John Cleese's daughter: 'Dad's tough love saved me from a hell of drink and drugs'
In her first-ever interview, Camilla Cleese reveals her life of addiction - and her father tells of the agonising decision that brought her back from the brink
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Slumped on the cold jailhouse floor, her hair matted with blood and vomit, the pitifully scrawny young woman shook uncontrollably from the effects of the previous night’s alcohol and cocaine binge.
To a passing stranger, the ravaged figure wouldn’t have merited a second glance. Yet this wasn’t just another destitute junkie – she was the daughter of one of the world’s best-loved comedians.
For years, John Cleese, the comic genius behind Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda, has hidden the desperate secret that his adored ‘baby’ daughter Camilla was a chronic addict who had been on a wild downward spiral since the age of 11.
Camilla’s self-destructive behaviour took her to the brink of suicide, caused an unhappy period of estrangement between father and daughter and nearly tore apart the entire Cleese family.
Only now that she has been clean and sober for 20 months does she feel able to talk about her turbulent past.
In her first-ever interview, 24-year-old Camilla has chosen to lay bare the sordid details of her life in an attempt to warn other young people away from the evils of drugs. ‘I want everyone to know that drug addicts and alcoholics come in all shapes and sizes and that addiction cuts across all social boundaries,’ she says.
‘It nearly killed me and I know how lucky I am to be here today. If my story helps just one person, then the hell I put myself and my family through will not have been in vain.’
In person, Camilla is stunningly pretty. In a certain light, she bears a passing resemblance to her famous father, though the most immediate similarity is her startling height – she is 6ft 1 1⁄2in. Indeed, every head swivels towards her as she strides, blonde hair flowing, through the lobby of the seafront hotel in Santa Monica, California, where we’d arranged to meet.
She shares a fierce intelligence and an irreverent sense of humour with her father, whom she affectionately calls ‘the grand poobah’. Camilla is surprisingly unaffected, laughs frequently and rolls her eyes when she catches herself slipping into what she calls ‘therapy speak’ – she was sent to a psychiatrist for the first time at the age of four and has endured four stints in rehabilitation.
Despite her soft American accent, London-born Camilla speaks in a self-deprecating and very British way.
‘I started using drugs because I was insecure and wanted to be cool,’ she acknowledges. ‘But there is nothing cool about drugs – and I want everyone to know that.’
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(Camilla with her famous father John in Las Vegas earlier this year)
Camilla is Cleese’s daughter by his second wife, the American artist Barbara Trentham, whom he married in 1981 after divorcing his Fawlty Towers co-star Connie Booth.
Camilla’s earliest memory is, at the age of four, seeing her father being dangled out of a window on the set of A Fish Called Wanda. By the time the film came out in 1988, her parents’ marriage was disintegrating. Cleese stayed in the marital home in Holland Park, West London, and bought another house a few minutes away for Barbara and Camilla.
The defining moment of her childhood came at nine years of age, when Barbara moved to Chicago to be with a new boyfriend. ‘I was always daddy’s little girl,’ admits Camilla. ‘I idolised him and the feeling was mutual. I was a bit of a tomboy and Dad and I would spend hours together most days playing with Lego. Being separated from him was devastating. Suddenly, I was seeing him only during the summer holidays.
‘I also went from a lovely private all-girls school in London to a big co-ed school in Chicago. I’d been put forward a year at school, so I was a year younger than everyone else, but a foot taller.
'I was an insecure, shy girl with a posh English accent. The other kids teased me mercilessly and, once they found out I had a famous father, it got worse.’
Her mother eventually remarried and moved to the exclusive Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, which Camilla describes as ‘like something out of Desperate Housewives’.
She says: ‘Everything was perfect on the outside. The girls all wore cashmere sweaters and pearls. But scratch the surface and there was misery and dysfunction – and a lot of drugs and alcohol.’
John Cleese and family
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(John Cleese with his then wife Barbara Trentham and Camilla at the Queen's Tennis Club in 1986)
She had her first glass of wine for a dare at the age of 11 – ‘The girls I was with thought it was the coolest thing ever’ – and was instantly addicted to the feeling of ‘relief’ it gave her. ‘I loved the way it made me feel,’ she says. ‘It was warm and fuzzy and suddenly I had friends. It gave me confidence.
