oh bore off! Firstly i would never be in that situation so straw man demolished there. Secondly you are sticking up for a woman who overdosed with her infant child in tow. How much more selfish could you be?

        • Liz

          And yet you read the article.

  • bannedforselfcensorship

    I had never heard of Peaches before she died.
    I also doubt anyone in Boise, Idaho had either.
    Was she really famous?

    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW5pPXGrdTY Puss in High Wedgies

      Famous-for-being-famous about sums it up. But for what? If her dad had been in Queen or the President of the United States, I might understand it.

  • Rosie Parry

    I loathe this constant questioning as to who she was. She was actually very famous in England but more importantly she was admired by groups of young people, especially some young woman. The people who followed her life on Instagram loved her insight into motherhood and were genuinely upset when she died. So fuck off thinking you get to decide how important she was. Her level of fame and what she ‘did’ has nothing to do with it; she touched people and those people care what she thought. If you don’t like, there’s no need to read it.

    Also, let’s remember she was a real person with a family (and friends) that miss her. So much of the reporting on her death has been vile. But criticizing her and how she lived her life isn’t the answer to anything. A young woman died in a really horrible way and that’s just awful. Let’s leave it alone and reconcile ourselves with it in peace.

    • balance_and_reason

      Come on Rosie, we can learn lessons here for young naive fools….taking smack is not a good idea…..don’t romanticise it, she was an idiot.

      • Rosie Parry

        I’m not romanticizing how she died. Addiction is brutal and horrible, and we should definitely be talking about how to avoid more young people ending up dead; but I maintain it’s awful to slag her off because you don’t consider her of note. Yes, teach young people about drugs and how quickly things can go wrong, but don’t mindlessly bitch about Peaches Geldof, that won’t change anything.

        • balance_and_reason

          I’m afraid that about 90% of the population don’t do mindful.

          • Rosie Parry

            Then let’s encourage them.

          • balance_and_reason

            mmmm, good luck.

    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW5pPXGrdTY Puss in High Wedgies

      Who are you talking to? –it’s not the author of this piece, for sure. Also I sense defensiveness and rightly so: the unfortunate woman publicized a photo of herself at a highly vulnerable age with her irresponsible mother, and then left her own children bereft in much the same way….

    • davidshort10

      Well, I didn’t read it. I just don’t understand why the daughter of a failed rockstar who gained fame through other means gets publicity. It’s mad

    • Terry Field

      ‘The people who followed her life’ – are pathetic enough to do that rather than have the strength of character to follow their own lives.Pathetic bunch – just weak.

      ‘So fuck off thinking you get to decide how important she was. Her level of fame and what she ‘did’ has nothing to do with it; she touched people and those people care what she thought. If you don’t like, there’s no need to read it.’

      Yop are foul mouthed – obviously psychologically damaged – and ‘a real person’ – what does THAT mean!
      You are a soggy little joke from the 1970s leftie women’s lib ‘don’t hurt me or I’ll cry’ brigade.
      The worst sort of famale.

    • Taminavalu

      She was a junkie. Drugs are bad and she was no role model.

      Her death was self inflicted. Sad but true.

  • plmac

    Her parents gave her a silly name. She never stood a chance.

  • William Clark

    If someone dies of a heroin overdose, something has gone very very wrong – not just ‘gets pissed all the time’ wrong or ‘acts a bit brattish’ wrong but deadly wrong. You have to seek out heroin and the culture of heroin to be in it. Who was looking after her? Why is someone who is so far away from normal life even in a position to be giving ‘advice’ to ‘the young’? Very sorry though I feel for her, ‘modern society’ is on a remorseless downward spiral if a Peaches Geldof is a ‘role model’. All we can do is make sure we isolate ourselves from everything to do with ‘it’. ‘ ‘ .

  • davidshort10

    Why would she get interviewed anyway?

  • AndrewMelville

    …and this person is interesting or important – why?

    • Jespie

      Because she was a human being.

      • AndrewMelville

        What a pathetic answer.

        If that is it, publish her name in a telephone directory, but not in a journal that purports to communicate the important, the interesting and / or the exemplary.

        Peaches or Apricot or whatever her silly name was is not important, interesting or an example. Cut the story.

        • Ben

          This story is interesting on a number of levels. Her parents (and grandparents), the celebrity status this gave her (at least in the UK), from such a young age and with no choice in the matter, and the questions her death has thrown up or have come to light since her death. The ramifications of each give more than enough creedence to the publishing of this article, and it is just a shame that you have to make your voice heard through denegration. If it doesn’t interest you, move on.

          • AndrewMelville

            The story was not interesting and neither was the woman herself. Both were fluff. Unimportant and easily forgotten.

  • no.

    Stupidity fucking tries. Dead celebrities are this moron’s bread and butter. He’s a glorified tabloid writer. I’ll never read that shit biography “Torment Saint.” Don’t buy it. Elliott Smith doesn’t need some opportunistic wanker to speak for him. His work speaks for him.

  • Julieann Carter

    Pity Saint Bob couldn’t/wouldn’t move on with his life once Paula left him for Hutchence. Not even for the sake of his young daughters.

  • Roger Hudson

    Heroin is a drug that can be very useful, didn’t the government stockpile the stuff for use in WW3, patients all over use it for control acute physical pain.
    It is crap at controlling emotional pain, being blankly on the nod is no answer to an emotional hole, Britain has had a rubbish drug policy, chasing a rubbish social policy that creates more dead-heads every year.
    How is the ‘dumping of methadone and going (back) to a strict heroin regime’ trial going? For serious addicts it’s like the insulin regime.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Another junkie bites the dust.
    And they call me a sociopath.

  • Jack

    Good article. The Mail’s headlines after her death were ridiculous.

  • disputans

    Here’s the question no one asks: the author is an…academic? And his classes are devoted to discussing celebrities? Wow. Just wow. How much does one get paid for that and what do naïve parents dish out in tuition?

  • Jorge Michael Stefan Lima

    Great article. Peaches seems to have been a beautiful human being, so sad she was often labeled by tabloids and such as an empty socialite in the likes of Paris Hilton. It makes me feel really bad for having dismissed her as such during most of her life. Not to mention I now see how similar her interests and internal struggles were to my own. It sucks to realise I lost a kindred spirit.
    It’s been a while, but thank you for publishing this article. You might just have helped some people out there in stepping back, re-evaluating stuff and avoiding going down the same path.

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