Celebrity Style

Courtney Love: The ELLE Interview

By Leisa Millar

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Image by Jan Welters

As Courtney Love celebrates her 50th birthday, revist her January 2009 cover interview - in full and online for the time.

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TRULY MADLY COURTNEY

Kurt Cobain’s widow, actress, mother, rock’s first lady… Courtney Love is a whirlwind of controversy and contradiction. Now she’s back with a new album. Avril Mair meets (and admires) a true original

Photographs by Jan Welters

Fashion by Sasa Thomann

Courtney Love is the world’s most controversial blonde. The evidence is indisputable. Award-winning actress, platinum-selling musician, celebrity widow, tabloid fixture, hell-raiser. Outspoken, unashamed, out of control. She has spent 17 years in the public eye, staggering from the brink of disaster to glorious success, then back to mayhem and madness again. And again. She has been nominated for a Golden Globe and then ignored by Hollywood for her transgressions. She has been hailed as a style icon and then damaged her looks with ill-advised surgery. She has never made a considered career move or done the right thing. She has lived a rollercoaster of drama and nearly destroyed herself along the way. She has unravelled in front of the world. But after drug addiction, arrests, imprisonment, custody battles, jail sentences, rehab, public humiliation and press infamy, at the age of 44, Love is not lost. She has been fat, broke and stoned; now she is remade, remodelled and sober. There will be no more surgery or substances. Courtney Love wants you to take her seriously. Could this be her most controversial move of all?

‘I can’t fake it. I just can’t…’

The first thing that strikes you about Courtney Love is how open she is. Her life has been a sorry spiral of loss: her parents were absent for much of her childhood; her husband killed himself; her audience couldn’t bear to watch her slow self-destruction. Everything she ever loved has been taken away. And yet, after four decades, she still has more to give. There are no conditions to meeting Courtney Love, no discussions about what can be said. She texts me several times on the way to our interview, greets me with an effusive hug, apologises for her lateness and hands over a bag of presents: books she’s reading, her favourite perfume and a beaded corsage she made by hand. At the end of our interview – after eight intense hours together, then another long day in the photo studio – she gives me all her numbers and email addresses.

Courtney seems to believe that the more you see, the more you might understand her. She is ferociously intelligent. But mostly she is vulnerable, hoping desperately that you are the one person who won’t let her down or fail to meet her expectations. Perhaps this time it will all work out. The other thing that strikes you about Courtney Love is just how incredible she looks. The most recent tabloid focus has been on her three-stone weight loss, and American gossip mags have declared their horror at her newly skinny, seemingly malnourished shape. The Courtney I meet is nothing like this. She’s an imposing 5ft 10in, slim not scrawny, in black Ann Demeulemeester leggings, a ruffled Givenchy blouse with a muddle of Lanvin necklaces, and a feathered Roksanda Ilincic coat, which still has the shop tag on it. ‘Oh, that’s embarrassing!’ she says, with a throaty laugh.

‘My vice now is my clothes,’ she says. Part of the reason for this dramatic transformation is vanity, ‘I was never going to make the best-dressed list at that size!’ A more fundamental reason is Courtney’s need to resume her career. Sometimes it’s hard to remember she ever had one. Her notoriety has done her talent a disservice. When she met Kurt Cobain in 1990, they both had blossoming careers and burgeoning drug habits. When they married in 1992, Courtney had critical acclaim and was on the brink of commercial success with her band Hole; the leading lady of alternative rock. Kurt’s band Nirvana had just released Nevermind and had replaced Michael Jackson at the top of the American charts. Her husband was the biggest star in the world. Then two years later, he committed suicide. Courtney was left with a baby daughter, a drug addiction and a hurt that felt as though it would never heal. It’s been a long road back. Finally, after several wrong turns, she has a new album and is ready to talk. ‘I used to lie to the press – my life was so psycho that you wouldn’t believe it anyway, so what the hell? I don’t lie any more. You can ask me anything. Go on…’

