The paint stripper

    Stella Vine doesn’t look like any of the things she’s been. She doesn’t look like a stripper. She doesn’t look like an escort girl. And she certainly doesn’t look like one of Britain’s most notorious artists. Dammit, Stella Vine doesn’t even look like a Stella Vine. With her sensibly cropped hair and blushing country cheeks, she looks exactly like the name she was born with, Melissa Robson, a big-boned English lass from Northumberland, who would have made a fine wife for some sheep farmer up in Alnwick had the gods of art not tracked her down to the stage at the Windmill and forced her to swap her G-string for a paintbrush.

    You surely remember the occasion. It was so noisy. Three years ago, Charles Saatchi, the most successful collector of modern art in Britain, put together a show of recent discoveries that he called, very Saatchily, New Blood. According to Saatchi, those chaps who had been turning light switches on and off in order to win the Turner prize were now passé. Here, he said, were the voices of the future, unveiling a motley crew of action sculptors and hasty painters, most of whom were from Germany. So unimpressive was this messy, artistic cast that nobody took any notice of the show. Until they discovered Stella Vine in it. And the gates of hell flew open.

    Saatchi himself hadn’t heard of Vine either until a few weeks before the opening. Desperate for artists to pad out the huge new space he had lumbered himself with at County Hall – the ill-fated Saatchi Gallery, a giant wood-lined coffin, now kaput, thank God – he happened to wander into somewhere tiny in the East End that was showing paintings by Vine. I’ve been with Saatchi when he buys art. It’s an instinctive thing. Yeah, I’ll have two of those, he’ll wave, and that must have been how he came to own Vine’s portrait of a tearful Lady Diana confessing to Paul Burrell that she feared for her life, and a second picture of a crazily grinning Rachel Whitear, the heroin addict whose photo had been splashed across the papers, crouched on the floor with a syringe in her hand, betrayed by her boyfriend, and dead. These new buys were added to New Blood, and as soon as a few journalists saw them, the fuss exploded. “It’s self-evidently obvious Stella Vine can’t paint for toffee,” spat the cantankerous critic David Lee. Rachel Whitear’s parents were contacted and declared themselves appalled that their daughter’s plight was being trivialised by this ex-stripper who had painted a grinning Rachel with blood trickling from her lip. They wanted it removed. The Diana controversy was even fiercer. How dare this Windmill dancer paint the nation’s princess as a wild-eyed Essex girl who had been at her mother’s make-up box, and who appeared to have scrawled a message in bright-red lipstick across her picture: “Hi Paul, can you come over. I’m really frightened.” This wasn’t merely bad art. This was treason.

    George Orwell got advertising exactly right when he described this trade as the “rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket”. Producing an ex-stripper who painted demented Lady Di’s was one of the most effective bits of stick-rattling Saatchi has come up with. Vine went from someone nobody had heard of to someone the whole of Britain disapproved of quicker than a leftover Chinese disappearing down a pig’s throat. The only critic who said anything nice about her work was me. I pointed out that it had something. Which is presumably why I am now sitting on a stool in her tiny new studio in Clerkenwell, while she is perched opposite me on an upturned plastic box, describing in detail the unusually awful life she’s had. In the corner, there’s a small bed. A few books. A few paintings. And that’s it. The fruits of Stella Vine’s success.

    She admits the Diana picture was raw and naive. Her ambition was to “melt” into Diana’s character: not just to paint her, but to be her. She imagined the princess, too scared to use the phone at the palace because she knew it was bugged. So she decides to go out, still wearing her best princess dress, and with her make-up smudged because she’d put it on in a hurry. “And I thought she’d have gone to the shops and used a public phone. There’s a whole string of Asian newsagents at that particular place. It’s all very vivid… ‘Hi Paul, can you come over.’ “

    How did Vine learn to think like this? It’s what I’m here to find out. This summer, the thoroughly prestigious Museum of Modern Art in Oxford is putting on a retrospective of her paintings, which is perhaps the equivalent of Barbara Windsor starring as Rosalind in a new As You Like It at Stratford. One of the pictures she’s sending to Oxford was done yesterday. It shows a dark-haired man with huge eyes and a dog whom I recognise, but can’t think from where. It’s Jose, she explains. Jose? Ah, yes, Jose Mourinho, cup-final winning manager of Chelsea. Stella had never heard of him before but there was something in the paper about a man who loved his dog so much that he smuggled it out of the house. She admired him for that, and painted him the next morning with his brown eyes rhyming in sweetness with his terrier’s.