‘I started to run with the fast crowd. We drank, smoked and hung out with older boys. I lived in a really big, old house and when I had friends over, Mum had no idea we were drinking.
‘My new persona was the popular, wild-child, bad girl and my parents thought the answer was to send me to boarding school.’
Life as a party girl
But she admits: ‘Of course, that only escalated matters. I was 13 by this stage but looked much older. I’d lie about going to someone’s house at the weekend and head off to Chicago to party. The fast clique liked me because I was funny and did stupid things.
‘One day, an older boy handed me an open packet of cigarettes to give to a girl I knew. Inside there was a bag of white powder – cocaine. When I took it to her, she offered me a line. I was thrilled with the excitement of it.
‘From then on, life was one long party. There was cocaine, weed, ecstasy and a lot of drinking. I hid drugs in the ceiling of my dorm. I was taller than the teachers, so I knew they wouldn’t find them.’
Yet, on the surface, everything was going swimmingly. Camilla excelled academically and rose to be the fifth-best junior showjumper in America – a passion that started when her father took her riding in Hyde Park as a child.
But showjumping also provided an entree into an intoxicating new world, where she rubbed shoulders with the international jet-set and daughters of the super wealthy, including Georgina Bloomberg, whose father Michael is the billionaire mayor of New York.
‘There was a lot of cocaine,’ recalls Camilla. ‘You keep weird hours with horses so the drugs keep you awake and keep your weight down.
‘I was getting into private jets and partying with rock stars – people who came from a whole new level of money. I was competing against people whose families made the Cleeses look like we should be on welfare.’
Initially, her devotion to showjumping saved her from the worst excesses of drugs. But, gradually, they took over, bringing inevitable consequences. She pauses and looks troubled: ‘I don’t know how much I want to go into the sexual consequences of my drug use. People can figure it out. When you are a young girl hanging with older guys, you can easily be taken advantage of.
‘I had blurry boundaries. I’d never really been taught right from wrong. So when I started doing drugs and hanging with the wrong crowd, things just snowballed and bad things happened.’
Camilla’s adolescent decline was particularly difficult for her father, not only because she was his ‘baby’, but also because he has taken a lifelong interest in psychology. In the Eighties, he even wrote two books on the subject – Families And How To Survive Them and Life And How To Survive It – with the psychiatrist and family therapist Robin Skynner.
Indeed, Cleese himself said yesterday that his daughter’s move from London to America ‘went against every gut instinct I had’.
Talking from Australia, which he is visiting on business, he said: ‘When Barbara told me she wanted to take Camilla to Chicago, I should have fought it. But Robin Skynner and Alyce Faye [his third wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger, also a therapist], both of whom I trusted completely, told me she needed to be with her mother at that stage of her life.
‘There I was, sitting in London, very suspicious that this was doing her no good at all. But I had nothing solid to go on. I was advised that forcing a child of that age to choose between her mother and father can cause a lot of trouble down the line. Not fighting for Camilla is one of the greatest regrets of my life.’
The move to California
Camilla, meanwhile, says she hid her behaviour from her father for as long as she could. ‘Dad was constantly travelling – he’s always worked really hard,’ she says.
‘He had ex-wives and a current wife to support and he was supporting my showjumping career, which wasn’t cheap. The irony is that Dad needs very little, materially, to survive. As long as he’s got his books, he’s happy. But our lifestyle was costing a fortune to maintain.’
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(John Cleese with the cast of Fawlty Towers)
She says her father finally realised she had a problem when she was about 15. ‘Dad came to stay and saw how much I’d changed. I was jumpy and physically very thin.
I don’t think he had any idea how much partying I was doing, but he knew I was troubled.’
She is reluctant to discuss her mother’s involvement, saying simply: ‘Things were not great at home. Dad wanted to provide stability for me, so he invited me to live with him in California. Also, I was getting really competitive with the horses and I wanted to work with a trainer there.’
By that stage, Cleese was splitting his time between London and a beach home in Santa Barbara, a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. He was particularly stung by criticism – when he decided to move to the US full-time – that he had somehow turned his back on Britain.