What was the turning point for you? ‘To be very honest, jail [Courtney was charged with illegal possession of the painkiller oxycodone in 2003, then with assault in 2004. Given three years probation, after a drugs relapse she was sentenced to six months in prison, which she served in rehab, and lost custody of her daughter Frances Bean for 15 months]. I had a long, hard fall. I set the stage for Britney to crash and burn. I went through it all first.’ How did you change? ‘A miracle worker got me off crack. It took a while. I went as far as you could with drugs. I don’t know why.’ How do you keep clean? ‘I’m a Buddhist and I chant. Whatever else is going on in my life now, I do not miss that. I’m two f***ing hours late? I don’t care, I’m still chanting. If I don’t chant, then I’m negative, sullen, cold. With it, I’m still flamboyant and a nasty little bitch, but I’m not… inappropriate.’ Do you still drink? ‘I am sober. I’ve never been an alcoholic, but I don’t drink any more. I’m not a hardcore AA book-thumper like Russell Brand, though. In the past five years I have had two glasses of wine. They were both Pétrus.’

How do you feel when you look back on all the lost years before that? ‘Let me tell you a story. On Sofia Coppola’s 16th birthday, way back in 1987, I stole a Chanel lip gloss from her Sistine Chapel of a bedroom. I’d never seen Chanel make-up before that. Years later, I left a Chanel lip gloss in the reception of The Mercer hotel for her. You know why? I believe that you’ve got to fix your karma. That’s why it’s so important not to be a victim. I made myself vulnerable. I’m the one who took those drugs.’ Are you happier now? ‘I’m off antidepressants for the moment because my album producer wants me to feel the rage, wants me to be really angry, wants me to face the demons. And I am so f***ing angry! I’m getting back on them as soon as recording the album is finished. I’m not going to punch anybody, but I have to do two hours of exercise and chanting a day to feel good.’

Courtney Love first arrived on the scene in the early 1990s, an unconventional beauty in smeared red lipstick and a ripped-up baby-doll dress, ungroomed, out of fashion but fierce with it. She has since gone through phases of increasing glamour, notably with a 1997 Oscars appearance in a power bob and white satin Versace gown. Depending on her degree of coherence and drug of choice, she has displayed a personal style that could best be described as erratic, albeit undeniably influential. But the new Courtney – toned, taut, skin pale and perfect – is a long way from her heyday as the queen of grunge. She has been photographed by Karl Lagerfeld and starred in Versace campaigns. She has the music-obsessed Marc Jacobs on speed dial. In fact, she texts him during our conversation, belatedly expressing her displeasure at his Victoria Beckham ads. Courtney Love is now officially fashion fabulous.

At what point did you think you needed to change your body? ‘Sweetheart, I was 192 pounds [13st 10lb] and doing Italian Vogue! The trouble is that I always think I look hot, no matter how heavy I am. But this was a punch in the face. They had an amazing Chanel couture dress and the only way it would work was for the stylist to cut out the entire back so it just covered the front of my thighs. That was it for me. The unretouched pictures from that shoot are still on my fridge.’ How did you get to that size? ‘I got to that weight through macrobiotic food. Who knew you could get fat being healthy? It was yummy and I ate way too much. Trudie Styler and Sting eat that shit, but they work out for like three hours a day.’ So did you get a gastric band like the papers say? ‘Baby, if I could get a gastric band I would! I’ve heard it’s a lot of vomiting and a pain in the ass, but it’s still easier than a diet. I did go to see a Hollywood doctor about it. I wasn’t desperate, I just knew I had to do something. He said no. I might have been fat, but I wasn’t that fat. I tried lipo on my stomach after that. It was horrible and it didn’t work.’ So you had to lose it the hard way? ‘Too f***ing right I did.’ What did you eat? ‘Protein shakes. I also did the Atkins thing. Vile. Now I eat a lot of white fish. I live right next to Nobu in Malibu and I’m probably their best customer. I get sashimi from them at least once a day. It’s a little spendy, but it’s good for the skin. I lost a lot of hormones because of the stress of public humiliation and all those narcotics. I take natural supplements to replace them. There are a lot of cuckoo treatments in this town, but I don’t buy into any of that.’

