From the outside Barry Humphries home in north west London is unassuming. Inside, every inch of wall is lined with gorgeous pre-Raphaelite paintings, book cases heave with first editions. There are thousands of books. I wait for him in a pale blue sitting room with tones of hyacinth.
His wife Lizzie is there. She is tall and elegant and very funny. Before long she and I are showing each other our impersonations of Olivia Colman as we discuss her performance in The Favourite. Humphries joins us with, “It gives lesbian porn a bad name.”
He’s wearing a purple linen jacket, a green pullover and purple corduroy trousers but the corduroy is horizontal, in perfect keeping with the idea that Humphries likes to blend in, seem normal but is actually completely the other way. He defends Colman saying she was very good in the Night Manager. Lizzie and I chorus ‘but she’s the same in everything’. Humphries smiles. “So am I.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Humphries is the creator of many diverse personas – Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and the ghost Sandy Stone. Often they could say things that Humphries himself could not. Humphries is a rare breed – a man who is altogether a man who is available and unavailable at once. He’s intimate, yet detached, kind and razor sharp, cutting.
We’re here to talk about his return to the London stage for Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage. Did he know Brydon already?
“Yes I wrote to him and I said I admired his work so we met for dinner.”
So, it’s like a bromance? Will he rehearse this probing? No. It’s totally spontaneous,” he grimaces.
You wonder if it’s hard for Barry Humphries to be Barry Humphries. Last year he put on an intriguing show at the Barbican with the Australian chanteuse Meow Meow. It was a fascinating journey through songs from the Weimar Republic, composers who were banned by Hitler that Humphries had rediscovered as a child. He was whip smart and funny as himself.
“I’m getting confidence now to do things as myself. I’ve always preferred to be heavily disguised but a disguise I’ve never used is the disguise of myself.”
He’s just back from Australia and is still suffering from jetlag. Where do I live in LA he asks apropos of seemingly nothing, but the eyebrow is raised.
I am giving you a scoop,” he whispers. “Edna’s coming back. She’s in very good shape. She’s been measured for new frocks and 3 songs have been written. She’s back there at the end of the year after opening in Australia.”
Edna did a retirement world tour a couple of years back where she put away her sequinned winged glasses for good.
“My first song for that show is written and it’s all about why Edna didn’t retire. It’s a wonderful song explaining to the audience why it was impossible to retire. It says there were too many people trying to copy me, including Barry Humphries and it was time they reacquainted themselves with the real thing. Too many clones.”
Edna got into trouble before she retired or maybe it was Barry Humphries because people were saying she was very anti-trans. Is it the same political situation in Australia?
“Oh, nothing has been more grotesquely interpreted. Edna carefully said she thought that men who had themselves castrated did not become women and that got taken the wrong way.”
Edna was still causing trouble even in her retirement.
“She was about as gone as Cher or Dame Nelly Melba of whom your younger readers will know nothing (Australian singer who did many retirement concerts).
It seems Humphries works tirelessly. He’s revising the comic strip Barry McKenzie, writing the new Edna show and the meantime he has the Palladium.
I remember going to an Edna show in Drury Lane and I caught a gladioli. “You catch gladioli like you catch Ebola. Right place right time you get it..” I laugh, he smiles.
“I like anyone who can make me and an audience laugh.”
He hopes his Palladium show will be a conversation about how comedy has changed, about what’s funny and what isn’t.
Does he think that the fashion has changed in his and Edna’s lifetime? “Not in a drastic way. More and more people want to be comedians. In my day not many people wanted to be a comedian as an ambition. It wasn’t profitable. But with television and all the other outlets and also fame attached to being a comedian, comedians are the new rock stars. Billy Connolly was the first rock star comedian.”
What will be some of his greatest comedy moments?
“I’m still deciding but there will be some scenes from the Marx Brothers, Steve Martin and Woody Allen. And I’d like to include some of my own early films. Lizzie says if she hears me laughing in another room, she knows I’m laughing at one of my own jokes. She can tell.”
He remembers going to his first comedy show.
“It was an amazing discovery when I went to The Tivoli with my parents. The Tivoli was a disreputable theatre in Melbourne which had variety shows but on this occasion my parents went because I was a fan of someone called Arthur Askey, a British comedian. To hear a man onstage making the whole audience laugh was a miracle to me. I thought I wonder how they do that and the seed was planted, little knowing that I might one day…”
In the past, Humphries has described Edna as being opinionated, acerbic and bolshy and did he even like her? “I like the effect she has on the audience. She makes them laugh.” Thus, Edna gave Humphries the gift he’d wanted as a child. And it must have been hard for him to give her up to be onstage as himself as he is much shyer.
The prep for Edna – the dresses, the wigs, the make-up, the dancing, the eight shows a week must have been very exhausting. And everyone’s always asking where does Humphries end and Edna begin. Suddenly there was no circle. Edna was ended. But it seems he couldn’t live without her and her voice. She’s coming back later this year. There’s already a tour of Australia and US dates planned.
He is nostalgic about the comedians and the Australia in his youth.
“When they’d done every stage in England several times, when the audience could repeat the words of their comic routines they went to Melbourne to the Tivoli. They made jokes I didn’t understand and I noticed my parents exchanging guilty looks, must have been naughty jokes. Risque. Little did I know I would become a risqué comedian. A blue comic as they were called.
When I first got a gig at a return serviceman’s club in Sydney in the 1950s, they said to me ‘the audience likes blue material and at the age of 22 I was so naïve I wore my Sunday best blue three-piece suit. I thought the material was fabric.”
Humphries has had a 64 year career onstage. By now he knows the difference. It turns out he has quite a thing for Brydon.
“Every time I turn on the television Rob is there on the deck of a ship. He seems to live a wonderful life on board those ships (he does a commercial for P&O cruises). I am consumed with envy of Rob. Benevolent envy.”
As Humphries he’s extremely benevolent. As Edna less so. He cuts an impressive figure today – so colourful and energetic and still has the legs for Edna. Does he feel 85?
“No, I feel 52.” He likes to paint. He enjoys a good restaurant – especially one owned by a celebrity chef – and he has friendships with many luminaries including Prince Charles and Camilla. He’s done countless world tours and has written two memoirs – My Life As Me and More Please, both achingly well written. He has courted danger and controversy throughout.
I’ve always wondered though is it a political statement. Why is it that Edna never wears a bra?
“She’s never been embarrassed to say that she was blessed in many ways but not that way. She waited for something to appear but it never took place. She found the twinset helpful and that if she wore elaborate spectacles no-one’s eyes dropped south of the glasses. She’s never tried to be a sex object. She’s very relieved she’s not known as that. They’re a miserable lot, the sex objects”
He is the master of being attached and detached all at the same time. It’s been so long since he had a drink, he doesn’t really treat it as an issue anymore.
“It’s a nice thing but a life’s a life. For some people like me it’s off the menu. It just doesn’t work. I have it in the house for other people. I could give you an absinthe if you want one. I brought upon myself some horrible events.”
Did he find that Edna had taken away the voice of Barry Humphries so that’s why he found it so hard to return to the stage as himself? And maybe himself was never himself.
“It’s more like I find the voice for it. Whatever the thought it I think who would be best saying this? Me, him, her, it so I choose like a casting agent. When I saw The Favourite, I thought Edna would be very good in the Colman role.”
Edna a lesbian? “No. As she once said, she doesn’t even like the word. It leaves a nasty taste in her mouth.”
I remember her saying that. “It was one of her famous utterances.”
Does he ever think her humour was too cruel? “Nobody ever asked for their money back. she’s fundamentally caring.”
His parents were far from encouraging. I remember my mother saying ‘look at that comedian. It’s pathetic at his age but the comedian she was referring to was only about fifty. These days 85 is the new 50.”
Humphries was not there when his mother died. He was told she was in hospital but it was nothing serious. But contrary to the end she would say, ‘look at these lovely flowers Barry sent me’ but he had sent no flowers.
“I come from a family who have a great deal of prudiness about illness. If someone was very ill we’d say he hasn’t been very well lately, which means dying.”
Also, perhaps the family didn’t tell his mother she was gravely ill.
“That’s right. I had a vision of someone coming back to Australia after a long absence and going to the family home and finding it was occupied by Ukranians and then you say to your sister what’s happened to mum and dad? ‘oh, they died but we didn’t want to worry you.’
Does he forgive his parents?
“Yes, I sympathise with them. I agree with them wholeheartedly about everything that they said to me that offended me at the time. My parents were very nice. They had a hard time with me. Whenever I did a performance or asserted myself in any way at a family gathering my mother would say, ‘don’t look at Barry, he’s drawing attention to himself.’ I thought that would be a good name for a show. Barry Humphries draws attention to himself one more time. Maybe I’ll call my new show that. My mother had a series of phrases. They weren’t original but they were, on her lips, rather devastating. She timed it perfectly. She was a frustrated artist I think and they are dangerous people, frustrated artists. You know Hitler was a frustrated artist. She was very hard to please so I grew up with the assumption that women were impossible to please and some of them obliged me by conforming to this, by being impossible.”
Humphries has had four wives Brenda Wright, a dancer (1955-1957) when he was 21 and she was 19. It ended quickly. Of the marriage she has said, ‘there’s nothing about Barry Humphries that I want to remember. My marriage to him was a long time ago and thankfully every year takes me a little further away from it.’
Rosalind Tong (1957-1970) a dancer, artist Diane Millstead (1979-1989), mother of his two sons Oscar and Rupert and Lizzie Spender (actress and equestrian, daughter of the poet Stephen (1990 till now) He has two daughters, Tessa and Emily from his 3rd wife.
“Women are impossible but not Lizzie. She’s the exception. It took four marriages to find her.”
Perhaps he should have kept them as girlfriends and not actually married them.
“I was doing very well financially and I thought I’ve got to get rid of this money somehow.
Is that close to what happened?
“Yes, the Ukranians improved the family home greatly. Sometimes I think it would be funny to advertise the new show and then say to the audience coming in very sorry ladies and gentleman but Dame Edna has passed away. We didn’t want to worry you.”
Humphries is presented with a contraption and he grimaces. He says to his assistant who has just delivered it, “You had to do that in front of a journalist, didn’t you… So far the grim reaper has made very few inroads but my hearing has suffered.”
His hearing doesn’t seem to be any different with the contraption but I can hear a high-pitched squeaking. The hearing aid has done the opposite to aid and it’s reminding Humphries of all the restaurants he doesn’t like to go in because they’re too loud – “the Caprice is deafening.”
He once wanted to open a restaurant called The Oubliette, which he would fill with Shostakovich like music so no one would be able to talk at all.
“In the middle ages they used to chuck somebody in a hole and then they forget about them so the Oubliette was a restaurant where you are forgotten and the waiter never comes. I remember one time in the 1960’s when a cookery writer at The Express invited me to lunch at The Savoy. I could choose whatever I wanted and she would interview me about food so I ordered Oysters Zarina which are oysters with caviar on them and you dip them in cream. Must have cost a fortune. The chef came to the table and said, ‘you’re the first person to order Oyster Zarina since Ambassador Ribbentrop’.
He seems a little sheepish about being 85. There must be a sense of time running out.
“Is there a follow up to the CBE and if so, how long does it take?” Humphries is already a dame as Edna. Perhaps people might think a Sir would be superfluous.
“People have said it’s not strictly kosher, Edna’s damehood.”
What age does he feel? “I feel about 52.”
We discuss a man in Holland who tried to change the date on his birth certificate because he identified as 45 instead of 65. He wasn’t allowed. One can change one’s pronoun but not one’s age.”
After the trans-phobia, Humphries got into trouble because he was pro Brexit, anti-Brussels and now he is redefined as anti-Brexit.
“I think I have actually but I don’t have any interesting political views. What was lovely about being in Australia was they’ve never heard of Brexit. I was in Sydney writing and Lizzie was visiting her horses. We have a flat with a view of the harbour. I’m reviving Barry McKenzie the comic strip. I thought what would this character so popular in the sixties be doing now and I worked it out.” (it first appeared in Private Eye, now it’s destined for The Oldie.)
He’s come back to England because he wanted to see some Australian mates who are not in Australia any more.
“There are no Australians in Australia any more. Only Chinese.”
The Australians of his generation like Germain Greer and Clive James are very much part of the British heritage. “I wrote a clerihew about Clive James. Dear old Clive James is still alive. We know he’s not dead because he’s telling us about all the books he’s read. Germain is still alive. And I’m very glad. And Rolf Harris is still alive. I never liked his appearance.”
What does he fear? “Obscurity and ghosts. I’m very scared of ghosts. I believe in them and I’m very wary of them. I don’t like to sleep in haunted places and Australia’s very spooky. Ghosts are there. Explorers and senior citizens. I’ve promised to be one. There is a theatre in Adelaide called Her Majesties. They are building it and I promised to be a ghost there.
He once said of his children, ‘I think their abiding memories of their father are a man surrounded by suitcases. Now he says, ‘They’re all doing well. Two daughters in Melbourne, one a painter, the other an actor. My son Oscar is an art expert and dealer. My son Rupert co-wrote a video game called Red Dead Redemption and he’s hugely successful. All of these children of mine are mostly well behaved and don’t require any financial support. What more could you wish? Rupert has twins and I dote on them and Oscar has a daughter.”
“Edna heard that Barry Humphries was claiming to do an Edna act and a few terrible drag queens were doing Edna as Edna. She needed to set the record straight.”
I still think he just couldn’t let her go.
Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage at the Palladium April 28th
From the outside Barry Humphries home in north west London is unassuming. Inside, every inch of wall is lined with gorgeous pre-Raphaelite paintings, book cases heave with first editions. There are thousands of books. I wait for him in a pale blue sitting room with tones of hyacinth.
Barbra Streisand at 76 has come up with an album of songs that she wrote as a protest against President Trump and his regime. It’s her first album of original songs for over a decade. The songs could be love songs although the album Walls is a mixture of love and anger.
She’s wearing slinky black flares, black suede boots, a black fluffy jumper and a vintage lace collar. Around her neck is a beautiful miniature of her now departed dog Sammy, a Coton du Tolear. The white curly fluffy dog went with her to every interview, every concert and recording session.
Streisand mourned her passing “as if it was a child.” Sammy had an “oddball personality,” so it could have been her actually genetic child. She identified with her intensely. So much so that two of her new dogs Miss Scarlet and Miss Violet are clones of Sammy and a third, Fanny is a distant cousin.
We meet in a studio just across the road from her house in Malibu – the one with the rose gardens and her collection of dolls houses. The dogs didn’t join us. “Because there are three of them and they would take over. The two dogs are made from Sammy. They’re her DNA. They are clones. This is the technique – how they make clones which is used in cancer research. The pet fund wrote me a letter that said thank you for doing this. Cancer is very prevalent and growing in both cats and dogs because of the pet food industry, the pesticides etc… Nobody had to die to make a clone. They took a cell from the inside of Sammy’s cheek and another from the outside of her tummy right before she died. You don’t know if you’re going to get a dog. You can get none, you can get five and I got two.”
Presumably she went via the clone route because she loved Sammy so much she wanted to replicate her so are the puppies like her?
“Not in personality but they look just like her. They’re curly haired like her. The breeder told me she was a rarity because she was a runt. If these dogs are for shows they have straight hair. Sammy was at my last show in New York – it was such a rarity to get a curly haired one so in order to have a curly haired dog I had to clone Sammy.”
It’s easy to conjure the image of Streisand with her tight curly perm in A Star Is Born. Perhaps Sammy reminded her of herself in that. Samantha is now around her neck close to her heart forever. I tell her I have my cat Mr Love’s fur in my locket.
“Uh huh. I have a lock of her hair in my other locket.” It’s a bonding moment. We have both got dead pets round our neck. “It’s unconditional love,” she says “and you know love in sickness and health, curly or straight.
Momentarily she seems vulnerable. You want to reach out to her, hug her even. You feel you know her. You’ve known her songs all your life and her voice has touched you, slipped inside of you so easily. But despite our bonding she bristles as my arm touches her by accident. It goes back to her mother. She wasn’t a hugger and was always very critical, yet somehow despite this she found self-belief and drive. She’s been a star for a lifetime yet still she doesn’t like being photographed. She changes the subject back to the record.
“You’ve heard the album,” she says, eager to talk about it. Every time I meet her I think it’s going to be the last tour, the last show, the last album yet this work feels very fresh. It has a new and different energy to it. You can tell that she’s written a lot of the songs and the ones she hasn’t she sings in a new way. Her voice is fierce, not thin, not old. It cracks into your heart. Oddly even though it’s not about a man woman love struggle it’s passionate.
“That’s exactly right. That’s what it felt like creating it, that it had a different energy.” She has written or co-written 7 original songs which appear on the album including Walls – that keep you in as well as keep you out. It’s a plea to unite a divided country. It’s about physical walls and emotional walls.
The single Don’t Lie to Me has the lyrics “How do you win if we all lose?” She sings it like a diva. The truest sense of the word.
She includes the Burt Bacharach classic What the World Needs Now Is Love, originally written as a Vietnam protest song but equally valid if not more so today. The album ends with Happy Days. It’s a song she’s sung often at the end of her concerts and also for the Clintons at President Clinton’s inauguration and as a celebration of democracy. This time it’s sung with an irony so piquant you can feel her tears.
Lady Liberty is about “how they came from different lands, different religions, languages and culture, all seeing the American dream. The subject of immigration is complex and requires deep contemplation not knee jerk reactions. Now if you look at her face you’ll see tears falling from Lady Liberty’s eyes. Love Is Never Wrong is about love being the most powerful force in the universe. It transcends race, religion and sexual orientation – something I’ve always believed everyone has the right to love whoever they want to. I tell her the record is raw.
“Raw,” she nods. “I’ve never thought of that word for it.” Indeed, you don’t normally associate raw with Streisand. You think smooth or perhaps silky and soaring, definitely comfortable but not this. I tell her when I first heard the album, it was the first time I felt relieved that I wasn’t on Prozac because I was able to feel the full experience.
“Oh!” she says excited now. “Will you say that in the article because that’s very funny? I bet you won’t say that right. But you’re right. Prozac dulls your senses. When my mother was on it she forgot to be angry. She had dementia as well and she forgot that she was always very angry but that pill really helped.”
Maybe it was because of the dementia she forgot to be angry? “No, it was those pills.”
I told her I had a male friend who said he liked me much better on Prozac because I wasn’t angry. I kept on with it longer than I should have. “The guy or the Prozac?” Both.
She was clearly not on Prozac when writing this album because there’s a lot of anger in it. “Oh yes there is. I believe in truth and I believe if I’m truthful in what I’m singing about that comes across as being passionately upset with what is happening to my country.”
Her expression of dissatisfaction with the current president began with a series of very smart Tweets – an eloquent counterpart to the Trump potty mouth outbursts . Then she wrote articles for The Huffington Post (The Fake President and Our President Cruella de Vil) and then came the songs. They are cleverly written. They work on two levels. Love songs that can be interoperated as personal and protest love songs for the world.
“That’s right, that’s right,” she says excitedly. “I’m so glad you get this.” This is why you let me come back. Because I get it.
“Last time you brought me cake. This time I get nothing. But that’s good. I’m on a diet. It’s good you forgot.” I didn’t forget, I was told that she was trying to diet so I didn’t bring the cake “OK, but this President did make me anxious and hungry for pancakes. Buckwheat pancakes. I had to put butter on them and maple syrup to ease the pain. People don’t realise what food does for you. It makes you feel good. My son brought me pancakes at my last recording session from a great place. They’re made of oatmeal but obviously they have sugar in them and that’s why they taste so good. They’re very soothing to the brain.”
Pancakes are very American. It was as if she was eating the most delicious, the most American food to savour it, as if it too was in jeopardy.
“I live in a house that’s filled with Americana. American art, American furniture. I really love my country and it’s painful to see democracy being assaulted, institutions being assaulted and women being assaulted.”
We digress to the painful topic of women’s abortion rights and the possibility of women no longer being in control of their own bodies and having the long fought (in the early 70s) right to choose.
“Can you imagine…?” she says darkly and then, “There’s a war between people who want to live in the future and look forward to the future and people who want to live in the past. Imagine women who after forty-something years who have had the right to choose, now, perhaps won’t.”
President Trump was elected by a small majority but women certainly voted for him. Why would women vote for a man who does not let them control their own bodies? Why would women vote for misogyny?
“It’s a terribly complex thing. A lot of women vote the way their husbands vote. They don’t believe enough in their own thoughts so they trust their husbands. Maybe that woman who is so articulate, so experienced and so presidential (Hillary), so fit for the presidency, was too intimidating for some women. Perhaps she made women feel unsuccessful. Women are competitive and so forth. All of this was so devastating to me and I was heartbroken and very sad so I wanted to write about it, sing about it and deliver an album and it was perfect timing (as synagogues are being blown up and bombs delivered to any luminary who has had something bad to say about President Trump). I just did it.”
I’m not sure she realizes how brave it is to stand up and stand out and I wonder if she ever wanted to take it further – to be that woman who was articulate and presidential and could talk passionately and open people’s eyes. Surely there’s a situation vacant in the Democratic party that she may want to fill?
“No. I don’t want to go into politics. I don’t think I’m articulate enough and it’s too late for me. Maybe when I was younger but not now. I like my garden too much. I like staying home. I like privacy. I like writing my book…sort of.”
She’s still writing that autobiography? “Yeah, four years already. I’m trying to convince the publisher to do it in two volumes so I could stop the first volume with my Harvard speech.” She is very proud of this speech. “It was in a book called The 100 Greatest Speeches of the 20th Century. But they edited it without showing me and that was not nice. I like manners. People in England have manners. They are always very nice to me.”
Streisand comes across as a woman of power, a woman unafraid of being criticised because she’s in control. A woman that feels being seen as controlling isn’t a negative attribute. It’s been an interesting journey to get to that point.
In 1976, as producer and lead actress of A Star Is Born she had final cut of the movie. The ultimate control which is very rare and much sort after but she gave her power away. She cut out some of her own scenes because she didn’t want to be criticised for being a producer and having too much screen time. Why? She shakes her head.
“I love constructive criticism. It helps me learn something but I didn’t want to be … just criticised. “ Maybe this is a deep seated fear locked in by her super critical mother. There is anxiety in her eyes as she talks.
“A woman writer in the New York times criticised when I performed at the Clinton’s inauguration. She attacked my suit. It was a man’s suit and I wore great diamonds with it and a waistcoat. I like the combination of masculinity and femininity. I liked the feminisation of masculinity. I’m fascinated even in furniture, I like strong architectural lines covered in pink velvet. I like men who are masculine but have a feminine side. I like men who cry at movies and they like soft things. It just makes them complex and that’s interesting. So this woman criticised my suit with diamonds. This woman was talking about my sexuality because I was wearing a low cut vest and the legs of the trousers had a slit. I have a passion for design and that criticism was unfair.
It always seems to me unfair that she was never acknowledged as a beauty. Today she has a mesmerizing presence and her skin glows and not in an artificial way. She doesnt look fake. She has a lioness quality.
In the mid seventies people in Hollywood weren’t used to a woman being in control. She was producing ASIB for First Artists – a company originally set up for Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and herself. In exchange for no salary up front they could make their own film with full creative control and a piece of the back end which they only got if the film was a hit. Her budget was $6,000,000 and any penny spent over that had to come out of her own pocket.
“I was completely responsible for the money and the content.”
She updated the film from the Judy garland original (1954) to reflect the changing of the times.
“I wanted her to write her own songs. I wanted the character played by a liberated woman yet I gave away the title of producer and took a lessor one and I even cut out certain scenes of mine so I would have less screen time.”
Instead of being praised, she was vilified.
“I was put on a magazine cover bald and the title was ‘A Star Is Shorn’ They made me bald. Why? Because I was a woman in control and they wanted…” her voice trails. They wanted her to look horrible. “That’s right. So I got scared and I gave them power. But when I directed Yentl I had power artistically but I had a completion bond on my shoulder so I couldn’t go overbudget. I went only a tiny bit overbudget which was fine. I got an award for directing and I said it’s wonderful not to have to raise your voice because people are finally listening when you are the director. So… I’m going to direct another film and I won’t give power away in the way I did earlier.
“ When I’m directing I do give power away to make people feel they’re needed. I would make sure my understudy felt involved. ‘Why don’t you work with the cinematographer while I’m working on the script. Why don’t you measure distances for the lens and show me what marks I need to hit.’ In other words, empowering people. I want everybody to feel needed on the set.
“I enjoy working in England, perhaps because you have a Queen and you have a woman Prime Minister. I think they are less intimidated by a woman with power.”
Perhaps that just because she doesn’t live in England.
Is she acting as well as directing in the new movie?
“I can’t really talk about it. We’ve signed contracts but until I know more… I can tell you I’m not acting. I don’t like acting. I don’t like make believe. I like real life.”
That’s a shame. She’s so good at it. “I’m crap at it.” It always surprises me when she’s self-deprecating. Its part of what makes her an icon. The ability to take herself seriously and not seriously at all
The Way We Were still moves me – the ultimate impossible love story – she as the archetypal jew and Robert Redford as the archetypal WASP. It won her an Oscar nomination. She’s always played characters who had an uneasy vulnerability – you don’t expect that of her in real life. You do expect that she is a fighter, a campaigner for love, for truth, for dogs.
Its easy to feel powerless – that’s why she’s so compelled now to stand up to Trump – to grab back the power.
I just saw the new version of A Star Is Born. Whether it’s better than the previous version, divides the nation. Did she think Lady Gaga was channelling herself in some parts?
“I don’t know. Did she say anything about that? I haven’t seen it but I know they used the nose thing.”
The original movie, written by Joan Didion, made a reference to Streisand’s nose. At the time she was considered kooky looking, a prominent noise was not seen as a bonafide glamour-puss movie star nose. In the Gaga/Bradley Cooper version they overplay the nose with several references to Gaga’s nose and a lot of nose shots. At the time Streisand’s nose was considered not beautiful and she had to fight to keep it untouched in movies, on record covers and refused any nose jobs in real life. Gaga is not known for her nose but none the less the movie makes a big deal of it.
Streisand shrugs. “I haven’t seen the whole movie but I saw the beginning and it looked like mine. Bradley (Cooper) showed me that and the beginning started with the same concert and then singing in a little club.”
I note the new A Star Is Born has the same producer as her version – Jon Peters – her hairdresser who became her boyfriend and thereafter a big deal producer – with her help. Perhaps that’s why there are some of the same nuances. Because of the same producer.
“Well he was the one I gave the credit to.” Does she mean gave her power away to. “That’s right.” Because he was her boyfriend too?
“Because I wanted him to have respect on the set. He had good ideas. The first time I walked into his house he had crude burnt wood frames paired with lace curtains at the windows. He understood masculinity and femininity. He was complex. I liked that.”
I am sure she still likes Jon Peters although she does not like being reminded that she gave her power away to a man because she feared criticism for being overbearing.
It’s a complex thing, she likes strong men but not bowing down to them . She has the right balance with her husband of 20 years James Brolin
“My husband has the perfect forehead, the perfect jaw, the perfect teeth. Even when he makes me angry I still get a kick out of his symmetry”
She is also immensely loyal – she has had the same manager – Marty Erlichman for 52 years.
Someone else who works with her is waving their hands in a panic. “I have to get out. I have to go.” One more thing. “What?” she says suspiciously. A picture. Streisand has famously and repeatedly said no to impromptu pictures. She’s still afraid of a bad shot, of criticism? She says -she’s going to do it.
It takes bravery and a little bit of control. “I’ll do it but not with your phone. With mine so I can have power to delete.” She directs the way we’re sitting, tells the assistant with the phone, “you’re going down too low.” I move closer to her, so close I’m almost touching her but of course we’re not going to touch. I feel that’s making her uncomfortable.
Her hair sweeps long beyond her shoulders. It’s beigey blonde the colour of a lions mane. It even mingles with mine. I can smell her hair. It smells of roses, perhaps from her own garden. It’s a heady smell. She makes me promise that I won’t put the picture in the paper and before she goes I read her a message from my friend Nancy who grew up with a criticising mother, like Streisand’s, and wanted me to let her know, “She’s helped me throughout my life. She’s my secret mother. I love her. I love the way she sings with skill and abandon. I love what she’s doing today. It shows the spirit of women and it shows that I was right to love her. No one else is sticking their neck out politically and she’s on the right side of history.”
She’s taken the picture and she’s taken the compliment and she likes it very much that she’s on the right side of history.
My all-consuming memory of Luciano Pavarotti is a great volcano of a man emerging from his swimming pool wearing a straw hat and a giant smile. The latter crushing and melting into terror when he noticed I was wearing a purple dress. Purple is the colour of death, or at least according to his religion or superstition.
