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Debt, Diana and homesickness

Stella Vine is known for her controversial paintings of Princess Diana and of heroin victim Rachel Whitear.

Stella Vine is known for her controversial paintings of Princess Diana and of heroin victim Rachel Whitear. Jane Hall speaks to the Alnwick-born artist on the eve of her latest exhibition.

It has taken nearly a month of phone calls and leaving messages to talk to Stella Vine.

But the new star of the Brit art-scene hasn't been playing hard to get because of work commitments or snobbery about talking to the Press.

The 35-year-old is suffering from a problem as uniquely modern as her art: she is in debt - to the tune of £80,000.

Fearful of the bailiffs knocking at her door and fielding a barrage of phone calls from lenders - legitimate and otherwise - she has adopted a deliberate policy of being non-contactable.

"It seems every call I get now is from someone saying I owe them money," explains Stella, with a sigh. "It seemed easier not to answer my calls."

She is sitting nursing a cup of coffee in a café just around the corner from the BBC's Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London. It is 8.30am and an hour later she is to record a slot with Woman's Hour presenter Jenni Murray about her first solo exhibition, due to open to the public on Thursday.

The show, Prozac and Private Views at London's Transition Gallery, is sure to have art critics reaching for their bouquets and brickbats in equal measure.

For it would be fair to say that you either love or loathe Stella's work.

Her most famous paintings to date, one of Diana, Princess of Wales entitled Hi Paul Can You Come Over, and the other of Rachel Whitear, the heroin addict found dead, both feature a stream of blood at the mouth and were bought earlier this year by Charles Saatchi for £600 apiece.

The multi-millionaire art patron's endorsement of Stella's work immediately catapulted her into the big league - even though one critic famously described the Diana piece as the "art equivalent of gutter journalism".

But while Stella Vine's name may now be as well-known as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers - all Saatchi `finds' - her notoriety has failed to make a positive dent in her bank balance, save for the fact she can now command more for her work.

Paintings at her latest exhibition are now priced in the thousands rather than in the hundreds of pounds. But, as Stella points out, she has to sell to make money, and she has a problem with painting to order.

Her ever-spiralling debts don't include any money she may owe on the former butcher's shop in which she lives and works in Shoreditch, East London.

"It's all credit cards, loans, my car, parking fines, council tax" Stella's voice trails off. "I comfort shop, it's all on cards. I keep planning to pay them off but the debt just keeps rising," she adds with a laugh.

Most people wouldn't laugh off such liabilities. And Stella admits: "I get very depressed about it all; I am a very depressed, manic person.

"But I bought a derelict home and live and run a gallery there very cheaply. I keep thinking if all else fails I could probably pay off all my debts by selling up and moving somewhere else."

The £1,200 she made with the Diana and Rachel pictures may have failed to make her fortune, but as she says: "They were worth zillions as far as encouragement goes."

artist Stella Vine

That aside, Stella, who was born and lived for the first seven years of her life in Alnwick, Northumberland, has at least had the confidence to concentrate on making, rather than being, art - if you view taking your clothes off in public as creative - since the beginning of the year.

As a struggling artist and single mother - she fell pregnant with son Jaimie when only 17 - Stella until recently worked as a stripper to keep her head above water.

It was a 'profession' she entered into in her mid-20s when she realised it paid more than waitressing. Before that she had harboured a desire to become an actress and did attend drama school, but gave it up because "everyone wanted me to be the next Felicity Kendal. As an actor you are a puppet."

She adds: "I got into stripping when I was 26 and I always made eye contact with the audience. I tried to make the guys laugh; I was a burlesque striptease, really. I felt like a social worker a lot of the time.

I used to work at the Windmill in Soho. You danced fully nude, and explicitly, on the stage. It was tough but it reminded me of the theatre and the other girls were really interesting."

All this is a long way from Stella's early life at the centre of a deeply religious Catholic family. She attended the town's fee-paying convent school - now St Oswald's - until her mother re-married and the family, including elder brother Alastair, moved to Norwich.

She recalls: "I went to the convent for free because my mother - who died last year - made the nuns' habits, but she wasn't allowed to go to our local church because she had been divorced.

