When Modern Art Oxford announced that it was planning a major show of Stella Vine there were quite a few shudders in the art world and I heard someone mutter 'they'll be doing Jack Vettriano next.' Is Stella Vine really that bad? From 17 July we'll be able to judge for ourselves. the gallery is mounting by far her biggest show to date, consisting of over 100 works - almost her entire oeuvre - including about 25 new ones, with a catalogue essay by Germaine Greer, i.e. all the panoply of a serious museum exhibition for an artist whom many in the art world still regard as a talentless imposter. Ever since Saatchi discovered Vine just three years ago she has been more or less ignored by art critics while being keenly sought by collectors - and also by younger fans who might not know her paintings but are currently snapping up her T-shirts in Top Shop. I've always loved her work because I love her colours but her crime in many people's eyes is that she paints celebrities, and not just Princess Diana but Z-listers like Chantelle and Preston.
The best known fact about Stella Vine is that she used to be a stripper but you would never guess it to meet her: she has a soft, pink, sweet, round face that makes you think of milkmaids and mop caps. Old photos reveal her to have been a real beauty a few years ago but since then she has gained weight and cropped her hair, as if to declare that she has no further interest in being pretty. She certainly doesn't want to be recognised and has an odd ability to make herself invisible: twice I was supposed to meet her in the street and both times failed to spot her, even when she was standing in front of me.
I had to meet her in the street because she said I wouldn't be able to find her studio and she was right: it is in a warren of warehouses and workshops in a derelict corner of London's Clerkenwell. The door is heavily barred and locked - a necessary precaution, she explains apologetically, because her paintings are 'quite valuable these days' (they sell for anything from £6,000 to £20,000) and she is not insured. The studio is painfully small with only one office chair to sit on - canvases take up all the wall space and the floor is densely cluttered with tins of paint. There is a bed in the corner but she says she no longer sleeps there 'because of the rats' so she has moved into a hostel. 'A hostel!' I squawk like Lady Bracknell, but she says it suits her down to the ground because 'it's wonderfully anonymous, safe, friendly, and there's the excitement that all the other people are travelling so they're optimistic. There are five bunk beds and you have your own little locker and you can read with a torch under the bedclothes.'
She is 38, but still very 'new' as a painter. She only started seven years ago when she took her son Jamie to art classes at Hampstead School of Art and got hooked. At the time she was a stripper and before that an actress. But in 2004 Charles Saatchi saw one of her paintings of Princess Diana ('Hi Paul can you come over, I'm really frightened') in a small East End gallery, bought it for £600, and made it the centrepiece of his New Blood show at County Hall. Critics rubbished it but it didn't matter - where Saatchi goes, collectors follow. She only met him for two minutes but he changed her life.
She rightly saw the Saatchi show as her launch pad, her chance to get out of stripping and into painting, and seized all the publicity she could get. But then she found it overwhelming: 'I felt really scared that I was just going to be a joke. The press were putting me in this box saying 'Stripper, Uneducated'. Worse still, her ex-husband, the Stuckist painter Charles Thomson, came out of the woodwork to tell the Mail on Sunday 'Stella is a violent, lying She-Devil'. She was married to him for about two months in 2001 and has not seen him since but he obviously still has the power to upset her. And after the Saatchi show she took on too much work, so she started using cocaine to stay awake and ended up with a £600-a-week habit. It didn't last long but she regrets that the one time she met Sarah Lucas, whom she reveres, she was too drugged to speak. Eventually she had a nasty fall in the street, was taken to hospital, seen by a psychiatrist and referred to therapy. She did four months of daily therapy last year, which she says changed her life.
Even so, she is still a wobbly mixture of toughness and vulnerability, egotism and self-doubt, and I find her hard-going at first. She has so much she wants to tell me, it's as if she's been sitting in solitary confinement for months waiting for her lawyer, but then the words come tumbling out so fast I can't follow. And there is no chance of getting her to explain anything because she simply ignores my questions and carries on. But then periodically she breaks off mid-flow to ask herself 'where was I?', as if a light switch has gone off in her brain. (Could this be a result of all the Prozac she has taken? She is not on it now, but was for many years.) At one point, talking about her stepfather, she breaks down helplessly in tears. Later, when she has calmed down a bit, she explains: 'I always get absolutely terrified of interviews - I get too emotionally involved in every sentence.'
To start with, she is full of grumbles about how the art world mistreated her. After Saatchi (who behaved entirely honourably) she fell among thieves, she thinks - patronising smoothie-chop art dealers who claimed they had sold things when they hadn't or kept the best paintings for themselves, who had no interest in nurturing her career but only in making a quick buck. But the galleries she admired all told her to go away and learn to paint and maybe come back in a year. So, faute de mieux, she became her own gallerist (she sells her work on stellavine.com) which meant 'learning to be Jay Jopling - and there's no manual. These last three years have been really hard but I think it's been worth it because I've learned so much and now I don't need to be so desperate.'
