The interview: Anita Pallenberg

The actress and model has lived a life of unparalleled excess: heroin addiction, alcoholism and affairs with Brian Jones and Keith Richards during her time on the road with the Stones. Now, as a recovering addict, and keen allotment holder, she reflects on the lost years and her journey back from the brink. By Lynn Barber

Context is all. If you saw Anita Pallenberg dressed in her glad-rags at, say, a Stones first-night party with her friend Marianne Faithfull, you might just recognise her as one of the great Sixties rock princesses, star of Performance, mother of two of Keith Richards's children. But these days, you'd be more likely to see her cycling to her allotment in Chiswick or attending a botanical drawing class at the Chelsea Physic Garden, in which case you wouldn't recognise her at all. She walks with a slight limp from repeated hip replacements and looks, if anything, older than her 62 years. Yet there is something in her face, despite its wrinkles, that still conveys what Faithfull called her 'evil glamour'.

She lives in an enviable mansion flat overlooking the river at Chelsea. The decor is late Sixties hippie chic - battered leather sofas, velvet cushions, poufs, kelims, leopardskin rugs, Moroccan lamps and a Jacobean four-poster bed that she uses as a daybed. In this setting, Anita should be wearing something wafty by Ossie Clark, but is actually wearing rather ordinary beige trousers and a black sweater. She offers me tea and cigarettes - she smokes even more than me.

There is a PR in the room, too, because I am officially here to talk about Anita's role in a film called Mister Lonely directed by Harmony Korine. It is about a troupe of impersonators - Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Abraham Lincoln and so on, with Anita Pallenberg as the Queen - putting on a show in a Scottish castle. There are also some flying nuns who periodically jump out of planes, with Werner Herzog as their priest, but they seem to have strayed in from a quite different film.

One can faintly discern the outline of what would have been a story, if anyone had ever actually bothered to write a script; as it is, the actors just mill about. Anita appears occasionally in the background and has a speech at the end, but I would estimate her total screen time as maybe 10 minutes. She wears an unflattering grey wig, but otherwise makes no attempt to impersonate the Queen. 'I didn't even try to do the accent,' she tells me unnecessarily in her smoky German growl.

She got the part by pestering Korine, whom she met through a mutual friend. 'I wanted to be one of the floating nuns, because I thought I could be a really good Mother Superior. So I expressed interest, but it all came from my side - it wasn't him asking me! And then eventually he said you should do the Queen, it's a better role, bigger, so I did that. I never thought I could do it, but actually I think my Queen is quite good. We made our own costumes and I put all those ermine tails on my fur coat.' She first saw the film at the London Film Festival last autumn: 'I was upset because it was hard to see my big face on the screen with all those wrinkles. But the film surprised me in a good way. It's very original.'

She has made another film since, Go Go Tales with Abel Ferrara. Was that a bigger role? 'No, smaller. Even smaller!' she laughs. Would she like to do more films? 'Yes, if something special comes up. I'm not in it for the money. As long as they put me in a hotel with a spa and they give me daily food and cars, that's fine with me. I could have made a film career after Performance, but I didn't want it. They were proposing me and Jagger as a couple for all sorts of films, but I didn't want to do that.' And no, she says, she didn't have an affair with Mick, despite all the gossip at the time; she never fancied him a patch on Keith.

Does she actually need to work? 'No. Financially I'm fine. But it's good to work. I'm not capable of doing nothing. I've got my allotment in Chiswick, this is the third year, and I go out there twice a week at least with another girl and it's fun. I grow vegetables - I'm a vegetarian; I've got strawberries, artichokes, leeks, broad beans. And I do drawing and watercolour classes and now I'm doing a course in botanical drawing at the Physic Garden, which is really interesting. Also I have a little house in Italy, in the country south of Rome, so whenever I've got spare time, I go there. I keep myself busy.' What do the other ladies at the botanical drawing class make of her? 'I don't care! I can't start thinking about that kind of thing. And they're all better at drawing than me.'

In 1994, she completed a four-year fashion and textile degree at Central Saint Martins. Everyone said that her graduate show was great, 'a triumph of style over substance abuse', so why didn't she try to make a career in fashion? 'I don't like the fashion world. It's too nasty, too rip-off, too hard. And now it's all Gucci and Prada, it's very difficult to make your own business. Actually, I did want to work in textiles; I went to India for six months and worked in Jaipur. But then my mum got ill and I had to look after her for about five years.

