Interview: Sadie Frost, actress, fashion designer

Sadie Frost is the living embodiment of Snow White: elfin, with "skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony." And like the girl in the fairy tale, she grew up in complicated and sometimes dangerous circumstances, recounted in her autobiography, Crazy Days.

&#149 Sadie Frost

Her book defies expectations. It's not a lurid account of the Cool Britannia years, when Frost was queen of the Primrose Hill set and married to Jude Law. For one thing, her ex took legal action to ensure that no such book was published, but in any case, that wasn't the book Frost needed to write.

She wrote it because she needed to understand her troubling relationship with her father. "I started writing about my childhood early on. I didn't want to write a book where I sound like a victim, but this has been a difficult journey," she tells me over fragrant brews at Eteakat in Edinburgh's New Town. Frost flew up the night before to belt out a duet with her childhood friend, Fringe performer Frances Ruffelle, and will soon return to Primrose Hill, where she was born, and where she still lives with her four children and half-sister, Jade.

Her parents came from the Manchester suburbs. Mary Nolan's was a God-fearing working-class home. She was the youngest of three girls, and, writes Frost, "the most easily led." When she met David Vaughan she was 15 years old.

He was an exotic older man of 18, an artist, and already married, with two sons. He told Mary he'd been abandoned by his mother and brought up by his grandmother, who sometimes set the table with plates on which there was a picture of a meal, rather than food. His father's identity was a mystery.

The teenagers eloped and eventually reached London, where David was accepted at the Slade School of Art. Despite her infatuation, by this point, Mary already understood that he could be violent, and a magnet for trouble, but she stuck with him.

Mary was 16 when her first daughter was born on 19 June, 1965. David raged – this dark, jaundiced child she'd called Sadie couldn't be his.

He disappeared, leaving the bewildered, destitute teenager at the mercy of the nurses' charity. "I don't know what drugs he was taking at the time, but he took one look at me in the hospital and freaked out," says Frost in a matter of fact tone of voice that never alters throughout

our conversation.

The Nolans filed a request to make Mary a ward of the court and enlisted their priest's help to put Sadie up for adoption. Mary grabbed her baby and ran back to London.

Once David accepted his paternity he became fixated on Sadie. "I wrote this book to make some sense of my relationship with him," she says. "I'm also making a documentary retracing his life and examining why he could never find the success he wanted. He'd beat up gallery owners. If he didn't like someone, he'd break into their house and paint everything red. When he died in 2003, I was pretty much estranged from him, but I think if I'd known then what I know now, about alcoholism and addiction and all the things he went through, then maybe I could have helped him more."

David and Mary had more children together, and others in subsequent relationships – ultimately six relationships and ten kids, all told – but his bond with Sadie remained unhealthily close. With so many children to choose from, why was she singled out?

"He thought, and I'm not lying in the book when I say this, he thought I was God. He thought I'd been sent from heaven, and that I was a kind of saviour for him. He thought he needed me around to save him and would say to me, 'I am God. I am Jesus. You are God. You are Jesus.' All this weird stuff."

Her paranoid father taught her not to trust anybody. "He'd say 'people rip you off, people do this to you, that.' From an early age he was putting these thoughts into my head. It was an obsessive relationship, but I didn't know any different. My mum said I loved him more than anything, but when I got to be a teenager I couldn't deal with that smothering feeling. Children love their parents whatever, especially when they are young, but growing up around that kind of violence – nothing was normal. Not one thing."

From the start, the family embraced the hippie lifestyle. They were vegetarians, and lived in a series of shared flats, scrabbling for money by making clothes and customising furniture. David's psychedelic designs were popular with the likes of David Bailey and Paul McCartney, but he scuppered every relationship. After the arrival of a second daughter, Sunshine, in 1967, and partly to escape all the bridges he'd burned (or painted bright red), they moved to Formentera, Ibiza, where they stayed for two years.

Frost sounds philosophical about her upbringing, but she's analysed its drawbacks. "They'd come from these strict families. In a way, it was an experiment. It was a lifestyle that hadn't properly evolved and people didn't know how to deal with it. Children of hippies have grown up with certain insecurities and become slightly OCD. Whereas I am open-minded, because I like the idea of living a free life, I know that children have to be looked after. They can't witness violence. Life happens and people get together or split up, but the most important thing is nurturing your children, whereas they got carried away with things and children were very much on the sidelines.

"They were very young and hadn't been taught how to have a family or run a house. Aged three or four, I learned that the way to get attention was to run into a room of people and jump on the table and sing and dance. Sunshine would be sitting around looking like a pre-Raphaelite angel, but I would be pushing buttons. I was performing. I'd tell stories."

Even after her parents split up, David remained a powerful force in her life. Coming home from school she'd have to walk past walls that he'd emblazoned with slogans such as: "I LOVE YOU SADIE, MY ANGEL OF THE NIGHT".

