Why are so many celebrities attracted to cocaine?

The fraud trial of Nigella Lawson’s former assistants has been overshadowed by allegations of her drug use

In a pre-trial court hearing this week that involved two of Nigella Lawson's personal assistants, the judge deemed admissible an email sent by Lawson's ex-husband, Charles Saatchi, in which he claimed the celebrity chef was "off her head on drugs".

Saatchi, a millionaire art dealer and leading PR figure, referred to her as “Higella”, and said he was “completely astounded” by the scale of her alleged cocaine use and claimed she “poisoned your child [Lawson’s daughter, Cosima, who is 19] with drugs and trashed her life”.

Lawson’s former personal assistants Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo are accused of defrauding Lawson and Saatchi, whose 10-year marriage ended in divorce in July, of more than £300,000 (€360,000) while working for them.

Lawyers defending the personal assistants have told the court Lawson took cocaine daily for the past 10 years and hid this from her ex-husband, and that consented to her assistants’ expenditure on the basis that they did not reveal her cocaine use to Charles Saatchi. Lawson will have an opportunity to address the allegations when she gives evidence next week.

There is now a familiar media process in play for “media personalities” who have had their drug use made public. A teary confession on a TV chat show is followed by an expensive rehab programme and blather about “taking full responsibility”.

But why is cocaine so prevalent in show business? Those who have gone public about their cocaine usage include supermodels and film, rock and TV stars such as George Clooney, Lady Gaga, Elton John, David Bowie, Naomi Campbell and Oprah Winfrey, all of whom have spoken about their use of the drug. Their testimonies shed light on the attraction of cocaine. Campbell has written about how “cocaine made me feel invincible, like I could conquer the world. I was just completely overconfident [while using it]. The more you take, the more you want”. The novelist Stephen King has said that “with cocaine, one snort and it just owned me body and soul. Once cocaine was there it was like the missing link – click! – like when you turn on lights. Cocaine was my ‘on’ switch”.

That is the dangerous attraction of the drug to celebrities. Needing to be publicly “on” and “up”, radiating confidence and charm and coping with a pressurised work environment in which a lot of money can be at stake, they turn to the drug.

There is also the weight factor. People working in public tend to be image-conscious. Alcohol adds weight and shows on the face, but research by scientists at Cambridge University published in August shows cocaine use prevents fat storage. Dr Karen Ersche said “regular cocaine abuse directly interferes with metabolic processes and thereby reduces body fat”.

But portrayals of cocaine as a “glamorous” drug because of its association with celebrities often gloss over its vicious downsides. Campbell also said of the drug: “It is a misconception about feeling invincible and self-confident because when you wake up the next day it’s all gone and you feel awful. That’s how you become an addict”. King went on to describe how wretched he felt while on the drug, how it almost ruined his marriage and how he would now most likely be dead if he hadn’t got clean, saying: “Cocaine eats you from the inside out.”

Cocaine is a toxin. It interferes with brain chemistry, heart rate and the respiratory system. It can kill. Once its intended effects have worn off, users are left not just financially worse off – cocaine is hugely overpriced because of its supposed “VIP” status – but with a highly unpleasant “crash” experience that is physically and psychologically debilitating. Almost all cocaine has been “stamped on”, or cut with mixing agents: at best, baking soda; at worse, rat poison.

Cocaine is also illegal and, in Ireland, carries a prison sentence of up to seven years for possession. With good reason. We might read about celebrities’ “cocaine hell”, usually in magazine articles in which they are paid a lot of money to cough up the details of their self-inflicted condition. But even in these profiles, few consider how their purchase of the drug contributed to the continuation of the death squads and crime rings involved in its distribution.

As the Lawson allegations featured on newspaper front pages and gossip websites this week, there was a contribution from Saatchi's new close friend, the TV presenter Trinny Woodall, who used to be a cocaine addict. Writing in the Spectator, she eloquently summarised what attracted her to the drug as a young woman: "I wanted to be cool". Instead, she wrote, she became "a fake, lying, thieving cheat".

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