I felt guilty. He did die a few years later in 2007 but not hopefully from my purple dress. He had pancreatic cancer. At the end he was a shadow of his former 25 stone self. People close to him say he remained optimistic, refused to see anything bad. That was what he was like. A contradiction, seeing good in bad and death in purple dresses. He always wanted to spread the love, but at the same time he was very volatile. He was one of those men who loved women. That is always a little scary – a man who loves women usually needs more than one of them.
He was married to his first wife Adua for 35 years. He had become estranged from this relationship when he met the quietly charismatic Nicoletta Mantovani. When they met she was in her early 20’s and he was 57. She came looking for a part time job to help her through her Doctorate in biology at Bologna university but Pavarotti wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to swoop her off her feet round the world and always be with him.
We are in the private dining room of the Gritti Palace in Venice and if I peer over the table centrepiece – a bowl of perfect Italian vegetables, I can take in Mantovani. She’s one of these people who seems to be able to walk around with several layers of her skin peeled off. She doesn’t care how vulnerable she is. She’s been hated by a lot of people but this small sparrow of a woman was able to set that aside and look after her husband and their daughter Alice.
She exudes caring without being overbearing. She’s interested, curious in what other people have to say but not prying. When the third course of food comes she jokes about how she and her husband’s big fights came when she tried to put him on a diet.
Theirs was an intriguing partnership. While Pavarotti had always striven to bring opera to the people, it was their concept together to bring pop to opera and she produced several successful concerts in the early 2000s – Pavarotti and Friends where popstars like Bono and Zuccero and Lionel Ritchie came to Modena to sing with the big man. She was good at these big ideas but apparently had no actual secretarial skills.
The cliché would be pretty young girl baits and tantalises multi-millionaire operatic king. She might have worn heels, tiny skirts, push up bras. That’s not who she ever was. She’s now 47 with prettily layered tawny hair, black comfortable clothes and flat shoes. Trademark cats eye glasses and strangely more attractive than the young girl who doesn’t seem to fit into her body.
She says she didn’t want to be sucked into his world. She fought it but she felt it was a coup de foudre although she says this in Italian. Coup de foudre doesn’t really translate into English.
Now she’s in the business of looking after the legacy that Luciano Pavarotti left the world. He was consistently described as the world’s greatest tenor with sales of over 100 million records. His music should live on.
Hence, we are here in the very fancy Gritti Palace Hotel in Venice with its views of the Grand Canal and its very special ravioli and Acqui di Parma products in all of the suites.
We are here because she has partnered with Decca Luxe, a new venture that is as over the top as the maestro himself. The concept is – creating a product of rare luxury and a price of £84,000. It’s for people who already have their top of the range Bentleys and their yachts and houses dotted around the world for them to sail between.
They get a box, a very special box, only ten of them will be made in the world by David Linley, Lord Snowdon. Each box would have been 1,000 hours in the crafting. The box will feature limited edition prints of Pavarotti’s paintings which are brightly coloured as naïve as they are sophisticated. You also get the Windsor and Newton oil paints from his palette – a lifetime supply. You get every note he ever recorded including newly discovered tracks in the Decca archives and a player which will give you immersive sound. Immersive sound is a thing of the future. Apparently five years ahead of its time, and in this box. Remember when people thought that VR and AR were the next big thing? Well, now it’s this. A sound so immersive you feel that the man himself is sitting in the room with you. A sound system borrowed from cinemas, the kind of which best sound editing Oscars are given. You know the ones – you’re right there in the battle, in the love, in the pain, in all of it. And then they win a best sound editing Oscar.
And as a person who doesn’t see the point of VR and AR, I was ready to dismiss it but sitting there in the Gritti Palace where Luciano Pavarotti loved to hang out, you feel wrenched emotionally when they turn it off and put on a regular stereo.
In this package called A Life in Art you also get dinner with Nico Mantovani cooked by Pavarotti’s favourite chef and you go on a Pavarotti diet and some of your money goes to his foundation. A bargain I hear you thinking. You also get flown there by private jet which means unfortunately you have to go to Luton, voted consistently Britain’s worst airport, but you soon get over that even though the plane is tiny. They give you enough booze to make you forget about it.
Mantovani was not what I expected. Certainly not the femme fatale, not the husband stealer, although there’s certainly a strength to her. She stopped the publication of Pavarotti’s assistant Edwin Tinoco’s memoir. Not because it was salacious and gossipy, but because she didn’t think he would have wanted it. It didn’t fit in with his legacy.
When they first met, Pavarotti warned her she might be described as somebody “not nice”. All that stuff was easy when he wasn’t there to protect her. “It was harder.
“He warned me that everyone would think I was after his money. We talked about it a lot. He asked me if I was prepared to be seen as somebody not nice.”
How this operatic romantic tragedy unfolded is just far too complicated to describe as just not nice. Scrutiny was inevitable when they met because of the age gap of 34 years. Mantovani wasn’t even born when he married his first wife and Alice and his grandchild are around the same age. Yet, “Luciano always thought of me as the older one. I was more grown up.” He was middle aged, rich and famous. She was young, tiny, not rich and a student.
During their 15-year marriage, there were certainly a few knives out for her, especially at the end when people reported falsely that their marriage was over. No doubt marriage was stressed because she was dealing with her husbands’ terminal illness which he himself decided to treat with more courses of optimism than chemo. She never left his side and made sure that their then 4 ½ year old daughter was with him too so she would have the memories.
Obviously this prodigious and prodigiously rich man would have all the relatives fighting for the spoils.
Under Italian law 25% of his wealth goes to Mantovani, 50% is split between his 4 daughters, leaving another 25% in question. And questions were asked as he’d made 3 wills.
The next day we go to Modena to the house where they lived which is now a museum and restaurant and we experience first-hand the Pavarotti diet. Across the table you see her eyes are flecked with multicolours. She misses nothing. She’s not wearing make-up but the hair is good. She’s made an effort but not too much of one and you like that about her.
Endless cheese and endless sorts of salami and fried dumplings that are called called Gnocco Fritto. You eat with salty prune jam. Then there’s a large plate of buffalo mozzarella, potato, pesto and balsamic vinegar.
Modena has become one of the food capitals of the world with chef Massimo Patron with his 3 Michelin stars nearby. After this we get a Pavarotti’s personal favourite is thick al dente risotto drizzled in balsamic vinegar – he liked to drink this with red sparkling wine – Lambrusco.
Mantovani tells me, “he thought the combination of the risotto and the wine were very healthy. They made you happy so they were healing. He was obsessed with this particular wine, this particular balsamic and this particular salami and of course his own pasta so that wherever he went in the world his entourage would each have to hide the food contraband in their luggage.”
Mantovani adds that she’s not sure if she’s allowed in the US these days as she was always the one who got caught with the forbidden substances like cheese. Pavarotti’s relationship with food was integral to his being. He didn’t eat to blot out emotional pain. He ate for pleasure. He liked his size. It made women feel like they were surrendering to him.
Mantovani says, “even now I miss those hugs – like big panda hugs.”
After our risotto came a salad with strawberries and more balsamic, then an orange blossom ice cream with a walnut caramel balsamic sauce. The man who runs the restaurant sees me about to fall into a food coma and provides espresso.
Mantovani and I go upstairs, just above the bedroom that she and her husband shared. She now lives in Bologna with her parents and daughter and is strangely unperturbed by inviting the public into the home they once shared which is now a museum filled with his notes, his costumes, his paintings and his music.
“I feel it’s a place where people can relax because they can feel him. He was very happy here because he always loved life. He had a very positive presence. He was always able to take the very best out of you. I don’t know how he did it but he did it with everyone. You always felt much better to sit next to him. I tell her that last night when we had the immersion sound it made me cry and I don’t know why. It must have been really emotional for her?
“Yes. It was really strong. It was like having him here in front of me in the room, yet 11 years have passed since he left us. And when he left, part of me left with him…”
She composes herself. “We decided to do this and work with the foundation in order to bring his passions to life. He had a big passion for giving back. He did a lot of charity work, especially with refugees. Music, like sport can keep people united. We have a school in Bosnia that we founded with Bono and two schools in Guatemala. And right now. we’re helping young singers which he always did till the end of his life. He was always teaching them how to be with themselves in public, how to have not just a voice but the right attitude. He wanted his academy to be free because he never went to a conservatory. He always said, ‘a voice is like a white flower. It can grow everywhere, even in the desert but you have to look for it’. In Italy it’s very expensive to create such an academy” (there’s no tax relief for charity).
A percentage of the Decca Luxe boxes will go to the foundation. Mantovani’s English is fluent. Her emotions organised. Not at all like Pavarotti’s. They were very different. You can see also how when something troubles her it troubles her deeply.
“I think he enjoyed every minute of his life because when he was 12 he had an accident playing soccer and he got tetanus. It was during the war when people played with no shoes. He went into a coma for many days. He got penicillin and was saved but from that moment he said I’m going to be happy always. He found ways that bad things can help you become a better person.”
She slips effortlessly into nostalgia and romance. We go over that coup de foudre moment. “I’d not been working for him long and he asked me if I would leave with him for a couple of days to go to Switzerland. I said no and he said ‘come to the airport to say goodbye’, I said OK. The minute I saw him leave I took a plane. That was Culpo di fulmine.”
When love strikes someone like lightning. “That was him. When you let yourself be open to any experience you don’t put any limit on them. He had no borders. No borders in music or in life. As Bono said, ‘he didn’t just sing opera – he was opera’. He was never bothered if he didn’t have a nice review. He would just say, ‘people are free to think what they want.’ Like when he was criticised in the British Press for hugging Princess Diana because it wasn’t Royal protocol. The papers said ‘shame on you’ and he said ‘I was very happy that I got to hug her’.”
When Mantovani and Pavarotti met she was studying biology and completely unable to sing. “We were strangers, completely different kinds of people. Maybe we knew each other from a past life. Everyone was asking him to explain what it was he really liked about me and what happened. He would say ‘if you can explain love, it’s not love’. He would say to me was I ready? Was I prepared? But he was my guardian angel, protecting me from what everyone said. We were always together. It’s different now although I still feel him as a different kind of guardian angel. And now people have stopped talking bad about me, I mean after so many years.”
But what about the rumours that he was about to get back with his first wife on his deathbed and give her all his money?
She sighs, quietly dismissing it. “‘When you are a public figure, you have to accept everything bad and good’ he would say. You cannot play a game where everyone is on your side. You cannot be loved by everyone. I wonder if he left us now, after all this social networking how different it would be.”
Would he have had an Instagram account? “No. he liked to exhibit himself for sure but he was never vain, narcissistic. The engine of his life was that he was always open to new experiences. He was curious – always wanted to try something. He was the first in mixing pop music with opera (his crossover Pavarotti and Friends concert in the noughties).”
Opera was his pop music. “So that’s why he had the idea to bring it to the people even if he was attacked by the purists of opera lovers.”
The moment where he decided to paint came after he played Cavaradossi, a painter in a Tosca opera in the eighties and someone gave him a box of paints.
“He said suddenly he was acting at painting and then he was painting. He painted for one week and didn’t eat and that was a big thing for him.” We laugh. He didn’t like to go long without food so he must have really been obsessed.
She shows me a painting that he and Alice painted together when she was really tiny. Very sweet. It’s blues and yellows, sky and sunshine. She shows me a picture on her phone of the now 16-year old Alice who was four and a half when he died. She looks very rock n roll but has her father’s eyes.
“I don’t think she has a memory of him but she has a lot of stories that have been told to her. She has a deep sense of justice that Luciano had. he was always fighting with his whole self to protect people. Luciano was a very pure soul. Some people think he was childish but he never had any prejudice and always saw the good in people and I think it’s genetic.
“He would always ask a lot of questions. He was never afraid to ask anything like ‘why do you like that science stuff?’ The basis or our relationship was always talking. 24 of hours of the day talking and trying to understand each other’s deepest thoughts and we were always so different. It seemed to give him energy. He would always say ‘you are the eldest of us. You are the old one’ and even if I was 25 he would say ‘could you stop being so old.’”
The first turning point in their relationship came when Mantovani went to a doctor and was diagnosed with MS and the doctor said ‘in a few years you’ll be in a wheelchair.’
“That made Luciano crazy because it’s a terrible thing to say to a young girl and thank God they’ve made lots of progress with the treatment. When we had this response from the doctor I told Luciano I couldn’t stay with him anymore because I would be a big weight. He said ‘until now I loved you but from now on I adore you and the two of us together will win’. I cried and he said ‘no, don’t cry. We’ll make it’. He was really my engine.
First off, Mantovani was given drugs that had side effects so bad she decided to quit them. Recently, she saw a doctor called Zamboni where she had surgery to substitute a vein. He’s based in Ferrar.
“It’s very controversial and some neurologists don’t think it’s right. Worldwide it is recognised that there is a sickness created in the vein block but it’s not necessarily recognised as working for MS. It’s not for everyone – there are so many different kinds of MS but it seems to be working for me.
“In the beginning of my diagnosis Luciano would say ‘it’s not a bad thing. From now on you will change your priorities. Now you won’t take the flowers for granted’. He said this because the MS made me lose sight for two weeks.”
There are two basic types of MS. One intermittent and one progressive. She was told that she may not be able to get pregnant but of course she did. She actually had twins but Alice’s brother Ricardo wasn’t as strong.
“They were both born premature at 7 months. She was a tiny, tiny girl and unfortunately her twin brother had died before. I have beautiful memories of Luciano carrying her around. He was the one who fed her. He came at her with the bottle when she didn’t have enough power to suck and he’d cry ‘you eat! And he made it fun for her.”
Did he really eat like this every day – the cheese, the meats, the risotto, the ice cream, the wine, the dumplings?
“He had pasta every day for sure and he had a lot of butter on food and I was always trying to put him on a diet. We always had fights over that but it was fun and he could also ask me if I could avoid singing to Alice because my voice was so bad and he said I was destroying her ears. He tried to teach me for the longest time because he said at the beginning ‘everyone can sing’ and then he said ‘every rule has an exception and you are that one’. We spent some time where he would perform the soprano role and I would perform the tenor and he would imitate my very bad voice.”
“At the very beginning of our relationship he lost weight then gained it back. Up again down again like a rollercoaster. He used food as his medicine. It gave him a sense of protection.”
Does she mean he wanted a layer of fat to protect him from the world? “It could be but he was not insecure. He had a taste for good food and he was very serious about it.”
I wondered when he was sick from cancer and on chemo if he was still able to enjoy his food? “Not really. He realised he was sick but he was positive for the future. On the one hand he accepted his situation saying ‘I’ve had such a lucky life, a fantastic career, I’ve explored my passion, I’ve helped others and I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful family and 3 daughters before that. He felt lucky.”
She tells me how he worked up until the very end planning his future as if he would go on forever. When he was sick he could still sing. His students would say ‘when he is sick I can hear his technique even better’ and he loved that. he could still sing because he had a fantastic vocal technique and when he was sick he was forced to use it even more. He had the surgery to remove a tumour and then he did the chemotherapy.”
Did he accept that he was dying? “I think he always thought he had a positive future.”
It must have put a strain on your relationship, you knowing how sick he was and him trying to unknow it?
“We were always trying to be positive together because Alice was very young. We coped with his illness as we did with mine. He was always strong for everybody else. I always saw him like a lion so he was….” Her voice drifts at this change of dynamic. “When he was a lion I was a lion with him.”
And when he wasn’t? At this point something really strange happens. For no reason, my tape recorder and my phone fling themselves off the little table between our two creamy leather armchairs. It was as if he was there with us and he didn’t like any talk of sickness or weakness. She composes herself.
“Until the very end he was positive and teaching and surrounded by friends. He was the strong one. He was actually trying to make a new album.
It must have been an excruciating shock to go through the world where they were together all the time, even reading the Harry Potter books to each other, to be without him. Certainly the idea of working with his foundation, opening up the museum is her idea to keep him alive in the world.
“Yes, I miss him and the thing I miss most are his hugs like a panda. This house was too big for just me and Alice so I decided to open it to the public and go and live with my parents in Bologna. He loved this house so much but it was too big for me and Alice.”
Mantovani herself doesn’t find it as easy as her husband did to be happy. These past few years she says have been “heavy” for her. There was a relationship that didn’t work out because the man lied to her and was seeing someone else at the same time. She almost lost her faith in humanity until she refocused into doing so much for the foundation.
“I don’t think there will ever be anyone else. One big love in life is enough, don’t you think?”
Not really. Pavarotti had two great loves, two wives.
“He was more open than me. More curious and more genuine. I’ll try my best but it’s not easy.”
Instead, she wants to take me downstairs to another room in the house where we can see messages from all over the world about how much Pavarotti affected people. The room is called the man who creates emotion.
“because he was always able to create big emotions. Not just for opera lovers.”
He was also able to cause a drama. One time they were in New York and they had a fight, Mantovani insisted she was leaving and going back to Italy but Pavarotti had called the head of Alitalia to stop her getting on the plane and to tell her he’d broken his arm.
“I got home and in full dramatic mode he said ‘you left me alone and look what happened. My world collapsed’. We were having dinner and I was kissing his arm and a couple of hours after the dinner ended I said are you OK? He said ‘of course I’m ok’ and whipped his arm out of the fake bandage.”
We laugh. What did they fight about? “We were always fighting because there was fire in us, fire is passion. But he also did big things for me. When I took my exams in the university of Bologna I went to dinner with my family and heard his voice in my ear. He’d taken a plane from Tokyo where he was performing Tosca just to say he loved me and flew back to Tokyo the next day.”
It’s no surprise that all this drama is to be made into a movie and a stage show. First up it’s a documentary from director Ron Howard and then a West End show. John Berry, British opera producer has bought the rights to his life.
Mantovani herself is producing another movie. It’s about an important figure in the Italian gay and lesbian movements in the seventies. Of the musical she says, “This is a very important project for the West End. There are many ideas so far and I don’t know which way we’ll go. His life was so immense.”
She takes me downstairs to a golden coloured bedroom, sunlight streaming in. the presence on his side of the bed is palpable. This is where he lived, loved, died. In the bathroom which is ensuite, there’s a large set of scales. She tells me sometimes she goes in there and for no reason the scales tip to Pavarotti’s weight and then go down to zero again, back and forth. Perhaps he’s telling her that he’s still here and oddly, the subject they fought most about – his weight, is still the metaphor for an enduring passion.
We are in a small, dark supper club – The Rockwell. We are in a bohemian district of Los Angeles. Packed to the rafters. The waiter warns the food will take a while. But no one’s here for the food. They are here for Jeff Goldblum, to hear him play jazz piano with a curious charm. Soon his be-ringed fingers will flash and sparkle across the keyboards.
Everybody loves Jeff. I’m not sure if that was always the case but somehow, rather stealthily he’s now Hollywood royalty. Not just for reprising roles as Ian Malcolm, the scientist in the Jurassic movies, for blockbusters like Thor and Independence Day. Not just for turning in so many expertly quirky roles including his recent gangster chief in Hotel Artemis. Not just for his iconic and still quiver making performance in The Fly in 1986. But because he survived it all. He’s 65 and has grown into his face and body. 6 foot 4 ½ no longer seems geeky. He’s sexy in a way that he never used to be.
He comes onstage and he’s so fully himself. Random friends are texting me messages like ‘he got me through my college years’. I’m not sure what did other than be around and be a constant but he’s still doing it.
He’s in a sharp suit and thick rimmed glasses and snappy hat. He’s his own warm up guy. He plays a game with the audience called The Movie Game. Similar to that one a few years ago Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon where everything led back to him. Any film, any co-star and then it’s a direct Goldblum association.
Then, in manner of Dame Edna, he’ll select audience members, no point in cowering because he’s coming for you. In his game Would You Rather, first up it’s Johnny Depp vs Orlando Bloom. He asks “Chrissy Iley, which one smells better?” As one reviewer said “You haven’t truly heard your name unless you’ve heard Jeff Goldblum say it.” Its a great voice.
Then it’s Nic Cage vs Matthew McConaughey. I go for Cage and tell the audience about the time McConaughey was getting a haircut and he made the stylist pick up all the hair from the floor in case someone would perform voodoo on it. I think he has researched every person I’ve ever interviewed.
Then the show itself begins. He favours cool jazz from the fifties and sixties. There’s an incredible energy to his playing and his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra all have presence. He’s generous onstage. The audience whoops especially for ‘I Wish I Knew What it Felt to be Free’ which Brits would recognise as the theme tune to Barry Norman’s long running BBC film show.
He’s been doing these shows on and off for quite a few years but Decca Records picked up on his talent when he accompanied Decca artist Gregory Porter – who he met at an airport – on the Graham Norton Show.
The atmosphere at The Rockwell was recreated at Capitol Records with a club set up, Imelda May on guest vocals, Sarah Silverman on Me And My Shadow and a celebrity filled audience for the album recording of his version of Cantaloupe Island, My Baby Just Cares for Me and Straighten Up and Fly Right.
The next day we meet for brunch at the Chateau Marmont. Goldblum is wearing skinny black trousers, a multi coloured knit shirt that looks Italian and a very soft fawn suede jacket. It’s a hug hello and I can feel it’s a body that he takes care of. He gets up at 5.30 am every day, practices piano and then works out. He became a daddy for the first time in his sixties. He now has two little boys, River Joe who’s one and Charlie Ocean who’s three with his wife Emilie Livingstone (35), a former Canadian Olympian gymnast.
He invites me to smell his neck so that at some future point I can compare his scent to Depp, Bloom etc. He smells of dark flowers. “Ah yes, the title of my first autobiography – Dark Flower.” He’s joking, of course. We agree it would be a good title. There is something dark about him but something deliciously floral.
I’m wearing my wide, dark rimmed sunglasses so we match. We swap glasses for a quick photo op.
He’s wearing more jewellery than me. A classic Tank Cartier watch and quirky gold and silver rings on every finger. His wedding band is platinum with rose gold on the inside and his wife Emily had put on an engraving ‘Patches plus Peaches eternal love.’
Who’s Patches and who’s Peaches? “She’s Peaches because she’s quite peachy and my first nightmare which I recalled to her was about a witch trying to tie me down on a tree stump. I was four or five years old and instead of cutting my head off she said ‘Peeeaaches, Peeeaaches.’ I told my two older brothers that dream. We all shared a room and when we went to bed at night they would all go ‘Peeeaaaches’ and scare me.’ He mimics a gurgling witchy tone.
“She is Peachy and she is Peaches and I have a nice distribution of hair on my torso but on one side, right here there’s a little bit of extra. It’s a patch so I’m Patches.”
Isn’t Patch a dog’s name? “I AM a dog!” he says enthusiastically. “I LOVE dogs.”
He was in the Wes Anderson animated movie Isle of Dogs where he was the voice of Duke. He has a dog, a red poodle called Woody Allen. “Officially the term is apricot but Woody is darker and redder.”
Did he name his dog Woody Allen because he admires his namesake as a director or as a clarinettist? “It’s either or both”.
The names of his boys Charlie Ocean and River Joe “were not just tossed up.
I spent years before I had kids fantasising about what their names would be. What would go with Goldblum?”
Charlie had dark feelings about the introduction of his younger brother so we keep them safe and say you can hit the floor. You do not have to suppress your feelings. You can say you don’t like him but you can’t hurt him. And now there are many moments of friendship and sweetness. They bathe together and Charlie helps and protects his younger brother. River always wants to know what his brother is doing. He’s just started to walk. He’s a bit wobbly but he follows Charlie around.”
Goldblum too was a younger brother. One brother four years older (Rick who died at the age of 23 from kidney failure), the other (check name) five years older went into real estate. He also has a younger sister Pamela who is an actor and artist.
At the moment his wife and children are in Toronto with their mother and grandmother and last night Goldblum slept only with Woody. “He sleeps with us anyway. Last night it was just us and we are very close.”
Now we look at pictures on each others phones. I am showing him cat pictures, he is showing me dogs and babies. It’s almost like there’s no barrier and there’s instant intimacy, or maybe it just seems that way. Maybe it’s all part of the smart illusion.
Actually No – he’s an insatiably curious person about all sorts of things . Where do I live? What do I like? Who am I? And I ask if this is a distraction technique just so we don’t talk have to talk about him. “No,” he says, a little abashed and refers me to his acting teacher Sandy Meisner who instructed him that the best performance was always about chemistry with other people and although this is not quite a performance it’s an exchange of sorts and I see him feeling around for the correct level and pitch of the interview. “He said you have to be interested otherwise you’re not interesting.”
Did everyone always love Jeff and how exactly did he help my friend through her teenage years? “Ah yes. I show up and sense somebody on this block having a difficult teenage time and I get them through,” he jokes, bemused at his sudden superhero status. In fact it’s taken a while for him to arrive even though his breakthrough performance was possibly in The Big Chill over 30 years ago.
There was a brief first marriage to Patricia Gaul 1980-86, The Fly co-star Geena Davis 87-90 and a brief engagement to Laura Dern but essentially over two decades as single man. When we tried to play the Would You Rather game at brunch I tell him I can’t throw female stars at him because I don’t know if he’s slept with them or not. “Well there’s that but I think it’s nicer these days in that setting to stick with men. I’m hypersensitive to the challenges of womanhood.”
Has he had experiences of female co-stars crying about having to touch the white bathrobe? “No. I was never reported to about Harvey Weinstein. I never worked with him but if you watch something like Mad Men and you have grown up in that culture you can imagine what women have been subjected to. I have had frank discussions and heard women’s stories. Who doesn’t have a story of some discomfort or even some kind of traumatic circumstance and women all over the world still need to fight and we need to fight it with them for equality and dignity.”
Indeed, Goldblum is a “nice fella”. His comedy skirts the edges of discomfort but never humiliation. He likes the idea that he’s very available. “I’m not trying too hard you know. I like the idea that I’m offering something of interest and amusement. I do it to set up the music. As a performer it’s all about a shared experience. I feel I’m hosting a show. It’s kind of like a sixties one – Playboy After Dark. Hugh Hefner early on had a TV show. When I was a kid I used to go to a special part of the dial to find it because it was at that point one of the only portals into adult sensuality. It was called After Dark and the conceit was you’re in some kind of living room, a salon and there’s talk and there’s music. He was in a smoking jacket and had couches in different areas. Ostensibly it was a party and there was a piano.”
The album has a living room party vibe about it. It immediately places you right there. It was produced by Larry Klein who is famous for producing Herbie Hancock, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell.
Did he imagine that he’d ever have a jazz album? “As a kid I would write on the shower wall please God let me be an actor. I think around eight or ten something happened in middle school where I went to this camp and fell deeply in love with performing. I was baying at the moon about it.”
Was he always a person who fitted in or stood out? “Early on when I was a kid I fitted in to our little family. I developed into my own individual person and then through junior high school and high school I was a fish out of water. I didn’t fit in with some groups until I found the arts programmes in that camp. That in one way or another saved my life.”
Now he’s able to fit in and stand out.
“I had piano lessons from eight years old and studied but I didn’t study acting.
My parents both liked music, my dad particularly. If we went on vacation to Miami they would do the Mambo. They took dance lessons in the Cha Cha Cha. You can imagine that era. They also had a taste for jazz and Errol Garner. He was a famous (jazz) pianist from Pittsburgh and they would bring records home and play on the HiFi. He really is kind of wonderful so I was exposed to that kind of music early on. That’s how I got interested in jazz. When I was 15, I went into a room and locked the door because I felt it needed to be secret and I looked through the Yellow Pages and would call one club after another saying ‘hey, I understand you’re looking for a piano player.’ Most people would say no but a couple said, ‘How did you hear about this? Come down and play.’
So I got a couple of jobs when I was fifteen. My parents would drive me to them and somehow I met a girl singer who was older and could drive and I would play for her. It was never that I was trying to be a musician. It just happened. Even with this record. It just happened. I’m not saying it’s going to be my new career.”
And this career wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t met Gregory Porter at an airport. “A few years ago I went up to him and said Mr Porter? I love your music. And then I was going to be on the Graham Norton show a few months ago and the musical guest was Gregory Porter promoting his Nat King Cole album so I offered to play the song with him. That’s how his record company Decca got the idea and here we are.”
We’ve yet to order as we’ve been talking thick and strong. He seems very in the moment but says, “I am nothing if not disciplined. I have a conviction about work ethic. When I was a kid I didn’t know about the joys of getting homework done but after that I couldn’t help but practise my piano and now I have to tear myself away. We’ve been playing for about 20 years and it just developed under the radar. At first I wasn’t as good as I am now but I made sure I played so I could develop and memorise everything that we were playing. I would go through them most days even if I was on the road I would talk to the concierge in a hotel, find a music store down the road or play the piano in the lobby.”