"My father left home when I was three. He was having an affair with our lodger, Astrid. He later married her and I ended up being great friends with her."

Stella - who fellow convent-goers may recall under a different name - was unhappy living in Norwich and left home to live with a foster family when she was only 13.

She says she decided to change her name to Stella Vine "because I felt I didn't belong to either family." She adds: "I was born Melissa Robson, which was changed by deed poll to my stepfather's name of Jordan.

"I just thought I would bury the whole lot and create who I wanted to be."

Stella maintains she didn't mind falling pregnant at 17 "because I had always wanted a baby. Even at that very young age, I realised I wanted to love something and for it to love me back. I felt terribly grown-up having a boyfriend who was 10 years older, but Jaimie's dad made my life hell."

So Stella took her son and ran away to drama school in London where she met the love of her life - Ross Newell, who is now a singer-songwriter for Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

"Jaimie and I lived with Ross for more than four years, but stupidly I left him for someone else - and when I wanted him back two years later, he didn't trust me.

"He's happily married now with children, but he is still my soul mate."

There has been a disastrous marriage to artist Charles Thompson.

"He's 16 years older than I am and he claims now that he inspired me artistically, but if anything it was the other way around," Stella says defensively.

painting of Princess Diana by Stella Vine

Whatever the truth, it is Stella's name which is grabbing the headlines. And it is easy to see why. Her artistic talents aside, her story has all the right elements: a former stripper, Diana and Paul Burrell, Charles Saatchi, and a wonky, faux-angry artwork.

Stella is understandably proud that she has attracted the attention of Saatchi, especially as she took up art just four years ago and was on the verge of giving it up.

"I didn't think anyone really liked what I was doing and I literally had the bailiffs at my door. I hope it's the start of something new for me, and it is a great confidence boost."

Stella will only paint subjects she `connects with', which is why she cannot work to order.

She often paints pictures of her family, and one of her late aunt Ella from Morpeth is a favourite. The Princess of Wales was a painting she had been working on in her head for some years.

She felt Diana fitted her archetypal image of a princess and identified with her on a number of levels. The painting was inspired by a letter made public by former royal butler Paul Burrell, in which Diana outlined her fears that someone was going to kill her.

"It got me thinking of her sitting in Kensington Palace, pretty much alone, and phoning up Paul Burrell and really needing to talk to him," explains Stella.

"This is a dark painting with a bit of violence because I was very affected by Diana's death. I cried all day because I liked her, warts and all.

"Most of all I liked the way she wanted to be loved and didn't mind admitting it."

How long does it take her to do a painting like this? "It's different for each one but they tend to be really good when they're finished in 10 to 20 minutes; after that time I start going over things that were good.

"It's an immediacy thing, which becomes ruined and then I want to go back and can't."

Stella believes there is a lot of Catholicism in her work. "The blood and the blue skies in my paintings are very Catholic - they are Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

"When I go to Spain I visit churches and I just sit there and look at the paintings for ages.

"I did a portrait of Ted Hughes the other day and I put in a brown background and then I put in a blue one - and it really worked."

In her new exhibition - the title comes for the fact she is on Prozac - Stella features portraits of Geri Halliwell and Kitten Pinder, the first casualty of Channel 4's Big Brother 5, as well as Courtney Love and Jordan.

Intermingled with this Kristevean chora of salon-style paintings and miniatures, are pictures of her grandmother, Alnwick Fair, loved ones and even Bernadette of Lourdes.

Stella is hoping her first solo exhibition will give her the freedom to not only pay off some of her huge debts, but also perhaps to break away from London.

With her beloved maternal grandmother now living in a home near Alnwick, Stella yearns to come North again. "I would love to be able to buy 11 Percy Terrace, the home I grew up in with my grandmother in Alnwick. And I've said as soon as this show is over I'll paint something for the Bailiffgate Museum. I've always wanted to do the ducking stool at Alnwick Fair, but perhaps that might be a bit too dark.

"I have recently done one of the Rumbling Kern overlooking Howick beach which is in the exhibition. I would love to do more like that."

Stella Vine's solo show Prozac and Private Views will run from Thursday until July 4 at the Transition Gallery, 110a Lauriston Road, London E9.

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