You look healthier now than at the start of this year, when you were very thin. Did you have an eating disorder? ‘I didn’t get anorexic because I’m not obsessive compulsive enough. But I got so used to not eating that I started not to eat, if that makes sense. It was a total fear of being fat. And you know what? I saw a picture of myself from a few years back and I’m a sex beast! At 160 pounds [11st 6lbs] I was so hot! I looked f***ing fabulous. But I do like fitting into sample sizes now.’ When did you realise that your weight loss had gone too far? ‘I saw a picture of myself in The New York Times and I looked like a skeleton. I knew I had to eat more because I was scary. I lost my tits, I lost my ass. My stomach was really loose and saggy. It was because I hadn’t done any exercise to lose the weight, I simply hadn’t eaten.’

Do you like fashion more now you’re thin? ‘I’ve always liked fashion and I’ve always followed it. It hasn’t always liked me much, though. I bought five Gucci dresses this season. They are just sex. I went to a party and wore one in blue velvet with the boots, matching belt, the whole outfit and there were men all over me. I’ve never seen anything like it! It was crazy.’ Has your style changed? ‘No. I just stopped caring about wearing the right thing. In 2004, no designer would lend me an outfit for the Grammys. So I wore a $32 vintage dress in defiance. I was so upset that even my friend Donatella Versace wouldn’t dress me that I called up the photographer David LaChapelle, crying. He said, “When did you buy into all this? When did you start caring?” And I thought, you are so right. Go to a vintage store and make your own style from now on.’

Do you care what people think about what you wear? ‘The British press give me a hard time. It’s weird; no matter what I wear, I get stick for it. I put on this amazing vintage Ossie Clark dress a few months ago and I looked flawless. And a celebrity magazine printed the picture with a sarky caption commenting on my “bizarre floral frock”. I wish other people would take more risks. I’m not talking about Cher dressed as the Statue of Liberty, but I am so bored of seeing starlets wearing jewel-coloured column dresses. I’d much rather see a Wag get it wrong.’ Why haven’t you done a Marc Jacobs campaign yet? ‘I don’t know. I felt quite jealous when I saw those Posh ads this season. It almost seemed a joke at first. I understand you’re English and you hold some reverence but… please. I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice person, of course.’ Who are your favourite designers? ‘Rick Owens, Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, Lanvin, Todd Lynn, Christopher Bailey for Burberry. I love Vivienne Westwood. She’s mad – but I’m madder. I was introduced to her at a V&A gala and said, “It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you.” She said, “What do you mean? We’ve had lunch! You talked at me for three hours!”’

Does fashion make you happy? ‘I was in Paris during fashion week a year ago, I was staying in a suite at the Ritz, designers were sending me clothes – and I was crying, face down in the carpet. It just shows that you can come back from nothing, you can have money in the bank and a beautiful child, and you’re still in a pile on the floor sobbing your eyes out. You can’t even chant. I was having a nervous breakdown in the Ritz. And you know what made me happy? The Lanvin show.’

‘The difference between my drugs fall and that of Kate Moss? She’s beautiful and an earner. I’m a critics’ darling, I don’t make vast amounts of money for other people. So she was dropped for like three weeks, but they really went for me…’ Courtney Love has always polarised opinion. She has no uncomplicated relationships, with either people or press. Courtney’s parents, Hank Harrison and Linda Carroll, divorced when she was a child. She doesn’t talk to her mother, who she says tried to have her institutionalised as a child. In a memoir, Her Mother’s Daughter, Linda referred to Courtney as being bipolar. They have been estranged for years. ‘When I first became mainstream, I retreated from it. I turned my back on fame. And that was partly because I didn’t want my mother in my life,’ says Courtney. In Nick Broomfield’s controversial 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney, her father says, ‘I’m not in the business of getting Courtney to love me – or even like me.’ They don’t talk any more, either.