So people in the lobby of a random hotel would find him giving an impromptu performance. “Yes I like to play with people around.”
Finally we get to order brunch. He wants scrambled eggs but it’s not on the menu. He doesn’t power order or suggest that most kitchens have eggs. He goes for ancient grain bowl from the menu. He likes to eat clean. “I get up at 5.30, do my piano and my workout first. I like to get eight hours sleep so it means going to bed at about 9.30.”
He now has a gym in his house where he and his wife workout. Emilie was a rhythmic gymnast. “Those are the dance gymnasts. They do all the hyperstretch contortions. She was the Pan American champion when she was young and she studied in Russia from 11 to 16. She’s now learnt Cirque du Soleil aerial stuff. She doubled for Emma Stone in La La Land. She was the dancer whose body you see dancing outside the Planetarium. And that movie Valerian, Rihanna plays a part in it and every time you see her face it’s Emilie’s body who’s dancing. We met at the gym. I saw her working out and toddled over and said well you’re not the usual…”
That was his pick-up line? He stalked her in the gym? “It wasn’t a pick-up line. I was interested in what she was doing. I have no lines and formula but I did start up a conversation. It was Equinox on Sunset and that was seven years ago. I went to see her perform and then invited her to a gig. I said I wonder if she’s going to do some contortion dancing on the piano. I said to the guys we should do the song from Fabulous Baker Boys Makin’ Whoopee, the one that Michelle Pfeiffer sings. He sings “Another bride, another groom
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee”
And she got on the piano and she did an amazing routine. We got the dog first. We were talking about children. She introduced it,” he says with a proud daddy smile.
Everyone must have said how strange it was that he got to sixty and wanted children. “Yes, right. I had to think about that and I’m still thinking about what it all means and trying to navigate the calendar and my gift of living every day. But when she said maybe it would be nice to have a baby it was so sweet and deeply genuine. I said if you’re serious we should talk about it. I had a therapist at the time who I took her to see. Luanda Katzman – we began having several sessions over a period of time where we excavated considerations and finally we both got enthusiastic about having a child and getting married. We got married here – in the Chateau Marmont in one of the bungalows with fifty people – mostly her family. We had already started to try to get pregnant and the day before the wedding she presented me with a sonogram saying ‘Look what happened’, so it made the wedding sweet and romantic.
I was a bachelorly kind guy of in the way I never had food in the house. The first time she opened my refrigerator I had a bottle of water and some Chinese takeout. Now it’s a family fridge with abundance all over. It’s great.”
He never wanted to have children before? “Not seriously even though I’ve been married before.”
Then he was alone for a long time. Was that on purpose or coincidence? “I never plotted it that way. There was no strategy but at this point it all seems to have been necessary and perfect, including the not having children.”
Because he wasn’t ready? “I think that may have been part of it, yes. Exactly.”
He wants to know if I can sing. Maybe we could do a performance together. I don’t tell him my story about when I blew Bryan Ferry off stage because my version of Jealous Guy was so much better. I just tell him no I can’t sing.
He suggests that maybe we could do poetry readings together. He once read the whole of Wuthering Heights out loud to someone. “Yes I’ve always loved Wuthering Heights and I was so touched by it I wanted to read the book to somebody. I have often read books out aloud and I’m about to do it professionally for the first time. My friend Norm Eisen who is the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic has written a very interesting book about working for Obama. He is a very wise and wonderful guy. I met him via Wes Anderson when we were doing Grand Budapest Hotel. He said ‘we have a guy who is a model for your character.’ So I went to Prague and he let me stay in the Ambassadors Palace and we’ve been in touch ever since.”
He loves food. Nothing fried or saucy. It’s part of the plan to stay healthy, not for getting good roles but for the role of daddy.
Does he think he’s going to go for a girl child? “I’d love a little girl. The other week Emilie said ‘gee I’d like to see you with a girl but I don’t think she really wants it. I think she’s happy to stop with these two.”
Perhaps he has a girl out there already who’s 25. “Not that I know of. I’ve been pretty good. If I could talk to my young self it would be to expose my young self to many lessons that I have come by gradually. I’ve not always been good. I’m still trying to learn about health and relationships and hygiene and how it keeps revealing itself to me in many more refined ways. It’s good that life happens the way it does really. You don’t get a view and no one can tell the future and it’s all a surprise. I’m amazed and pleased at the way things have turned out. Come on, what’s unpleasing?” We make our exit where everyone seems to greet him to say hello/goodbye. I’m not sure if they are fans or friends. He’s all about making the world a happier place and at the same time he’s all about science, astrophysics, astronomy, practical ways to save the oceans.
“Science is pretty inspiring. The extent and size of the universe and the place of our planet in it. We’re fragile. We need to stick together and do right by ourselves.”
He is all about the feel good – and his gift is to make people feel happy when he plays
Jeff Goldblum debut album is out on Decca records
“I never call anything my enemy because it’s a negative emotion. I’m just not eating them.” she laughs. She’s rigorous about releasing any toxic energy. Especially that surrounding certain words. She’s not a cancer “survivor”, she’s a cancer “thriver”. Only in the tabloids do people “battle” cancer. She explains to me once you set it up as a war, as a fight, it’s already negative.
In May 2017 she was given the news that the pains in her back that caused her to postpone her US and Canadian tour dates were not in fact the sciatica she suspected. Her breast cancer had metastasized in her spine. She seems very carefree as she piles blueberries and blackberries on her plate. “They’re very low in sugar and I can have butter if it’s grass fed. I believe my body wants and needs a certain amount of fat.”
Because you’re fine-tuned in listening to your body and psychic? “Well, it’s a mixture of reading up on these things. People say to me ‘how can you go without sugar?’ I say, when it’s about your health you just make that decision.” Because it’s life or sugar? “Yes, exactly. An easy choice. I also have an amazing husband who is incredibly knowledgeable about health and plant medicine so I’m very lucky.”
As if on cue, her husband John Easterling (sometimes referred to as Amazon John because he once had a company that sold herbs from the Amazon for health benefits) sits down to the table. He’s tall, rangy, handsome, funny. He reaches to hold her hand as he forks up his pancakes with the other. They’ve been married 10 years. They love each other. You can smell it, touch it, feel it. Every morning he makes her a smoothie augmented with his specialist botanicals. “Every day I make Olivia a smoothie. Apple juice, reishi (a form of mushroom), cannabis leaves which I’ve trimmed from my personal garden, some rainforest herbs. The smoothie supports the immune system, detoxes and balances hormones and supports liver and kidney health. We start the day like that.”
When she discovered the breast cancer had returned, she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk. Surely this was a dark time? John says, “We got lots of messages from people saying I can only imagine what you are going through. We thought it’s stage 4 breast cancer. Nothing to freak out about. We know what to do. We’ll just take care of it so we went to this wonderful clinic in Georgia that has special ways of monitoring the system and that does a variety of IV’s with herbs and minerals that get extraordinary results. The pain level went from a 10 to a 1 in days and her energy levels are back and the counts are good. The more standard trained practitioners are going to have standard protocols but this is a time in history where there’s an explosion of information and discoveries to educate yourself. We have to rise up.”
Did she mix alternative therapies and conventional therapies? “Very limited conventional. I don’t take any pills. Last year I did a course of photon radiation which is very targeted radiation to the problem area. Apart from that, plant medicine and herbs.”
In California cannabis and cannabis oil CBD is totally legal and my cat has been prescribed it. She is 20 and doing very well but it’s not legal in Australia. Even the oil is difficult to get. “It’s crazy isn’t it? That has to change. In Australia they are not up to speed with America yet so it’s harder to get there. Hopefully becoming less so. It’s helped me a lot and should be available for patients, particularly those going into palliative care. We went to Australia to talk to the politicians about making it easier for people to get it and its benefits. I feel it’s my duty to talk about it as a cancer thriver myself.”
It’s hard to get Olivia to talk about pain, even to remember it. She takes a breath and recalls, “I was working in Vegas. I thought I had sciatica. Well, I did have sciatica. I don’t know which came first. I was in chronic pain and one day my girlfriend had a birthday and her favourite thing is tennis so we all went and played tennis and at the end of that day I couldn’t walk and the problem went on and on and on.”
Did the sciatica mask the cancer? “I don’t know if the cancer escalated it or it was always there. I’ll never know. It didn’t occur to me that it could be the return of cancer until a year went by and I was still in excruciating pain. I had an MRI and we found it was in there.”
It’s unusual for breast cancer to occur so many years after its original appearance and at the time of its discovery Olivia had referred to some dark moments but now she’s wiped them away. “The clinic in Georgia suggested the radiation as a safety measure because in the bone it’s hard to get to and since then I’ve only done natural healing.”
I tell her that I had a friend whose breast cancer metastasized to the spine and she did chemo which of course made her feel terrible but she was never offered an alternative. Olivia nods with empathy. “I understand. When I went through this 25 years ago, even though I was terrified of chemo and I didn’t want to do it, I did it. I chose to. I can’t blame anyone else for choosing but people would say why don’t you do it as a safety measure and I’m glad I did it because now I’ve had the experience so when patients at my centre are going through it I have compassion. I understand that it’s really difficult and it leaves you with a chemo brain for years. You’re really kind of hazy. I’m still hazy or at least that’s my excuse!” She laughs, a really sparkly laugh and then she says, “I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a very old fashioned way. We’ve just been watching The Truth About Pet Cancer and even though it’s about pets, it’s still about barbaric ways of treating them with chemo. There are other ways. I have my own herbal guru here so I would and whenever my dog (a black German Shepherd) gets anything, she gets natural therapy from my husband.”
John tells me that he’s actually working on a formula for pets that will build up their immune system and help them be less prone to cancer.
“My whole background is in plant medicine. Cannabis is in the plant kingdom. We’ve had access to it for thousands of years and it’s only recently been interrupted. Our relationship with that plant is very important and now we discover that there’s a system in our bodies that’s very receptive to this plant so people should have access to it. I don’t think it should ever be called a drug. It’s clearly plant medicine. “When we are in Australia we’ll visit politicians, share information, educate and influence where we can.”
John and Olivia use the ‘we’ word a lot as if they think as one. They had known each other for about 20 years before they had the coup de foudre moment. I ask John, didn’t he have any thwarted longings when he knew her as a friend? Any persistent pangs that they were meant to be?
“No,” he grins. “We met at an environmental show where I was displaying my botanicals because they are sustainably harvested.” Olivia and a couple of mutual friends came to the show. John continues, “They sampled some herbage and then they came back the next day because they were pretty excited about all the things they did that night because they got a herb jump before. They got herbed up, yes. I had a herb company for 27 years and still formulate products for doctors’ groups. For years we supported the same charities but that was it. We didn’t get together.”
There wasn’t an immediate special connection? Olivia answers, “No, not for either of us.” John says, “I was busy and I thought that if you’re involved in Hollywood you must be a nutcase and I was doing real stuff for real people. We’d see each other every year at charity functions and the more I got to know her I thought oh, she’s a really nice person. She really does care about people and animals, the rainforest. So we became friends and that’s as far as it went.
Then I was doing a talk in California. She came to it and I stayed in her guest house. The next morning I was driving to the airport and drove off a cliff.” Olivia says, “You see, he didn’t want to leave… He went to the hospital and he wouldn’t take any of their painkillers.”
John was X Rayed and it was discovered he had a fracture in his lower spine. “I could barely move so I stayed on her couch till I could travel again but she had a dog, a setter. Dogs are very intuitive and that dog stayed with me all night, bonding with me. Olivia said. “And then he went on the plane the next day.”
But the dog Scarlet was going to have puppies. John says, “I had just lost my dog so she said she was sending me a puppy. She definitely picked the craziest dog and sent him up. I had never heard any of Olivia’s music. Her first stuff was just not my genre of music and I never saw Grease.”
What? You were the only person in the entire universe that never saw Grease? Olivia confirms, “He was.” John says, “It’s true. I haven’t found anyone else that hasn’t seen it and I’m still looking.
I was living in Florida and her assistant called and said Olivia’s doing a concert if you’d like to come. You can bring your girlfriend. I said I’ll bring the dog so I took the dog and when the lights went down I heard this Peruvian music. Then she walked out and started singing Pearls on a Chain which is a very healing song and that’s when I recognised who she was. She’s a healer and this is her medium of healing. All I could think of was I want to introduce her to other healers who work in the Amazon so after the show I asked her if she wanted to come to Peru and she said yes and I thought oh no I’m taking her to Peru. I’d better watch Grease.”
I wonder about this healing notion. There is a reason why people go to her shows, love her and feel uplifted and touched by something and I’m not sure it’s just when she does Peruvian flute music. There is something extraordinary about her. There’s enormous bravery for a start. We can’t all identify with that but we all want to glimpse it. Plus she’s very switched on to other people’s needs. She shrugs that off and continues with the story. “It never occurred to me I was a healer.” Of course it didn’t. “It was my friend Nancy’s 60th birthday so they came with us, the four of us to Peru. I was really going because it was Nancy’s birthday.” John says, “She heals people all the time.” He smiles at her adoringly.
“I do my show and I’ve done an album recently about grief with Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman. It’s called Liv On. After my sister passed away and after I went through breast cancer I wrote an album. It was the first album I’d written on my own called Gaia. About the spirit of the planet. This is before John and I were together. One of the songs is Don’t Cut Me Down about the rainforest. We were on a parallel path. Then I did an album Grace and Gratitude after I went through another life crisis. Music is always my healing.”
Grace and Gratitude was released in 2006 and I wondered if it was about her partner of 9 years Patrick McDermott who went missing and was presumed dead after a fishing accident in 2005.
“When I’m going through something my way to express it is through music so Grace and Gratitude was another album about coming through something difficult and seeing the beauty in life, being grateful for it and then live on. I have done three albums like that, not pop albums but they are kind of healing.”
Her Spa in Byron Bay is called Gaia, voted consistently best Spa in the world. “It’s a very special place, a healing place and then there’s my hospital (the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne) which is my passion. I have been introducing wellness programmes in a cancer hospital environment. Introducing the patients who go there to the kind of therapies that I was able to have access to but most people can’t afford.”
The people in the hospital have these therapies largely as an extra to chemo. “My dream is that one day the hospital will take off the word cancer and it will be a wellness and research centre because there won’t be cancer anymore. They will have found the answer.”
She doesn’t like the word cancer and she particularly doesn’t like the words ‘MY cancer’. “It’s THE cancer. You don’t own it and I don’t like when they talk about fighting cancer because that sets up a war in your body which can cause inflammation which is the very thing you’re trying to settle down. I use the words “say goodbye to”. I think we manifest these words.” and John continues “and that’s where people get stuck.” Olivia says, “I use the words ‘winning over’ and ‘living with’ because there comes a point where you can’t get rid of every cancer cell in your body. Everybody is dealing with them all the time. Some people don’t even know they’ve got it. It’s a normal part of the cycle. Cells are programmed to die. Cancer cells too.”
Taken out of context it may seem a little woo woo to be so particular about these words but it makes sense that if you have cancer you have to stay calm. You have to stay positive. I do believe what you think becomes true and all these words just help in making us fearful. John says, “Fear is the problem. It’s in a state of fear where you make irrational decisions.”
I still can’t imagine that she wasn’t a little afraid when it came back. “It’s unusual, yes. You do think ha, it’s over. It didn’t occur to me that it would have been that. I felt pretty good. I was working and enjoying my work and now I’m just staying healthy and staying strong, taking a lot of supplements. I did some shows last week. I’m taking a little break from more shows and I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing for the Grease 40 year anniversary.”
One thing that she is going to be doing is auctioning the original Sandy leather trousers. She has kept them all these years. They are of course tiny but I bet she can still fit into them. Everybody had a character in Grease that they identified with.
“They still do. It’s unbelievable. When I do the show there’s every age group. Grandparents my age (hollow laugh), their children and their children’s children. They all have something to connect with.”
For the 25th anniversary of Grease, John Travolta piloted a Quantas plane and Olivia was the flight attendant in full uniform. She laughs with just a hint of nostalgia, but quickly moves on to talk about her wellness walk in September.
“We’re going back to Australia in May to talk to the government about cannabis but the walk is in Melbourne in September. People come from all over the world, some of my die-hard fans. They form little groups and compete with each other to see how much money they can raise. And for people who can’t come to Australia, there’s a virtual walk. It raises money also for the families because to be a caretaker is difficult and very wearing for people.”
Hmm. And that is said by a super caretaker. Meeting her for just a couple of hours, you can see she’s nurturing to the core. What about her dark moments? Who nurtures her? Pause.
“It’s interesting you say that. I’ve about four friends who are going through cancer now. I stay connected with them. I don’t think about mine. It’s not on my mind constantly. I do all the things that I should be doing on a regular basis but I like to support other people because I’ve been there before and I am still here. I think that gives other people hope. If I can encourage them by saying come on I’ve done it before, we can do this together now, it makes ME feel good.”
We talk about some of my friends with cancer, some going through it now, one who didn’t make it and one who said she would rather kill herself rather than have another round of chemo. She shakes her head. “Poor thing. So horrible. I think everybody goes through that moment.” But really she’s nurturing other people. Who’s nurturing her?
“Gosh. I had a good support team for sure. The first time is so long ago now. I had my first husband, my sister, my friends…”
Should people be encouraged to look beyond chemo? “I think yes. I think you should do the research and see what feels right for you. I would never tell anybody you should. Should is not a word that I use but I would encourage them. What else am I doing? I’m involved in many things like trees. I started One Tree Per Child with my friend John Dee. Tree Day in Australia and everyone plants a tree and in the end we’d planted 10 million trees in Australia and 50,000 trees in England so kids grow up from an urban society that they are environmentally conscious.”
She’s also written two cookbooks –Live Wise, Grace & Gratitude and has supervised the Gaia cookbooks. They are all on her kitchen shelf and in regular use. She’s also working on an autobiography coming out in September. Was that fun or miserable? “It was cathartic. I worked with someone who helped me because it would have taken me at least ten years if I’d had to do it by myself. It’s stories from my life, positive ones.
They’ve also done a movie of my life in Australia with Delta Goodrun playing me,” she grimaces. “I probably won’t watch it. When they told me they were doing it I was horrified, because despite the fact I’m well known, I’m kind of private and my private life, even though it gets into the papers, is not something that I want to talk about. I worry about the people in my life. It’s not their fault they were married to me or were my boyfriend so I didn’t want it to happen but then I realised it was going to happen whether I wanted it to or not. So I decided to make something positive out of the negative so I asked that any money that would come to me would go to my hospital so that way I can do it and feel I care about it. I love Delta. I think she’s a really good actress and a great singer so that made it OK because we’re friends.
But in the beginning she called me. “Shall I do it or not?” I said first, I’m not sure and then I said, oh you do it. I haven’t read it and I don’t know how accurate it is because it’s a movie and people weren’t there at every moment of my life but the money will go to the hospital so some good has come of it.”
An expression of pain suddenly fills the large all feeling eyes. She’s remembered it’s time to give one of her chickens Goldie her antibiotics. She’s recovering from a toe amputation in a separate coop with her sister. I thought giving a cat pill was an epic but giving a chicken a pill… “It’s easy,” she says as she scoops the golden feathered creature up in her arms and buries a pill into Goldie’s favourite sourdough bread. The other chickens – 18 hens and 2 roosters, live in a mansion of a chicken coop and they are all various different breeds, colours, speckly bits and feathered feet. We feed them cheese, salad, blueberries and just a little of their favourite bread. Olivia’s chickens eat better than most people. She’s also rescued 2 miniature horses which are so small only the chickens can ride them. How did this great rescuer of wild things come to be?
She was born in Cambridge where she lived till she was five before moving to Melbourne. Her parents were academics. Her father a professor and her mother the daughter of Nobel prize- winning scientist Max Born.
“They were not so much into showbusiness but what I got from them was work ethic. They both worked really hard. My mum wanted me to finish school or go to RADA in London. I did none of those things. I got a job on TV in Melbourne when I was 15. I was lucky. I got to learn the ropes young, rather than going to school and then learning them. I was interested in singing and I’ve had a really blessed life. I’ve been lucky with my managers, my producers…”
In fact, her current assistant has been with her since Grease and she still works with John Farra who wrote all the songs from Xanadu and many other hits.
“I’ve worked with Steve Kipner and Peter Allen many times. I’ve always worked and I’ve always worked hard. Even in the beginning with Pat Carroll when we were Pat and Olivia we worked all the crummy clubs, staying in local digs. We had fun. I never thought this is horrible, this could better. This was my reality and we had a great time.
Even though we came from an academic background, my sister too became an actress. She passed away 5 years ago from a brain tumour very quickly. In the beginning she was what we laughingly called a chaperone. She was funny and cheeky and gorgeous.”
Is she saying she led her into more trouble? “Yes, exactly but she kept me out of too much trouble and we definitely had fun. I think I was more HER chaperone if the truth be known. She always encouraged me because I think I was doing what she wanted to do. She got married very young and had a family and didn’t pursue it.
In the beginning my family really wanted me to go university. I didn’t have the brain of the focus. I could do it now but then… I had the determination. I didn’t settle down till my thirties. I was afraid of marriage because my father had had three marriages and my sister had three so I was nervous and finally I have the perfect husband. I am so happy.”
She reminds me she was 59 before she found the love of her life. Not that she didn’t always have a good relationship with her first husband Matt Lattanzi. “We’re good friends and Chloe is living up in Portland near him. He has a wonderful wife that we both love and we’re all friends.”
I marvel. Most break ups are toxic and carry at least some bitterness. She sighs. “Life is about love and forgiveness and moving on. He’s still the father of my daughter. We actually made a pact very early on, even before we got married that if we ever had a child we would never allow anything to come between the relationship with the child and we’d never make her part of a pawn thing that people do. We’ve watched our friends go through divorce.”
Was she always so grown up? “With those things you have to be because it’s about another life.”
What does she look for in a friend? “Everyone’s different. I have a wide and diverse range of friends. A lot of them go back to when I was really young. People I can trust and have fun with. When I go back to Australia I stay in touch with them and my family. My sister’s children and my brother. He likes to be out of the limelight.”
I didn’t even know she had a brother. “Actually I have two. A brother and sister from my father’s second marriage. They live in Sydney. He is a doctor, a pain therapist. My sister works in administration. My father was a professor of language. He worked at Bletchley Park, cracking the codes in the second world war. He spoke perfect German and had an incredible ear. He was a good singer so maybe I got it from my dad. He won scholarships to Cambridge and spoke German with a perfect accent. When he joined the air force they made him the interrogator of German prisoners of war (including Rudolph Hess).”
Her life here couldn’t be further from academia. It’s all about living and working with the land. John tells me “We love to be with nature with the chickens, the horses, the dog, the cat. I was a tropical guy for a long time in Florida so we like to go to Florida and get in that ocean. We like to be here and hike and just have a good time together. We laugh a lot.”
Olivia muses contentedly, “I get up, feed the chickens, collect the eggs and make sure they’re OK. I used to have a full grown horse but since my reoccurrence last year I haven’t been game enough to ride. I don’t know if I should. I have to make sure everything has grown back in before I do that. It could be good for me but I’m not convinced. My instinct will tell me. My instincts are pretty good.”
Yeah, she made me pancakes when she was going to make me Portobello mushrooms and scrambled eggs.
She thinks her ranch is very healing.
We go to take a walk in her healing paddocks. It’s hard to imagine that this year she turns 70. She doesn’t look 70, not that I’m sure what 70 looks like. With the trademark blonde hair in a tousled, long bob, she strides across the paddock still with determination. Despite being so warm and open in her spirit, there is part of her that is guarded, that doesn’t easily trust, but I don’t see that part today. I must have told about 3 people that I was doing this interview but word spread and during the time I’m there messages from all over the world are coming in for her. Some of my friends actually know her and are sending her love and she sends love back very graciously. She is totally unassuming and if she is self-protecting she does so in a really classy way. When I hug her goodbye, it’s a real proper hug. Dare I say it, a healing hug.
Bono can rule the undivided attention of a sold out stadium. He can command hearts. When he works a much smaller room, say in the White House, Downing Street, or The Vatican, he is dextrous as well as charismatic. He rules that room with those who rule the world. When he put his sunglasses on the Pope that picture became iconic because of his glasses, not the Pope.
How did he do it? The short answer is he’s clever and relentless, can relate to anybody. But why does he do it? His father told him never to have dreams because he didn’t want him to be disappointed, which encouraged him to dream even bigger, but that’s only part of the long answer.
Contrariness, caring deeply, egomania, ridiculousness, it’s all in there. There’s never been a rock star who wielded so much power. There’s no one in power that doesn’t take his call. During the writing of this piece, there’s no one in power who doesn’t return my call within 24 hours. Not many people say no to Bono, whether it’s Blair, Clinton, Bush or beyond.
And at the same time, there’s no shortage of Bono jokes. Quite a few of them begin, ‘What’s the difference between Bono and God?’ ‘Bono thinks he’s God, but God doesn’t think he’s Bono,’ sort of thing. But Bono will tell the joke before the joke’s on him. People take Bono seriously, but does Bono take himself seriously? Only sometimes.
October 2008. The Women’s Conference. Long Beach, California. I have seen Bono shrink a stadium, make it intimate. But only as a singer in a rock band. When he gives his speech here it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s like being in a very small room with him. He gives great speech.
He follows Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem, where women roared with emotional approval. But he can follow that, he can top that. “My name is Bono and I’m a travelling salesman. I come from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother’s side. Sometimes I come to your door as a rock star selling melodies. Sometimes I come to your doors as an activist selling ideas of debt forgiveness.” He knows his audience. He flatters and cajoles. He says, “Africa is our neighbour, right down the lane, when that continent burns we smell the smoke. It stings our eyes, it sears our conscience, but maybe not as much as it should. We accept it, men especially. A lot of men have developed an ability to live with this absurdity. Most women haven’t.” And then he goes on to say that the America the world needs is the America he’s always loved. Everyone is swept up.
Tony Blair told me later, “I’ve done speeches with him and there’s absolutely no doubt if he’d not been at the top of his profession he’d certainly be at the top of mine.”
When he talks about Africa, even if you’ve heard him say the same thing before, it stings you new. He talks about when he first went to Africa and a child was dying in his arms and he talks about the look in that child’s eye of innocence and no blame. He says that that’s when he became that thing he despises most, a rock star with a cause.
Then he talks about how 20 cents can provide life saving drugs and how you can do this by buying a Red T-shirt. It was a 40 minute speech, but it felt paced, like a rock concert. No boundaries, everyone part of the same beat and emotion.
Backstage, there’s Maria Shriver, the conference founder, scion of the Kennedy clan and married to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. She looks big-haired, well put together. A purple Alaia suit skims her, accessorised with pink rosary beads that signal quirky, heartfelt. I told her she looked gorgeous. She looked at me blankly, somehow insulted, demeaned. Looked at Bono with this who is this woman you brought here look. Bono refused to acknowledge the moment. Bono doesn’t waste energy on negativity, even small stuff. He moves on.
On stage he’d called Shriver a lioness, a term I see he likes to use for powerful women. Later on that’s what he called Nancy Pelosi and it seemed to make her purr.
December 2008: Olympic Studios, Barnes, London. A few days before the album No Line On The Horizon is finished. The studios are about to close down for good, so there’s a real deadline, intensity. I’m sitting next to Bono in the canteen. He’s eating spicy spaghetti. I’m eating chicken. He’s wearing a soft grey cashmere flicked with little metal bits. Hard and soft, I observe. “Yes, that’s me,” he says; he likes a metaphor, he likes to sum up who he is. He likes to be known.
I once told him once he wears his inside on his out. “You did, didn’t you.” He remembers that. He has the memory of an elephant for stupid minutiae and life saving facts. He remembers the first time I met him that we talked about his mother. She died when he was 14. Yet you’d think he was much younger because he seems to remember very little about her. He remembers her chasing him with a cane and laughing. He wasn’t afraid because she was laughing. He remembers his dad at the top of the stairs doing some DIY with an electric drill. The drill was screaming. It was going to drill him to death. He remembers his mother laughing her head off. Laughter and danger got mixed up in his head.
Bono has always loved to embrace a contradiction, in his life, and his lyrics are always mixing God and sex, poverty and romance. He himself is a contradiction; supersensitive but a bulldozer, relentless when he wants something. He is sometimes self conscious, but he never seems to have any fear. He markets mercy but he never whinges. He is self mocking rather than self pitying. Sometimes saintly, never a monk. Being a rock star and an Africa activist couldn’t be more different. The rock star bathes in excess, the activist campaigns to end poverty.