'So then the momentum was over and that kind of stopped my career. But I would have stayed in Jaipur for ever - we were doing organic textiles and spending most of the time out in the desert.' Couldn't she go back? 'I couldn't go for those rides in the desert with those drivers. The driving - it's little things like that you have to take into consideration. My life has become about little things; it was all about big things at first and now it's all little things.'

She means, I suppose, the constraints of age. She has had two hip operations and fears that she may need a third. She also has hepatitis C, though she says 'that's OK. When you stop drinking, the liver regenerates'. She stopped drinking in 1987, but then started again in 2004 when she had her second hip operation.

'It's much harder when you have a hip op for the second time. You can't move for about six weeks, you've got to sleep in the same position, so I had Valium, painkillers and I started drinking again. Then I went back into treatment and meetings and for more than three years now I haven't had a drink. I do miss it. When I see a Campari or Sambuca... I like the quirky stuff, not just wine or spirits. But I must not drink any more.' She still goes to AA two or three times a week and is going to a meeting when I leave. 'It's the only thing that has ever kept me clean and I've tried everything else.'

She has had such an extraordinary life, it seems a pity that she won't write her autobiography. She signed a publishing contract at one point but gave up. 'The publishers want to hear only about the Stones and more dirt on Mick Jagger and I'm just not interested.' Maybe she had the wrong publisher? 'I had several publishers and they were all the same. They all wanted salacious. And everybody is writing autobiographies and that's one reason why I'm not going to do it. If young Posh Spice can write her autobiography, then I don't want to write one!'

She was born in 1944, in Italy, while her father was away in the war - she didn't see him until she was three. He owned a travel agency, but was really a 'frustrated composer' who played classical music all day. They lived in Rome, but he sent Anita to a German boarding school because he wanted her to speak German; she hated it at the time but is grateful now, because 'it's nice to speak several languages'. Keith Richards famously said that when he first met her: 'She knew everything and she could say it in five languages. She scared the pants off me.' She laughs when I remind her - 'I still do!'

Expelled from school at 16, she hung out in Rome with the Dolce Vita crowd, and then in New York with the Andy Warhol crowd, before moving to Paris and working as a model. Was she a top model? 'Never! No, no, no. I could make a living out of it and that's basically what I did, but I was not like the models of today. I didn't like photographers too much, I didn't like the fashion world. I still don't.'

Then in 1965 a friend took her to see a Stones concert in Munich and they wangled their way backstage. Anita offered the Stones some hash, but they said they couldn't smoke before a concert, though Brian Jones was 'kind enough' to invite her to his hotel room afterwards. They stayed together for two years but he was increasingly abusive, drunk and paranoid. On holiday in Morocco in 1967, Keith saw Brian beating Anita up and grabbed her, threw her in his car and took her back to England. So then she lived with Keith Richards.

Life with the Stones was fun at the beginning, she says, because they were always playing music: 'I've always loved the blues and Brian especially was a real blues man. It was more than just pop. I thought they were great, you know. In those days. Now I'm not so sure! Somebody like Keith, he's got a future because he can sit up like a blues man until he's 90, he can just strum his guitar and sing his songs and people will always listen; but all this pop stuff,' she shrugs, 'I'm not really interested.'

And being with the Stones soured once they became a huge money-making machine. She says she didn't even see them that much, 'because at that time no girls were allowed in the studio when they were recording. You weren't allowed even to ring. I did other things, I didn't sit at home'. One of the things she did was films (Keith Richards offered her £20,000 not to do Barbarella, but she did it anyway) and another was drugs - she started using heroin while she was filming Performance. When the Stones moved to France as tax exiles, there were endless drugs busts and then in 1977 Keith was arrested in Toronto with heroin on him. He could have gone to prison for life, but instead he and Anita went into rehab; it worked for him, but not for her.