    The biggest painting in the studio is not finished, but I recognise the royal family alright, skulking under a tree. That picture needed a dog too, so Stella put in the only one she could think of: Lassie. The royal family and Lassie are going into a special Diana room at Oxford, where Stella is showing a picture of Diana as a baby in her pram with the words of her favourite hymn – “I vow to thee my country” – echoing in the air around her as a look of raw terror disfigures her sweet little face. Stella Vine, it turns out, or Melissa Robson, as she was then, knows a thing or two about terror on the face of a little girl. The first seven years of her life in Alnwick were idyllic enough, but then her father began an affair and everything went off the rails. Her mother found a new boyfriend in Norwich, where they quickly moved and where the abuse began.

    “He’d sit me on the toilet. Stand in front of me, staring, with absolute hatred. I had my knickers around my ankles. Terrified. Stiff. Then I’d go to bed. After half an hour he’d come upstairs, and touch me. He’d say, ‘Have you got your knickers on? Have you got your knickers off?’ Either one, it was wrong. If you’ve got them on, you should have them off. If you had them off, you should have them on. Because it’s the nice thing to do.”

    Her mother, meanwhile, was ill, a lifelong sufferer from Crohn’s disease. She didn’t know what was going on. Nobody did. Even Melissa wasn’t sure. “I don’t feel anger towards him. I feel bad to say these things about him. And I feel sorry for him, but I do think what he did was wrong. I just wanted an apology, really.”

    When she was 13, she was taken away by social workers and fostered. But the new foster parents couldn’t cope with her wilfulness.

    First she left school, then she left the foster home, and moved into a row of derelict bedsits where the caretaker had his turn at her. “He just came knocking on my door one day and said, ‘Do you want a bear hug?’ “

    At 17, she gave birth to the caretaker’s boy and began facing up to the need to look after someone else. Pretending to be 19, and calling herself Jane Blackford, she tried the dole office and explained that she’d lost her birth certificate.

    Her first proper ambition was to be an actress. She went to drama school. Played in Aladdin up and down the country. Got bloody good at it. And to me, it’s as clear as crystal that the paintings she now specialises in of betrayed and shaken women – the Lady Di’s, the Rachel Whitears, the portraits of her mother, a new one she’s working on of Isabella Blow – are examples of what we might call method painting: painted projections of herself in the Stanislavski manner.

    One day, on a whim, she dropped the acting and became a Mayfair hostess. Seeing my greedy little face light up at the mention of “hostess”, Stella Vine or Melissa Robson or Jane Blackford makes sure I visualise the place she worked in. Like all of her clubs, it was a strangely respectable and old-fashioned establishment. “You sat there in a nice dress and talked to people. Often old men. About anything. And when they went to the toilet you poured the champagne into a bucket, and got them to order another one.”

    Most of it was just talking. “Any negotiation for sexual favours, or your time, or conversation, was very old-fashioned. Very English. You know – ‘I’d very much like to buy you a dress.’ ” One man, whom she’s still in touch with, looked after her for six years. He’s the one who took her to New York and showed her the Frick Collection, where she discovered Gainsborough and realised how much prettiness was possible in art.

    Then lap dancing arrived in London. Melissa Robson’s wages went up. And she began calling herself Stella Vine. “It was difficult. I used to drink a lot of vodka to be able to say hello to people. But once I was up on stage, I was fine. Sometimes I found myself on a roll, and I would make a fortune. Sometimes I behaved incredibly erotically. Doing things with ice cubes, sitting in a chair. Really enjoying my sexuality.”

    The stripping continued for the best part of a decade as she moved from bedsit to bedsit with her son, and from Miranda’s to the Windmill to pay the rent. She tried to make life as much fun for him as she could, and enrolled him in some art classes at the Hampstead School of Art, but he didn’t like going, so Stella went instead. However, before Charles Saatchi walked into that East End Gallery and changed everything, there was still the exceedingly weird business of her involvement with the Stuckists to survive.

    I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Stuckists? In the art world, they are the possessors of a shrill and tiny reputation as a bunch of schoolboy activists who make a point of complaining noisily about conceptual art. Taking their name from an insult apparently hurled at one of their founders, the aptly named Billy Childish, by his ex-girlfriend Tracey Emin – “Billy, you’re stuck, stuck, stuck” – the Stuckists turn up at Turner prize time to complain about Tracey and Damien and the others, and to insist that painting is the only real art. Nobody in the art world takes them too seriously, not even, I suspect, the Stuckists themselves. But they can be noisy. And hurtful. And it was very bad luck indeed for Vine to fall among them.