Hard and soft Bono lives in two different worlds. A creative, artistic world that’s driven with strong passions, but where life and death is rarely an issue. He exposes himself to two completely different standards of judgement. Artistically he doesn’t want to fail. It matters to him. He wants to move you. He is painfully self critical. When U2 first started off he would ask how many people were at the gig, and if it was 400 and the venue held 450 he would worry about the 50 that didn’t come. He’s still like that, although the tickets for the venues are now holding tens of thousands. Yet he can walk into a room on Capitol Hill knowing what he’s asking for is likely to be shot down, knowing it’s a for sure rejection. In a global recession people in the First World are worried about how to pay their bills, not pay attention to Africa. The man who pursues success so relentlessly has somehow rewired himself to accept failure as part of his course.
Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, who is often referred to as the band’s fifth member, agrees. “He is a bundle of contradictions, a spoilt rotten rich rock star who became successful from his own talent. He didn’t trick anyone. He enjoys life to the full, but he does a lot of good. I think he has difficulties – one day he’ll win a Grammy for album of the year, and the next he’s described as a terrible hypocrite, a force for bad. Yet the organisations that support his activism are sophisticated. ONE is extremely successful. Red is extremely successful. (Red is his organisation set up so that big brands – Gap, Armani, Apple – give up to 40 per cent of their profit directly to The Global Fund). To date it has raised $130 million.”
Red is to raise consciousness and cash. ONE is to bring about political change. Cofounded as DATA with Bobby Shriver of the Kennedy clan, and recently merged, ONE has a base in Washington DC, London, Berlin and Abuja.
Earlier that day Bono had a ONE meeting in London, Soho office which video conferenced their office in DC. They talked of plans for 2010. They talked about a World Cup campaign for mosquito nets and putting kids in school. They talked about what’s going to happen when Obama has to make tough decisions and makes himself unpopular. Could they still count on him? What Republicans should they now work on? How to encourage Cameron on side? How Sarkozy has let them down by not paying what he had promised. Bono says Carla is going to make Sarkozy change, he says he’ll have to call her and say I know who you’re sleeping with. “Obama is already beyond a rock star,” Bono said. Bush needed to be validated by a rock star. He needed help to look cool.
Back at the studio there’s mounting concern about getting the album finished. A board has got red and blue and green writing with triangles and circles, codes of what’s done and what’s not done.
“This album is all about surrender,” Bono says. “Spiritual surrender, sexual surrender. Quite difficult, don’t you think.” I’m not sure if he was expecting an answer.
He takes me into the part of the studio where he’s laying down his vocal and he sings. His voice reaches out right out. I’m sure this is not the first time he’s sung to seduce. He seduces religious leaders like Bush and Blair by giving Bibles, but singing is his other way in. He does it on stage and on record every time. It’s very easy for him to move people’s emotions. It must be addictive. He just can’t stop wanting to do that.
Early January, 2009. Dublin. It’s the last day of Christmas. Christmas lights are still outside Bono’s house, half an hour out of Dublin. It looks over a bay. It’s a big old Georgian house, wood floors, rose and crimson velvet, cosy. A picture of a nun in the hallway. Lots of pictures. Downstairs is a swirling picture painted by Frank Sinatra and a picture of Bono with half a mouth. “Shall we go for a walk? Shall I show you around,” says Bono. But it’s dark, and it’s freezing.
Down some steps we get to another building called The Folly, a Victorian addition. Ali is having a meeting with some Edun people downstairs. Upstairs is an Edwardian bed, the guest room. White crisp linen that many luminaries have slept in. On the balcony he points out The Edge’s house and Neil Jordan’s house. In the guest bathroom everyone who has stayed their has left their mark. Graffiti and scribbles from film directors, actors, writers. Bill Clinton has written ‘A+B=C’. I wondered if it meant Ali+Bono=Clinton. Later on Clinton told me that it didn’t. “It means if you make enough effort and you face the facts you can change things. There is an inherent equation to the application of effort to evidence. It was both affirming and a kind of tongue in cheek putting down the earnestness with which we ply our trade.”
Bono is very good at impersonating the people he meets. His Clinton and Blair and Javier Bardem are extremely funny in their execution. His Bush is less good. Perhaps he has to like you to be you. Not that he says he doesn’t like Bush. In fact he says his sense of humour surprised him. Bush was certainly good to him. He increased America’s foreign budget to help Africans fight poverty diseases from around $2bn when he came in, to about $8bn today, and it’s going further up.
His seduction of the American Right began in part with Jesse Helms, the then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms was ringleader for the religious Republican right and was said to believe AIDS as God’s retribution. It was a major turning point that Bono convinced him that it was a responsibility of human kind to treat AIDS sufferers in Africa.
President Clinton says, “I was impressed. He converted Jesse Helms and that was something I could never have done. I think Jesse found it fascinating that a man from a radically different culture would court him, and he was disarmed by the same thing that disarms everybody who doesn’t know anything about Bono. Bono knew more about the subject than Jesse did and he made an argument why it was in America’s interest that you could relate to whether you were a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat – it was conditional debt relief. They have to spend the money on health care, education or development so that those countries would be better for America and they would produce no terrorists. They would be part of a cooperative that would not throw America into conflicts down the road.
“And Bono is the genuine article, a real person. And he also pointed out that debt relief would work from a budgetary point of view, and that was back when I was there and made them run a balanced budget…” A pause. I laugh. Clinton’s always ready for a dig. “He got people to take him seriously because he did his homework.”
It’s hard to keep making an impact when there is a worldwide epidemic of celebrity charity fatigue. Celebrities manipulate. They do something shameful or vicious and undo it by lending their face or their millions to a cause. To make a real impact you have to be better than that, and you have to be convincing. Your cause has to need you more than you need it. Clinton says, “The thing is, he keeps on coming. His heart and his mind are engaged.”
Clinton has a lullaby voice. It’s warm and real, and you see how the two of them connect. He sees a lot of Bono, they have worked together on getting cheap AIDS medicine to Africa as well as on debt relief and boosting trade and investment to the region.
Clinton would have been a good rock star. He tells me he once had a three octave singing range and when he was 16 played the saxophone ten hours a day until his lips split. But he decided that if he wasn’t going to be better than John Coltrane he would go into politics.
Just because Bono could be one of the world’s greatest rock stars, it didn’t stop him going into activism, wanting to make a difference. He’s always wanted to make a difference. It started with condoms. In the 1970s contraception was illegal in Ireland. And there he was doing benefit gigs for the Legalise Contraception campaign. Virgin Records had to pay a fine for selling condoms, which he paid. Not because Richard Branson couldn’t afford it, but because he was making a stand.
Clinton says, “We care about the same things and we are fascinated endlessly by people and their stories. He lives in the stories, not just the statistics and the numbers and the policies, and so do I.”
Clinton is full of stories. He says that he’s happy to tell stories all night with Bono. “Bono has a peculiar gift of mind and emotion and has a grace and power about the way he does it that is quite a thing to behold. There is no question that the way his mind works and his powers of persuasion have been decisively important. They were in the debt relief fight and they were in getting the G8 to double aid to Africa.
“And he has done all of this without sacrificing his responsibilities to U2. But if the rest of the band weren’t on board with this and willing to adjust schedules and all the things you have to do to do both things, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Bono and I are sitting in his study. Lots of books, tea, home made biscuits. It’s an intimate room. It’s a happy house that’s properly lived in. You wonder why Bono would want to leave it at all. In many ways I think he doesn’t. That’s just more of the conflict.
“Contradiction is just the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head. I am a family man, I am a loyal if unreliable friend, I am a rock star. If I go out I sometimes set fire to myself and others. I am an earnest activist, a reflective and a religious-ish person. The right to be ridiculous is something to hold dear and never too far away.”
The view from the window, sky and sea, is what inspired the title No Line On The Horizon. The album took 4 years to make. It suffered delays. Why did it take so long? Is it because he’s doing too much for too many and been stretched too thin.
“The whole idea of an album is in jeopardy, it is an outmoded notion. And we wanted to see if we could have ten or eleven really great songs, it turned out to be harder than we imagined. I would say we worked twice as hard to get there, and that either means we’re half as good or it took just twice as much concentration.”
The last album How To Dismantle An Atom Bomb sold 9 million. Was he finding that success hard to live up to? “It could be that, that over achieving personality.” Is it because he doesn’t like to fail? “I’m sure I have failed at things. The two things I haven’t failed in are the ones that mean the most to me, that’s my music and my family. Activism is all about failure. You think about the people who didn’t get the medicine.”
If your record goes to number one, that’s a definitive result, you can see it. If you are tackling global poverty you’re never going to finish with it. Perhaps that’s why he keeps on going. But what if the songs stop coming? What if it becomes too hard to swap the part of the brain that writes speeches for the part that writes lyrics?
“If I’m honest this is the first album where I thought that might be true. Certainly the last two albums were very easy for me. I’m not saying they were perfect. If I’m excited about what’s happening in one room I’ll generally bring it to the next.”
The danger is if your politics inform your passions you could end up with some pretty boring songs. “There’s a book called Conciliance (by Edward Wilson) that I read once. The author made up the word. It’s a theory that he developed that all disciplines meet at some point and wrap around each other; maths, music, science, cooking. It taught me to separate everything, into top line melody, counterpoint, rhythm and harmony. I learned to do that in every single situation. In economic theory I would be the guy in the room that would find the top line melody because I am a singer. But I also understand the counterpoint is necessary.”
He finds a way in and a way through. His voice on the latest collection of songs speaks in different characters. “I was getting bored with my own point of view and thought I might be able to express more about myself by disappearing into other people.”
There’s a song called Cedars Of Lebanon. It’s the voice of a war correspondent sitting on his hotel balcony. He says that could have been him if he hadn’t been a rock star, because he is attracted to conflict and to danger. Another song, Stand Up Comedy, is about small men with big ideas. “Totally me.”
There are books everywhere. He likes to read about three at once. Currently there’s one about a tribe of pirates from the Barbary coast who took 130 Irish people from a town in County Cork and sold them as slaves in Algeria. And he’s reading Richard Dawkins’s The Devil’s Chaplain. An edition of Seamus Heaney is never far away, and beside it is the Koran given to him by Tony Blair.
U2’s Larry Mullen Jr does not have much time for Blair. He’s branded him a warmonger. Paul McGuinness says that Larry and Bono are like brothers, so they are bound to have arguments
Says Bono, “That’s why I would never want to be in politics. I would never want to be in that position where you have to make that decision, sending people into battle, knowing there will be fatalities but believing you are saving more lives.
“But because of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, millions of people are alive that would have been dead in other far off places through their interventions in HIV/AIDS.”
Later on Tony Blair would call me from Rwanda. He speaks about Bono with some devotion and certainty. Why did he give him the Koran? “We’d been talking about Islam, so it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.” Was religion the thing that really connected them? “Africa connected us primarily. He is completely sincere in what he says and people in power respect him not because he is nice to them but because he really does understand the complexities of our business. He’s not been a fair weather friend to me. He disagreed with me strongly over Iraq.”
Bono and Blair first met about 14 years ago. “I was the Leader of the Opposition and it was an awards bash. He was receiving an award and for some bizarre reason he spoke in Spanish. He said of me, ‘This guy wants to be Prime Minister. You’ve got to have big cohones to want to have that job’. It was a surprising introduction. But since that time he is one the people I like most and respect most in the world.”
Even if I have a theory that rock stars and politicians are interchangeable and the reason that Clinton and Blair are enthraled by him is that they want to be him, Bono doesn’t want to be them. Yet he has made them love him. He has made Bush do things that seemed totally out of character. When he’s told someone’s going to be difficult, he refuses to see it that way. He talks about it coming from a punk rock foundation. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play your instruments, do it anyway. He worries, “Maybe this is a dangerous trait because if you have some skills in one discipline you think they can be applied to others.” It’s hard to know when self belief and passion become arrogance. But arrogance has no charm and Bono has a ton of it.
Ali comes in with a glass of white wine for me and red wine for him, remembering that the last time she saw me that’s what I was drinking. Ali has pale skin, big dark eyes, black hair, is fond of wearing black. She is the kind of woman who amazed President Clinton when she turned up at a gala dinner that was held for him in Dublin when Trinity named an American studies programme after him because of his contribution to the Irish peace process. It was a day after she had given birth to John, their youngest son.
Clinton said, “You would never have believed she had g given birth just the day before.” She’s always struck me as being strong, but with a naughty streak. Bono says, “People always think of her as so graceful and elegant and butter wouldn’t melt up in her mouth. How did she end up with him? I happen to know she’s messy and fun. I don’t trust people that have no joy. I go back to music and people that have joy. Miles Davis’s Blue may not be joy for a lot of people, but for me it’s a sexy place to be in. This house has had a lot of laughs for sure. Probably more than the missus would like, but at the same time she’s got more mischief in her than people think.”
We talk some more about how darkness can be a sexy place, but how his favourite combination is “rage and joy.” We talk about self consciousness. “Some people put me on the defensive and self consciousness of course makes an ugly face. As soon as you put a camera on someone, if they’re self conscious it makes them ugly. I know it’s happened to me. The human face changes just by the act of putting a camera in front of it. I had to learn that – I wasn’t necessarily built for rock and roll. There’s a certain narcissism that every writer must have. But there’s another kind which a performer has and I’m not sure I have the second one. I have to work up to professional vanity. Just right now I’m having to be a rock star again. I had to do a photo shoot the other day. I took off my glasses, but I put on black mad eye make-up. It was like I needed a bit of a mask to step into being rock star again because I felt a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a part-time rock star. Speak to me in a few months and the problem will be trying to put rock star back in the box.” I used to think he wore dark glasses to hide some kind of inspirational fire behind his eyes, now I think that he needs them as a barrier.
I’m not sure if he dreads the idea of a full-on stadium tour. “Yes, I suppose leaving here, leaving this house, leaving these five people who I love so much, and the safety of the place. It’s like a cave.”
Do you feel more fearful about stepping outside your cave these days? “It happens every time really. It’s always been like this. You wouldn’t be a performer if you weren’t insecure. There’s always that feeling, will the crowds turn up?”
Fear and desire are never far away from each other with him. “We’d like to do another album very quickly. We’d like it to have more of this intimacy because this one has real intimacy.”
Do you think you used to be more afraid of intimacy? “Maybe… I suppose the thing about this album is it has a spectrum of emotions, from swagger and defiance to brokenness and playfulness and self heckling.” He’s probably more comfortable in the self heckling. He’d rather be the one that’s putting himself down, it gives him a sense of control.
A few years ago he met Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Ivor Novello Awards. He does a good impersonation of Lloyd Webber saying that for so many years he’d had musicals all to himself. “I went and met him one night and he was very generous and said I think other people should have a go at this. So I mentioned it to Edge and he said I will be in. The first musical we had in mind was Faust set in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra as the man who does the deal with the devil.”
He first met Frank in 1987, and they became friends. He recalls a moment with Frank at dinner where he pointed to the colour of a bright sky blue napkin and Frank said that he remembered when his eyes used to be that colour. He said it without nostalgia or self pity.
The Frank musical didn’t work out. They had another idea for a Rasputin musical. “I asked Pavarotti if he would sing in it, although he was the wrong shape for Rasputin, but he had the right eyebrows. And then Marvel came up with an idea, would you like to write a musical around Spider Man? Julie Taymor is directing it. And it hurts me to say this, but she is tougher than we are in terms of her art. She is a master story teller. I met her on Across The Universe.” I don’t tell him but Across The Universe is the only film in my life that I’ve ever walked out on. It was Beatles songs set to a nonsensical non-story. Bono is enthusiastic though. It’s set to open on Broadway in November.
What would his super power be if he could choose one. He puzzles. Maybe he wants to fly or have X-ray vision, see inside people, make people do things? “I can do all that already.” He laughs.
He tells me he’s never had a journalist in his home before. I tell him that I’m flattered and he makes small of it. We go to eat dinner joined by Ali and the two directors of Edun, all childhood friends that know and trust each other. We eat chicken, vegetables, but no potatoes. Then cheese, chutney, and fancy crackers. Bono is at the head of the table, very much the performer now. A brilliant mimic, he treats us to his repertoire but disappears early for a conference call with LA leaving the rest of us drinking.
I spoke to The Edge who is in New York working on Spider-Man songs. “I’ve never written a waltz before,” he says, feeling pleased to have risen to a challenge.” How does it affect him, Bono not being there much of the time? “It works pretty well. Ideas come to him quickly. In a funny way it might work better for us to have him coming and going. If you are working on a project for a long time you probably struggle with it because I’m the guy working most closely with the music, initially on my own. So what I really love is being able to hear it through Bono’s ears.”
The Edge and Bono are that close. It’s not a problem for him to hear through his ears. In France they live in a house next door to one another and in Dublin they can see each other’s houses. They choose to spend time together, even though they get to spend less time together now.
“He always relishes coming back, which is another good thing. U2 gave Bono the opportunity and a platform, so in many ways Bono’s work is just an extension of the band. Our life informs our music. It’s a natural development. The interest in civil rights was there from the beginning. We don’t necessarily agree on every single aspect of his work. For instance when he did his photograph with George Bush I was set against it because photographs speak so loudly. There was some disquiet from U2 fans, but ultimately I think what he did turned out to be right.” Would you say your relationship with him has changed? “No. We are very close. He is my best friend.?
Adam Clayton doesn’t worry that Bono’s campaigning could ever jeopardise U2. “It’s hard to see into the future, but there’s no reason why Bono’s activism would mean he would give up the band. I think he couldn’t campaign without the band. It’s much less of a proposition for him to be a campaigner without the weight of the band behind him. His writing is very much informed by what he learns in the political arena. It’s not enough for him to watch the News at Ten on a daily basis and form his views from that.” Has it changed the dynamic though? “I think he would always find things to occupy himself. Back in the days when we were loading gear into the back of a Transit van and everyone was pulling together, he would always be off finding somebody to talk to rather than unload the van, and I don’t think it’s really changed.
January 2009. I meet with Jamie Drummond, cofounder of ONE. He has a clear eyed intelligence. “The crisis that is enfolding in the financial world is not dissimilar to the crisis of poverty or climate change. It had to get worse and worse and worse. It seems it is in no one’s interest to take it seriously until it feels like it is almost too late. Wouldn’t be great if human nature were better at anticipating crises. At least on extreme poverty, we hope groups like ONE can help encourage the public to get ahead of the crisis”
Doesn’t the world financial crisis seriously affect all arguments for fighting extreme poverty? Listening to Drummond, he switches it all around to make it make sense. “If Africans were wealthier they could buy our products. With more wealth, people have fewer kids, which can mean amongst other things lower carbon emissions. There will be fewer immigration problems and that is something southern Europe is really worried about. So at a time where simple moral value based arguments might not resonate, these are the hard headed arguments that get through to people.”
DATA – Debt, Aid, Trade, Africa – was the original organisation, it did just advocacy. It helped give birth to both Red and ONE. Red to take care of the private sector and raising money to fight AIDS and ONE to persuade the public to get money and better out of governments to beat poverty, especially in Africa.
Drummond, who is 38, worked for Christian Aid in the mid-nineties in Ethiopia, increasingly aware that Live Aid had made very little difference, all the money that had come to Ethiopia from Live Aid was only servicing the debt run up by the immoral dictatorship.
It was Drummond who helped promote the idea called Jubilee 2000, which set about giving Africa a new start by cancelling billions of dollars of debt. He didn’t know Bono but tried to enlist his support as a way to help sell his idea to the White House. When an Irish voice came on the phone he thought it was a friend playing a joke, but Bono is prone to just picking up the phone to people when they least expect it.
Drummond recalls, “We got involved in the first place because of a grassroots jubilee movement for global justice, and specifically because the great moral leaders of our time, Mandela and Tutu, asked that Bono and others who had supported the anti-apartheid campaign, get back involved in the campaign for justice and against poverty. We’ve been working for them and that mandate ever since. Tutu’s our international patron and Bono is in regular contact with Grace Machel and Mandela.
“When we negotiated the Millennium Challenge Account – giving more money to countries that were democracies, fighting corruption, with no linkage to the war on terror – we got Bush’s support. I think they realised that development could be part of winning the war on terror. By the end of 2002 after negotiations had happened at the Monterey summit, President Bush appeared in a photo with Bono.”
It was a picture that took negotiation and positioning. It’s one thing to appear in a picture with Clinton when there was no war and they are like minded individuals. But in the picture that aligned himself to Bush, Bono risked alienating many people. It is not just Larry Mullen Jr who has no respect for warmongers. To appear with Bono played to Bush’s advantage. It put him in a position as a compassionate conservative when the rest of his agenda was not compassionate. Although at this time Bush was popular he was certainly not popular with the left or centre, and giving aid to Africa is left or centre territory. Bono knows if you want aid you can’t pick sides, but yet you have to make everyone feel you are on the same side.
When Bush first announced $15 billion was being given to well-governed poor countries for the Millennium Challenge, Bono agreed to be in the picture with him. “People were saying how could you be in a picture with this person and we said, ‘But it gets us billions of dollars for poor people in Africa, it’s a price worth paying’. It was billions of dollars. He’s not a cheap date. This opened the door to more. The AIDS initiative helped Africans put 3 million people on life saving drugs. This stuff is effective and in part it flowed from tough decisions like hanging out with President Bush.”
How do you think he won over Bush to get this money? Was it charisma, was it charm? “If he had just charm but he didn’t have a credible grounding in policy it would only get him so far. It’s charm, passion, credibility together. It’s often the case that a prime minister or president doesn’t read the briefing before meeting with a rock star because they don’t expect to be challenged on policy details. Our goal is to get them to read the briefings on our issue in the first place. Then they start to own the issue, and Bono is reminding people why they got into politics in the first place. With most politicians there is an idealistic kernel, a seed, that sets you on your way, Bono goes back to that original DNA that is in every politician, that wants to do good, and he nurtures it with a few facts and a bit of charm, and a feeling like if you team with this guy you can make a disproportionate difference.”
Why do you feel people feel so connected to him? “It’s an amazing talent, and it’s an understanding of the opportunity that you can make a difference. You can try and change the world. It’s an exciting obligation and a pretty powerful potent thing. But it would be unsuccessful if he didn’t make it fun. I find this grim do-gooding portrayal of him quite irritating because he is a fun loving character, a very good mimic, and is quite happy to get salty mouthed, and he notices things that you haven’t noticed about yourself.”
Not only is it more of a challenge to get money for Africa in a world financial crisis, when you’ve spent eight years targeting Republicans, suddenly they are out of power and you have to make new friends with Democrats. Of course you can’t pick sides, but you can also lose allies. Obama doesn’t need extra charisma or a photo with a rock star, he has everything that a rock star has already.
Says Drummond, “It would have been easy to imagine that Obama was finally our dream candidate, let’s just support him all the way. But that wouldn’t do him any favours and for our issues to get through we need the support of the Republicans and of everyone and we need never stop working both sides. In that sense he has taken celebrity advocacy to a new level.”
Partly because he never stops and partly because of his belief if you really want a big thing to happen why bother with a medium sized thing. If you can call the President of the United States, why not.
March 2009. We are in Nancy Pelosi’s office, a symphony of peach and beige, as is the woman herself. She is glowing, tangibly excited to be with Bono. As Speaker of the House of Representatives she has invited chairs of various caucuses, special campaigning interest groups within the party, to sit with her to discuss the aid budget and how to defend it. She introduces him. “The one good thing President Bush did was to increase the aid budget for Africa. That was the only good thing he did and you were the transformer, you persuaded him to do that.”
There follows a sometimes tense discussion going on about a proposed $4 billion cut to Obama’s aid budget. It’s a powerful group of about twelve that includes people who write the laws that govern foreign policy and people who write the cheques. Jan Schakowsky ,influential Democrat from Illinois gets a buzz on her Blackberry, it’s a campaign email from the ONE organisation urging her to restore the cuts, a complete coincidence. Bono sees it as a sign, not a mystic sign, evidence that THE organisation is absolutely connected.
Bono and Pelosi work the room together, sparking off one another. Pelosi sending people out to vote. They need to vote but they need to come back. It could have been a very distracted meeting that lacked momentum but it didn’t. It aroused hope, dispersed the grimness of the situation.
The Senate House is stone cold, echoy corridors. We head to Patrick Leahy, Senator for Vermont. Bono says, “This man is like John Wayne.” It’s his birthday. Bono will give him a cup cake since gifts of more than a few dollars have now been banned. Leahy says, “I’ve seen him win over diehard conservatives. A couple of members of our congress have an almost dismissive attitude to AIDS in Africa, yet he gets in touch with them and they get back on the programme. He has walk-in privilege to this office any time. Only Audrey Hepburn, Bono and my grandchildren have had this privilege.”
Leahy first met Bono 20 years ago and they have since worked on various humanitarian issues. “There are millions of people in this world who will never know who you are and will never know your music because they’ll never have the money to buy it. All that they know is that their lives are immeasurably better because of you.” Leahy is twinkly eyed, all passion and heart. No surprise that Bono connected with him.
A connection with Josh Bolten was less obvious, but as Bolten was Bush’s chief of staff, and before that the budget director, it was essential for Bono to find one. When they met 12 years ago, when Bolten was Bush’s campaign director, Bolten had never seen a U2 concert. In a gamekeeper turned poacher sort of way, he is now on the board of ONE.
“Over the years that I have had interaction with Bono you could never say that he was unreasonable in his ask, but he was going to ask you for more than you were reasonably planning. He was always very well calibrated in his ask. Asking us to make a stretch, but not ridiculously.”
Does Bolten think the aid budget that Bush so dramatically increased is in jeopardy? “It may be. It may be rebranded so it has Obama’s stamp on it to attract more Democratic support.” He was there the first time Bush met Bono. “He was wearing a black suit, black shirt, sunglasses, his Washington outfit and he brought with him an Irish bible as a gift. The president was shocked that there was this crazy rock star who is also a person of faith. The president’s faith is exaggerated as a factor in his daily life. His faith was very private, but it’s a deep faith. Bono is also a person of faith, so he wasn’t untrue to himself, he wasn’t faking but he chose the right element of himself to present, so they hit it off.”
Did they have a special bond? “I think it took a while to build a bond. They didn’t agree on everything. They had a negotiation about the announcement of the Millennium Challenge initiative. Bush was announcing a programme and therefore there would be a photograph of Bono with Bush. Bono was reluctant. A lot of people on the left did not like President Bush, so Bono was courageous. Bono is a charming, persuasive man. He’s very good at all this.”
David Lane, the President and CEO of ONE, used to work the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation. Bono and Bobby Shriver approached Gates in 2002 for funding to start DATA. “The idea of Bill Gates funding a lobby and Bono was pretty far out.”
Although they have known each other for several years, and are friendly they are not super close, yet “It’s kind of shocking. He remembers every conversation we’ve ever had.”
April 2009. Bono and I are in a car on the way to Dulles Airport, Washington DC. He’s wearing jeans, a purple shirt, a black tie undone, pink lenses and a grey furry coat. He says he saw dogs in the street, not dissimilar to the coat, taking an interest in him. He smelt expensive and seductive, like a wooden cigar box.
The meetings in Washington have been partly tense, partly euphoric. There is a threat that the billions will be decreased, but Nancy Pelosi thinks she’ll be able to make it alright. Everybody I have talked to has applauded Bono for his knowledge and charm. The common thread is that he remembers everything about them, their birthdays, their children’s birthdays. His brain for detail is exemplary. How come?
“When I was very young I used to play chess and I was good at it. I can learn useless minutiae, but actually I can forget my way home, or I’ve been known after the tour is long over to come downstairs and get in the back of my own car. But I think you remember what’s important to you. I remember asking Seamus Heaney’s wife how did he remember so many other people’s poems and she said, ‘Words are very important to him.'”
I tell him that I have been thinking about his mother and why I find it strange that he can remember so many inane details, so many facts, but almost nothing about his mother. Is that because he has to live in the present? “Maybe, that might be the answer. And that there is only a certain amount of real estate. The brain is no different to the body. A couple of press-ups and a few weights and it can reshape. My curiosity in all these different directions has been a boot camp for my brain. People who I would have thought of as much faster on their feet, you suddenly seem to jog past after these kind of gruelling days. Every meeting is a monkey puzzle.”
Are your memories of losing your mother so painful that if you carried them with you, you think it would slow you down? “Are you suggesting I have baggage?” I tell him I’ve been puzzling about it for weeks. That I feel I know as much about his mother as he does. He laughs, not nervously or self consciously, but tells me in all his memories she’s laughing. “Yes, maybe it is about not wanting to slow down. With U2 we don’t think about an album as soon as we finish it, we’re on to the next thing. We’ve always been like that.”