Introduced to the British public by Kurt Cobain, who called her ‘the greatest f*** in the world’ live on C4, Courtney’s first piece of major press was a Vanity Fair feature which highlighted the fact that she had taken heroin while unknowingly pregnant. Because of it, Frances Bean – now a happy, healthy 16 year old – was briefly taken into protective custody at two weeks old. Ironically, Courtney’s starring role as a drug addict in The People vs. Larry Flynt, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1997, is probably her mainstream career high. On set, she met actor Edward Norton. They were together for four years and got engaged. When their relationship came to a close, she entered a dramatic downward spiral. This ended after a brief liaison with Brit comic Steve Coogan. Courtney got sober shortly after. ‘It was my last crazy fling and a really, really bad point in my life,’ she says now.

You seem to like British boys… ‘Look, I swear that Russell Brand and me are just really good friends. I don’t want to have sex with him. I actually have a very satisfactory sexual life, thank you very much.’ Who’s your boyfriend? ‘I’m not in a committed relationship, I wouldn’t say it’s the most appropriate relationship, but he’s a really brilliant guy. I’ve had a crush on him since I was 15. I even dated his brother to try and get his attention.’ How come you hang out with Russell brand and Noel Fielding? ‘I met them through the English comedian [Steve Coogan] that I went out with, disastrously.’ What was that about? ‘The one thing you don’t do is kiss and tell. But I’ve seen 24 Hour Party People and my theory on why the whole thing happened is that I had a kind of daddy crush on Tony Wilson [the late founder of Factory Records, who Courtney met while living in Liverpool during the early 1980s]. I transferred that to Coogan because he plays Tony Wilson.’ What kind of men do you usually go for? ‘I’m not looking for arrogant bastards. But I am incredibly intimidating to men, so I’m told. Particularly when they see me play. There’s so much aggression and anger there. If I wasn’t able to turn that venom into art then I’d be dead. If I’m not making music, I’m a toxic person to be around.’

Do you want to get married again? ‘Yeah, I’m sure I will. When Kurt died, I found John Galliano’s mobile number in his pocket. Galliano and I had lunch together much later and I said, “If I get married again, will you make my wedding dress?” And he said absolutely, so I will hold him to that. ’Would you have more kids? ‘Yeah! I definitely want to. I just need to hurry up. I’ve always been really fecund, fortunately.’Is Frances your proudest achievement? ‘Hell, yeah. She’s a very well-mannered, grounded girl. She’s very beautiful and, forgive me for saying so, very well raised. She has no desire to be an It girl. I did get her a red Birkin for her 16th birthday, though.’ What’s it like having Courtney Love as your mother? ‘I just caught Frances reading Marilyn Manson’s autobiography and I had to tell her, “There’s a chapter you need to skip in there. You don’t want to be reading about your mom like that [in his book The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, Manson discusses a 1999 tour where Hole was his support act, but walked out after just two weeks].” My daughter doesn’t hate me in the way that teenage girls are supposed to. She may not think I’m cool, but she knows that we’re all each other has.’ How does she feel about everything? ‘My daughter knows I did drugs in my first trimester of pregnancy. She weighed 7lb 6oz when she was born and she was healthy. We were excellent parents and I say that despite pretty much always having an edge on. Frances bonded very well with her father, at least in the first year and a half of her life.’ How does Frances deal with the death of her father and a difficult childhood? 'I have her see people who have been professionally trained, who have been through alcoholism and drug addiction, and are experts in adolescent behaviour. She calls them her assistants.'

‘I never wanted to be seen as Yoko Ono, but I’ve had worse press…’

