Stripped bare

Stella Vine’s art gallery is tucked down Whitecross Street, not far from Shoreditch in London.

Stella Vine, artist and former stripper, loves this street. Somehow it suits her; the colour of it, the cosmopolitan chaos. Two flights up a narrow winding staircase, above the gallery, is the room where she lives. "It’s a tip," she says cheerfully, but as the door swings open it is fascinating, like being placed slap bang in the middle of a person’s entire life. The whitewashed walls have been used as a makeshift diary, "Tuesday 4pm" written above the bed in black ink. The large bed with hastily thrown-up cover and huge pink cushions dominates, but there are suitcases piled on the floor, and boxes and papers and CDs and a crammed clothes rail. Canvases are propped against chairs and art materials scattered on the table below the window. The room is stuffed with enough accoutrements for three lives, which, in just 35 years, is roughly what Vine has lived already.

The stiff, old-fashioned casement window is open just inches. The night Vine painted her now infamous Diana painting, the air was thick with the smell of turps, linseed oil and paint. "There’s not much ventilation. You just get a bit high, really," she explains. "It’s probably a bit dangerous."

The result is a highly emotive image of an almost crazed Diana, bold red lipstick seeping from her lips like smeared blood. With her gaudy make-up and tiara, she is almost like a child playing princesses. And at the side of the painting, "Hi Paul can you come over I’m really frightened" is scrawled in childish writing.

It wasn’t just fumes that produced such a heightened picture. Vine wasn’t sleeping, instead spending long hours painting into the night. Her mother had recently died and she was winded with shock and grief. She was suffering rejection at every turn. "I was just falling in love right, left and centre with these gorgeous young artists who came in the gallery. They’d see this fat old stripper, this nutter who runs a butcher’s shop that she thinks is an art gallery, and who thinks she’s some artist but hasn’t even been to art school... They probably thought, ‘Christ, who is this woman who’s texting me 20 times a day?’"

The picture was painted last November, after it was revealed that Diana had written to Paul Burrell about her fears she would be killed in a car accident. Vine became obsessed, searching the internet for conspiracy theories, painting 30 pictures of Diana and the crash. They lined every inch of her cramped room. They were wet and she had no space to dry or store them, so she eventually put them in a skip, keeping only the one that Saatchi would later buy.

She built an extraordinary fantasy around that painting. Diana is alone and frightened in the palace. The phones are bugged. She goes to the supermarket on Kensington High Street but the phone boxes there are bugged too. She has put on too much make-up, like you do when you’re feeling insecure and unhappy, but everybody loves her so they say nothing. In a small shop, she borrows the phone to call Paul. His phone is bugged too but they have a code. He knows the secret meeting place…

Diana divided people. Some derided her for her weaknesses. But others looked at the glitter-wrap of her life and saw the greasy chip paper of their own. They recognised her insecurities because they had them too. Vine certainly did: the troubled childhood; the feelings of resentment and rejection; acts of rebellion that disguised emotional neediness.

Vine admits being drawn to bleak images. Like her new paintings of Rachel Whitear, whose grieving parents allowed a picture of their dead daughter to be used in an anti-drugs campaign. "It’s very dark, but life is dark, isn’t it, for a lot of people?" One is on display but people haven’t realised yet that it’s of Rachel and Vine is frightened of misinterpretation. Her paintings are not about sensationalism, but about empathy. "I identify with people like Diana who just want to be loved by everybody. If somebody doesn’t like me I find that very upsetting." Less certain is whether she likes herself. Her searing capacity for self-deprecation, for dismissing herself as a fat old stripper, borders on self-mutilation. "I am," she says calmly, "a bit of an oddball."

LIKE Diana, Stella Vine was young when her parents divorced. Her father went off with another woman, leaving her mother devastated. Then her mother married an old boyfriend, the son of an RAF squadron leader. Vine spent holidays with her real father but moved with her mother, brother and grandmother to start a new life in Norwich. Vine insists her stepfather disliked her from the start. "I just felt he hated me."

One of her strongest memories is of him kicking the door of the bathroom open and dragging her out. "I had my knickers round my ankles. I was totally humiliated - as usual," she says. "Do you know what this girl did?" her stepfather demanded, dragging her to the room where her mother, a seamstress, was working. Her stepfather had just collected her from a friend’s whose parents had asked if the girl could stay the night. Her stepfather disapproved; the family was working class.

"He was fuming. He used to turn into a beetroot and look as if he was going to have a heart attack over the tiniest things. My friend’s dad came out to the car and he just sort of bent over and gave me 10p. He looked so worried about me and it felt kind of nice that somebody knew there was something not quite right. I think for a long time people didn’t realise you have problems in middle-class families. Just because it’s all perfect on the outside doesn’t mean people aren’t really screwed up."

Her stepfather dominated the household, including Vine’s submissive mother, who had Crohn’s disease and was often ill. By the time Vine was 13, she was unhappy enough to ask to go to boarding school in Alnwick.

She lasted only months. "I wanted my mum to say, ‘No, don’t go.’ But she said, ‘Wow, that would be wonderful.’ I always wanted her to say, ‘I love you, I’ll stand by you, you are very important to me,’ but she never did. She loved me inside, but I didn’t feel it."

Every Saturday, her mother gave her money to disappear into town. Vine would buy sweets and go to the cinema. And then she would go shoplifting. She was a talented actress ("I won everything; I wanted my parents to see who I was") but hadn’t discovered her artistic abilities. Yet she stole pencils and paints and bottles of ink. "I never used them. I couldn’t take them home but I wanted the pretty, lovely things. I buried them in the churchyard."