In fact, Camilla reveals, the real reason he moved permanently to California was so she could live with him. Cleese bought the house next to his beach house and rented it to the family of Camilla’s best friend.
She says: ‘Dad’s plan didn’t work because, once he had moved here, he found out that for tax reasons he could spend only a certain number of days each year in California. So he was forced to travel in and out of the country and I ended up living, pretty much unsupervised, with my best friend and partner in crime in the beach house next door.
‘Santa Barbara is beautiful. It’s a beach town with a lot of money and a lot of kids with not a lot to do except have fun. I went straight from a party crowd in Chicago to a party crowd in Santa Barbara.’
Camilla’s equestrian career continued to flourish. ‘I was young and could party and still get up for the horses,’ she says. ‘Of course, the cocaine helped.’
Her father spent a fortune on a sprawling 16-acre ranch to house Camilla’s horses. But, at the age of 18, she abruptly quit after a bad series of equestrian results.
'I've always had a reckless streak'
However, her academic results – ‘I never told Dad, but I took my exams high on booze and coke’ – were good enough to get her accepted into the University of California in Santa Barbara.
‘My nickname for it was the University of Cocaine, Sex and Booze,’ she says. ‘I’d be given free booze and free drugs wherever I went, mostly because the guys like having a crazy blonde around and some people liked the idea that I was John Cleese’s daughter.
'I was never sober. The weekend started on a Tuesday and ended on a Monday. My whole identity was party girl and I felt like I finally belonged. I got a lot of attention – I thought that people liked me. But I was hanging out with an increasingly shady crew of people.
‘Every time I drank, I did cocaine. When I was on coke, I felt invincible and funny. Now I realise that people probably thought I was John Cleese’s daughter, the wasted loser.
‘Eventually, my face was bloated from the alcohol and I started having panic attacks from the cocaine.
‘I would wake up and not be able to breathe. My body shook from withdrawal symptoms. I’d feel suicidal pangs of depression, and use drink and drugs to get rid of those feelings.
‘Dad’s not stupid, but he trusted me and I’m a good liar,’ she admits with a shrug.
‘I was happy most of the time because I was drunk most of the time. I don’t think he had any idea I was drinking neat vodka all day long – without mixers because I didn’t want extra calories.
‘Dad always did his best. He put me in therapy at the age of four when he and mum divorced. He’s paid for dozens of shrinks over the years.’
John Cleese with former wife Alice Faye
But she now concedes: ‘Nothing worked because I didn’t want it to work. My problem was that I had crushingly low self-esteem. I was the tall kid who stood out. I wanted to be popular and the booze and drugs gave me bravado.
‘I’ve always had a reckless streak, but throw in a couple of lines of cocaine and 20 shots of spirits and I was jumping off balconies. I was the queen of something called car-surfing, which meant standing on the roof of a car as another drunk-drove it down the street.
‘I was stopped for drink-driving while coming back from a pimps and hookers party. I wound up in jail. Dad was out of town, so I called a friend who picked me up and we went straight to a bar and carried on drinking. I had this gaping hole inside.
‘Deep down, I think I was drinking because I never got over being that frightened little 11-year-old girl who missed her daddy.’
A strained relationship with her stepmother Alyce Faye exacerbated her problems: ‘Alyce Faye competed with me for Dad’s affections,’ she says. ‘I never felt comfortable with her.’
Cleese and Alyce Faye split up in January this year. Is Camilla glad that her father is divorcing again? ‘Well, she was never exactly supportive of me, let’s leave it at that, shall we? But, yes, Dad was unhappy and I was unhappy. Things have improved since they split.’
At 20, after a huge row with a boyfriend, Camilla called her mother who took her to Promises, a £30,000-a-month rehab clinic in Malibu. During the next couple of years, stints in rehab in Florida and Arizona followed. She also attended an outpatient rehab clinic.
She confesses: ‘I’d go in and out of rehab but I would always start using again. I didn’t want to get sober.’
The downward spiral
Camilla landed a second drink-driving conviction, a legal mess that was dealt with by her father’s lawyers. ‘They kept me out of jail by promising the judge I’d get help,’ she says.
