'I’ve been irresponsible and naive in the past – I’ve been a child all my life. But it’s time I grew up': Tara Palmer-Tomkinson on being an It-girl and high family expectations

She was the It-girl who seemed to have it all, but Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s party lifestyle brought her nothing but heartache. She talks to Catherine O’Brien about the new project that’s helping her to like herself again

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson wears KUBBI, Desiderata; SKIRT, Elie Tahari, from Harrods; HAT, Philip Treacy; EARRINGS, Carat; SHOES, Lucy Choi London

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson wears KUBBI, Desiderata; SKIRT, Elie Tahari, from Harrods; HAT, Philip Treacy; EARRINGS, Carat; SHOES, Lucy Choi London

Scroll down for video

For our interview, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s first suggestion is that we meet at a hotel in West London. But then she changes her mind and asks me to come to her Kensington home instead. 

This suits me because I am dying to see the swanky duplex flat she once dubbed ‘the sexiest apartment in London’. And shortly after I arrive it becomes clear that the arrangement suits Tara, too.

She offers a guided tour, starting in the large open-plan living space that houses her baby grand piano and an art collection of eclectic abstracts, but also a sublime study of a Scottish landscape signed ‘Charles 2008’, which was painted by her godfather, Prince Charles. 

Nearby, on a shelf, I glimpse the hand-embossed but now slightly dusty invitation she received to William and Kate’s wedding.

Breezing past the Philippe Starck kitchen, we head down a spiral staircase to the lower floor, where there are two bedroom suites and Tara’s inner sanctum – a walk-in wardrobe overflowing with designer buys. 

'I don’t want to go out. I don’t have the confidence I once had. I get frightened. I like my safe places – my comfort zone,' said Tara (TOP, DKNY, from Fenwick; SKIRT, Roland Mouret, from Harvey Nichols)

'I don’t want to go out. I don’t have the confidence I once had. I get frightened. I like my safe places – my comfort zone,' said Tara (TOP, DKNY, from Fenwick; SKIRT, Roland Mouret, from Harvey Nichols)

In the days when Tara was a party-circuit fixture, these Chanel bags, Louboutin shoes and Dior dresses were her working tools. 

Today, she has less call for them. 

‘Sometimes I try something on and think, “I must wear this next time I go out,”’ she says. 

‘But I don’t want to go out. I don’t have the confidence I once had. I get frightened. I like my safe places – my comfort zone.’

There can be little denying that Tara is, in many ways, a subdued shadow of her former glitzy self. 

The girl who graced a thousand red carpets is now more likely to be found of an evening curled up on her cream leather sofa, watching a TV drama. 

‘I like Silent Witness and Waking the Dead. And I loved Doctor Foster,’ she confides. 

Eight years ago, she was entertaining us by winning Comic Relief Does Fame Academy – a triumph she describes as ‘the best moment of my life’. 

But her only recent on-screen appearance involved a confessional interview with Jeremy Kyle in which she spoke about the cocaine addiction that almost killed her and admitted to being a virtual recluse.

Here in her penthouse eyrie, however, it turns out that Tara has not been entirely without purpose. 

‘I’ve been a child all my life. But it’s time I grew up, and this business (Desiderata) is the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done,' said Tara (COAT, Red Valentino)

‘I’ve been a child all my life. But it’s time I grew up, and this business (Desiderata) is the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done,' said Tara (COAT, Red Valentino)

Hanging up, alongside the couture clothes and accessories, are prototypes of the new capsule wardrobe essential she has designed, a figure-hugging body with a twist, which she has called the ‘kubbi’. 

Tara has attached a man-sized collar and cuffs so it can be worn underneath sweaters and close-fitting skirts and jeans to create a crisp, preppy look without creases and crumples. 

‘I’ve been wearing a version of the kubbi since I was 16,’ she says. 

‘I used to cut the collars and cuffs from my father’s Turnbull & Asser shirts and attach them under my tops with toupee tape.’

Three years ago, she set about finding manufacturers and marketers to refine her idea, and now she is ready to launch the kubbi under her own label, Desiderata. 

‘It means desired things in Latin,’ she says helpfully.

Tara has spent two decades being a poster girl for myriad fashion brands, so developing her own might seem to be a natural progression – a small, opportunistic enterprise. 

However, she sees things rather differently. 

Winter holidays were spent in Klosters, often skiing with the young princes William and Harry, which placed Tara and her elder brother James and sister Santa in a royal inner circle that they still inhabit (pictured in 1994)

Winter holidays were spent in Klosters, often skiing with the young princes William and Harry, which placed Tara and her elder brother James and sister Santa in a royal inner circle that they still inhabit (pictured in 1994)

‘This is not just a project for me. It’s a departure in which I am investing my heart and soul,’ she says. 

‘I know I’ve been irresponsible and naive in the past – I’ve been a child all my life. But it’s time I grew up, and this business is the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done.’

Earnest, witty, self-deprecating and often painfully vulnerable, Tara is used to being dismissed by detractors. But the truth is that no one is harder on Tara than she is on herself. 

