Obituary: Tara Palmer-Tomkinson
‘It-girl’, TV celebrity and friend of royal family
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson: December 23rd, 1971-February 8th, 2017. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
The Prince of Wales is greeted by Tara Palmer-Tomkinson during a reception at Clarence House, London, on October 27th, 2003. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/Reuters/Pool
As a schoolgirl, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson dreamed – so she would later tell an interviewer – of riding in the Grand National or becoming a concert pianist. Instead she became a 1990s version of the “It girl” (the original was the silent movie star Clara Bow), famous for being famous.
Partying frenetically throughout the period, affluent and well-connected to the royal family, Palmer-Tomkinson rapidly became a gift for the media, and not just the tabloids. She was glamorous but friendly, accessible and witty with journalists: usually good for a quote and always willing to pose, usually in designer outfits, for photographers, however undignified they made her look.
Her celebrity won her regular appearances in gossip columns during the 1990s, a ghosted column in the Sunday Times Style section, headlined “Yah!”, for a time, free sports cars and designer clothes from manufacturers keen to promote their brands, appearances on TV shows and confessional interviews with newspapers. There were also a couple of jokey books containing advice such as: “I would never go out with a man who turned right when boarding an aircraft.” Bizarrely, hers was even the face selling Walker’s Celebration crisps for a while and also Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Yet Palmer-Tomkinson, who has been found dead in her Kensington flat at the age of 45, insisted in more recent interviews that her brittle gaucheness hid deeper insecurities and a lack of self-confidence disguised through the greatest period of fame 20 years ago by the intake of copious quantities of champagne and a £400-a-day cocaine habit.
“They wanted a real Ab Fab person,” she told the Daily Mail in 2011. “That was only a small part of who I was.”
Palmer-Tomkinson was the youngest of three children of Charles Palmer-Tomkinson, a Hampshire landowner and former British Olympic skier, and his wife, Patti Dawson, an Anglo-Argentinian former model who met her husband while working as a “chalet girl” in Switzerland. Tara’s father taught the Prince of Wales to ski in the 1970s and the family have remained regular skiing and holidaying partners of the prince and his sons ever since. Patti was severely injured when during a holiday in 1988 the royal party was engulfed by an avalanche that killed Maj Hugh Lindsay, an equerry, and injured the prince.
Tara’s first brush with celebrity came when she was photographed by the paparazzi while giving the prince a chaste kiss at Klosters in 1995. She later boasted, inaccurately: “I have kissed Prince Charles every day since I was four,” but she was a friend to his sons and counselled to Kate Middleton during her temporary separation from Prince William in 2008 before their marriage.
Tara grew up on the family’s 1,200 acre Dummer Grange estate near Basingstoke, Hampshire, and was educated like her older sister, Santa, at Sherborne school for girls, Dorset, where she obtained nine O-levels and A-levels in English, art and ancient history. She was regarded as a talented pianist, though she never reached Grade 8, telling the Daily Mail last year that: “I couldn’t be bothered with all the boring technicalities of scales and arpeggios.”
Instead of university, she enrolled for a dance and drama course at the London Studio Centre and worked, briefly, for Rothschild’s bank before becoming a model and, increasingly, as her celebrity blossomed, a fashionable woman about town. Flitting between parties and nightclubs on the arms of a succession of wealthy but transient boyfriends, she caught the eyes of the tabloid photo- graphers waiting outside and was soon given a column to chronicle her activities in the Sunday Times, staff on the paper crafting her words each week into usable copy. The Style section’s then editor, Jeremy Langmead, said: “She was amusing and self-deprecating in a bonkers way.”
The column was popular but her unreliability was problematic. Celebrity came at a price, advances against the column were used to fuel her cocaine habit, her credit cards were removed because of mounting debts, and in 1999 her parents paid for her to go into rehab in Arizona for a month. Later the drug habit would require the surgical reconstruction of her nose after the septum collapsed. “Every time I come out of a loo cubicle people ask what she’s been doing in there,” Palmer-Tomkinson observed later, insisting she had not taken drugs for 10 years.
The partying was gradually replaced by other media appearances on television, in which she displayed feistiness and wit. She was the runner-up in the inaugural series of I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! in 2002 and two years later she co-presented ITV2’s spinoff show with Mark Durden-Smith. She appeared on other popular TV shows such as Blind Date, Cold Turkey (about her attempt to give up smoking), Loose Women, Top of the Pops and Bognor or Bust. She was a patron of charities for the young bereaved and for autistic children helped by music.
There were still occasional appearances in the gossip columns, as in 2014 when she was temporarily arrested after creating a scene at Heathrow airport and having to be restrained, but last November she revealed – characteristically in the Mail – that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and a growth on her pituitary gland and was scared of dying. She had become frail and reclusive and said: “I am not the person I was. I’m much calmer – the party world scares me. I am a very quiet person now. I have a better perspective on life.”
Palmer-Tomkinson is survived by her parents, her sister Santa, and her brother, James.
– Guardian syndication