This fits in with the idea that he can’t stand people who moan. “I can’t stand cranks and whingers. My favourite quality is lack of self pity. I really like people who have none. I know people with just a tiny fragment of difficulty and they spend the rest of their life walking with a limp. And actually I don’t think I’ve had much to overcome in my life, the odd black eye, the odd broken tooth.” What about a broken heart? “Heart… You only know you have a heart when it’s broken. When you are a singer in a band you stick your neck out for a living, you get used to knocks. And I’ve noticed that the spleen and ire of your enemy usually takes them out, not you, so you don’t have to do anything, almost. There is nothing more attractive than energy moving forward. I think our band has it, our movement has it, and it’s exciting to be on that train.”
Does it never make you feel schizophrenic? “I think I’m more and more myself in every situation. On the surface I can be insecure. You wouldn’t be a singer in a band if you didn’t need a chorus of voices to call your name. But deep down I am really not. I feel I am on solid rock. On another level I feel a strong foundation, so you can take an inordinate amount of thumps and I’m not knocked off my feet.”
As an artist he’ll feel criticism sorely, but as an activist if he’s turned away he just keeps on coming back. That’s part of the train. Bono knows how to make it a special ride. Charm is an overwhelming factor, even though he doesn’t acknowledge he has it. “I have got manners. I try and look after people. Maybe it’s insecurity because you’re trying too hard, trying to please people.”
What he has is an ability to connect on a really deep level really quickly.. “If people are open to be connected with that’s the kind of people I want to be with.” Many people feel that strong connection with you. “But I might not feel it back. I’m a man who sees friendship as a kind of sacrament. I take friendship very seriously and as a result I have some extraordinary friends, in the band, in my marriage, in all the spheres that I move in.” Never at any point does he take credit for doing this all on his own. He’s always thanking people loudly. “I have a day job, I do this part-time. There is a huge network from Oxfam to Concern to Civicus and Taso, people like Kumi Naidoo, Wangar Mataai, John Gitongo, who work on these issues in every waking moment. They are the rock stars, I am the fan.”
I wonder does he see Ali as a lioness, he so often references lioness energy as being powerful and dangerous. “Very much so. Our relationship has changed a lot. For a while I thought I was in charge, I was the hunter protector. A few years ago it became clear there was somebody else in charge and I feel like I hold on a lot tighter to her than she does to me, and that slightly bothers me. She is so independent and I sometimes wish she wasn’t.”
Of course you warm to him because he fesses up to his insecurities. His insecurities make his self belief engaging, human. At the airport we say goodbye. I’ve been following him around for so long it feels a sad separation. Everybody who’s lives he moves in feel they have rights over him, that he is their special friend. He may know nothing about this. I wonder could Clinton and Bush, Blair, Obama, the Polish Pope, Frank Sinatra, all feel this connection. The connection is what it’s all about. If you feel you own a piece of him you also feel an obligation to him, to change the world, and that’s how he does it.
Tom Freston, Chairman of The Board for One and on the Board of Red, first met Bono 20 years ago when he was running MTV. He was responsible for seminal television like Beavis and Butthead, South Park, and The Real World on which all future reality shows were to be based. He was fired from Viacom, the parent company, two years ago. “Bono rang me right away. They had started ONE when I was head of Viacom. It made sense that it was something that all the networks, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, VH1 should be involved in. We were always looking for good pro social things to tie in to. He called me the day after I was fired and said this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” This informs my theory Bono doesn’t see negativity.
“He sees the good in everybody. He has a force within himself that’s slightly different from him, bigger than him. He’s aware of it and he can align himself to it to convince people to do things with a sense of urgency. He does this with great poetry, to be able to take this force and somehow make great things come from it. He’s irresistible in a way when he asks people for things. He has a sense of purpose that you can find yourself wanting to align yourself to. He can talk to almost anybody in their own language. He’s friends to the rich and poor. He seems extra human when you see him in action. I know that’s not a proper word, but I don’t know where it all comes from. It’s some spirit, this force in him, maybe even apart from him.”
I have seen this force in action and it is indeed as messianic as Freston describes it, but it’s not saintly. The Washington trip was days that started at 7.30am, maybe 13 meetings a day, then a business dinner. Freston says, “Some nights I’ve seen him be up drinking all night long and the next morning he’ll address 200 freshman representatives with Nancy Pelosi. I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth, but he just lets them have it meeting after meeting.
Like when he calls someone a lioness, that person feels they are a lioness. It’s endearing. But it’s also smart and smart aid seems to be the new buzz word , the kind of aid that’s proven that it works, for instance malarial nets, antiviral drugs, given money to governments who are not corrupt or wasteful. In a recession you want relevant statistics, you want to see results. How Bono does what he does might be mystical, but the results are real.
There are a lot of people in Mariah’s house – a grandiose mansion in a gated community in a suburb of Los Angeles. There’s a camera crew, sound guys, make-up people, photographers, photographer’s assistants, housekeepers, manager, manager’s assistant, bodyguards and people who carry things around.
Outside it’s blackly dark and deathly quiet, inside it’s intense buzzing tour preparation and all of this must be filmed for a documentary. For a person who is notoriously private, it seems strange but not as strange as the hours she and the cast of many seem to keep.
She brushes past me in a black laced up gown and vertiginous Tom Ford heels. Everyone else in the house, including her glamorous manager, seem to be wearing Louboutins. The glamorous manager has reptile Louboutins, drips exquisite jewllery and long thick curls. She tells me I may have to wait.. Mariah has just come back from an event and there is all kinds of filming and I am sure not what else has to be done. A hundred things .So I wait.
I wait in the house that arrived pre-furnished with its over-stuffed couches, mahogany twirly bits and endless chandeliers. The bathroom with its black velvet walls and its black diamond monogrammed hand towels.
I inspect the silver-framed pictures of Mariah and her twins Monroe and Moroccan: they’re at the beach, they’re on a boat, they’re in the sea. They look relaxed in some other life that is the opposite to this bubble of chaos. It’s always just Mariah and her beautiful babies – there’s no man involved. There’s not even a photographic hint of her former husband actor-rapper-entrepreneur-TV presenter Nick Cannon or a hint of her new fiance James Packer, son of the billionaire publishing magnate. He is described as businessman, investor and philanthropist but even Mariah seems unclear about what he actually does.
I’m in a corner perched on a window seat. I email her manager who is somewhere else in the cavernous house to say I need to leave by midnight, knowing there’s very little chance I will.
Every aspect of Mariah’s life is to be filmed and therefore I must be filmed. I resist. This does not go down well. No one seems to understand why I am not thrilled. When a lens the size of a small television looms in, I reach for my jacket to go. Mariah says in her velvet purr: “why don’t you want to be filmed Chrissy?”
Because I want to talk to her not worry about a camera. Because I want cozy, intimate not a performance. She gets it, she asks them to go away. She seems relieved too, that she’s not being scrutinized.
Why does she have all these people in her house? “I want people to see the whole thing, it’s a busy time right now and I happen to be on a night schedule.” (Indeed, communicating with her in the day has been impossible, not because she is a diva but because she was simply asleep). “I do sleep in the daytime but not all day because of the kids so it’s a little bit sporadic. I need to sleep and so I do. I’ve always been a night person. When I was six years old I wasn’t able to sleep. It started then. I was up all night and that was the precedent.”
I am sitting on a velvet cushion on the floor beside her who is in what can only loosely be described as a chair. It’s a multi pillowed arm chair that is halfway between a couch and a chair for a giant. She looks tiny, whatever diet she has been on has clearly worked.
When I look up it’s into her mesmerizing dark eyes, soulful, vulnerable, shy eyes. You imagine her as that child who couldn’t sleep, who felt she didn’t fit anywhere with a white Irish mother and an absent African-Venezuelan father. She was three when her parents divorced. But still, a determined spirit whose only catharsis was singing and writing songs and who never really considered she would do anything else. I am overwhelmed about an incredible sweetness about her. The fact that she’s not confident or showy she doesn’t carry herself as a woman who knows she has the five octave range voice, one of the single most identifiable voices of her generation. The last time she toured Europe was 2003 and she wants to make sure everything is right. After that she will come back for a residency in Vegas which, she says, is an entirely different show.
“I love everything to do with music, I love the creative process, my favourite place is the studio. I love writing songs – to me that’s the best gift.”
She’s been writing songs since she was six and she used to sing them underneath the table because she felt that was the only way she could express herself.
She nods. “t was cathartic. Suddenly I’d come up with a melody. It would come from out of the blue, like a gift, nothing like it.” Prepping for the tour with its endless rehearsals and dress fittings seems less creative. She nods.
Does she have a special diet? An exercise regime? “Yes. My diet is very bleak.” Bleak is one of her favourite words. She giggles. “I overuse the word because there is a lot of bleakness going on. My bleak diet is horrendous but I don’t want to tell anyone about it because it’s none of their business.” I tell her the bleak diet is working well. She sinks further back into her pillows. “I just don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want people commenting.” It seems like she gets hurt if there are nasty comments and a picture where she looks fat but this Mariah in before me is super svelte and even much photographed magnificent breasts are reined in. She’s losing her voice a little. She is rasping. I read that she sleeps with ten humidifiers. She nods. “I need them. At least four or five around my bed. I want them in the bedroom, a group of them. I also like to have a steam.”
Her children will be going on tour with her. “My son keeps asking can we go on an airplane. They’ve been traveling since they were three months old.” Her daughter Monroe, named after Mariah’s long-time girl crush Marilyn, likes to sing.
“She was singing last night with her friend. I can tell she’s got a really good ear – she can mimic what I can do. But she’s only four-and a half and it’s not fair for me to push it on her, so I am allowing her to be who she is. At the moment she’d rather just be silly with it. She knows she’s named after Marilyn and she can recognise her in pictures but I haven’t shown her the movies yet. They are into Disney and Halloween. It took a lot to get them to transition into Christmas.” So she has mini Goth twins? “No, I’m gonna nip that in the bud.”
She had a difficult pregnancy. Pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and it was suggested that the twins should be induced at 33 weeks. She refused because she didn’t want to be separated from them by an incubator when they were born. “I wanted to keep them with me as long as I could which was until 35 weeks and that worked out good.
There’s a flutter of her luscious eyelashes and I admire the diamond butterfly ring and then I notice the engagement ring. It’s not so much a rock, it’s a brick. It’s a mini choc-ice.
I wonder if she met Packer when she toured Australia. “No. I met him in Aspen where I go every year for Christmas. My friend Brett Ratner (film director and producer) are partners in business. So he invited me over. I didn’t feel like leaving the house but I went anyway. This was about two years ago and I didn’t see him again until I was at a movie premier, we started talking, joking around – stuff like that.” What’s his business with Brett Radner? I don’t want to talk too much about what he does but they produce movies. That’s not his entire job but that’s one of them.”
She once said that growing up without a strong male figure in her life on a day-to-day basis affected a lot of her decision making. It perhaps made her see her first husband, record company boss Tommy Mottola, as a stable father figure. He ended up being stifling. Does she still crave that kind of stability? “My perspective on that has changed. I don’t think it was because I was without a father figure, I think there were lots of elements about my childhood that made me who I am. Some made me stronger, some made me more vulnerable. It’s was a combo plate.”
So what’s on her combo plate now? “Oh my gosh it’s just way too full.” Does she feel happy? “Sometimes.”
“Do you feel happy?” Rarely I tell her “Really? We have to change that. You just have to find the comedy in everything. There’s just so much nonsense that’s just not worth spiraling over.
She oozes empathy. I bring it back to her. Does she work compulsively?
“I had the whole summer off. I was relaxing with the kids. Right now, there’s a lot on. I do really enjoy performing. I like having an experience with people trying to make them feel that they are not just watching an untouchable person. I want them to feel like they are in my living room. I like to talk to them a lot. I want to give them something different.”
Is the dress she’s wearing, a figure-hugging black maxi dress, a tour outfit or a lounging in the house outfit? “I am wearing it because I went to an event but I can lounge in this – it’s stretchy.” Although her high heels have been cast off, she still walks on her toes. “Ever since I was a little girl I liked to walk on tippy toes like a Barbie. My babysitter used to say I was walking like a Barbie. I only had one Barbie and I cut its hair. Then I went to beauty school but dropped out. I was singing and working in Manhattan and I didn’t have time for those early morning classes. But I feel that I’ve learnt in life because I’ve worked with almost every great hair and make-up person there is. My tips? I never will wear red lips – they just don’t look good on me. My ideal day? Lying on the beach without a camera or a phone surrounded by pink sand and the water.” That’s sounding a little honeymooney.
Do you have your wedding planned? “It’s a secret.” It’s really happening? She waves the brick at me and says: “I’m not doing this for laughs.” That ring is pretty hilarious in the way that if you’ve got that ring on your finger you will definitely be grinning. “I enjoy it. When you grow up without a lot of things… I try not to take things for granted.” Why does she like the idea of marriage as opposed to just being in love- she has two failed ones behind her so she is not burnt from the experience. She looks at me very seriously. “I am very traditional. I have babies, it’s more appropriate. I don’t know if most people can relate to that but that’s just how I feel”
Did you know straight away that he was the one or was he a slow burn? “Oh we’re not going to talk too much about this part?” she says sounding a little tortured. “If I start talking about this relationship people will interpret it in their own way, so I think it’s safer for everyone involved to just not talk about the very personal aspect of this relationship.” But is she happy? “Yes. And content but I am also very busy.” Her voice is now cracking with exhaustion. “I am a private person.” And that brings me back to why the cameras are here. “We can’t announce what it’s for yet. It’s a very big thing for me.” A very private person who now has no privacy. “Yes, it’s annoying. I wanted to document this tour because I don’t know when I am going on tour again. I wish I could have documented other tours. I am documenting it for the fans, they’ll love it.”
Much has been made of the fact that Mariah would like to do some more acting. She was extremely well received in the movie Precious, which was hugely applauded but won’t be drawn any further on if she would ever swap singing for acting. She doesn’t enjoy being snapped by the paparazzi and quizzes me when I say I saw a photo of her online recently eating ice-cream. “Ice-cream? Not on the bleak diet. That must have been very old.”
So many contradictions. She feels invaded by the paparazzi and yet there are cameras in her house at all hours.
“I am a pretty insecure person but I have to get over that because this is the reality of my life. I look better than I looked a few months ago but I am definitely not one of those people who says ‘i look amazing today’. I have to point out this is a rented house – I would never have overhead lighting. High hats, they call them. In my apartment in New York it’s all recessed lighting, chandeliers, candles. This lighting is abusive.” I tell her I interviewed Dita Von Teese recently at her house where she insists all walls should be pink with no overhead lighting so you can feel you look good when you walk around naked. “That’s my thing about the pink. I rarely walk around naked in the areas that are pink. You still want to look good with clothes on! When I was pregnant, I had a house with lots of antique mirrors on the walls so as I walked around I couldn’t help but look at myself – this huge pregnant woman. I hated myself for decorating the house with all these mirrors. I was so mad at myself.” She laughs and there’s a real lightness to her laugh.
Her manager tells me that Mariah’s light is infectious and now my whole life is going to change because she shed her light on me. Her fairy dust has been showered. There is something so unexpectedly intoxicating about Mariah. The eyes…the giggles….the empathic being. Definitely wasn’t expecting those. You get why people go to her shows to bathe in her glow.
Mr and Mrs Neil Diamond look strangely similar even though he is 71 and she is 42. The same eyes, the same slightly wary nature, sensitive and warm. And when they smile they smile with their whole face.
Katie has an obvious kindness about her. She looks after him both as a manager and as a wife. They met when she was working for the management company to whom he had recently signed. It was not love at first sight, it was business, until gradually she wove her way into his heart. They got married earlier this year.
He too has an almost puppy like desire to please her. Both of them seem to carry a kind of emotional weight.
He has spoken before about his life as a solitary journey – how he was lost in the creative process.
Diamond talks with his slow gravelly voice, it’s almost a purr. He’s talked before about being a loner, about how his past relationships have suffered because he was driven by his music and his songwriting.
With time and maybe love he’s realised he doesn’t have to enjoy only solitude and that he likes people as well. ‘There was no eureka moment where I went hey, I’m going to be with people and have fun. It was a gradual growing up, a gradual self-awareness. I always liked having fun with audiences.’
We are seated in a badly lit New York hotel room. Katie takes charge of pouring decaffeinated coffee. They seem extremely comfortable together. They met a year or so after he ended his long-term relationship with Australian production assistant Rae Farley. He met Farley the year after his divorce from his 25-year marriage to Marcia Murphey who he married the year he divorced his first wife, high school sweetheart Jaye Posner.
He felt a lot of guilt about the failure of his 25-year-old marriage. So much so that he didn’t bother to correct rumours that said he paid his wife $150 million, said to be the highest recorded alimony settlement at the time.
‘It wasn’t true,’ he says as he casts his eyes to the floor. He claims that newspapers simply made up the sum and he didn’t bother to correct it. Even his wife asked him about it. Was she happy with the settlement she did get? ‘She was. She got enough to live on for the rest of her life.’ Was he so generous because he felt such guilt? ‘Somewhat.’ He almost winces. ‘It’s true. I did feel bad.
‘I don’t have many feelings about my divorce now because we’ve been divorced for 20 years. I do have some feelings of guilt about my life. Guilty that I wasn’t with my kids more because I was travelling. But I’ve spoken to all of them a number of times about it. They all have good memories of growing up and I loved them completely when I was back in town. I was theirs full-time.’
Maybe it makes it more special and intense to have a father that works on the road. Maybe if you’d been around all the time there would have been more bickering?
‘That’s right,’ his eyes lighting. ‘I have never bickered with my kids. I was always happy to see them and they were always happy to see me. And I think they still are.’
He has had a lifelong relationship with guilt. ‘I see a therapist. She is very useful. I learned to express myself and I learned about myself with the help of a psychologist. She didn’t make me a better songwriter but she made me an easier person for me to live with. She had nothing to do with my songs – that’s a solo effort. She’s made my life a lot easier because I understand things a bit better, because I’m not torturing myself.
‘I used to blame myself for everything. I have moderated my feelings over the years. Guilt and achievement and responsibility, all of these things…’
You felt guilty for achieving? ‘No. Achievement is one of the things you have to deal with. Your self-achievement, your self-image. I never felt guilty for achieving anything because I always worked for it. but sometimes I feel I am worthless, useless. What am I here for, what am I doing?’
Does he still feel like that? ‘Sometimes. And somehow you have to deal with it. My psychologist has been very helpful in opening the doors to my mind and help me understand myself and the reality of life. I see her once a week, face to face. Occasionally I’ll call her on the phone if I’m out of town. But it’s almost always face to face and I have been doing it for ten years.’
There must have been an instant knowingness when he and Katie first met. ‘No, there was nothing. She was just another business person handing me work to do and another business person I was trying to get away from. I stopped trying to get away after a year or so, once I got to know the person she was, and I liked that person very much. Katie’s got a big heart and she’s very transparent. I can read her heart from a mile away. She does a terrific English accent which makes me laugh every time she does it. Katie, remember where we were staying last time we were in London, darling?’
‘Dawchester,’ says Katie, in a very strange cockney posh. But it’s a valiant attempt. Did it take Katie a year for him to weave his way into her heart? ‘No, she loved me immediately,’ he laughs, a very low naughty laugh.
Katie says, very politely, ‘I took my work very seriously. And when we first started working together it was work on both sides. I wanted to work with him. He was one of the biggest iconic singer songwriters of all time and as a manager I was thrilled to have him as a client. We worked very closely for that first year because he was on tour and we spent a lot of time together. When we first met neither of us were interested in each other. He was work as far as I was concerned.’
They were both single and available? They both nod. I wonder if he’d resigned himself to being alone for the rest of his life after his two marriages and long-term relationship had fallen apart.
‘No, I had not resigned myself to being single, but I wasn’t looking. I was busy doing my work and Katie appeared. It was totally unplanned and unexpected.’
How does he make sure that their relationship keeps working? In the past he’s said that music was his main mistress. Music demands from him emotions that are intense. His second marriage is said to have failed because he didn’t have enough time emotionally or physically left over for his family.
Is it complicated working together having a business relationship as well as a romantic one? ‘We are still working on that because there are times where the work will interfere with our personal relationship. There are times I want to talk about something and we might be in the middle of having breakfast together. I’ll want to talk about something coming up and Katie doesn’t want to talk about that. She wants to do the crossword puzzle and have breakfast, so she’ll say “Can we talk about this later or can we set up a meeting to talk about it?” And I have to say, OK. We’ll talk about it another time.
‘We’re still in the process of working this all out. It requires some give and take on both our parts. I respect her a lot. She’s a professional. She’s very experienced. She knows the business and that allows me to not be drawn into the business part so much. It allows the creative part of me time to blossom, time for me to write songs, time for me to do what I do best.’
Does he write songs more easily when he’s happy in love or more miserable? ‘Misery has never been a productive stimulus. I’d rather be in a good frame of mind because then you’re energetic, you’re outgoing. Although I have written some of my best songs when I’ve been down and not particularly happy.
‘I get unhappy if I get stuck on a song, if I can’t get a line that is satisfactory to me or if I’m working on an idea all day and it’s not working out. That can really preoccupy and distract me. If one of my kids is sick I’m unhappy. If I get a cold I’m unhappy. If I’m underworked I’m unhappy. If I’m overworked I’m unhappy.’
He says all of this with a sense of irony. Most of that severe unhappiness seems to be in the past. He actually strikes me as a very happy man.
Diamond’s many moods from dark to exuberant, can be found on his just released The Very Best Of Neil Diamond featuring all beloved classics like Solitary Man, Sweet Caroline, Beautiful Noise, Hello Again, and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, the duet with Barbra Streisand. He is working on songs for a new album and that is going well.
‘I’m happy because I’m occupied with something that I love doing. Keeping busy is the most important element of me being happy and of course having a wonderful wife makes me happy, to know that I don’t have to go through my life and bear it alone. That’s a happy thought for me. I have someone to talk to about it.’
Was he lonely when he met Katie? ‘I think I was probably lonely. I don’t like to be alone. I’d much rather be in a loving relationship with a woman any day than being alone.’
Did his last long-term relationship (with Rae Farley) end unhappily? ‘I’d say it did end unhappily. It wasn’t a serious relationship. It was going nowhere. There were no marriage plans. It was difficult. It lasted too long.’
Did it last too long because it’s hard to end things even though it’s hard to be in them? ‘I think so,’ he nods earnestly, still troubled by the thought of it.
On stage he has always been a flamboyant performer, over the top, fantastical gyrations that would seem impossible for a man of his age who today walks a little stiffly and places himself in a hard backed chair. He’s wearing dark jeans and a dark sweater, his face craggy and hair more salt than pepper, but he’s extremely magnetic. His eyes draw you in to their suffering and his need to connect. He has over 60,000 followers on Twitter and he follows no one.
‘I believe I am allowed to be over the top on stage and I enjoy that part of myself. Tweeting is expressive, I wouldn’t say therapeutic, I wouldn’t put it that deeply, but I like to share what I’m thinking. Here’s a picture of my dog. It’s funny.’
The Diamonds live in LA where they love walking their dogs Poker and Shamrock and Katie likes to ride horses and spend time with her rescued cat Brigitte. Diamond is particularly close to the dog he calls Pokey who he rescued from being put to sleep. They never buy animals, only ever rescue them.
‘There was something about his eyes that got to me. He was a funny looking guy (part spaniel part something else). I looked at him and he looked at me back. There was a little bit of communication. So I asked this person who was in charge of adoption do you mind if I take this dog for a walk so I can get to know him and see if we like each other. He said sure, so I took a leash and Pokey and I went for a walk and we had a heart to heart. I asked him how he was doing and where he lived before. He was a grown-up dog, mature, and he said, “I don’t want to talk about that right now” so we talked about life and he was enjoying the smells. This is all mentally. And we got to know each other and I got to like him. I think he got to like me. So I said I’m going to take this dog home because I think we can get along and I did just that. The guy in charge of the adoptions was called Chance so that’s why I called him Poker.
‘He’s a great dog and we’re great pals. I talk to him all the time. Don’t people usually talk to their animals? Our conversations are quite abbreviated. We haven’t discussed the Bible yet or the meaning of life, but we have discussed, “No Pokey it’s not a good idea to jump on the couch right now.” And he goes, “Oh okay.” He’s a very reasonable dog. That’s one of the things I appreciate about him.’
Shamrock was a golden retriever puppy who Katie fell in love with when she ran into him at a farm where she rides horses. ‘He’s a very affectionate dog and somehow you have to put a little control over his affections. He will climb up on your lap and sit there, but he is as big as a person.’
Possibly Shamrock is Katie and Pokie is Diamond. ‘That’s exactly right,’ he says. I’m wondering was Shamrock the first significant present he gave Katie and was this the gift that established their relationship? ‘I was her first big present. I’m not taking second place.’
When you decide to get a dog with someone it’s making a statement that you are getting domestic, that you are moving in a permanent direction.
‘Yes, I’ve heard that but I never thought that. I have given puppies as presents before because I love dogs and I thought it would be nice. Katie wanted Shamrock. ‘
Katie was at a friend’s farm where she rides horses and she discovered one of their dogs had puppies. She fell in love with Shamrock, a golden retriever puppy.
‘I didn’t really want another dog, I thought Poker was just fine. But Katie’s got a big heart so I grudgingly in a way said alright, Shamrock it is. And he turns out to be a good guy.’
He is quite a contradiction. On the one hand he loves to make people laugh and loves nothing better than to charm an audience. He is warm, easy to connect with, yet he has spent most of his life in his own head, even if he was in a relationship. His best friend is the one he met at high school who is waiting downstairs to have lunch with him.
He met Herb Cohen when he was 17 and Herb was the captain of the high school fencing team. They had an instant connection and Diamond joined the team. ‘He was the best, I was the worst. But scouts offering scholarships for college came to look at Herb, so they took me as well. We went to NYU together.’
He once said that he didn’t make friends like normal people. ‘I do have other friends. I made a point of opening myself up and allowing myself to make friends. Before that all I had was my work, my family and that was it. The only people I had contact with were the people that work for me and my kids. I’m in touch with my kids all the time.’
I imagine there was an unfathomable void in his life when his 25 year marriage disintegrated. Is he in touch with his ex-wives? ‘I am but not on a regular basis. When it is called for. When it is necessary. To talk about the kids. Sometimes to talk about other things.’
‘My first wife was Jewish. My second wife was not Jewish. My third wife is Catholic. There will not be a fourth wife by the way. I’ve been warned by Katie.’
I ask Katie what exactly did she do to warn him? She blushes. ‘I haven’t warned him anything.’ He interrupts. ‘She hasn’t. I just don’t want ever to lose her. She is too fantastic.’
What is being in love like for him? ‘Being in love completes the perfection of my life. If there was anything missing in the last 20 years it was that I was not in love with anybody and I am in love with Katie. I am in love and I love her.’
I ask Katie is she in love? ‘Absolutely.’
Does she think that’s different to loving somebody? ‘Yes, I do. And I both love him and am in love with him. I love him with all my heart.’ They look at each other. Their eyes lock. You believe them’.
The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ is Out Now
This holds true today. He walks into the room, his book publisher’s office, and his sheer charisma sets it on fire – tall, larger than life, black jeans, black polo, black soft jacket.
I meet him just as his autobiography Over The Top And Back comes out. It is a great read and funny. It charts his youth in the grim coal mining town of Pontypridd. It captures his Welshness.
He got tuberculosis for a year. His mother refused to send him to a sanatorium in Scotland so he was a virtual prisoner in his bedroom where he pined for his girlfriend Linda.
Linda’s presence is a haunting one throughout the book. Now his wife of 58 years he says that she is the only woman he has ever loved. You feel the love when they are kissing in the phone box at the end of their road.
You feel it when she becomes pregnant when they are both 16. They marry but don’t live together straight away. He works 12-hour shifts at the paper mill to support his wife and child. He didn’t want her to get a part-time job. He didn’t want anyone to flirt with her. ‘But most of all she didn’t like it. Linda is a very private person. She’s not a people person.’
When he goes to London to work on his singing career he sells his beloved leather jacket for the train fare back to Cardiff so he can see his wife and baby. In many ways he’s the traditional man. In many ways not.
The book is filled with anecdotes and encounters with Elvis, Paul McCartney, John Lennon – who tried to hold Jones’ hand at a curtain call for a performance in honour of Lew Grade. Jones dropped his hand. That was all too gay. It is something that he regrets now.
That and not standing his ground when Paul McCartney offered him The Long And Winding Road but his record company wanted to go with another. Other than that he is not big on regret.
