Britain’s leading contemporary artist talks monogamy and why these days, she’s keeping her bed neatly made.
It was her unmade bed with the sordid, stained sheets, used condoms and overflowing ashtray that rocketed Tracey Emin to fame. This, the sad aftermath of her early nervous breakdown.
Twelve years later Tracey tells Coutts Woman that she can’t leave home without obsessively making her bed so that the sheets look pristine, pillows face the right direction and everything is spotless.
“What if I got run over? I’d hate it if people said, 'oh God, her bed really is a mess', when actually I make it every day, she says. “I have four pillows and they’re all puffed up nicely. I smooth the sheets, shake out the duvet, fold it in half and put the blankets long-ways, hanging over, but my cat, Docket, when I’m doing the duvet bit, always jumps up and ruins it for me. I try to get it looking like a hotel bed with everything neat and perfect.
What if I got run over? I’d hate it if people said, oh God, her bed really is a mess, when actually I make it every day.”
“A lot has happened to me since the Unmade Bed. Now my sheets have to be really good Egyptian cotton and I’m much more meticulous, I’m neat.” Clearly her bed is the enduring mirror of Tracey’s state of mind.
At 47, at the peak of her career, everything has slotted into place for Britain’s leading contemporary artist. She’s come a long way from her difficult, deprived youth in Margate, where she dropped out of school at 13 and had an abortion at 18.
Ever in demand, she is preparing to exhibit some of her prints in the Friends Room of the Royal Academy this summer, works she describes as sweet because, “There’ll be lots of pictures of birds and animals, and the prints are small, petite and delicate.”
She’s spent the past three years ploughing around £8 million into the restoration of an entire block of Huguenot buildings in Shoreditch to house her empire, painting, sculpture, and sewing studio, archives, library, and all work in progress. In the basement is her cherished 16 metre Victorian tiled swimming pool so that she can do lengths of backstroke every morning.
Now that she’s accepted she won’t ever have children after a recent operation, she says the building will become a museum and be left to the State when she dies.
Her twin brother, Paul, lives in Deal and “spends all his time fishing off the pier”, so she’s made provision to look after him and her parents.
“I’ve been so poor throughout my life and had such difficult times, times of extreme hardship, being brought up by a single mum, that I never take what I have for granted,” said Tracey.
“Even though I’m quite generous and give extravagant presents, I usually only buy myself things I need. I’ve given quite a few of my friends one of my neons, Kate Moss, Elton, and that’s a pretty extravagant present.” She tells me they vary in price from £35,000 to £180,000.
Tracey adds: “I’d much rather take ten friends out to a really good restaurant than buy myself a jacket or expensive bag. I didn’t even have to pay for my lovely new Carlyle bag. You can only get one if you stay at the Carlyle in New York, and they really like you.”
Unlike other forty something famous women, Tracey has no interest in trying to hold back the years with Botox or surgery. Quite the opposite. She likes her face, and has just lost a stone at the Viva Mayer clinic in Austria, where she goes three times a year.
“I’ve got a good face,” she says openly and totally without arrogance. “I know I look ten years younger than I am and that’s why I want to keep fit. I'm forty-seven and want to feel beautiful when I’m fifty. I don’t want to look in the mirror and not like the person I see, so I’ve decided to do something about it.
“I swim a mile of backstroke four times a week, and only eat at lunchtime. Last night I was hungry when I got home so I just had some rice crackers.
“I’m pretty disciplined, never eat chocolate or drink coffee. I can eat what I want, but I love oysters and caviar, and my favourite thing in the whole world is to go to Scott’s with a few friends for a really long, slow lunch on Saturdays.”
“A taxi driver said to me – My wife really hates you but I’m going to tell her I met you and you were actually quite a nice girl.”
Sex is an ongoing feature of Tracey’s art, but always raw, crude and hard hitting rather than seductive and erotic. In contrast, as she approaches 50, she says her own sex life is strictly monogamous, in spite of the long separations from her partner of four years, Scottish photographer Scott, who lives in Scotland with his six-year-old son.
“I sleep alone with my cat, Docket, and of course Scott when he comes down. I’m now totally monogamous,” she says. Somewhat amazing for the artist who embroidered a tent with the names of everyone she had ever slept with (including her aborted foetuses).
She adds, “I’m so fussy about men I went nearly four years without having sex before I met Scott. Actually, the longer it went on, the easier it became.”
She may be direct and ballsy but there is a childlike, even sweet quality that clings to this prolific, inspired artist, and for me it made her very likeable.
She recognises the quality and says, “actually, the sweetness is what people don’t expect. A taxi driver said to me – My wife really hates you but I’m going to tell her I met you and you were actually quite a nice girl.
“And you know, I get that kind of reaction quite often.”