She moved from Santa Barbara to Hollywood to work for a company producing her father’s website. Her cocaine use escalated again as she partied with a young Hollywood crowd.
She drops the names of two Hollywood starlets, adding: ‘I did coke with both of them. That’s the reason I’m talking now. Young girls see these stars and think that their drug problems make them glamorous.
‘Well, I’ve been there, partying with these people and, trust me, there is nothing glamorous about it.’
Camilla finally hit ‘rock bottom’ after a wedding two years ago. ‘My friends asked me to get cocaine, which I did,’ she says. ‘Someone left the hotel room blinds open and a passer-by saw all these people doing coke and called the police.
‘I was arrested, but I was wasted and wasn’t going down without a fight. I was a foot taller than the cops, I was screaming and making a scene.
‘It sounds insane, but I was in the back of the cop car and decided to try to knock myself out so that I would go to hospital instead of jail. I hit my head against the door so hard my skin split open. In the struggle to put me in the cell, my shirt was ripped off.
‘I woke up the next morning on the cold cell floor, covered in my own blood and vomit, and wearing only my underwear. I was coming down off coke, shaking and crying. Dad and Alyce Faye came in and rescued me. I was packed off to a psychiatric ward to detox and then to a rehab clinic.’
In the summer of 2006, Cleese was advised by close friends to cut off Camilla financially and emotionally. He froze her bank accounts and refused to take her calls.
She says: ‘We were estranged for about a year. It was tough on him and very hard on me. They scared Dad by saying he had to stay away from me or I would die. I was packed off to rehab in Florida but ran away after three weeks. Friends of mine pooled their money and paid for a plane ticket back to Santa Barbara.
‘I lived in a friend’s walk-in closet, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. I got a couple of bar-tending jobs. I felt for sure Dad would crack and get in touch. But he had been told that tough love was the only thing that would save my life.
‘One of the biggest kicks in the stomach was when dad wrote a letter to me and had it hand-delivered to where I was living. It said he was selling the ranch and my horses. I cried my heart out. The most painful thing in my life was Dad not talking to me.
‘That was what made me realise, eventually, that I needed to sober up. But I couldn’t live without alcohol. I had the shakes in the morning.
‘I’d lost everything, including the one man I loved more than anyone else – my father. And I was too scared to kill myself.’
Finally, an awakening
In April 2007, Camilla called her father and told him she was ready to sober up – for good. He arranged for her to check in to the world renowned Sierra Tucson rehab clinic in Arizona, where Ringo Starr and Michael Douglas had been treated.
Using a 12-step programme, Camilla says she worked through her demons and had a spiritual awakening.
She says: ‘Finally, I dealt with my emotions. I don’t blame my dad for my problems, but I learned that I had a lot of suppressed rage towards him. Like many kids involved in divorce, I felt like he’d abandoned me.
‘At long last we talked about that stuff. I couldn’t understand why he’d let me go to Chicago because that was so painful at that age. And he was working so much that I felt like I’d missed out on time with him.
‘They did a family programme at Sierra Tucson. Dad and Mum both came to support me. For the first time in a long time, Dad and I really talked to each other and reconnected.’
Cleese, his voice breaking, recalls: ‘What got me was that her therapist at Sierra Tucson told me he’d never met someone so keen to change. I knew then that my daughter wanted to live. Now she desperately wants to help others, otherwise I would never have talked publicly about this.
‘I can honestly tell you I have never been prouder of anyone in my life than I am of Camilla. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, she is my greatest joy and her being sober is the most wonderful gift anyone has ever given me.
‘What we went through was a nightmare. But we’re through it now and I cannot tell you how incredibly proud I am of the remarkable young woman my daughter has become.’
Camilla adds: ‘I feel like I’ve learned so much in the past year or so. I know I’m going in the right direction now. I’ve realised you can have a laugh and be sober. Life is fun again.
‘When I think about drinking, I have that image of lying on that jail floor firmly in my mind. I remember where it leads me.
‘Now I want to use my experiences to help others in the same situation. To me, it’s a miracle that I’m still alive.’
# Caroline Graham
# Daily Mail
# December 20, 2008