Conversation with Courtney is a riot of gossip. She tells a fabulously unprintable tale about a rock legend, a supermodel and a table piled with cocaine. She tells, with some bemusement, about being banned from Claridge’s hotel, ‘Apparently I burned a duvet. What the f***? I wasn’t demanding, I wasn’t cursing. I tipped like a motherf***er. For me, that was polite behaviour.’ She discusses her surgeries, ‘I can’t wear red lipstick because of what I did to my mouth. I was never quite Leslie Ash, but it was a pretty bad trout pout. I had all the silicone taken out, along with my breast implants.’ She mentions her high-profile friendships, ‘Gwyneth Paltrow texts me three or four times a week. It’s almost like she senses when I need help. She is golden and so sincere.’ Some of her stories are heartbreaking, however. Most of these stories involve her. ‘We’re starting to make a movie on Kurt’s life, which I’m supposedly executive producing. We have a meeting at The Polo Lounge last month, proper Hollywood, and I’m wearing Lanvin, sky-high Louboutins… and I’m sobbing like a bitch within 15 minutes. Scarlett Johansson is going to play me.’ She catches her breath. ‘I never grieved properly for Kurt. He died and I went on tour.’ Tears trickle down her cheeks. ‘People think it gets easier,’ she whispers, eyeliner streaking, mascara just a memory as she swipes at her damp face. ‘It doesn’t. It just gets further away.’ She cries again during our hours together, this time about her friend Paula Yates. ‘I saw her the day before she died. She was tormented by the tabloids, just tortured. I worry so much about her children, about Peaches and Pixie [Geldof]. What can I do? Is there anything I can do for them?’ She wipes her eyes and shakes her head.

As we talk, Courtney sips still water. At about midnight, she orders a cappuccino. That’s it. She is charming and compelling company, conscious of her status but not starry, introducing me to all the people who come over to her – and there are many of them, from designer Hedi Slimane, sweet and shy, to stylist Rachel Zoe and photographers Mert & Marcus, who beg to be allowed to shoot her new album cover. Although our interview takes place at the Chateau Marmont, where all of Hollywood comes to see and be seen, Courtney Love is the centre of attention. She is a significant presence, even on her best behaviour. Afterwards, she offers me a lift back to my hotel, even though it’s 3am and her home is an hour’s drive away. She accompanies me inside, gives me a hug and says, ‘Please don’t be horrible.’

‘Women don’t buy records. They save up for a Louis Vuitton bag instead…’

We meet again the following day, just eight short hours later. Courtney hasn’t been to bed. She has driven to Malibu and back, watched some TV, read a little, written in the diary that’s her constant companion. Despite having been awake, unmedicated, for a day and night, she is more than ready for her close-up. Courtney is at ease when she’s performing. She is always performing to some degree or other, a relentless one-woman show, demanding attention. She turns up wearing head-to-toe Rick Owens, slouchy jersey pieces in grungy shades. No make-up. She has her black iPod, with a playlist of Nirvana, PJ Harvey and Britpop. She also has the following: a well-thumbed copy of Country Life, Terry de Havilland snakeskin wedges (price tag still attached), Heat magazine (which includes a ‘worst dressed’ picture of Courtney wearing Rick Owens), a book of Emily Dickinson poetry, an overflowing scrapbook and the details of a £3 million house near the English Cotswolds which she wants to buy. All spill onto the floor from an oversized Jimmy Choo bag.

She has brought yet more presents for me: a book on Chinese foot binding and tiny silk slippers. She also brings piles of unmastered CDs. This is her reason for being here – her first album in five years. ‘This is probably the most important thing I’ll ever do,’ she says. Courtney Love’s debut album with Hole was released in 1991, the year after she met Kurt Cobain. The second, breakthrough album, ironically titled Live Through This, came out four days after his suicide in 1994. She has since released another two records – the critically acclaimed Celebrity Skin in 1998 and a solo album, America’s Sweetheart, in 2004, recorded at the height of her disorderly conduct. This time round, she hopes, things will be different. It’s called Nobody’s Daughter, a title that needs no explanation. She plays a selection of demos while having her photograph taken, singing along loudly, cursing when she occasionally forgets the words.Will you still be doing all this when you’re 50? I ask. ‘When this record is finished, I may be done. Women go through the menopause – being a rock star may be unseemly after that point. Having said that, there’s no way I should still be alive after a lot of the things I’ve put myself through, so who knows what the future holds? At least you could never say I’ve been boring.’

Courtney Love’s new album, Nobody’s Daughter, is due out in early 2009.

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