She may be the original famous-for-being-famous celebrity – a precursor to stars today created by shows such as Big Brother and Made in Chelsea – but she is also a trailblazer of sorts, albeit one following a path that her family would never have envisaged for her.

Tara, now 43, is the daughter of Charles Palmer-Tomkinson, a landowner and Olympic-level skier who taught his close family friend Prince Charles to ski. 

Her mother Patty is an Anglo-Argentine former model who met her husband while working as a chalet girl. 

Together the couple, who have been married for 50 years (‘our family doesn’t do divorce’), raised their three children on a 1,200-acre estate in Hampshire where there is a pool, tennis court, trees to climb, woods to camp in and a rowing boat on the private pond. 

Winter holidays were spent in Klosters, often skiing with the young princes William and Harry, which placed Tara and her elder brother James and sister Santa in a royal inner circle that they still inhabit. 

'I wasn’t the sort of girl who would let a man put his hand up her skirt. I was pretty much a virgin.... I looked like that It-girl who had everything... but it was an illusion,' said Tara (pictured celebrating her birthday in 1998)

'I wasn’t the sort of girl who would let a man put his hand up her skirt. I was pretty much a virgin.... I looked like that It-girl who had everything... but it was an illusion,' said Tara (pictured celebrating her birthday in 1998)

‘Sometimes I want to shout from the rooftops how great they are,’ Tara says. ‘But it is a code of trust that we don’t talk about them and I absolutely respect that.’

In almost every sense, it is hard to imagine a more idyllic start in life but, in 1988, the Palmer-Tomkinsons’ world was rocked by a dreadful accident. 

While skiing with Prince Charles, Patty was entirely buried by snow in an avalanche that killed another member of their party. 

She had to be given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and suffered serious leg injuries that kept her in hospital for four months. 

Tara was 16 at the time, and at boarding school in England.

‘I remember hearing on the radio that she was dead, but thankfully that wasn’t true. But then the press came, and I was just this girl in a green uniform and my mother was this big sensation.

'The papers ran pictures of her when she had been a model with Jean Shrimpton but that wasn’t the mother I knew. It was a horrible time, shocking,’ Tara says with a shudder. 

‘And possibly that might have damaged me – at least that is what some people have said – but we never comment on it. It’s something we don’t talk about.’

Tara describes her family as ‘loving and close’, but they also sound like no-nonsense types with high expectations. 

‘My father used to say, “It doesn’t matter what you are in life as long as you are the best at what you do,”’ she recalls. 

Tara is the daughter of Charles Palmer-Tomkinson, a landowner and Olympic-level skier. Her mother Patty is an Anglo-Argentine former model who met her husband while working as a chalet girl

Tara is the daughter of Charles Palmer-Tomkinson, a landowner and Olympic-level skier. Her mother Patty is an Anglo-Argentine former model who met her husband while working as a chalet girl

The problem for Tara was that despite her clearly formidable intelligence (she tells me she has a photographic memory and at one point breaks off our conversation to quote verbatim Shakespeare), she struggled to fit in. 

While, as the only boy, James was educated elsewhere, Tara and Santa were sent to the same boarding prep from the age of eight. 

Santa settled in, but Tara was very homesick. Later, at Sherborne, Santa was vice head of school and played lacrosse for England while Tara became a goth, often to be found smoking behind the bike sheds or hanging out with the best-looking pupils from the boys’ school.

James, who keeps an assiduously low profile, was the sensible eldest, who had a career in banking before establishing a bespoke skiing company, PT Ski, based in Klosters, and is married with four children. 

Santa studied Spanish and Italian at Exeter University before becoming a bestselling writer of romantic fiction, wife of esteemed historian and author Simon Sebag Montefiore and mother of a son and a daughter.

Tara readily concedes that as the youngest, she took on the role of black sheep, although she and Santa vehemently dismiss the notion that Tara’s at times debauched behaviour was ever a kickback against her saintly sibling. 

‘Sometimes I want to shout from the rooftops how great they (royal family) are. But it is a code of trust that we don’t talk about them and I absolutely respect that,' said Tara (pictured with Prince Charles in 2003)

‘Sometimes I want to shout from the rooftops how great they (royal family) are. But it is a code of trust that we don’t talk about them and I absolutely respect that,' said Tara (pictured with Prince Charles in 2003)

‘Anyone who sees us together knows there is only love between us,’ says Tara. 

‘We’ve only had one argument ever – when she tried to remove my moustache with Sellotape and I had to go to a tennis tournament with a big red gluey mark on my face. But apart from that, we have always been best friends. I am in awe of her.’

If there is one recurring theme in my two-hour conversation with Tara, it is that she feels she was never quite worthy. 

As a child, she nurtured dreams of becoming a concert pianist, ‘but I wasn’t good enough – you just know when you are not’. 

She got two As and a B at A-level, ‘but I come from a family where you got straight As and went to the right university’. 