She shows me some of the work she is doing for Oxford - portraits of all the murdered Ipswich prostitutes, and some new Diana pictures. 'I wanted to do 100 paintings of Princess Diana but then I realised I couldn't physically do it in time. Everything takes me so much longer than it used to.' So then she decided to mix new with old, especially as she was keen to borrow back paintings that were sold to collectors in the States three or four years ago without being properly photographed. But shipping all these paintings back is costing a fortune so she has given Modern Art Oxford four paintings worth £46,000 to sell, to cover their costs.
There are about a dozen canvases in the studio either in progress or waiting to go to Oxford. At present she is working on a portrait of the young Beatrix Potter, taken from a photograph in which Potter is holding a dormouse, and Vine says she looks forward to painting the dormouse because 'I like putting bits of nature in. It started in 2003 when I did a painting of Sharon Tate and I wanted to put her in heaven so I added some birds, and I just really enjoyed having nature.' But she worries that if she paints birds people will say she is copying Tracey Emin.
While much of her work is 'sweet' and 'pretty' - words she uses herself approvingly - some of it is also incredibly witty. She showed me a great series of Lily Cole paintings she did for the American magazine Black Book, which are a brilliant spoof on the whole fashion shoot concept - 'Lily breaks up with her boyfriend in Bulgari, Marc Jacobs & Still by JLO'; 'Lily thinks about Good and Evil in Moschino'; 'Lily contemplates suicide in Van Cleef and Arpels' and 'Lily overdoses in Marc Jacobs'. They're so clever, I tell her, but she bridles at the compliment - 'I'm really not bothered by the clever thing,' she sniffs. 'I don't need to be intellectually approved - I think it's there anyway in my work.'
Much of the time, though, she goes out of her way to seem naive or childlike. But that is to do with empathising with her subjects. Basically, she says, all her portraits are self-portraits - she identifies with all these damaged, vulnerable women and commemorates them with all the sweetness she can muster. But sometimes the damage - dripping blood, running mascara - overrides the sweetness. It depends how she is feeling at the time. She has noticed that when she had long blond hair she tended to paint blondes, then when she dyed her hair black she painted brunettes - she shows me one of Princess Beatrice, Fergie's daughter, taken from a Tatler photograph. 'I'm drawn to Beatrice because you can see that there's something very sweet and delicate about her,' she explains. 'I liked her throwing that Scarlett O'Hara birthday party.' When Vine talks about celebrities, there's always this sort of possessive familiarity - 'when Kate [Moss] was in the Priory' - that reminds me of the way children talk about their imaginary friends. And perhaps celebrities are her imaginary friends - she has had quite a lonely life.
She is drawn to 'damaged' people because she feels that she is damaged herself and, 'I think when you're damaged you have a childlike vulnerability that never grows up until you fix it. Which I think I have done by four months of daily therapy last year. But there is an openness to me, an empathy and understanding, that causes people to treat me very badly. It's bizarre how many nutters homed in on me in the strips - there were some very dark conversations. And I don't necessarily walk away from those, even when they're very graphic, violent, because I think there's a sort of attempt to self-heal by being kind, by being understanding. But you have to learn that you have the right to walk away - you can't be compassionate to everybody.'
'As a child,' she says, 'I was quiet, very sweet - and afraid the whole time.' Actually it wasn't till she was seven that she was afraid - up till then she was happy, living with her mother, brother, grandmother and auntie Joan (her father ran off with the lodger when she was only two) in her grandmother's house in Alnwick, Northumberland. She was Melissa Robson in those days (she changed her name to Stella Vine about 10 years ago) and she remembers 'There was a roaring fire and there were always gypsies bartering fabric. There was this real sense of belonging there. So all that early stuff was beautiful and wonderful...' But she was closer to her aunt Joan than to her mother, Ellenor, a seamstress, who was strangely elusive. 'She was fragile, she wasn't an affectionate woman, there was never a cuddle, there wasn't really a bond. I adored her but there wasn't anything there - she was ethereal, just this glittering thing. She was hardly there - I think she went off hitchhiking round Europe for a year or something.' She was also ill, with Crohn's disease, which later turned into bowel cancer.