Both his parents were ‘dressers’. They looked like they were going to a ball when they went down the club. Jones has always been a dresser. That image of him in the white open shirt, the hairy chest, the tuxedo trousers, is iconic. He says it came about because he was simply too hot to perform in a suit and when he took his tie off his then manager Gordon Mills knew that was the look – a raw macho look in the face of drippy hippy things. Jones recalls being on the same bill as The Rolling Stones once. ‘They turned up in suits and changed into their jeans to perform and I turned up in jeans and changed into my tuxedo.’
When Gordon Mills wrote the song It’s Not Unusual with Les Reed he was going to give it to Sandie Shaw but Jones had an instinct and that song changed his life. He could move out of Mills’ apartment in Notting Hill and buy a house, be reunited with his wife and have a red Jaguar. What’s New Pussycat?, Green Green Grass Of Home were the smashes that followed.
Jones moved to Los Angeles because of the tax imposed by the Labour Government in the late Sixties and has never come back to live. In the late Seventies through the Eighties he had a kind of identity crisis. He had put out some country albums and was playing Vegas-style shows in towns in the middle of nowhere around America where the most exciting thing about the show was going to the nicest restaurant in town afterwards.
Jones didn’t want to sign for another country album at Polydor. He might have got into a fight with his manager about that but Mills had been hiding the fact he had colon cancer and was drinking heavily. He died aged 51 in 1986.
Jones’ son Mark, who had been on the road with him since he was 16 took over and instantly brought him back to being authentic and current and being a voice. In 1988 he performed the Prince song Kiss on Jonathan Ross’s Last Resort. It was The Art of Noise arrangement of this song that made it a world hit. Another iconic Tom Jones song and his career was reborn. In 2006 he was made a knight of the realm and he also established a new fan base when he appeared as elder statesman in four series of BBC1 talent show The Voice from 2012 to 2015.
He was always known as The Voice and on his new album Long Lost Suitcase that voice is richer and deepened. Darkened. It shakes the senses with its power. Its title came from the fact that “ I have still got a lot of stuff in suitcases. Being on the road all the time you sort of half unpack or three-quarters unpack and you think, oh, I don’t need that right now so I can leave that there. So a lot of stuff accumulates in suitcases. Old records and old pictures. I found a picture of my grandfather, he died in the First World War and it’s the only studio shot that I have of him. He is standing Edwardian, with his leg crossed and his hat is on a plinth”
He is very much about paying homage to his roots. Is that what made him think it was time for a memoir? ‘So many books have been written about me by people that have never even met me so I wanted to talk about what it was like before fame, all those people in Wales that moulded my character.’
What he doesn’t talk about so much is how as a knicker strewn sex god there were many extra-marital temptations which he didn’t resist. He does say, ‘None of it meant anything.’
We meet on the day of Sparkgate. A paper had reported him saying, “Linda has lost her spark.” He corrects, ‘I didn’t say that. I said SHE FEELS she’s lost her spark. It’s not the same thing. She has emphysema and she’s not happy with the way she looks. I did not say she doesn’t look as she did before. I carry a young picture of her wherever I go because it’s a wonderful memory. I remember when she had that picture taken. But not because she looks better on it. I’ve asked her if I can take a new picture and carry that around, but she doesn’t want me to. I did say I love talking to her on the phone because when we talk on the phone we’re young again. Age doesn’t matter on the phone.’
Just like when he was on The Voice. That was about turning the chair at the sound of the voice, not because of the looks. But more of that later.
‘Linda is the only person with whom I’ve been in love. We fell in love as teenagers. We were lustful as well, but it was love. And the longer you are together the more you realise when the sex gets less important in a marriage the love is even stronger because that’s what you’ve got left. That and the same sense of humour and coming from the same place.
‘People have said to me do you ever think about getting a divorce? I say no. We are family, a family that I could never separate from.
Linda is a strong woman. She didn’t exactly condone his extramarital activities, because she knew that she was loved.
‘I don’t condone it. It was just something that happened. It went along with my career. I felt it was just fun and games and it didn’t hurt anybody. We came through it. My wife loves me, my son loves me, my grandchildren love me.’
Did he ever think that Linda would leave him when she found out about his affair with Marjorie Wallace? ‘No, but I didn’t like the fact she didn’t like me. I was ashamed of myself. Ashamed that she knew about something that was not important via a newspaper.
‘If I had said to her that it was happening she would have said, “You’d better stop that now or there’d be trouble.” And that’s what would have happened. I would have stopped it. Definitely.’
In the book he talks about how Linda got colon cancer and how he could never perform without her. ‘Every song I sing is to her. They cut out a foot of her colon. They also took a foot out of my colon some years ago because they found a growth (benign). I used to say to Linda, “I’m a foot short.” And now we’re both a foot short.
‘When they are at home she doesn’t like hairdressers and manicurists coming over because she doesn’t like to talk to them. She likes me to do her hair and her nails.’
Whatever you might think about Tom Jones you don’t imagine him doing hair and nails. I like this devotion. It dispels the chauvinism myth completely.
He is really easy to talk to and we laugh a lot. In his book he talks about his surprising dismissal from The Voice. He writes, ‘What a cold place the BBC is. Sometimes you wonder if it is run by humans or a machine.’ He refers to the Controller of BBC1 Charlotte Moore thanking him personally for his services, but in a press release.
Mark, his son and manager, got a call saying that Sir Tom, the stalwart of the show, would not be returning. This call came at the very last minute possible. He was expecting to start rehearsals as he had done for the last four years in mid-August. Instead the call came that he would not be needed. ‘Apparently someone told Mark, “We don’t think Tom is going to like what it’s going to become.”
‘I like The Voice in America. That’s what got me interested. I did a show called Imagine with Alan Yentob and he said the ratings were so wonderful would I do The Voice UK.
‘Will.i.am said in the beginning that he did The Voice because of me. This season Paloma Faith said the only reason she signed was because she thought she was going to work with me. I’m curious to see what they do with it. I will watch it, of course.’ Will he miss it? ‘No. But I want to see how it does and how the ratings go.
‘They kept telling us we needed to turn our chairs more. And I said no, it has to be real. I don’t want to be lumbered with somebody I don’t like. I have a reputation for picking good voices. But they were pressing on me, and that’s exactly what happened. I ended up with this red haired girl that I didn’t like. They hate it when we don’t turn but I kept telling them it has to be real.’
It doesn’t seem very real at all. ‘The real coaches are singing coaches who keep us informed about how far the contestants can stretch themselves. We talk to them daily and discuss songs, can they handle it, that’s not working let’s change it. But they are the ones who do the real coaching work. We are just the faces. We pick them and they work with them.
‘I loved the blind auditions where you had no cloud what the person is like, you’re just getting the voice. And now they want to put in more backstories.’ Isn’t that making it more like The X Factor? Perhaps you can be a judge on that next year? ‘Nothing is out of the question,’ he says with a smile. And you really believe that is true.
I am waiting in Malibu in an over-stuffed flamboyant house, lots of velvet, gold leaf, plumped pillows, chandeliers. It could be Cher’s house but it is in fact the house of a rich Russian person who has rented it out for my interview. Cher lives in another Malibu house eight miles away in her own gothic glory.
Cher, her manager, her make-up artist, her photographer, get lost in those eight miles and arrive a little late. The photographer has been hired to take my picture with Cher. It wasn’t something I asked for but Cher thought that I might like it.
She arrives with a green drink in her hand, giant hazel eyes sparkling as much as her giant treble-diamond ring. She is wearing a black tailcoat, white waistcoat, foamy chiffony shirt, dark jeans, thick boots. Rock chick clothes. Oddly she pulls it off. Her best features are her hair and her eyes which are so mesmeric you forget to look to see if you can see if the skin on her face has been pulled and tightened.
What everyone really wants to know about Cher is how did Cher, gay icon, gothic rocker, activist, former hippie chick, disco diva, Oscar winning actress, daytime vamp, the woman who launched a thousand drag queens, really feel when her daughter Chastity first came out as a lesbian and then underwent full-on sex change therapy to become a man.
You wonder just how you are going to ask her about this because you’ve read that she was mortified and you could imagine she would be. Cher, so slinky and feminine, loves men, manicures, sequins.
She made dresses for golden ringleted Chastity who would appear with her parents on the Sonny and Cher Show in the Seventies. How could she have imagined that her little girl would grow up first of all thinking she was a bull dyke and then realising she wanted to be a man, a very fat man at that?
I am surprised that Cher is warm with a relaxing motherly presence. Still, how does she feel about her daughter becoming a son is a difficult question.
Now the only child of Cher and Sonny Bono is 43 and renamed Chaz and is delighted to be burly, bearded hairy backed. He had death threats when he appeared as a male partner on Dancing With Stars, the US equivalent to Strictly.
I stumble over the pronoun. She and the he somehow get mixed up in my mouth and Cher gives me a look of concern and empathy for my embarrassment.
‘You mean Chaz. Don’t worry. I screw up the pronouns all the time,’ she says with a Mona Lisa smile and it reminds me that she won an Oscar for Moonstruck. Is this calm facade brilliant acting? Remember she was also nominated for her very un-Cher downbeat role in Silkwood, and so hilarious in The Witches of Eastwick. Of course more recently there was Burlesque where she simply a parody of Cher-isms. I decide rather than studied introspection what I see before me is real.
‘I would have said that Chaz is like Sonny and there is a portion of him that’s like me.’
What about when Chas became Chaz? ‘Oh yes, I had a hard time.’ She looks me right in the eye. You can tell her heart was quite pierced by this.
‘I didn’t have a hard time in the beginning because when Chaz came to see me and told me this is what I want to do I said well if you’re miserable then you’ve got to do it. But then as it was starting to happen, you know, it’s a strange change for a mother to go through.’ To suddenly have two sons instead of a boy and a girl. ‘Right,’ she says. I am surprised by how easy it is to talk to her about this.
When it was first happening she was afraid to see him in case she didn’t recognise him. She asked if he would save his old answering voice because it was his girl’s voice before it had been lowered by his daily injection of testosterone.
He had his breasts cut off and fat redistributed in a thickset blokish sort of way. As yet he has not had an operation to reconstruct his clitoris into a penis. He talks at transgender conferences and provides counselling for others in a similar situation. He is a pioneer. Perhaps he really is like his mother.
‘When I’m talking about Chaz in the old days it’s very difficult. [to get the pronouns right]. If I’m talking about something that’s happened with Chaz when we were in Aspen and when Chaz was little, he was she. But things that happen from now, or from a little while ago, Chaz is he.’
Did she have a sense of loss and mourning for her daughter? ‘It was difficult but now I don’t think about it so much. We talked about it on and off for years. He would talk about doing it and then he would go off it. And then finally he did it. It’s a huge decision and not something you make lightly. But it’s turned out well.’
Her voice has a certainty in it, and almost a soothing quality. ‘For the people who don’t understand it I try to help them understand it by saying, you know, I just love being a woman so much, but if I woke up tomorrow and I was a man I couldn’t function. And that is the only way to describe it to someone who doesn’t understand. But it’s hard to relate to, oh, I must change my sex. But I know that if by some miraculous something I woke up as a man I would hate it so much I can’t tell you.’
I look at Cher with her white fingernails, the pointed tips painted black, her ultra pouty pink lips and feathery-mascaraed eyes, her long dark glossy curls. There’s something almost doll-like about her. I stare at all of this. How could Cher, the most girlie of girls, cope with having a daughter who wanted to be a son?
‘You know, your children go their own way and I think it took so much courage. I don’t think I would have had that much courage. But he was so miserable in that body and now he is happy. Totally happy.
‘When I say I knew he wanted to be a man I don’t know what I really knew. I knew that he wasn’t happy but I didn’t know the exact reason he wasn’t happy, but this seems to be the thing that was missing. [When he was a lesbian] he was in a relationship [with a girl] but they broke up a long time ago. She is a lovely girl.’ Jennifer Elia, an attractive brunette, was his partner for five years and he’d always told her about his gender struggle, but when the change was complete the relationship faltered.
Was that because she was in love with him as a girl? ‘I don’t know. I think she was having a hard time with her sobriety for a while. But also they had been together for a really long time and I think the transition for her was really difficult.’
Apparently when Chaz was charged with all the male hormones he got aggressive and sexually demanding and in a documentary Being Chaz, Jennifer admitted that her sobriety had been tested over her girlfriend becoming her boyfriend and she said, “He’s not the person I fell in love with.” Indeed he (she) wasn’t.
What’s impressive is that Cher is old school. You ask her a question, she answers it unflinching. She doesn’t even try to plug her new record. She is not like some newbie pop star who only wants to talk about her music. That said, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to be modern. She has come up with a record that is relevant – tracks produced by Paul Oakenfold and a song with Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters and songs written by Pink.
At 67 she still has the stamina to tour constantly (new world tour in 2014) and in silly tiny sequined outfits where she must feel she’s literally turning back time. At the end of her hot and throbby performances during her residency at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas from 2008 to 2011 she always said, “Top that, you bitches.” Sure, she likes to run with a young set because she likes to outrun them.
‘You know we were working out this morning, my teacher and a couple of friends and I said give me a break, I’m older than everybody here, but the teacher said, you’re full of shit, you’re 30. You work out better than my 30-year-olds. So in some ways I forget how old I am and in some ways I don’t.
Cher’s age is indeed a conundrum. I’m not sure what 67 looks like but it doesn’t look like Cher, and she doesn’t act it. Sure, she might have had a little help with her face. She admits to a nose job and a breast reduction. She denies the constant rumour that she had one of her ribs removed. She says that her good friends are often the teenage and twenty something children of her friends. ‘Young people like me. I don’t know why.’
Certainly she was friends with Lady Gaga. There was going to be a collaboration with Gaga’s prolific producer RedOne – a track called The Greatest Thing. RedOne thought instead of the original plan of Cher singing it, it would make a great duet. In the end Gaga was disappointed with the result and vetoed it. Cher voiced her own disappointment that the two icons could not be on song. When someone leaked a version of The Greatest Thing. Cher was all over Twitter in her anger at the unfinished version’s appearance.
Cher is an epic tweeter. I’m surprised she could take the time off tweeting to talk to me. She tweets whatever comes into her head. No censorship, lots of swear words,1.7 million followers. In her tweets she is forthright, funny, and likes to complain about Madonna. In person she is a lot less flighty.
Her new album Closer To The Truth will be her first in eleven years. ‘I am not a Cher fan. I don’t listen to the records I’ve made for fun. This one I’m surprised by.’
Has she now become a Cher fan? ‘No, no, no, let’s not go that far. It’s just my voice is very distinctive and it’s not a voice that’s appealing to me. And on this record there are a couple of songs, Silence and My Love, that I sing in a different way, a kind of straight way, no vibrato.’ Indeed, these songs do not sound like Cher. The voice is high and melodic.
Does she feel like a different person to who she was ten years ago? ‘I feel like an older version of myself. I don’t think I’ve changed much in what I think is right or wrong or what I think is bullshit. My mother is 87 and she’s pretty much the same person as when I was little.’
Recently she made a documentary – Dear Mom, Love Cher – about her mother. Georgia Holt looks tall and strong and at least 20 years younger than her 87 years. She also sings and sounds exactly like Cher. Her mother was six times married and says, “Don’t pay attention to age and it won’t pay attention to you.” Her mother is part Cherokee, hence the high age-defying cheekbones.
‘I had two grandmothers, one died at 87, the other at 97, and I said to the 97-year–old one, “Nana, how old do you feel?” And she said, “Darling, I look in the mirror and wonder who that old lady is because I feel so young.” And that’s sometimes how I feel. I forget that I’m older.
‘The other day somebody said how old are you and for a minute I forgot. I thought I was ten years younger and I still thought that was old. It’s not easy getting older in this business for sure.’ I notice she doesn’t mention any numbers here.
Does she feel that in her business becoming old is the same as becoming extinct? ‘No, there’s just not the access to older performers that there is to younger performers, especially women, because it’s a young person’s art.
‘More than any other time in history the people who came up in my time are now having a hard time. We don’t want to stop singing. The Stones don’t want to stop and I don’t want to. But it’s hard. You try to find your niche and stay relevant in your music and you keep going.
‘I hoped there wouldn’t be a prejudice because I was a certain age and people wouldn’t even give the record a listen.’ She says this in a deadpan way but it is obviously something she’s thought about.
Was that why it took so long to get the record out? ‘No. In those eleven years I wasn’t thinking about it. Honestly. I just forgot. I forgot to make a record. I was on the road, I was in Vegas. I did the movie Burlesque. I had some vacation and I didn’t really have a contract for a while, I was in limbo, so I went on the road and didn’t think about it.’
She performed a lot of shows. ‘That was very stressful. On the last day I wanted to kill myself. I cried and cried and cried. We were at the Hollywood Bowl and I spent the night on the tour bus. I’d never done that before. It was so weird that suddenly I just didn’t want to stop. The only thing that is stressful about being on the road is the road. The shows themselves are fabulous. I love that part. I just don’t like the road, the isolation of the road.
‘It’s hard because I can’t go many places. We might buy out a movie theatre or miniature golf course or paint china or go bowling. The only way we’d do those things is if we buy them out and no one else is there. We want to be where there’s no people with iPhones.
‘I remember going to the movies thinking why is everybody texting and emailing, and then I realised they weren’t, they were taking photos of me. So it’s hard for me to go about in a normal way. I love having freedom. In the old days the paparazzi were polite. They would say can we take a picture? They wouldn’t ambush you and be aggressive.’
‘Once we had to get a restraining order against a paparazzi. He made my boyfriend go into a ditch and we rolled our car. This was in the eighties.’ Her then boyfriend was bartender Robert Camilletti.
‘My boyfriend went to jail because he was so angry he went to their car and he ripped it apart and they said he tried to kill them. If you saw these guys they were just old and just wankers. If he wanted to kill them he could have done easily. But after they’d forced us to roll the car he was so furious he tore their car up. He went to jail for a day and then got so much community service. I think he could have killed someone and got less community service.
‘We had a restraining order on these paparazzi and they came on the property and they broke the restraining order and he was angry the whole time because he was trying to look after me. Whenever I went out I’d have to sneak out the driveway and lay on the floor of the car.’
Is being too recognisable a double-edged sword? Is there pleasure in being an icon as well as pain at the lack of freedom? Would she swap?
‘No, I’d rather have both of course.’ She pauses: ‘I’d probably go for freedom. Fame is great and then it gets hard. Like things you used to take for granted you can no longer do. Like if I wanted to make a run to Safora (a beauty supplies shop) I have to know exactly what I want to get and go for it, like a hunting expedition.’
It must be tough being Cher. It must be even tougher being Cher’s boyfriend. Traditionally Cher has dated men who are younger than her, but not always less gothic looking than her. There’s been Val Kilmer, Gene Simmons of Kiss, Bon Jovi Richie Sambora, and biker Tim Medvetz.
Did she find it unsettling that boyfriends didn’t like being Mr Cher? ‘It wasn’t so much unsettling for me. I’ve also had some amazing boyfriends and some really famous ones but it takes a certain kind of man to be able to put up with it. It certainly puts a strain on them. Like Robert for instance. He didn’t buy into go into jail or having people chase him. He’s a private citizen and people were very mean to him. That stuff doesn’t keep you from having relationships it just makes it harder to go for a walk on the beach or something like that. You have to outsmart people and try and just live your life.’
What have the men she’s gone for had in common? She perks up. ‘Actually many of them have had amazing senses of humour and they’ve all been really kind. I love people who are kind and I wouldn’t date anyone who wasn’t, it just wouldn’t work for me.’ Kindness is very underrated. ‘Yes, and it’s a game changer for me. Intelligence is great but I don’t know that it trumps everything. Kindness and an adventurous spirit is what does it.
‘I still like to do dumb things. I like to do kid things. So I like it when the person I’m with wants to ride a paddleboard or go-karting or take a run to Disneyland or go to Hawaii. I like people who are adaptable because I have to pick my moments.’ Meaning if she suddenly finds a break in her schedule she likes to make the most of it.
Does she have a boyfriend now? ‘Er, well, actually, no. I just broke up with someone. Or let me rephrase that. It went to a certain place and I couldn’t see me putting any more time into it so it wasn’t really a break-up. I think relationships have to go in stages and we just couldn’t go to the next stage. We are really good friends but there was no impetus to keep going. Love feels to me like unbelievable fun, and if it’s not unbelievable fun you stop it.’
Is she the person that ends a relationship? ‘Most of the time. I am a serial monogamist. My relationships seem to go for two and a half years, maybe three, and then that’s it.’
She was married to Gregg Allman, from The Allman Brothers, from 1975 to 1979, but her longest relationship was with Sonny Bono. They met in 1963 and broke up in 1972, but didn’t divorce until 1975. He died in a freak skiing accident in January 1998, aged 62. Meeting him, loving him and losing him were the most important things that happened to her.
‘Meeting him changed everything and leaving him changed everything as well, and losing him was huge. It’s like when people say losing a parent is a huge defining moment. It was like that. Even though we weren’t that close at that point in so far as we weren’t seeing each other very often, but it was a huge, huge loss.
‘I was in England when it happened and I remember going to a certain place that I didn’t think the paparazzi would follow because I was so upset. I got there and I was sobbing and sobbing.
‘It was the end of an era for me. It was the end of a time that had been so important for me. It was the end of something that had been a major part of my life. It was like a parent dying. When I met him I was 16 so he was…’ I finish the sentence, a father figure. ‘…Well he was a mentor. He got me a job background singing and he always believed in me and wanted me to be a solo artist and I didn’t really want to and then we became famous together. I had so many milestones with him that would never have happened without him. I wouldn’t have done any of that. I had the energy but I was so scattered. He was the person who focused it all.’
She was born on May 20, 1946, the last day of Taurus. In some astrologers view the beginning of Gemini. Is that scattered energy her Gemini side? ‘If you knew me you would see that I am very Taurus. I am sturdy, in my own way a plodder, but I have the vocal energy of a Gemini.
‘Taureans can be very spontaneous and are stubborn. And I’m really stubborn, ridiculously. A lot of Taureans can end up quite corpulent because they like food, like Orson Welles, and I like food when it is good, but it’s not a major thing for me to eat for the sake of it, but I’m very materialistic. I like my house and I love things.’
Did she have to fight against the love of good food? Is she very disciplined? ‘No. When I was growing up we were very poor and my mother was from the South and we didn’t eat a lot of meat because it was expensive so I never got a taste for it. I eat vegetables because meat is something l don’t like the taste of. I do have a terrible sweet tooth.’
They moved around a lot when she was growing up and her circumstances could change dramatically depending on who her mother was married to or if she was on her own. Mostly she grew up in California where her mother had bit parts on TV shows.
‘She married my dad twice, I don’t know why. She told me she never loved him that much. She just said he was very convincing but that never made much sense to me. I didn’t meet him until I was 11.’
How was that? ‘He was nice. I enjoyed him.’ Wasn’t her whole life trying to find her missing father figure? ‘No, because when I met him it was fun. I was a lot like him in certain ways. Suddenly I knew where a lot of my expressions came from.’
So nature rules over nurture? ‘Right. Elijah is like that too with his dad.’
Unfortunately, Elijah, 37, inherited his father’s addictive personality. Gregg Allman was a heroin addict. Elijah had a problem with drugs. ‘There are so many thing that Elijah that Gregory does which is odd because they never spent much time with each other.’
Didn’t Allman once try to kill her when he was high on drugs? ‘No, he didn’t try to kill me. He would never have done that. But he lost his temper when we were in Jamaica and I had to spend the night on the beach with this fabulous who was the housekeeper in the house we rented and we sat on the beach all night while guys with torches hunted crabs. It turned out to be an interesting adventure. We didn’t split then. Not then. He and I went back and forth, back and forth because I was crazy about him. But you can’t have people that are doing drugs that are around your kids.’
Elijah inherited that side of him? ‘Well, yes. But he’s okay now. He’s great. But it took a chunk out of his life. A chunk out of both of them. He very much looks like his dad. I think he is going to be a manager.
Does she think not having her father around made her attracted to a certain type of man? ‘It might have done because Sonny was very nurturing. And when I first met him I was very sickly. He was much older than me and he had a vision. I was just running around dancing and hanging around with my friends. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t have any focus. Maybe I would have got there anyway, but Sonny was the one who said if you do this, this will work. This will be the right thing to do. He was a catalyst for everything.’
Was that when she fell in love with him? ‘Oh no, I did that way before. We didn’t work together at first. I think I hero-worshipped him because he was as very extraordinary person. Not fabulous all the time for sure, but he was a very forward thinker, interested in life. He would do things that maybe men would have had a problem with. Like I used to dress him crazy in the beginning and he just said okay, fine, this is fun. He was open to a lot of things. He wasn’t open to a lot of things as well and we got into fights, but he liked to stretch himself. I think he’d given up before he met me and I was a spark for him too. He tried to have a career that didn’t work out so we sparked each other.’
So what happened with this man that was such a huge influence, what went wrong? ‘It didn’t go wrong. I was just finished. It started to become more about the work than the relationship. Plus I was 27 and I didn’t need to be told what to do any more.’
She says this without a trace of regret because regretting nothing is all part of her mantra. She takes a swig from her wheatgrass drink. ‘Honestly, it doesn’t taste disgusting. It’s got powdered vitamins in it. I’m not the kind of person who wants to suffer ill health.’
I’d heard she had a phobia of getting sick ‘No, that’s not true. But a long time ago I had Epstein Barr (syndrome) and it made my life a misery for two years.’ The symptoms are extreme tiredness, lethargy. ‘I’m not very phobic at all. In general, I’m very happy.’ If this is not the case, she’s done a very good job of convincing me.
Michael Bublé is wearing a doll size leather jacket, a teeny red T-shirt and the skinniest dark jeans. I am shocked at how much he’s shrunk and tell him that his ankles are the size of my wrists. He looks pleased.
‘I suppose that I am supposed to be little. I was much much bigger and I really had to eat a lot to get like that. I was chunky. I look back at pictures at me,’ he shakes his head. ‘I remember seeing the cover of Call Me Irresponsible (his 2007 third and pivotal album) and thinking “Ooh, you’re fat”.’ It wasn’t so much that he was fat he was unhappy and eating to block out misery and insecurity.
‘Like everybody, I go up and down. I’ll probably put on ten, take off ten. My wife is really healthy so I’ve got used to eating her healthy food.
‘I used to eat pizzas and burgers and McDonalds. Now I’ll eat a nice piece of fish and vegetables. You just get used to it and you start eating like that all the time. It becomes the new normal.’
Bublé has always been a man of extremes, he ate too much pasta and loved too much and too many women. All that changed when he met his wife, Argentinian model/actress Luisana Lopilato, in 2009. They married 2 years later and are now expecting their first child, a boy, due in July.
When they first met she didn’t speak much English and he no Spanish. It was one of those coup de foudre moments. They met backstage at one of his concerts in Argentina introduced by the president of his Argentinian record company.
At the time he was recovering from his break-up with British actress Emily Blunt. He and Luisana took things slowly and carefully, a first for Bublé.
We are in a homely suit at the Sunset Marquis. It’s a classic rock and roll hotel where televisions have definitely been thrown into the swimming pool and late night tantrums are commonplace. But not with Bublé, not any more.
His latest album, To Be Loved, is seeped with cosy contentment. It’s a happy record. No pain. It’s not been an easy road to get there. He has described his break-up with Blunt as the” worst and the greatest thing” that’s ever happened to him. He bought books on how to be happy. He saw a therapist.
Then he met his future wife but continued with his therapist. ‘I married a girl who doesn’t drink, except once in a while. She goes to the gym every day, eats good. It’s part of her pattern so it becomes part of your pattern. It becomes your lifestyle.’
Does he never have emotional cravings for cheese? He laughs, ‘Let’s be honest, I could live on bread and cheese for every day of my life. If someone told me every day from now on you have to live on bread and cheese I would say “Yesss!”.
The difference is last time we met he gave me his family recipe for spaghetti carbonara – his grandfather is Italian and he has an Italian passport. It had gallons of cream in it.
‘I don’t make it any more. Pasta made me feel yucky, bloated and gassy. Maybe I was allergic to wheat. It’s something I’ve wondered about. I don’t drink any more either. That’s a lot to do with it. You are who you hang out with and my wife doesn’t drink and is very healthy, but four years ago I was tiny, so tiny when I went through the break-up. I was drinking every day, doing nothing, smoking cigarettes and I was really skinny. But I wasn’t healthy skinny I was heart attack skinny. I’m the kind of kind who if I drink I lose my appetite, boom, and if I have a bite to eat I don’t want to drink, I feel full.’