By this time, they had two children: a son, Marlon, who now works as a graphic designer, and a daughter who was christened Dandelion but is now Angela and runs a riding school. They also had another baby, Tara, who died of pneumonia at 10 weeks. After the baby's death, Keith's mother said Anita was not a fit parent and scooped Angela up to live with her, while Marlon stayed with Keith and Anita. Who actually looked after him? 'We did. We had him always with us. He slept on put-together chairs and airplanes and hotels. He learned mathematics in the elevator, pressing the buttons. Obviously he feels that he missed out on a lot of childhood, but he's turned out very straight. We rebelled by being all crazy and he rebelled the other way. But I'm interested to see what the grandchildren [aged 11 and seven] will be like.'

She claims it was 'the lawyers' who forced her and Keith to split up - they said she was a bad influence on him. They installed her in a house in Westchester, New York, with orders to make sure that Marlon went to school. So he went to school and she went to pieces. These were the nightmare years, when she blew up to 13 stone from all the booze and once spent a month at the Grosvenor House hotel in London without ever leaving her room. In 1979, a 17-year-old boy shot himself in her bedroom with her gun: 'I didn't feel anything. That's one of the wonders of drugs and drink.'

But eventually, she says, isolation - loneliness - drove her to ask for help and in 1987 her sister got her into rehab. How many lost years were there altogether? 'I don't think they were lost years. I went about doing what I did, travelling anyway, even if sometimes they had to carry me. Self-medication they call it now. I went into this - what do they call it before you become a butterfly? - cocoon for a long time. And in a way it's kept me probably more childlike; that's what drugs do to people, they stop emotional growth, so when you come out of it you're kind of 17.'

I wouldn't say she seems 17. But she does somehow flip between being an old lady and an eager girl. And Keith Richards is a walking advertisement for substance abuse. He's aged the best of all the Stones, I remark. 'Yes, he's aged the best - he was always the best.' She doesn't see him as often as she'd like to, because he lives abroad 'chasing the sun', and even their son Marlon can't always get hold of him. But he sometimes turns up for family celebrations and there are some touching photos of him and Anita at their daughter's wedding in 1998.

What will Anita do next? She says she likes living alone and has no desire to find a partner. She plans to spend more time in Italy, especially in the winter, but she will keep up her allotment here: 'I love gardening. And it's perfectly acceptable as well!' What will she do, where will she live, when she's old and frail? 'I don't even think about that. If you start to think like that, you become like that. As long as I can walk, I walk, you know.' So saying, she remembers that it's time for her AA meeting and walks me briskly to the door. She shows me the loo en route, laughing: 'I'm a toilet expert! When I went to Russia, I took pictures of every toilet I went into. I know where all the good toilets are in Rome - I know all the toilets! Because I spent so much time in toilets when I was using [drugs]. So when I go anywhere, I always go to the toilet right away and check it out. Even now!'

Perhaps not something she should mention at her botanical drawing class.

· Mister Lonely is released on 14 March

The Stones and me: Anita's life and times

Born 25 January 1944 in Rome to a German secretary mother and Italian artist father.

1960 After modelling in Italy, moved to Germany and New York where she spent time at Warhol's Factory.

1965 Met and dated the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, but left him soon after for Keith Richards, with whom she had two children, Marlon and Angela. Denies rumours of an affair with Mick Jagger.

1977 Worked with the Rolling Stones recording backing vocals on 'Sympathy for the Devil' and reworking tracks in the studio. 'Angie' and 'You Got the Silver', were written about her. Arrested in a heroin bust in Toronto and charged with possession of marijuana.

1980 Cleared of manslaughter after a teenage boy shot himself in the head in her New York apartment.

1980 Split from Keith Richards.

1986 Trained as a fashion designer at London's Central Saint Martins college. Counts Kate Moss as one of her best friends.

Select film CV The Black Queen in Barbarella (1968), Dillinger Is Dead (1969), Performance with Mick Jagger, which she co-wrote (1970), Mister Lonely (2008)

She says 'Sometimes, I'd have to ask whether I'd done my lines as I was so stoned, I couldn't remember.'

They say 'Anita is a Rolling Stone. She, Mick, Keith and Brian were the Rolling Stones. Her influence has been profound. She keeps things crazy.' - Jo Bergman, PA to the Rolling Stones 1967-73

Katie Toms


Lynn Barber

The GuardianTramp

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