Her parents wanted her fostered, and for a while she lived with a friend’s mother. But then she started refusing to go to school. She signed on instead, claiming to be 20 and from a peace convoy to explain her lack of records. She moved into a bedsit and began a relationship with the caretaker who, at 24, was ten years older than she was. At 16 she was pregnant. "I had always wanted a child. I was dolly-obsessed."

Vine was at the National Youth Theatre in London when her mother developed cancer. Vine’s stepfather blamed her. It was stress-related, he claimed. "He was distraught. She was this perfect, beautiful woman and he owned this sweet little thing. Then she had to have her colon removed and she got this bag on her side so she was imperfect. And the bag was my fault."

Vine later moved permanently to London and studied drama. She took acting jobs when she could, but it was hard to tour with her young son, Jamie. She turned to stripping to solve her financial problems. "It was very, very hard. I earned very little money because I was shy. I didn’t feel like I had the right figure for it and I didn’t have the gift of the gab. It wasn’t acting. I didn’t have a script." She earned 20 per naked dance. "It is a dark world. Lots of prostitution. Lots of single mothers, immigrants, people who are exploited. I saw a girl get pushed down the stairs once, and you do get shouted at. You have no rights at all."

It made her insecure. "You’re very vulnerable when you’re naked. The psychology is a bit weird. It’s all in the eyes between the two people so you’ve got to be confident. You’ve really got to pretend you are enjoying it. I tended to have lots of conversations with lonely old men and to meet lots of nutters as well. I have incredible tolerance for darkness. I can take on board quite a lot of damaged people, but it takes its toll psychologically."

Maybe her tolerance was because their damage resonated with her own. She says she never feels she belongs anywhere. For years, her mother travelled to London on business yet they rarely met up. But two years before she died of a brain tumour in August of last year, she and her daughter became close. In the last year, Vine kept insisting her mother was ill. Nobody listened. "She was unhappy and felt unloved. She suspected my stepfather of having an affair. She just kept saying he wouldn’t care if she was dead or alive. I think she wanted him to give her some attention, to see that she wasn’t well."

Tears run down her cheeks when she talks of her mother; her grief is still raw, perhaps because reconciliation came relatively late. Her mother lent her money to open the gallery. Her stepfather only found out after the funeral, and was furious.

In the last few days of her mother’s life, Vine was driving up from London to visit her in hospital. Her mother urged her to bring Jamie and Vine promised she would the next day. But then her stepfather phoned. She was visiting too often. Her mother needed to rest. "That just got me in the stomach," says Vine tearfully. Somehow, he always made her feel like the hired help instead of a daughter. "They’re the family. I’m the black sheep," she says. The black sheep didn’t visit the next day. It was the day her mother died.

THE trouble with people who feel rejected and isolated - as the royal family found out - is that they make a nuisance of themselves. They rebel, seeking love and approval in the strangest places, or in the most self-destructive way. Was Vine’s chaotic life symptomatic of her unhappiness, or was she simply rebellious by nature? "I don’t think I was - although I do admit that maybe I was destined to have this crazy life. I was always a bit of a loner, even as a child."

In 2002, she went to art classes with her son and discovered her talent for painting. She even painted her stepfather. Once, on one of her rare visits home, he had been furious when her mother let Jamie build a snowman in the garden. It would ruin the grass. Vine painted him kneeling in the garden, a headless suit, with two tiny drops of blood. "Daddy, don’t spoil the lawn," she wrote beside the figure.

Vine’s self-esteem problems are obvious. She adores her 92-year-old grandmother but couldn’t believe it when the old woman gave her a picture of a little girl playing with a kitten, saying it reminded her of Vine as a child. "I said, ‘But I thought I was this monster, this really bad person.’ She replied, ‘You were absolutely adorable.’" Vine sounds like she has been searching for love all her life. "Absolutely," she agrees.

But her love life has been chaotic too. Two years ago, she became involved with Charles Thomson, an artist who founded a pro-painting, anti-conceptual art movement called Stuckism. Vine didn’t agree with its principles but Thomson liked her work. He offered to pay off 20,000 of debt and to fund her painting - if she married him. "I genuinely loved him at times but he was so controlling. He wanted to know what I was eating, what my bodily functions were. He kept telling me about my past lives and said we’d always been together. I’d been a prostitute in my past lives; he’d killed me in several past lives. It was an all-consuming head-f***."

She said no to marriage but agreed to go on holiday with him to New York. There, she discovered, he had arranged a wedding. After three days of resistance, she caved in. "I couldn’t face stripping any more and it was too bloody good to turn down. But I was crying in the loo beforehand. I thought about just running out. I didn’t tell my son because I knew he would tell me to get the hell out of there."

She and Thomson had an almighty row after the wedding. The hotel room was trashed. "I said I wasn’t going to consummate the marriage. I threw his suitcase out into the hall and left with my torn clothes and scruffy little bag and passport." She slept outside a New York station. Back in London there was a brief reunion but Vine resented Thomson’s control and the relationship ended. In the weeks since Saatchi bought the painting, Thomson has claimed he "discovered" Vine and that they only recently split up. In the last two years, she says, she’s seen him once, in an art shop.

Charles Saatchi catapulted Damien Hirst to stardom. Vine laughs at the suggestion he will do the same for her. But it’s an excited laugh. He bought several paintings and her phone hasn’t stopped ringing. "It’s a dream come true. I can paint and pay the bills. I don’t need any more than that."

Except, perhaps, approval. She is upset that some people, including her own aunt and cousins, don’t like her image of Diana. Those who think it disrespectful kind of miss the point. The picture is about two women. One who lived in Kensington Palace. And the other who lives down the Whitecross Street. "I look at the picture," says Vine, "and I also see myself."

New Blood at the Saatchi Gallery, Belvedere Road, London, from March 23