Though she didn’t often get the credit, Kay sometimes spotted the talent before Charles did. She remembers going to see Gearon’s “very sweet little paintings” and instead being wowed by the now famous photographs of naked children. “Charles said he didn’t want to see any photographs by an ex-model, but I told him they were extraordinary,” she says. Sure enough, Charles bought them and put them in his “I Am a Camera” show at the Saatchi Gallery in the spring of 2001. Gearon shot to fame after Scotland Yard officers raided the gallery and threatened to seize the photos under anti–child pornography legislation.
The couple eventually agreed on the Gearon photographs, but Emin’s work has remained a point of contention. In Charles’s London apartment is My Bed—Emin’s well-known installation of her unmade bed, complete with dirty underwear and cigarette butts. “I think it’s pretty inappropriate for kids,” says Kay, who shares custody of Phoebe with Charles. “Phoebe has been living with that condom-strewn bed since she was seven!”
Anthony d’Offay, the well-regarded British dealer who represented artists from Joseph Beuys to Rachel Whiteread at his former gallery, says Kay “had an incredibly important effect on Charles” in her role as his full-time sounding board. “If you look at what Charles has achieved in these years, you have to credit Kay as well,” he says. Gearon adds that the pair operated with a good cop, bad cop dynamic that worked surprisingly well. “Charles is not a very nice person, so what Kay would do was find a lot of new and interesting artists and make them feel loved, warm, special,” Gearon says. “Then Charles would take over and push them to produce their best work.” Although Saatchi was an early supporter of Hirst and other Young British Artists—who are now “middle-aged,” she notes—she believes London’s current art students’ inspiration is coming from an entirely different place. “I think those days of everyone wanting to be Julian Schnabel and doing huge canvases are over,” she says. “And the artists aren’t setting out to shock in the way they used to. There’s a trend for better craftsmanship too, beautiful drawing and sculpting.” Still, Saatchi acknowledges, “There’s always someone who’s going to make a big fat lump of lard.”