"People would try to protect me from what he was doing, but I quite enjoyed the power I had over him and kind of relished some of the stories – because he was my dad! If I didn't get my way I could threaten, 'My dad will be coming down.' I used it, which I do feel guilty about – but I was a child."

During her mum's marriage to Ray Frost, David inhabited a squat next door, and was forever disturbing them with his ranting. Mary's next husband was photographer Robert Davidson, a follower of Bhagwan Rajneesh. He dressed all in purple, filled the house with crystals, and made decisions by swinging a pendulum. David had returned north and forged a new relationship of his own, and Sadie spent summer holidays in Manchester with this new family.

She won a scholarship to the Italia Conti Academy, but the troubled teen grew restless. In a fit of pique she chopped off all her hair, and went punk. "It was never really about being an actress, it was about being at Italia Conti that I'd wanted. I'd needed it to make me stand out," she explains.

When Mary asked if she'd give up her room to accommodate the latest baby, Frost, then 16, moved in with her boyfriend's family. She launched a lucrative modelling career and won the favour of Vivienne Westwood, who predicted: "That's Sadie Frost. She's only 16. All them lips and legs. She's going to be a star."

In 1983, Frost was cast in a Spandau Ballet video – at the audition she was commanded to dance around the room like a sunflower – and caught the eye of Gary Kemp. But their romance didn't begin until 1987. "He was like a giant sticking plaster which I immediately applied to all my problems," she writes. "It was as if, with Gary there, something in my head got fixed. Covered over were the insecurities about being a paranoid wreck, gone were the negative thoughts... actually not gone, just hidden, not from the world but from myself."

The couple settled into domesticity, and in 1990, had Finn. Shortly after his birth Frost was cast in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, which he shot at his vast California mansion. He insisted that everyone stay in character the entire time, and made Frost trim her pubic hair ahead of the nude scenes, claiming that British standards of topiary didn't conform with American preferences.

Then, she starred in Shopping, opposite Jude Law – and everything changed. She was 25, he was 19, and, she remembers, "I felt that it was my fate to spend the rest of my life with Jude."

Some of the most painful sections of Crazy Days are accounts of the crippling post-natal depression Frost suffered after each of her subsequent children's births – Rafferty in 1996, Iris in 2000, and Rudy in 2002. The illness was undiagnosed and untreated, and gained momentum with successive pregnancies.

Events came to a head when she took the kids to a birthday party at Soho House. Iris found part of an ecstasy tablet on the floor and did what toddlers do – popped it in her mouth. Frost says she's legally prohibited from writing or talking about the event, but describes how stricken she felt afterwards, when she couldn't leave the house without running the gauntlet of paparazzi camped outside.

"I was having my fourth child, my marriage was falling apart – things were incredibly confused, and the post-natal depression happened, and the Iris incident, and my dad being sick. Every part of my life was going wrong and I didn't cope for quite a while.

"I craved a lot of attention when I was young and slightly foolish and nave. I wanted attention for doing creative things, but I was getting it for stuff that wasn't true. I had to be very frank with myself and say, 'Look, you're going through a difficult time but you're no different from anyone else.'"

She directs me to an article about her former clique in the current issue of Harpers Bazaar. "Some people will think that's what my book will be like. It said we were perceived as Bright Young Things having a great time and how, with the arrival of magazines like Heat, they were looking for some kind of story to smash the hell out of that scene. When the Iris thing happened, it was just what they needed."

Frost says she's ambitious, and she certainly doesn't sit still: her clothing company Frost French is back in action having been rescued by a foreign investor after crippling debts forced Sadie and business partner Jemima French into administration in 2008; she's written a play, and is making a musical film this autumn. But when you mention her name, the response is: "Didn't she used to be married to?" rather than, "Wasn't she in?"

She shrugs. "I have come to terms with it. Jude is a famous man and very well known and liked."

Are marriages between actors destined to flounder if their careers move at different speeds? "It's pretty tough, especially if you're having children. When I met Jude he was unknown. But I remember watching that footage of John and Cynthia Lennon, where he runs onto the train and she gets left behind, and I thought, that is going to happen to me.

"And at the end I thought, 'What was this all about?' It was about making three beautiful children and having amazing memories. You have to move on, and I don't regret anything. We both say we were incredibly in love and had an amazing time and for whatever reason, it didn't work out."

Most important now, she knows, is coming to terms with her father. "One of my biggest problems in relationships with men was because nothing was resolved with my dad."

Perhaps with her book and upcoming documentary she'll finally make peace with her memories. "He taught me valuable things, but it's a shame that it was mixed up with conflicting things. If you could have just had the positive of that man, it would have been an amazing education."

Crazy Days is out now, published by John Blake, at 19.99.

&#149 This article first appeared in The Scotsman, Saturday September 11, 2010