A natural performer, she instead endured several rejections from drama schools before embarking upon musical theatre training at the London Studio Centre (whose alumni include Elizabeth Hurley and Tamzin Outhwaite), only to declare herself ‘the worst dancer in the school’. Tara yearned for recognition, but was at a loss about how to find it. In the event, it found her.

In the mid-90s, London was gripped by Cool Britannia and Tara was sharing a flat with Santa in London. While her sister was working for Ralph Lauren, Tara spent her time partying. 

Her posh girl credentials brought her to the attention of the then editor of Tatler, who put her on the magazine’s cover as the embodiment of the 1920s It-girl reborn. 

Tara with Kate Middleton at a book launch in 2007

Tara with Kate Middleton at a book launch in 2007

‘I didn’t understand why, but suddenly everyone wanted to know me,’ Tara says. 

Purveyors of everything from jewellery to designer dresses were knocking on her door. 

‘I remember calling my mum and saying, “I’ve just been given diamonds that are the price of two cars.” And my parents didn’t like that at all. 

'Their world is all about privacy, dignity and grace, and everything I was doing was not that.’

The problem with being a manufactured celebrity, Tara says, ‘Is that you don’t ever feel real. I was the It-girl, but I didn’t feel like I was “It”. I just felt a bit scared. 

'I didn’t like people when they were drunk. I wasn’t the sort of girl who would let a man put his hand up her skirt. I was pretty much a virgin. 

'Now, I can see how I looked like that It-girl who had everything and did everything, but it was an illusion.’

For a while, cocaine helped numb her feelings of being overwhelmed and worthless. Her habit cost her a reputed £400 a day at its height and led her to go into rehab at The Meadows clinic in Arizona. 

She bounced back and was declared runner-up in the first series of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! (Tony Blackburn was the winner.) I interviewed her at the time and she told me proudly, ‘I’m constantly reminded I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I achieved this on personality alone.’ 

And she was right, because Tara proved to be flamboyantly entertaining thanks to her quick wit and erudite mind. Even now, one of her worst fears is that she might be boring you. 

‘We’ve only had one argument ever... But apart from that, we have always been best friends. I am in awe of her,’ said Tara of her older sister Santa (pictured at the royal wedding in 2011)

‘We’ve only had one argument ever... But apart from that, we have always been best friends. I am in awe of her,’ said Tara of her older sister Santa (pictured at the royal wedding in 2011)

‘The problem is, sometimes I am just so bored of myself,’ she sighs.

After I’m a Celebrity Tara was the face of Walkers crisps and ‘authored’ three books, although she never pretended to have penned a word herself – ‘You don’t really do a book after Santa and Sebag,’ she quips. 

She sustained a TV career with guest appearances and co-presenting roles, but three or four years ago that work came to a halt. 

‘I realised that I needed to find a way of liking myself, and that it was not going to happen in that industry,’ she says. 

‘There are so many people working in it who are younger and prettier than me. And besides, it wasn’t fun any more.’

She was clearly hitting some sort of crisis, because she tells me she checked into The Manor Clinic in Southampton – a specialist addiction centre – ‘not for illness, but because I needed some time out. And it was great – I found peace there that I hadn’t had in a long time.’ 

She has since placed herself under the care of a psychiatrist in London ‘who has been brilliant – I see him regularly and he has changed my life’.

Tara has many regrets, but not becoming a mother isn’t one of them. 

‘I love my nephews and nieces, but I’ve no desire for a child.’ 

Tara’s kubbi is a sleek way to work the preppy shirt
jumper look

Tara’s kubbi is a sleek way to work the preppy shirt and jumper look. Her dream is to follow the lead of Victoria Beckham, who has successfully secured credibility with her own fashion label

She has had several high-profile boyfriends in the past, including Greg Martin, the son of Beatles producer Sir George Martin, the restaurateur Mogens Tholstrup and Claudia Winkleman’s now husband Kris Thykier. 

But she won’t talk to me about dating, she declares, because ‘relationships are not important to me right now’. 

Her focus is entirely on her business venture. Whereas in the past her successes, such as the books and magazine columns, have really been the work of others, ‘which leaves you feeling like a fraud’, she can claim the kubbi to be her own.

Her dream is to follow the lead of Victoria Beckham, who has successfully secured credibility with her own fashion label. 

‘Victoria says that she designs the clothes she doesn’t have and would like to buy – and that makes her a woman after my own heart. I don’t actually know her but I do love what she does.’

Tara’s Desiderata label is named after a poem written by an American writer called Max Ehrmann. It counsels readers to ‘keep interested in your career, however humble’ and to ‘be yourself’. 

And it ends with the following line: ‘With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.’

‘I read interviews all the time with people who say they have never been happier. 

'Well I can’t lie and say I am totally happy and that I completely like myself – I’m still a work in progress,’ Tara says. ‘But I am trying.’ 

And for that, we should surely award her full marks – and wish her every success.

The kubbi is available in sizes xs-xl, price £195, desideratalondon.com

The comments below have not been moderated.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

By posting your comment you agree to our house rules.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now