    Like Tracey Emin before her, Vine had the misfortune to develop a crush on Billy Childish. She would turn up at his musical events. Follow him around. Until one day she was introduced to Stuckism’s other founder, Charles Thomson, which was where her problems really began. As Vine begins remembering the unfolding horror of her relationship with Thomson, to whom she was briefly and bizarrely married, I find myself tempted by a powerful urge to hide behind a sofa. Shame she doesn’t own one.

    Thomson was fascinated by her exploits as a Windmill dancer. “He started talking about painting me naked and how it had to be very erotic. It was like talking to someone in a strip club, to be honest. There was something dark in him that I felt some kind of understanding of.”

    The Stuckists offered her a showing immediately, and early in 2001 she found herself exhibiting alongside them at the Fridge in Brixton with a portrait of her stepfather and some stripping pictures. Thomson was 20 years older than her. He was interested in astrology and the cabbala. In his teens, she enlarges, he had been a member of a mysterious cult, and as Vine got closer to him, he began practising Past Life therapy on her in which he “killed” all her former selves. It was particularly frightening at night. She would wake up to find him talking to her in her sleep, she says.

    Thomson believed it was his destiny to marry her. She insists she wasn’t keen, but during a trip to New York it just happened. There was no ring, no proper ceremony, and she was in too much of a daze to understand what was going on until the papers were signed. He liked documenting things, she says, and describes going into his office one day and finding a diary in which he had noted the ages of every prostitute he had been with, the dates of the assignations, what they did and where they did it. The wedding night was a disaster. As the Evening Standard noted in its Diary, she was married on Wednesday, divorced him on Thursday, “on Friday she trashed the hotel room and on Saturday she disappeared”. They had a stand-up fight in which she bit his arm and he burst one of her implants. She spent the night walking about New York and slept through the next day at Grand Central Station. Back in England, the marriage was consummated a few weeks later.

    “I owed him that.” He paid off her debts, which amounted to £20,000, and that was married life done with. “I’ve never seen him again.”

    Tracking down Thomson for his side of the story turns out to be easy. He’s a peripheral but noisy presence in the art world. Of course he remembers meeting Stella. How could he forget? “The first thing she said to me was, ‘I used to be a stripper and I’ve had a boob job.’ I felt like saying, ‘Can I feel them?’ But I didn’t.”

    When I put it to Thomson that he’s been accused of hocus-pocus and tricking her into marriage, he bursts into theatrical, and slightly spooky, laughter.

    Yes, he has a mystical bent, and yes, he did once go through some Past Lives stuff with Stella, but to accuse him of possessing mystical powers is ludicrous. And no, he’s never been a scientologist. Besides, getting married was Stella’s idea. She was the one who suggested he take his birth certificate to New York. And although they did have a bust-up on their wedding night, he denies bursting one of her implants. Stella, he shudders, was the one with the vicious temper.

    “She’s a damaged person. She’s suffered abuse. But she’s also an abusive person. As a lot of damaged people are.” Whatever she’s saying about him now, his only real crime, he sighs, was falling hopelessly in love with her. “You meet someone and there’s a massive instant chemistry. It’s like a forest fire. And when it burns out, there’s nothing’s left except some burnt wood.”

    I believe him about the love. Vine definitely knows how to press a bloke’s buzzer. When she was talking to me, the adjusting of her bra seemed to take place in a delightful slow motion. I knew it and she knew it. It’s clear also that Saatchi discovered her at a life-saving moment. She was 37 when New Blood opened, with too many burst implants behind her to go back to stripping, but being a painter was all she had. But she wouldn’t be Stella Vine if everything or, indeed, anything, ran smoothly for her. After the Saatchi opening she fell into a steep depression and became, briefly, a cocaine addict, living in a room in Bloomsbury, painting in her car. The cocaine was, she claims, a deliberate decision designed to free up more painting time by removing the need to sleep. The trouble was, she spent all her waking hours thinking about dying.

    As for the sensibly short hair she now sports, where the flowing stripper’s locks used to be, it’s not, as I’d assumed, a practical coiffure for the summer. At Christmas, she did a Britney and attacked her head with a razor. It felt liberating, she remembers. And her dear old granny in Alnwick, where she was staying, said never mind dear, you can always wear a hat.

    That’s her story. Now you’ve heard it, here’s a question: was there ever a painter better qualified to portray Lady Di or Rachel Whitear, or Kate Moss or Isabella Blow, than Stella Vine?