Christiane Felscherinow was still a child when she became the most famous heroin addict in the world. Her descent, aged 13, into heroin addiction and prostitution on the streets of West Berlin was turned into a book—We Children of Bahnhof Zoo—and then a grim biopic, Christiane F, in 1981.
Thanks to a cameo from David Bowie and all the footage of disturbingly young people injecting heroin, the film quickly became a cult hit. And it wasn't long before the real Christiane F was catapulted from a life of shooting up and turning tricks in West Berlin's public toilets to becoming the so-called "junkie princess," injecting heroin while hanging out with artists and celebrities in Los Angeles.
Three decades later, aged 51 and living back in Berlin, Christiane recently published her memoir, Christiane F - My Second Life. Her health is failing as a result of the hepatitis C she contracted in the 80s, but she spoke with me about some of the stuff that's happened to her since she was thrust into the international spotlight 30 years ago.
A trailer for the 1981 film Christiane F
VICE: Going back to 1981, what was it like seeing the film for the first time?
Christiane: The producers invited me to see the film before it was released. They told me David Bowie would be there, too. He came with his personal convoy to pick me up—I was so crazy about meeting him; I had to take a lot of cocaine to deal with it. I took a friend of mine for support, but she just collapsed the moment she saw Bowie. I started shaking when he opened the door to his car and asked me to ride with him to the movie.
But I was quickly disappointed, because he had a beard and he was so skinny and small. I loved the Diamond Dogs—he seemed to be this extraordinary figure on that. But next to me in the car he just looked little and weak, like my father. I thought David Bowie was going to be the star of my movie, but it was all about me.
Was it an accurate portrayal of your life?
On the whole, yes. But I actually don’t like the film that much; it doesn't describe how I grew up, how I was neglected by my parents. My father was a drinker and he abused my sister and me. He was choleric and my mom just did nothing, She was more into her affair with another man and her beauty. I was so lonely when I was a kid. I just wanted to belong; I was struggling with the world.
So how did the sudden celebrity status hit you after the book and film were released?
I mean, I was 16 when I did the book, and I just wanted to talk. It was therapy for me. We just thought the book would be special interest, just one book among thousands. But we were so wrong. Suddenly I was famous, but I wasn't able to work out what this would mean to my life. To the public I was the famous drug addict, like an exhibit. They all wanted to talk to me, to see me and to ask, "Will she make it or not? Is she dead yet? Is she still an addict?" They didn't want me as a neighbor or their son’s girlfriend. Christiane F is cool from afar, but not too close, please! They're not interested in anything about me, besides being a junkie. That's the reason why I regret doing the book and film.
A poster for Christiane F
You started off anonymous. Why did you decide to break cover?
Because I was damn young and simply didn't know what it would mean to my life. And nobody took care of my interests. That's why. Bernd Eichinger [the film's producer] asked me to do promotion for the movie in the US because Natja Brunkhorst, who played me, was too young and her father wouldn't allow her to go to America. I was 19 years old and thought I could deal with it, but I was wrong.
What happened when you came to the US?
I met a lot of inspiring people. For example, Rodney Bingenheimer, the famous DJ who promoted punk bands like Blondie and The Ramones. I loved Pasadena, and I had a chance to live there, but then I was arrested with a few grams of heroin and opium, and I wasn't allowed to come to the US any more.
That sucks. When you went back to Germany you ended up going out with Alexander Hacke—the guitarist in the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten—and living with Nick Cave, right?
Oh, he was a friend of a friend and he used my place as a hideout because he had a really bad problem with heroin back in the 80s. He didn't know where else to go, because the media gave him no privacy. He stayed at mine for a couple of months. I'm happy he got rid of his problems and has a family now.
Platzspitz – or "Needle Park", as it was dubbed – in 1992 (Photo via skatepunk.com)
In the late 80s, while you were living with some publishers in Zurich, you became a regular at the Platzspitz, a park where drug dealing and taking was completely legal. What was that like?
In Zurich, I lived between literature stars and the heroin scene. Platzspitz was the biggest open-air drug scene in Europe at the time. It was like Disney World for junkies. Zurich is a small town and its drug scene was huge in those days. On some days there were almost 3,000 junkies hanging out there, using drugs, getting drunk. I stayed there for weeks sometimes. It was like a market; they had tables offering any kind of drugs. But people started dying and getting infected with HIV and hepatitis C. The area became a heap of garbage and there was an open war between rival drug gangs, so the Swiss government shut it down in the 1990s.
There were some pretty explicit scenes of drug use in Christiane F. But then there was the Bowie soundtrack. Do you think the film scared people away from heroin or glamorized it?
Not everyone was put off by it. We soon had the problem that many young people thought that what I'd experienced was glamorous and romantic. Even when the book became a required text in schools, I noticed that kids were more fascinated than upset about what they read. So Stern [publishing] published a factbook, which they handed to teachers and parents, with information about how to deal with teens who were fascinated by the story of Christiane F. I hope that My Second Life scares people away from taking drugs more than my first book. I'm quite sure it will. It describes how much pain I've had in my life, and [explains] that I will die a very early and painful death.
What do you think draws people into your story?
I've always asked myself that and I simply don’t know. I'm nothing special. I haven't done anything special. I'm not even a special junkie—thousand of people have a similar story to mine.
David Bowie appearing in Christiane F
Why do you think junkies are seen as such social pariahs?
It’s stupid. You are admired, even though you take drugs, just as long as you're something special—a musician or a painter. But if you're a drug user and you have none of these talents, you're deemed useless to society. You are seen as anti-society. Society doesn't accept addicted people, but they do accept, for example, parents who drink a bottle of wine every other day and leave their kids with foreign nannies, because they want to work and to party. I don’t get it.
Three of your close friends had died by the time the film came out. Did telling your story save your life?
If anything, it has probably shortened it. I wouldn't have had all the royalty money, so maybe I wouldn't have been able to buy heroin for so many years. Maybe I would have got clean earlier and would be in a better condition today.
But you're alive…
I always kept my aspiration. I am fascinated by chances, even though I didn't always make the best of them. And I have an order to my chaos. I've always wanted to look good, to feel good, to have a shower and a home. I'm still happy about these little touching things in life.
Why do you think you never gave up drugs?
I never wanted to give them up. I didn’t know anything else. I decided to live a different life to other people. I don’t need a pretence to stop.
How is your health now?
I'm on methadone. Sometimes I have a joint. I drink too much alcohol. My liver is about to kill me. I have cirrhosis because of hepatitis C. I will die soon, I know that. But I haven’t missed out on anything in my life. I am fine with it. So this isn't what I'd recommend: this isn't the best life to live, but it’s my life.