It sounds like he wasn’t eating or drinking for nourishment but to fill a hole of awkwardness, regret and insecurity‘I have never had a drink because I enjoyed the taste. And I don’t do one drink. I’m like Barney from The Simpsons, once it begins it begins.’ The trick is that these days he doesn’t let it begin.
The promotion schedule for this record includes flying from London to Melbourne and back to LA without an overnight stopover in either city. Just enough time to perform a show. He’s always been driven. A huge work ethic handed down from his father Louis, a fisherman, and his grandfather Mitch, a plumber. It must be hard at the top. Surely he’s scared of using his status of being one of the world’s top selling artists? He’s sold over 40 million records and when tickets went on sale for his tour in the UK (he plays six nights at the O2 from June 30) they sold out at the rate of 1,500 per minute. Everyone loves Bublé. He spans generations, both cool and uncool.
‘I’m not thinking like that. I’ve got the baby coming and then I might take some time off or I’ll try acting so I can have my wife and baby with me on set. Right now my priority is all those fans, those people who’ve supported me.’
Bublé doesn’t believe in getting something for nothing, he believes in thanking people wholeheartedly. He believes he has a duty. ‘I used to open for Jay Leno and I used to say “Jay, what is the secret?” and he’d say “Go to their back yards, don’t go to the hubs and expect everyone to come to you. Go to their back yards and when you are in those little c cities that’s how you build relationships, that’s how you build loyalty. And that’s the truth.
‘You can’t put out a record and say Germany, France, Japan, thanks for buying my record. Of course I love you but I’m not going on tour. You’ve got to, you’ve got to go,’ he says with urgency.
I ask him if he finds it hard to say no to things other than too much cheese? ‘Yes, I do.’ Is there part of him that’s now completely reassured with his success or is part of him thinking what if this record doesn’t sell, what if people don’t turn up?
‘Do you know what’s weird, that’s not happening that insecurity. Everything has changed. It’s all changed because of the baby. I’m having a difficult time doing these interviews. I’m proud of the record, it’s a beautiful record, possibly my best record. It’s different and I was brave but being brave stemmed from not caring. That sounds cold but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
‘When my manager says I wonder if we’re going to sell two million or eight million I’m thinking yeh, either is a great bonus, but let’s hope my wife is healthy and my kid is healthy. I’m 37-years-old and I’m starting to think what’s it all about. It surely isn’t about how many records I can sell or how many stadiums I can fill.
‘This has given me something else, a very different attitude. I’m saying I’m going to do this and if they don’t like it they don’t like it. My perspective has definitely changed. I have no drama to tell you about. I wish I could say these songs came from misery or heartbreak. This was a happy record, truly a joyous occasion.’
It is of course a wonderfully sentimental record. When I heard his version of Young At Heart it made me cry. Bublé has always loved old people. He is extremely close to his grandfather. He still loves to do family sleepovers where they all lie on the couch and sing the old standards together.
‘That song is special to me. I’ve been co-writing with my friend Alan who is a genius, he’s a wonderful arranger, he is my piano player, my musical arranger, my everything. That sounds gay but I would go gay for him. I love you Alan Chang. So he wrote this beautiful arrangement. By the way his girlfriend wouldn’t be happy with me going gay with him.
We were going to go to East West Studios here in LA to put the track down. We had all the musicians, all the strings, everything was ready. We had a bar set up so that when the musicians and I were all done we could all have a drink together so I could thank them. And the night before that day my mother called and said “Mike, your grandpa is not good.” So I just told them all “I’m sorry I can’t be there” and I just left and flew home to Vancouver.
‘They did the recording of the band and a week later I was to sing the vocal. My grandpa pulled through, he was okay. So the next week I sang the vocal and called the producer Bob Rock and said this is just not going to make the record. We are going to have to do something else. He said why and I said it’s emotionless, it’s cold and dead. Everyone was crushed because it was such a beautiful arrangement but I said I’m not feeling it.
‘About a month later I was in the studio and wanted to record a Peggy Lee song called Come Dance With Me. The producer said, “Why don’t we do Young At Heart again while we’re in the studio?” So I thought about my grandpa and I thought about myself. It was the first dance at our wedding. I love the song. And I though okay. And it just goes to show how different it was a few weeks later. I’ve just Skyped grandpa now. I Skype him all the time. I thought about him while I was recording it because I could. Before I was too upset. I smiled through the whole thing. I did it in two takes. It’s not perfect but there’s the emotion in it.
‘It just shows if your head is not in it and your heart is not in it it’s just not there.’
That’s the thing about Bublé, his head and his heart, his whole soul, is always in it. He pours his whole being into those songs so you feel him, you know him. He becomes an emotional touchstone. It’s not about the songs, the voice, it’s about how he puts himself in your heart.
On this album he’s written more of his own songs. Does it worry him that his own songs have to stand up against timeless classics? ‘Yes, sometimes. I just took my favourite songs but for every album you record you could make 50 others. But for this one I was in a good place and I wanted to make it authentic and gentle.
‘The producer Bob Rock agreed that this is a soul record. This is Phil Spector wall of sound. We got as many people in the room as possible, a small room. You hear every note, every background singer and Bob as a producer, he understands everything. His job is to listen to the artist and bring his vision into reality and he does that. I would turn gay for him too. Especially with that long blonde hair of his. I could ride him into the sunset. I would always joke that I was going to tickle him. I love to get tickled. My wife would be sitting with me tickling like this,’ he demonstrates a tickling motion with his slender fingers, ‘and I would go Bob, tickle me. And he would go, fuck off.’
At the mention of his baby he smiles so hard that even his cheekbones, now angular and sharp, seem to round with pride.
‘He’ll be born in Vancouver and raised in Argentina and Vancouver. Mum will only speak Spanish and dad will only speak English. I am a proud Canadian of Italian heritage and he will have all these heritages.’
He wrote the song Close Your Eyes with the wonderful Canadian singer songwriter Jann Arden, and he wrote it about his wife. ‘Jann is the funniest woman I’ve ever met and I love writing songs with her. This song happened one day, I sat at the piano. I can never write sober, but I started to think about my wife and how much she means to me and how much she helps carry me, you know. How she shares the load with me. I started to think about all women and how strong they are and how important they are in the life of a man and this song is about how we depend on them. It wasn’t just that I was missing her it’s that I get sentimental and I was just thinking; you’re always the one that pulls us through. And people call women the weaker sex. How foolish is that This is what this person is to me. All of these things that are strength and support.
‘I notice the stability my wife has given me in simple ways. In other relationships I would think let’s go on vacation and the girl would say, “Let’s go to Hawaii”, and I would say who do we call, what couple do we get to go with us? It’s like I always needed someone else there. With my wife it’s just we’re good together.
‘I had my father and my mum come to LA this weekend. We had a few drinks and I was sitting talking to them and I said, “39 years. How do you make it work?” My dad said, “I love your mum. But more importantly I like her too.” And that’s really something.
‘Lu is my best friend. Honestly, easily, she is. And I didn’t realise that if you are with somebody in a romantic capacity that they would become your family. I’ve always separated family. I thought romance and friendship was linked but different.’
Do you think perhaps the nature of romance is that you were idealising someone that was unreachable in the past. ‘Yes, and I think it was more obsession than love and I’ve lived that a million times.’
Do you feel that when those past relationships became more familiar and more friendly you lost interest in them romantically? ‘Yes, exactly.’ Do you think that some of the past relationships, although you loved them, you didn’t actually like them? ‘Yes, absolutely.
‘I went to dinner last night and I was alone. It was couples, couples, couples. All I could think of was I wish she was here because I would be funnier, more talkative and more interesting, although the truth is they’d probably like her more than me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to dinner and people said, “Mike, we love you, but we really love her”. And I love that, it’s wonderful for me.’
There is no doubt that what drove Bublé in the past was a need to be loved, and now that he feels that he is loved the dynamic of everything he does is different. I got the impression that he would never want to displease his record company even though he is their biggest selling artist.
He wrote a song with Tom Jackson called I Got It Easy. He tells me the story to illustrate the profound change that has gone on within. ‘We were on my tour bus having a party, my wife and everybody. Like I said, I don’t drink so much any more, but we were having a cocktail and we just came up with this song. It coincides with things I think are happening all over the world – economic crisis, disasters, shootings. There’s all of this darkness. But for the rest of us if you can afford to download a track from a CD then you’ve got it easy.
‘They told me that people wouldn’t like I’ve Got It Easy. The record company didn’t like it. They said it’s dark and you don’t sound like you. It’s not a hit song, it’s not going to get on the radio. But part of the new bravery I feel is I said, Maybe it’s not a radio song. For me it’s a thoughtful, personal, important song. I said to my manager, I want to grow. And he said, you write hit songs, why do you have to grow? He called the record company and said, whatever we have to pay for the mechanicals on the final song, we want it. I told the record company if it doesn’t get on the radio you deal with it. It’s a polarising song. My mum hates it, my sisters love it.’
Did he call the album To Be Loved because that’s how he feels now? ‘I wish I’d come up with the title. ‘My manager Bruce Allen came up with the title. We call him The Colonel, like Elvis’s Colonel. He’s managed me since I was 25 and Bryan Adams since he was 17. And Jann Arden and Bob Rock as well. He got emotional to see his record family together. He said, “I’ve got my family here. The kids are all together and making this beautiful thing. I’m getting sentimental. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved.”
Does he feel loved? ‘Yes, I’m very content, although I miss my wife. I don’t like that I’m missing the pregnancy part. She is in Argentina making a movie and doing a shoot for the lingerie company she is the face of. She tells me, “Mi amore, I have a big tummy.”
He shows me a picture on his phone of his pregnant wife. She is blonde with a goofy smile and pregnant belly. ‘Look at how happy she is to show me this. I think she’s sticking it out. She’s definitely a rambunctious girl.’ She also has giant breasts. ‘She does! Always! Giant!’ he says with a giant smile.
‘That’s the question most people ask. Are they real? They are real of course. They are bigguns though…… Everything makes me happy: my family, listening to music, dancing, life, hockey. Hockey is my number one passion. It would overpower music. Playing it, watching it, eating it, drinking it, I just love it.’
He tells me he could chat all day. He’s never been a nervous interviewee. He’s always liked to share and to make the interviewer laugh. You wonder how long he can make life on the roadwork now that he has the option of stability and fatherhood. He says he’s serious about acting.
‘I have anxiety sometimes when I think about new things I want to try. My first choice would be a drama, a serious drama. I wouldn’t want to do a musical or comedy. But I’ve made a record and it’s coming out in 42 countries.’
While his wife comes out to a show here and there he’s not fond of other people’s women on the road. He doesn’t for instance like women crew or musicians.
‘I say, “There’s no relationships on the road” and they say to me, “Of course we’re not going to have relationships. We are professionals and we have a boyfriend at home.” The next think you know they’re bonking the sound guy. And then the sound guy is fighting over another girl and it becomes a drama. It’s an incestuous life. Let’s make it easy. Every time I’ve had female crew we’ve had serious break-ups and yellings. Obviously I love women. It’s not about not loving women. It’s about I don’t want to be surrounded by drama.’
There was a time not so long ago when he courted drama, he danced to it like a moth to the flame. ‘You know what else I don’t like? I don’t like shimmery saxophones.’ What do you mean? He does his impersonation of a shimmery saxophone. ‘They creep me out. They remind me of The Muppets in a bad way. I don’t like it when I’m on the road and the brass section starts improvising. It’s like when someone takes a poop on a piece of paper and goes this is abstract art.
He and his wife have recently started a charity called lendafreehand.com to help dogs about to be euthanised because their owners can no longer afford to feed them. Bublé has always felt the underdog. ‘I am the underdog. I’ve sold a bunch of records. I’ve never been asked to be on the Grammys or any of that stuff. I do big business. I sell more records at any point than, well, I am in the top five touring acts in the world. But I don’t show up at the parties. I don’t have a reality TV show. I’m not seen shopping in Beverly Hills. There’s a difference between being famous and being a celebrity. Maybe I’m just too normal for everything like that. But my manager always says, “Hey kid, keep being the underdog. You’re doing the right thing.”
Michael Buble – April 15, 2013 (Hello Magazine)
I walk in to the giant hotel suite where I am to meet Michael Bublé. Giant bed, giant overstuffed couch, giant TV, but no Bublé. He’s hiding behind the door and jumps out to surprise me. He is giggling and excited, his arms and legs looking skinny and agile.
He is happy about his new record To Be Loved. But that’s not what’s making his heart dance. He has just found out that he’s having a baby with his Argentinian wife Luisana Lopilato who he married in March 2011.
His nut-brown eyes sparkle. ‘The baby changes everything. It comes first. This is truly a joyous occasion.’
I’ve seen Bublé ecstatic before, but this is different. This is not a high that’s been preceded by a low. This is grown-up contentment. He’s 38 and is ‘ready and excited for fatherhood.’
Last time we met over a year ago he said, ‘We are planning a baby for next Christmas. My wife’s a big planner.’
In fact it was Christmas when she discovered they were pregnant. ‘I was genuinely shocked about the baby. We’d been planning…..but hey, good luck planning, that kind of thing. And also my wife lied to me. Well, she didn’t exactly lie, but she knew she was pregnant but she didn’t tell me but she wanted to come to Vancouver and tell me in person to surprise me.
‘I thought, okay, she’s got her period the chance for this month is over because I’d asked her, anything happening? “No, honey. It’s not this time,” she said. He mimics her Argentinian accent. ‘So I was in shock completely.’
The first person he told was Reece Whitherspnoon.
One of the songs on the album is the classic Something Stupid, which has always been one of his favourite songs. ‘I had it in my head I was going to do a duet and I was thinking let’s get someone in the music industry who isn’t who you would think it would be. Let’s get Rihanna or Katy Perry. My manager said what about Reece Witherspoon. I am infatuated with Walk The Line. I loved her in that movie and I loved her voice, a little Peggy Lee-ish. Anyway, she was interested but she was nervous because it’s not her world.
‘I called her up the day I found out I was having a baby. No one else in the world knew but I told her first. That’s weird, isn’t it ? it was an incredible day and I just found and I was so overwhelmed. And I knew she’d just had her baby. I said, Reece, I’ve got to tell you this before we even get into a conversation. I’m having a baby. She was excited for me.
‘We talked and talked about baby stuff and then I just said, listen hon’, I’d like to have you on this record. I said, look honey, this is huge. This is the greatest day of my life and if you would do this it would awesome, it would be the icing on the cake. If you’re not comfortable with it I still love you. I get that you are nervous and it’s not in your comfort zone, but if you could just come in, if we don’t like it we won’t use it. She came in and she was perfect the first take.
‘ The second she opened her mouth I was so chuffed. It really was the icing on the cake. She’d obviously done a lot of work and prepared really well. It was the very last song we recorded on the record.’
He talks very fast and excitedly about the baby. He takes out his phone and shows me a picture of his wife wearing a brightly coloured bikini top and a slightly pregnant belly. At the time he didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl and we have since learned it is a boy.
‘I didn’t want to find out but my wife does. She’s the boss. She’s carrying the baby so she gets her say.’
I had read that if it was a girl it was going to be called Bella Bublé but I’ve since found out that’s the name of his publicist Susan Leon’s dog. Her old dog had just died and she was devastated ‘So I got this little puppy. We were working late and Susan was about to go but I told her oh just wait a minute, I’ve got somebody bringing something. The door knocked and there was this little puppy and I said “I love you Susan”. So the name Bella was already taken.
‘My wife loves the Twilight Saga so I was worried she wanted to call the baby Bella or Edward. My wife knew she was carrying a boy. “It’s a boy”.
He mocks her accent again. She kept saying before she knew officially ‘I’ll take either, I’ll take a healthy hermaphrodite.
‘He’ll be born in Vancouver and raised in Argentina and Vancouver. Mum will only speak Spanish and dad will only speak English. I am a proud Canadian of Italian heritage and he will have all these heritages.’
The last time Bublé and I met he ordered caviar and a hot dog from the room service menu, a kind of metaphor that he is an extreme character. Today it’s a simple coffee with a little cream. He has worked hard on himself with a therapist to moderate his extremes but the love of Luisana has helped more than any therapy ever could.
I remember when he was crazy in love, hence the album title Crazy Love, with the British actress Emily Blunt. He wrote the song Everything for her which went on to be a worldwide smash, but his heart smashed too when the relationship fell apart.
‘It would be weird for me to be in touch with her and her family as I have my own family now. He refers to his siblings-in-law as cunadas. He certainly speaks a lot more Spanish than he used to. He’s been taking lessons. ‘My wife tells me I still sound like a cave man.’
They met at an after show of a concert of his in Argentina. ‘There was a party at my hotel. I was drinking a lot more at the time because I was dealing with what I was dealing with and the president of the Argentinian record company said he would like me to meet Argentina’s most famous actor and actress. She walked in with a Brad Pitt looking dude and I thought this is the worst ever, the girl of my dreams walks in with her boyfriend.
‘She didn’t speak English but he did so we had a long conversation. I didn’t want to be rude and hit on her. If someone did that to my girlfriend or wife I would not be a happy boy. It’s code between boys. I was getting hammered and slurring my words and finally he said, “We are not a couple.”
‘Meanwhile Lu is texting her mother saying “I have met Michael Bublé and he is gay.” Then we started talking. She had just come out of a relationship and was not ready to get into one. I said to her, “You’re my wife. You just don’t know it yet. I’m coming back to marry you.” And that’s exactly what he did although she looked at him a little incredulous at the time.
He wrote the song Haven’t Met You Yet for her. People would joke to him in the street “Have you met her yet then?”. He knew in his heart he absolutely had.
‘I asked her father’s permission to marry her and we had a big beautiful Argentinian wedding. She lives mostly in their gated house in Argentina, just outside Buenos Aires. He has a house in Vancouver close to his beloved parents and grandparents and a house in LA. He says they are with each other whenever they can be. Sometimes if they have to be apart they watch a movie together in their separate beds in separate parts of the world.
‘I’ll get a bowl of popcorn and sit in bed and we’ll play the movie at exactly the same time. She can see me and I can see her. At the end she’ll say “Mi amore, I am going to sleep” but we keep the iChat going on all night as we sleep. I know it sounds very strange but it keeps me connected in a virtual way. And if it disconnects one of us in our sleep we’ll reach over and press the call button. I might be passed out but I’ll hear brrrng brrrng and I will press answer. It’s a nice feeling.
‘My wife is very conservative so lots of things I used to do I don’t do. I don’t drink very often and I eat very healthily. For the most part I like the place I’m in. I don’t need to be in an altered place. What happened to me after the ex was probably the most important time of my life. When we were done I was devastated. I had to do therapy, I had to. I knew if I didn’t change I’d never be happy or content in my own skin. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the greatest thing. It ended through both of us being young and naïve and making silly mistakes. I looked in the mirror and said wake up. I did so many things out of insecurity…’
Clearly he may still have anxious moments but that obsession for filling a deep dark space with spaghetti and cocktails has long gone. He doesn’t stop being grateful. He doesn’t stop working hard, but perhaps not just as obsessively.
He had his mother and father with him in LA last week but they don’t like to stay too long because carers for his grandparents. Does your wife come with you to LA? ’Yes, she comes everywhere with me whenever she can.’ She does not however come on tour with him very often. ‘I don’t like to travel with women. I don’t like to have women in the band. We are a family and we have this perfect dynamic and I don’t want to add something in. every time I have women on the road it ends up in tears.’
I imagine he likes to keep his work life a little separate from his domestic life. ‘But if I’m away I miss her like crazy. If you really love somebody why would you want to be with somebody else? These days if I see a good looking girl I think oh look at that girl, but I would never do anything about it. I was a different person before. I was insecure. I’m not proud of how I acted. I was reckless with people’s hearts, but I have learnt from it.
‘Am I happy now? Yes. And I’m happy making her happy. ‘You know my wife is a big advocate for animals. She’s rescued thousands of dogs in Argentina, so for Christmas we bought part of a company called Freehand. In the US they euthanize three million dogs every year because people can’t afford to feed them. For every bag of dog food you buy in the store we donate a bag to the pound. It’s like a pound for pound. We don’t pay for advertising. Celebrities help us by getting the word out. We have a website called lendafreehand.com. My wife has eight dogs and six cats. I’ll come home and there’ll be the scariest one-eyed dog looking at me and she’d be “Isn’t he so cute?” and I’ll be “ it’s the hound from hell.”
‘There are so many charities and worthwhile causes that the only thing people have to do here is buy their dog some dog food.’
He asks me please can I mention the dogs. He says he’d rather I mentioned the dogs than his latest album because it would make his wife happy. His wife and mini Bublé have changed his perspective and made him feel loved.
*To To Be Loved is out on April 15.
I am inside the library of MOCA in downtown LA. Outside we hear the haunting vocals of Katy Perry telling us ‘…let’s go all the way’. She is rehearsing for a charity performance at a huge gala. The day before she was in London for one of the first screenings of her documentary film Part Of Me.
She walks in purposefully, a tiny powerhouse who dismisses her giant security guard. She is in track bottoms and hoody, beige with peacock motif and cream scoop necked T-shirt. Her face make-up free except for a very pale base. Her newly purple hair pushed back into a ponytail. Most of the time the under her hoody. Her eyes look rather large and owlish behind glasses. There’s not even a trace of sleeplessness, jet lag; only focus.
Her wit is quick and her mind is sharp. You are swept up in her enormous drive. It seems like she is taking everything in her stride and that everything is within her dainty manicured grasp. But as the documentary Part Of Me shows, there are many parts of Katy Perry.
The super hard worker whose work ethic is beyond most pop stars or indeed women of her age – 27. An ambitious visionary who is kind to her fans and loyal to her friends, and a vulnerable woman who is not afraid to cry and be filmed without make-up.
The movie was filmed over the course of a year. A year which saw Perry achieve phenomenal success and endure tremendous personal heartbreak. She has filmed all of it.
We see her Pentecostal Christian past with her father the preacher. We see her strumming her guitar when she was 15 with hardcore lyrics about Jesus. We see how her first record company tried to mould her to be the next Avril Lavigne, the next Kelly Clarkson, when all she wanted to be was not the next but the first Katy. We saw how she always wanted to speak to a worldwide audience, to people who didn’t necessarily fit in.
‘My audience don’t necessarily want to go with the trends. They want to feel like they can be themselves and they don’t need any kind of accessory to make them them. It was really important for me to keep some of the more unflattering shots in the film to show at the end of the day I’m just every kind of woman. A normal girl with a big dream who really worked hard to achieve it. You don’t have to be born into something or be born with something. You don’t have to have a material possession or a label. A lot of times peoples perceptions on people like me is that we are perfect from the moment we walk out the door and I wanted to show that is not the case.’ And indeed she does.
We see her making sure she has relationship days. that may mean flying from Birmingham to LA to spend 36 hours with her then husband Russell Brand. We see her valiant juggling. We see the relationship disintegrate. We see her curled up, wrapped only in tears, unable to move. Your heart lurches as you see her wrenched on to the stage.
We see the moment where she makes recording history being the only woman to have five Number 1s from one album ( Teenage Dream) I was there with her in Nottingham when that news broke. Her team had asked to film the interview I was doing but I said no. if I’d known the resulting documentary would be so rivetingly good I would have been proud to be part of it.
‘I remember you didn’t want to be on camera but I didn’t know it was going to be this mega deal with a big Hollywood studio (Paramount) and in 3D.’ The film was made by two British boys from London Fields, Hackney, who filmed her every move for a year. ‘We had over 300 hours of footage. I sold it to Paramount in the spring and it started coming along like a massive train.’
Katy Perry remembers pretty much everything – words, phrases, details stick with her. She is not afraid to show us who she is and my suspicion is that the movie will be huge because it is in no way self-congratulatory. We meet her grandmother, sister, brother, parents, fans. We see her run ragged. We see the life drained out of her. And then we see her in a dress with rotating breasts. The lasting impression of this movie, which could have been the ultimate in cartoon gloss, is that it’s raw and it’s real. And that’s why people will connect to it.
Was she not afraid to show the heartbreak? The face with no make-up? ‘I was in the edit suite saying this is okay. I think my peers might be scared of that but hopefully I can open up a pathway for them to be a little less scared. It has become a big thing that girls have to become so painted and perfect. I certainly think there’s a time and a place for that.’
Her nails are painted black and off white with the ying yang design, a metaphor for the extremes that meet within. This is the same person who did an arena tour including a segment where she was dressed as a cup cake, and who over the last year has had hair of every colour of the rainbow, today is looking stripped of it all. She is looking… I’m searching for the word. She tells me ‘normal is the word.’ But for every part of her that is normal, there is another part that is extreme and extraordinary.
We see in the documentary that she is fearless. Not because she bungee jumps, but because she lets the audience see her heartbreak. ‘I love those documentaries where everyone is fabulous and always perfect, but that doesn’t relate to everyone and I like to be more relatable than that and I don’t want to be above my audience, I want to be one with my audience.’
It is her audience after all and their ability to relate to her that has made her. When record companies wanted to make her into something else she performed her songs in small venues and went by what her audience liked, not her record company. She always had her own vision.
‘It’s funny seeing footage that I’d filmed at 17, 18, 19 and having such a vision for where I am now and a foresight for where I wanted to be.’
She always knew? ‘I always knew it. It was such blind ambition. It was this is what I am doing, nothing is going to get in my way, I am just going to do it and keep doing it and keep trying until it is done.
‘People ask me all the time do you know what you are doing next? And I still have the same mindset as I did when I was first moving to LA when I was 17. I know what I’m doing next and then next just because my creative faucet doesn’t stop.’
Her Christian upbringing has been well documented, and little understood. One assumes that by the time she sang I Kissed A Girl some kind of gritty rebellion and rejection of values had taken place. Perry is more complex than that.
We hear how when she was growing up she wasn’t allowed to watch normal TV programmes and the only videos allowed were Sister Act 2 and The Preacher’s Wife. Her world was very narrow, the spectrum of colour muted. No wonder she loves the bold pastel of fairytales and cartoons. No wonder her show is a multi-coloured defiant dreamscape that shows limitless possibilities.
She grew up in sunny suburban Santa Barbara, California – a place that is terrifyingly safe and contained. She always had a passion for self expression and a need to stand out. Yet rather than rebel and reject everything she grew up with she simply transitioned. ‘Yes, it was a metamorphosis. But I’m still an insect of sorts.’
Perry loves words. She’s excited when she finds the perfect word. She favours it. ‘Yes, a transition.’ It’s how she got from being a gospel recording artist to singing I Kissed A Girl. It feels biblical.
‘I’ve always been an open person. Even in my faith growing up I was always asking questions, like what about this and why is that so. I needed education to back up faith. The landscape was black and white and then I found the colour. I think if you come from a really sheltered place, then you want to be open and free, it’s like naturally you want to see the other side of that. But it wasn’t as cold and dark and strict as people paint it in their minds.’
In the film she says you can never be too cartoon. ‘I think I’ve executed the cartoon side of me a lot last year and the year before.’
The layer cake dress, the spiralling breasted dress, the Alice In Wonderland dress… ‘All of those costumes will be displayed in different theatres with the movie.
I love that it’s becoming such a big event. And I didn’t know that when I was doing it. I had the seed of an idea. I love to go big. I’m not afraid of the mainstream and selling out in all the right ways. I’m proud of the things that I’ve achieved and the landscapes that I have covered and I hope the film does the same thing.’
Like the film Perry is mainstream but extreme. It’s a riveting combination. We see the intimate songs performed in huge auditoriums around the world. We see the audience connecting with the outsider, making her an insider, we see her being loved. There is a moment where she talks about how in the past, when she heard other women saying that if you become really successful you have to concentrate on that and not have a relationship. She always thought why can’t you have a relationship and be a success? Because surely the person who loves you would support you? She admits that that was wrong.
‘It’s that continuing blind ambition. For a modern woman it is important to be supported and that there is equality in every aspect and that it’s not two halves that make a whole it’s two wholes that make a whole. So I have learnt.’
There’s a brief pause, a space in which a modicum of sadness or regret may have once seeped in. It’s another emotion that fills that space right now. It’s an embracing of the truth. An embracing of pain that makes it less painful. An understanding that life is in the present and the future is exciting.
‘I’ve always been ambitious since I was nine years old and that was never going to change. That’s exactly me. And the theme of this movie is that everyone wanted to change me along the way and I’ve stuck to my guns. I am going to continue to be who I was born to be and if there’s no accepting of me you are not allowed to be part of me.’
It’s been six months since Russell Brand filed for divorce. They were married for 14 months and dated around a year before that. While her career went stratospheric, his faltered. Perhaps that fuelled the gulf between them. Perry, I believe, did everything in her power to keep everything going.