The idyll ended when Melissa was seven and her mother told her they were moving to Norwich and she was marrying a Norwich Union executive called Richard Jordan. The first time Melissa met him was the day before the wedding and she distrusted him on sight. She claims he always hated her and her brother because they were not his children and that she spent the years from seven to 13 - when she ran away from home - in a state of constant fear. She never quite says that her stepfather abused her, but that seems to be the idea - she told Waldemar Januszczak that he was always asking 'Have you got your knickers on?' But when I try to press her she suddenly bursts into tears and sobs: 'This stuff that happened and happened, there's just no point in remembering - it just means that for the next three days I feel suicidal. It's not worth it!'
At 13 she ran away from home and lived for a while in London (she mentions hanging out in Brixton with Meg Mathews) but then went back to Norwich and signed on as Jane Blackwood, saying she was 19 and had just run away from a hippie convoy - 'I'm sure the social services must still have all those files.' She lived in a bedsit in a derelict house, and at 17 had a baby by the caretaker. This was her son Jamie, light of her life - she always wanted a baby as someone to love. But then Jamie's father started hassling them so she ran away to London where she suffered the awful loneliness of the tower-block single mum. 'People just don't realise the craziness of the isolation - you almost go mad. The only time I ever had to myself was one night a month for a few hours when a charity paid for a babysitter. And I would go to Blow Up and dance to soul music for a few hours and then go home.'
Nevertheless, she somehow managed to get herself to drama school, the Academy of Theatre Arts, because she'd always loved drama. She did a Joe Orton play at the National Theatre of Wales in Clwyd, and then went on tour round the country. 'When I went to drama school they told me I would never work because I had a child, so I had this incredible drive, but it was quite tough touring the country, just me and Jamie, finding different babysitters in different towns.' And because she was so driven, she accepted every job she was offered, always afraid to leave a gap, so her career slid gently downhill from Joe Orton to Agatha Christie to panto. (She says she made the same mistake at the start of her painting career but has now learned to pick and choose.) She gave up acting in the end, simply because she was exhausted and Jamie had to go to school, so she rented a flat in Hampstead and worked as a waitress at Fatboy's Diner.
From waitressing she moved on to hostessing and stripping, which paid better. She was never an escort girl because that was too dangerous: instead she'd sit in these rather old-fashioned hostess clubs - there was one called The Directors' Lodge where the White Cube gallery is now - chatting to elderly gentlemen and pouring her champagne into flower vases for £50 a night. Then it was stripping at the Windmill Theatre, which she loved because it was a real theatre and felt like acting. She also mentions some mysterious 'sugar daddies', one of whom invited her to stay in New York where she discovered the Frick Collection and her love of Gainsborough. One year when Jamie was a teenager and keen on skateboarding they bought a camper van and spent the year going round skate parks - she says it was the best year of her life. In 2000 she started attending classes at Hampstead School of Art and in 2001 she had her short, unhappy marriage to the Stuckist painter Charles Thomson. In 2003 her mother died and she expressed her grief in paintings of Princess Diana - five of which Saatchi would buy, and is lending back for her Oxford show.
Her life now is just painting, painting, painting. Jamie is grown up and has his own flat so there is nothing to distract her. She paints all day and then goes back to the hostel to sleep, or perhaps to read Heat under the bedclothes. 'The drive is phenomenal,' she says. 'At the beginning you think you could be up there with people you admire, and that's a fantastic thing, but then maybe if you get there, you want to go a bit further.' She must be thrilled to be doing the Oxford show, I tell her, but she gives me a black look - I am being patronising and there is no worse sin in her book. 'Obviously I am grateful, and hopefully I'll be proud of the Oxford show, but I'm not really into this acceptance of gratitude because I know that I'm capable of putting a show on anywhere in the world. I don't want to compromise, I don't want to have to prove and explain the way I work and what I do. It will be when I'm dead that the critics can do all that.'
I can't wait to see her Oxford show - I think she's the real deal.
Born Melissa Robson in Alnwick, Northumberland, in 1969. Changed her name to Stella Vine in 1995.
Childhood Aged 13 asked to be fostered due to a breakdown in her relationship with her stepfather. Shortly after moved into a bedsit on her own. Gave birth at 17 to her son, Jamie, then moved to London to attend drama school. Worked as a stripper, waitress, cleaner and in a hostess bar to earn money to provide for her son.
Art training Studied at Hampstead School of Art in late 1990s. Opened a gallery in 2003 in former butcher's shop.
Big break Charles Saatchi kickstarted her career when he bought her portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales in February 2004 and one of Rachel Whitear, a dead heroin addict, for £600 each to showcase in his New Blood exhibition. Vine spiralled into depression soon after, painting in her car and becoming briefly addicted to cocaine.
Personal life Married the co-founder of the Stuckists, Charles Thomson, in 2001 in New York. The couple separated almost immediately.
· Stella Vine: Paintings will be at Modern Art Oxford from 17 July to 23 SeptemberTopics
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