The Secret Life of Zadie Smith; with C4 about to Dramatise Her Extraordinary First Book White Teeth, and Her Second Novel out This Month, We Reveal What the Famously Guarded Young Author Would Rather You Didn't Know

By Shakespeare, Sebastian | The Evening Standard (London, England), September 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Secret Life of Zadie Smith; with C4 about to Dramatise Her Extraordinary First Book White Teeth, and Her Second Novel out This Month, We Reveal What the Famously Guarded Young Author Would Rather You Didn't Know


Shakespeare, Sebastian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: SEBASTIAN SHAKESPEARE

TWO years ago Zadie Smith turned up to the Booker Prize with a male escort. The newly published author of White Teeth was the toast of literary London. However the evening didn't go quite according to plan.

Not only did she fail to win the Booker but halfway through the dinner her companion received a frosty telephone call from his girlfriend. That same night she had stumbled on some intimate text messages sent to him from ...

Zadie Smith. "It's either me or Zadie," she told her boyfriend. "You'd better come home now." And so he did.

It's not easy being Zadie Smith.

This story is typical of the many extravagant tales associated with her.

Drop-dead gorgeous, prodigiously gifted and a world renowned writer at only 26, she inspires awe and envy in equal measure.

Her detractors portray her as a cold, heartless vamp who has taken literary London by storm.

Superior and distant are the kinder epithets. Critics also accuse her and her publishers of carefully nurturing her image to feed the PR myth: a working-class girl made good. Didn't you know, they point out, she changed her name from Sadie to Zadie aged 14.

You can almost hear the knives being sharpened to cut her down to size. One leading literary agent I spoke to this week said he'd heard her latest novel, The Autograph Man, published this month, was "terrible". Naturally he hadn't read the book.

Friends say this is all sour grapes. Zadie is simply divine: a quiet, reserved and beautiful creature who continues to be desperately insecure about her weight (whisper it quietly but she once used to be size 18). She has resisted the lure of prime time television and turned down numerous requests to appear on Question Time and Have I Got News For You.

Only last month she declined to be a cover girl for Time Out because she didn't want to be recognised on the streets of London.

Whichever camp you fall into, two questions remain. Will The Autograph Hunter live up to her phenomenally successful debut White Teeth, which is to be dramatised in a [pound]3.5million four-part adaptation on Channel 4 from 17 September? Backlash or no backlash, how will Zadie weather the critical storm? "She is much happier now than she was straight after White Teeth came out," says a friend. "She always used to go on about how fat she was."

ONLY two years ago Zadie was an unknown 24-year-old from Willesden who woke up one morning to discover she was famous. White Teeth, for which she was paid [pound]250,000, was shortlisted for the Booker and Orange Prizes, and sold a million copies in paperback, which is said to have made her a millionaire.

She was lionised by literary London, and old goats like Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes were eating out of her hands.

"At the Orange Prize, Norman Mailer came up to her and her mother and gave her a piece of advice," recalls author Matt Thorne. "He told her to read everything by every other writer who had published a novel when they were as young as her. Zadie's mother replied that she probably already had."

Who could blame her if some of the adulation went to her head?

She was not afraid to lambast Ffion Hague ("kiss my behind"), and even took up arms against that old warhorse Julie Burchill. When Burchill accused her of being an overeducated novelist, Zadie retorted: "Did you mean overeducated for a working-class black girl?"

Born in 1975 in north London to a white father and a Jamaican mother (like Clara in White Teeth, half her father's age), Zadie's mother Yvonne is a former fashion model turned child psychotherapist, and her father a photographer.

They divorced when Zadie was 11 leaving her mother to raise her daughter and her two younger sons alone.

Zadie was a gifted child who won a national writing competition aged eight and had a short story published in a magazine aged 12. …

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