‘There’s a part in the film where I’m talking about it and I say, “I wont’ always be on tour, but this is the way it is now when you have an album out. then you do a tour. Then you come home, rest and recharge.” I had planned to rest and recharge in the beginning of this year, then I just threw myself back into work because I think when you are a little bit heartbroken you just throw yourself into it.’
Brand didn’t want to wait for Katy’s tour to finish before he ended the marriage. There is no way back now. I wonder if he’ll watch Part Of Me and see her heartbreak in 3D.
In Sao Paulo she had to be helped on stage. ‘My personal problems are not the audience’s personal problems and I had to separate the personal and the professional. That’s my job as an entertainer.’
I tell her she looked like she was going to die with pain. ‘Yes, and I slapped a smile on my face. I wasn’t being dragged on stage, I just needed a shoulder to help me walk up the steps. I had to bend over so that my false eyelashes didn’t come off. I couldn’t let the tears stream because it would ruin the make-up. But I got through it. I’m still here, I’m still singing, I’m still alive. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m moving forward one step at a time.’
On the Graham Norton Show recently she said her dance card was very full but she wasn’t quite sure who she was dancing with. ‘Yes, because that’s how you answer that type of question on Graham Norton.’
Well, how full is her dance card? ‘I really wish I had more time to be cuddled right now but I don’t, and I’m very particular.’
She has been pictured with Robert Ackroyd, guitarist with Florence and the Machine. ‘Yes, he is a boy, but there is no label. I’m just hanging out with lots of dancers. It’s not appropriate for me to have something serious right now. I need to let my heart heal and to to digest life and to take a break really.
‘As of August 1 I don’t have anything planned and I think it’s going to be alright for people not to see me for a minute. There are plenty of gorgeous peers out there to put out songs for them. I have to recharge batteries and hopefully I’ll come back with an abundance of things to say and great songs. I’m going to get bored and I’m going to stay bored. I’m going to enjoy the world on my own terms, do some reading, catch up on films, I’m just going to be. No plans allowed.’
She has started making notes and taking down phrases and moods for her new album. I am sure there will be some great songs inspired by recent events. She smiles: ‘Somehow you can say things more when they are on top of a melody.’
Is she afraid perhaps of falling love again? ‘No, absolutely not. I’m excited for the future whatever it brings. This is a year about me being creative and finding a new evolution of my music. I don’t think I can always be the candy queen. I might end up starting to become bitter sweet. I have to evolve and I have to continue to push people’s perceptions of me. As an artist I like to do that. I don’t always want to be pegged to the one thought or idea because I love keeping people on the edge of their seats.’
She is clever, funny, warm and despite her protests utterly beguiling with no make-up. More than all of this, courageous.
Katy Perry arrives for lunch in the Dorchester all tartan restaurant. She looks like a 1930s diva in a silk playsuit, the colour of You Don’t Know Jacques nail polish, beige grey, and Stephen Webster jewellery and a big fat diamond engagement ring.
The waiter is floured when she asks for cucumber, avocado and baked beans. She gives a naughty smile. She likes being eccentric.
Her single California Girls has just gone to number one and her album Teenage Dream, soon to follow, is set to establish her in the big time. Many of the songs have been inspired by her boyfriend soon to be husband Russell Brand.
“Russell’s coming in tonight and he’s going to watch the football (England v. Germany). I’m going to take his mum and go shopping because I’m sure he doesn’t want me there getting too animated.”
Would she be supporting England even though she’s American? “I feel really English sometimes. This restaurant is over posh. It’s like the servers haven’t left for 200 years and they continue to live as ghosts. And perhaps there’s a Scottish terrier that will be just wandering around. I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.”
I’m wondering if that’s something that she and Russell have in common? “I think I’m the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
People were a little shocked when evangelical Christian minister’s daughter Katy first hooked up with bad boy Russell who used to boast about sex addiction and drug cocktails. Since they met last September they have been inseparable and Russell completely monogamous.
Katy is of course gorgeous, clever and funny. But how has she managed to tame him? “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself. Everyone knows no one will change unless they want to change themselves.”
Do you think it was a case that he just met you at the right time? He was ready for a new phase of his life? “Yes. It was a cosmic collision.”
How do you think being a married person will change you? “I think it will be about prioritising things. I won’t be able to get smashed all the time, but I don’t want to. I won’t be able to waste hours on the internet, but I don’t need to. I have to be very precious with my time because I need time for myself individually and I want time with him. It’s just about the balance.”
Is there any talk of babies? “No. I’ve yet to get into that head space. Babies in a few years. If you see a bump it’s just water retention. I do have a new kitten, Krusty (Katy and Russell equals Krusty).
“She’s a lesbian,” she announces. Does that mean you’ve been kissing her? “All the time.” She shows me pictures on her Blackberry of the new kitten. Russell kissing Krusty. Krusty in a teapot. Krusty in a West Ham slipper.
She’s very excited about her cats – Kitty Purry and Krusty, and Russell’s cat Morrissey. Does she still get excited about number one records? “Of course I do.” Who does she call to celebrate? “Russell, my mum, Krusty, Morrissey, Kitty Purry. I collect them all into one room and say, ‘You’d better button up that tux, Morrissey. Straighten up and stop scratching me. We’ve hit number one.”
There’s not much chance of her and Russell and the kitties setting up home in London because Russell has just sold his place here. Aside from that she says, “I will miss it. I’ll miss the formalness of everything. I also like how English people, if they don’t like you they don’t like you to your face. But my serotonin levels would be all fucked up because of the weather. I’m a sunshine person. If the sun doesn’t come out my personality doesn’t come out.”
Her eyes widen. They are big blue kitty cat eyes. Her face is gorgeously glowing, flawless. “I have regular facials with Maki Maodus at Ole Henriksen. I tried different things to compare it to, but Maki, with the oatmealy honey smell that comes from her steam I crave. I’m addicted to all the creams she uses. I love her… If cats had jobs they would probably give facials, wouldn’t they.”
Does she have a diet or exercise regime – she looks kind of perfect, all skinny and curvy? “I skip rope and I eat greens,” she says succinctly. She exudes a kind of confidence that seems pure. She’s not afraid to stand up to her record company bosses. There’s a song on her album called Peacock – cute, double entendred, racy – that they didn’t like. “They were all a bit worried with the word cock and it gave me déjà vu because they did the same thing with Kisses A Girl. They said we don’t it as a single, we don’t want it on the album. And I was like, ‘You guys are idiots.'”
And what about Cheryl or Lady Gaga? “I knew Lady Gaga a little bit when she was coming up and I love her music. I’ve never met Lily but I’m a big fan. I don’t know Cheryl’s music but I love her dimples.” She smiles as if she wishes well on all the world and then tells me she’s very busy planning a wedding so no one will find out where it is. “My cats will be involved of course. Krusty will be the flower girl.”
She got her own way and I Kissed A Girl was a worldwide smash. “I feel very constant. I always try and make a lasting impression with the people who are letting me make a small music video or a big music video, you know. And I work very hard. My father has a saying, ‘You can’t be a flash in the pan.’ This record is important to me because it will resonate the fact that One Of The Boys (her last album) wasn’t just luck.”
She has a Jesus tattoo. Is that because she loves Jesus? “Yes. I got it when I was 18 and that is because I love Jesus.”
Her father is a minister and her parents were strict, yet she gets on fantastically well with them. “Because my ultimate goal was never to be rebellious towards my parents. I first started singing with singing in church. My parents were strict but they weren’t stiff or stuffy. We still had fun. I just wanted to be allowed to do some of the things that normal kids were doing. I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV or listen to any pop music.
“When I moved out I just became this living, breathing, eating, shitting sponge. It didn’t matter what genre music it was, I was just give it to me.” Because you felt you’d been deprived? “Yes, of course. I’ve always been an open person. I was never a kid who just took it. I was always like why, why, why. And that question has got me a long way. I moved, I transitioned. My parents and I now have a lovely relationship. Probably because they realise I am not going to turn into a crazy person or a prostitute or a Charles Manson.”
Do they worry about songs like Peacock? “They haven’t heart Peacock yet. There is a little red button that is constantly pushed with them and sometimes the red has pretty much worn off around it.”
Did it wear off with I Kissed A Girl? “No, it was still there then but it was wearing off when I called and said, ‘Mum, I’m naked in a cotton candy cloud.’ Or ‘I’m marrying Russell Brand.’ They really didn’t know about him. They always give people the benefit of the doubt and it’s up to the person to mess it up.”
Did Russell mess it up or charm them? “He’s very charming with them and he has an ongoing email love letter with my mum and she loves it. She flirts with him, which is totally inappropriate and I tell him to stop.”
Somehow I think Russell is never going to stop. But it’s probably better that he’s flirting with Katy’s mum than random other girls.
Another song, Firework, is inspired by Russell. “Russell showed me a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac and he said that this is what I am. The passage read, ‘I want to be around people that are buzzing and fizzing and never say a commonplace thing and shoot across the sky and make everybody go ah.’ So that has been my life statement.”
If Russell was a firework what would he be? “He’s all of them mixed into one. He’s the grand finale. I am one that has little gold leaves that fall like gold dust into the sea. He’s the one with all the noise.”
Are those two fireworks compatible? “They’re always in the same show, aren’t they.” She smiles her quirky little smile.
I wonder though if it is hard living with someone so flashy. Is there no ego clash? “All comedians are interesting characters plagued by their own genius; funny but very serious.”
Has she become more serious? “I think I could be more spontaneous but now my time off is more scheduled. I still love to go out with my friends and I still like Pinot Grigio. But I’ve learnt from some of my hangovers I don’t drink as much as I used to. My last big night out was probably Coachella (California’s Glastonbury). We had little golf carts to get from place to place but the golf cart broke and it was the middle of the night and we were coming back from a concert. We had to walk miles and then we saw another golf cart and got in it, but we got completely stuck again. I’m happy that Russell is sober because it’s had a good influence on me. It steers me in a more positive direction.”
Russell is about to start filming the remake of Arthur. He told me that he thought Katy would be perfect to play the Liza Minnelli character. “I guess she had dark hair and is a singer, but I could never beat Liza Minnelli, and he is going to be brilliant in it.”
Would you like to work with him though? “We work together well in the relationship because there’s no arguing. There is debating and you can do the same thing with a director. It’s really important to have your communication on the same level if you want to get the best out of both worlds. I don’t want to be the couple who make the mistake of working together and it ends up embarrassing. Who knows? I don’t think I’m ready.”
Besides, next year she plans that “I’m going to be touring my ass off. It’s probably one of the reasons I exist. I never want to come off as too mysterious, detached or unreliable. I love the personal connection between people.”
Has she ever said anything she regretted? I’m thinking some of the more barbed quips about Lily Allen. “I’m sure there are things that I’ve said that have been taken out of context. But just so everybody knows for the record. I like Lily very much.”
When I first met Katy Perry a few months ago I was overwhelmed by her huge sense of self. She seemed absolutely certain who she is, what she wants, with a kind of meteoric inner drive.
She comes though softly packaged in silky slinky clothes and super-sensitivity. There’s an urgency that she must grab everything now.
I first heard of Katy Perry a couple of years ago, long before she kissed a girl. My facialist Maki is her facialist. She told me as soon as her fingers had pitter-pattered across her her delicate cheekbones that her new client was going to be the most famous girl in the world. She was so naughty, so sexy, and so Christian.
The combination didn’t make sense to me. There were two failed record deals before her current megastardom. Perhaps it’s because of them that she makes sure she never relaxes. She is never less of herself as she believed that being moulded into what’s the vogue of the moment just dilutes you into failure.
Her current world tour is about expressing every particle of herself. Her cartoon sexuality, dizzying costume changes, fireworks, her love of her cats, and her love of “hubby” Russell Brand – it’s an enormous show in every sense. And the tour is almost a year long, and just after getting married that means there’s almost no domestic downtime. She’d never want that pause, give up on her music career. She wants to make sure it never gives up on her.
Marriage to Russell Brand could have worked against her, eclipsed her. But instead the symbiosis of their single fame has made for mega celebrity wattage. Their relationship seemed implausible chemistry at first. Minister’s daughter meets former sex addict and falls in love. But in fact they are more similar than different. Both love to be quirky almost to the point of outrage. Both have fast minds filled with funny lines. And both of them have a strong sense of spirituality which they manage sometimes to disguise. More of that later.
I am in Nottingham where Perry is to play the Arena. Outside little girls are in alien masks so they look like mini aliens from Perry’s video E.T. Although not quite like Perry in that video where her make-up makes her almost unrecognizable. The rest of her is taut, sinewy, and naked. First off she looks like a fairy and then reveals her lower half is that of a fawn.
Little girls love Perry and the show caters for this. It’s pink cotton candy. It’s Wizard of Oz meets Charlie and the cup cake factory. It’s David LaChapelle kitsch. It’s Lucille Ball kooky. It’s Carry On Down The Yellow Brick Road in the ultimate push-up bra. It’s kitty cats and red sequined shoes. One time there are seven costume changes in one song; it’s more of a magic trick. It’s glitter bustiers and cup cake crinolines that light up. It’s more is more. It’s a metaphor for her work ethic that nothing is ever enough, to make sure people are pleased. No tiny sequin of a detail has gone unchecked by Perry herself.
She’s on stage for two hours singing, dancing and bantering about the weird love triangle that is “my husband, myself and you, you sexy little Brits.” Then she’ll tell us that every song she’s put out has gone to Number 1. (Her last four singles California Gurls, Teenage Dream, Firework and E.T. got to Number 1 in the US). “And that’s because of you. I owe you. It feels nice to be loved.” She says it jokey but she means it. I got the same message backstage when I met her before the show.
I made my way through racks of multi-coloured fluffy costumes and dancers in candy-striped trainers. Perry has summoned me to sit on her hot pink sofa. It travels with her. She is wearing a plush cream bathrobe, nothing else, except a glossy black wig that’s part Wonder Woman, part Betty Page. She’s presented with a dark pink drink.
“Beets, carrots, ginger, maybe some pear. I have it every day.” It’s an LA style smoothie that’s made it’s way to Nottingham. “No it’s just by the end of this tour I’ll be looking like Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose if I don’t drink it. It’s really exhausting and I’m trying to build stamina. My knees have world tour written all over them.” She shows me bruised and bloodied knees, one deep cut. “I got that one a while back. I’ll have to get it lasered off at some point. It just adds to my tomboy look.”
There is part of her that’s a gutsy tough tomboy, but the rest of her is extreme girl. A kind of Disney princess that has a superpower of extreme focus. She explains the bruising came from “a guitar solo interaction with my guitarist. And I had all this extra energy, so I slid through his legs and that felt very rock ‘n roll. So I’ve been doing it every night since.” Indeed she crashes on to the ground hard and slides fearlessly.
An assistant comes in with some vitamins. “Irons and Bs and multis. I take one pill that’s for moisture for my voice so that when I’m on stage I don’t get cotton-mouth. They are like horse pills. I also do no caffeine, although on my days off I might have a latte or something with cheese on it or a Bud Lite. But that’s cheating. I’m proud that I haven’t turned into a fully-fledged drug addict. I have no choice. I have to stay on the straight and narrow. We started the tour in February and we are going to extend it possibly to December. I think a year of being really good is important. It’s an extraordinary thing for me to play this size of venue three to four years into my career. I get to take chances and utilize a lot of different opportunities.”
She’s grateful. She never separates herself from that feeling of being knocked back and not allowed to be who she was. Although that seems a very long time ago. She was first discovered when she was 15 singing gospel in her parents’ church in sleepy Santa Barbara, California. She went to Nashville to record with country Christian rock veterans and learn the tricks of songwriting. The subsequent album failed. When she was 17 she moved to Los Angeles to pursue pop singing dreams. She was signed by Def Jam Island, released an unsuccessful album, then was signed by Columbia in 2004 and again was dropped. When she was signed by EMI Virgin she knew it could be her last chance.
“I’m a professional. I appreciate hard work and I know it takes an extra level of hard work to do this kind of thing. We’ve been filming everything. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it or to what end, but this moment is special and I want to document it.”
It’s like when people fall in love, they write poems because they want to remind themselves that these intense feelings of love existed. It feels so unbelievable they have to write it down to make it true. “We might put an episode online. It’s nice because it gets to show that this is a lot of hard work.”
There’s nothing covert about her. She doesn’t want to hide anything. There’s something refreshingly old school about her candour.
“I feel very indebted. Touring to me feels like a debt repaid but in a good way. When people support you so much you owe them actual face time. I’m not always feeling 100 per cent. Four days ago I was sick in bed and went to the doctor. And now I have this lovely bruise on my butt from a steroid shot. I didn’t want to reschedule. You have to have a certain level of accountability. People have bus times, baby sitters. I’m not saying I’ll never cancel because I’m human.”
She whips up her robe to show me the giant butt bruise. It’s large and purple. I’m not sure why she wanted to show me the bruise’s graphic detail. Maybe so I could see just what lovely buttocks she has. Maybe because she likes to show and tell.
“I got a B, an antibiotic and a steroid. I got it in LA so I could get on the plane.” For her four days off she decided to fly from the UK to LA to be with her husband and cats. It seems pretty tough to me, but she is uncomplaining and happy she got to spend time there.
Do they Skype? “Yes, of course. We Skype and Krusty talks (the cat that is the feline love child of Katy and Russell, hence made up of both names). They all love clicking on the computer. That’s when I feel most safe and comfortable when I’m sitting in my house with my cats.” It strikes me as odd that suddenly there is talk of a need to feel safe. She did tell me once that she didn’t like sleeping in the dark.
“I sleep with the lights on unless I’m with Russell. I think a lot of evil things go on in the dark. I have to cover my toes because I’m that kid who thinks there’s a witch under my bed who’s going to eat my tootsies off. I have nightmares.”
She plucks out a throat pastille from a tiny box. Her finger nails are striped in candy cane Minx. She designed them herself. “These are for my voice. I’ve got lots of tricks. I’m sticking to vegetables and steamed things, some poultry. I don’t like the taste of fish. No caffeine. No alcohol. “It sounds boring but I think what I’m achieving.”
In the corner is an elliptical machine. She says that she did 40 minutes on it today. “I only do 40 minutes on show days because a show is about two hours and I don’t want to exhaust myself. I hate it. I’d rather be lying in bed reading books and watching my favourite TV programmes. Lots of English telly. I like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. And I like Morgana. And I like Charlie Brooker.”
She’s very Britified. “Well of course,” she purrs, “with the help of my husband. I think the British always have a dial on the things that are cool first. The music over here is one of the things I loved first. Especially the women like LaRoux, Marina and the Diamonds. And of course Morrissey. I’ve just met him once and he was very lovely to me and very unique.”
Brand’s cat is named after him. “The cat has some of his attributes. He’s always coming into the room with this attitude oh you again, I can’t be bothered, not unless you are going to feed me, and I won’t eat, I won’t eat next to the other cats. He’s a black and white cat and it looks like he’s wearing a tux all the time but a bit disheveled. Kitty Purry just got a nice trim, a lion cut. That means she’s got hair all around her face and neck but nowhere else. That’s perfect. And Krusty, so adorable. When I was sick the other day she was really sweet to me. Very protective. Pets are wonderful because they are constant love, non-judgemental, so sweet.
“Krusty is a lesbian. She’s such a tomboy. But she’s such a girl and she’s very proud of who she is.” Sounds like people really are their pets and Krusty and Perry really are very similar. Perry even looks like a cat with big blue wide kitty cat eyes and little kitty cat nose. I wondered if that’s one of the things that first connected her with Brand?
“I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.” The earning, the working of her debt for people’s affection is core to her. Of Brand she says, “I am the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
Much was made in the beginning of their relationship that Perry and her Jesus background tamed him. “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself.”
I first met Brand three weeks after he’d met Perry and he pretty much told me the same thing. He’d changed. He was ready to be loved by one person instead of seeking the attention/affection of many. And even though they don’t see each other much due to extreme work commitments, they are extremely communicative, as you’d expect from the woman who first expressed her love in sky-writing. Her Twitter is full of “go hubby go” and “how cute is my baby boy” referencing picture of him in Arthur. “Yes, he’s working really hard right now and I’m working really hard right now.” Brand has had two movies out back to back, Hop and the unmissable Arthur.
Did she get to see much of him? “Yes, I see him. I planned my tour around being a professional and a married woman. I planned my tour eight months ago. I had four days off and those four days off were to see him. It’s a lot of pre-planning but at least the slots are there. He already came on the tour four times.”
Does she feel different when he’s around? “No, but I get certain tips from him about my banter back and forth with the audience. I ask him what all the football teams are because that’s good fo I am thinkr the boys who have been dragged along by their girlfriends.
“When I was in Dublin he said don’t forget Oscar Wilde is from Dublin and when I was in Manchester he said that is where Oasis is from. He’s always giving me bits and pieces.”
They are both over the top extreme, but have huge spirits and are not bored with one another.
Did marriage change her? “Well yes. I think when you’re a single person there’s an energy that you’re always looking for another half. The stresses and other things. Then when you get married you’re like ‘oh, I can take this energy and put it somewhere else’. You feel relieved in so many ways. When you find someone that is your other half you feel a sigh of relief. It’s a beautiful thing to have a partner that nourishes you and gets you and will always be there for you and gets you on so many levels you don’t have to do any explaining. You can make one expression and they understand the mood you’re in. your ultimate team mate.”
Does she believe in soul mates? “People label things however they want to and I’m not labeling him anything. He’s my husband. But I would love to think that that’s the case. When we’re on our deathbeds and forever is over we’ll know.”
The notion that forever is over is perhaps something that haunts Perry. The songs might be dressed up in pink and Firework sparkly and inspirational, its riff used on all the trailers for American Idol. It’s played all the time, yet there is darkness to it.
The song was first conceived when Brand showed her a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac which said something like I want to be around people who are buzzing and fizzing, who are full of life and never say a commonplace thing, they shoot across the sky like a firework.
“And I like the idea that when I pass away I’ll be put in a firework and be shot across the ocean in Santa Barbara. That’s always been what I wanted for my last hurrah. It’s poetic. But it’s not about romance.”
It is about the eternal though, what lasts forever and what doesn’t. She has Jesus inked on her wrist. Does she observe this? “I observe it because It’s on my wrist but I don’t necessarily make it a moment every day. Mostly it’s having a heart of gratitude and being appreciative. This is my job and it’s a fun one. I should be humbled every day, which is basically a head frame I have. Not to take the piss out of playing a stupid game of spirituality. That’s not who I am. Who I am if want to put my head and my heart in the right position, so when I’m giving out my energy it’s pure.” She got the tattoo when she was 18 “because I love Jesus.”
It’s impossible to erase her spiritual upbringing no matter how much she sings about kissing girls and loving peacock cocks and wondering what it would be like to have cream to explode from her nipples. Her parents taught her about God and the devil. Her childhood was seeped in it. She took it all in. she questioned it, but she didn’t quite rebel. She never fell out with her parents although there were some “transitions” involved.
I’ve always thought that Brand looked like Jesus, so maybe that was the main attraction after all. The depths of the spiritual instruction she grew up with doesn’t go away.
“No it doesn’t. I’m different. The roots are the same but there’s a sift. For me the general wonderful things I learnt about were about respect and integrity, the difference between right and wrong. I think everyone in their own upbringing had their own silly rooms. Each family is unique and they have their own quirks. Mine was no devilled eggs and no MTV. Instead we had to call them angels eggs, just really small nuanced things like that.”
For her Jesus is as indelible as that tattoo. The juxtaposition of spiritual integrity and overt sexuality is a fascinating one. She takes with her on tour a box of prayers. My grandmother used to have a similar box where you take out one prayer every day and it gives you guidance or wisdom for that day. She says, “Yes, my costume designer got it at an estate sale. They’re ancient. 60 years old. The King James’s version of the Bible. It’s nice to have a regime that we can all be part of. We go into a circle, read our little prayer. We do it at the top of the show. You’ll see it later.” She seems keen that I can see this spiritual aspect.
“I think I’ve always been looking for answers. Wherever you come from as a child you swear you are not going to be like your parents, you’re going to be totally different and never look back. And when you look back it’s right behind you, breathing on you.
“I started off in gospel music when I started singing in church. I’d moved out of the house and everything. It didn’t matter what genre it was, I was like give it to me.”
There is indeed something insatiable about her. The curious thing as well as wanting it all, she wants to pay for it all, feel like she’s earned it all. Quite punishing.
She hates flying, is scared of it even, yet makes herself do it she is so grateful to be on a world tour. “I get to the venue, work out, eat, dress, do make-up, we do our circle, do a meet and greet, do the show. When the show is over I’m on a tour bus. That’s the price you pay.”
It’s a recurring theme – price you pay, her debt, her bargain. Is she happy? “Yes, I feel very fulfilled. I’m not always in the Snow Whitest of moods because my humour is very cynical and sarcastic anyways. I’m here because people put me here. I’m responsible to give payback. I am close to my fans and I feel indebted to them. I wouldn’t say I’m the most spiritual in the world, but I’m very aware of how small I am in this big world and every day is a chance to remember where I came from, every day is a chance to ask for humility and grace. I have a constant feed between me and God and every day is like ‘don’t become too proud, remember where you came from, be positive.'”
Perry may well have encouraged spirituality in Brand but he was already on the way to devouring mysticism and acquiring his own spiritual guru Radhanath Swami. Her mother finds Brand charming. She feels that he is going to be “a great man of God and his transition is happening.” She says she has a “lovely” relationship with her parents. She is a middle child. Her older sister is on tour with her organizing meets and greets. Her brother is an actor in LA.
Is it true she bought her mother a facelift? “Oh no, I did not. She aged well and by her own choices. There are quite a few things that are written about me that aren’t true.”
Is it true that her mother slept with Jimi Hendrix? “That’s also not true. She danced with him.”
What about her father. Was he really best friends with Timothy Leary? “He was a hippy and he went to Woodstock and he was an acid dealer. He was associated with that famous dealer of acid and psychedelics. I’m sure he was just one of many, but that is his testimony.”
Testimony in that religion is like in AA when you say ‘I’m an alcoholic’ or saying aloud the act of contrition.
“So they’ve had their wild days too. Now they are ministers and they’ve been ministering for over 35 years. We all came from somewhere. I have to remember that not everybody knows and it would obnoxious to think that they all should know. I’m fine with it.”
I read that when she was in India she engaged the services of a mystical psychic parrot. So much weird stuff is written about her it’s hard to sift the truth. “I think it might have been trained. Sorry to burst your bubble. But the whole idea of the tarot parrot was the sound of those two words together. That was the only reason I hired it.”
You wonder how much she enjoys fame if it is indeed more of a restriction. Paparazzis chase her constantly. Stories with even less truth than the psychic parrot sprinkle the tabloids, made up fights with other girl pop stars, fictitious rows and melodramas.
“When I was nine-years-old and started singing I didn’t think ooh fame, I thought songs, stage, costumes, exciting performances, making your own record. Those were the key ingredients to it. Being on the cover of a magazine, those are byproducts and I try not to give it too much energy. I don’t like tabloids and I don’t like paparazzi. I don’t feel I owe them anything. I don’t necessarily mess with them. when I see them I never pose unless I’m working. I always take back doors. Never condoning this kind of activity because I think it’s disgusting. It’s spineless. Some places are worse than others. Nobody should want to sign up for that.
“I’m four months Google free,” she announces, sounding straight out of an addiction meeting. “I don’t Google myself any more. That was my New Year’s resolution. I don’t read papers. I don’t even look at reviews. I have a good team around me so if anything pops up that’s really good or bad I’ll know about it. All the things I need to see I see. Generally I feel much better being able to live my life like a normal person and not read yesterday’s news. It’s intense but I don’t play into it and I don’t give it any energy. I’m careful of certain things I say and I do. If I know the interview is being recorded I can be a little wilder because you’re seeing me. But if I’m doing a print interview where there are only so many words that are being put into an article and I know I’ll be edited so I’m just very aware of what I say.”
Has she changed in this respect? “I think I have become a lot more focused and my bullshit tolerance has gone. I like working with great people, I like putting on a great show. I appreciate good people and relationships, my family and friendships, and my fans are really important to me. If you fuck with my fans you fuck with me. You dn’t want to fuck with Mama Bear.”
Have you sifted out a lot of people? “No, I’ve always stayed away from those types of people. when you’re going to different levels not everyone can get there. if they have greatness within them they can rise to that level. Some people just don’t want to go there. I want to be a better version of myself every day. I want to evolve. I believe if you are not changing all the time then you are not moving forward. You’re stuck.”
Weirdly the whole arena smells of candy floss although there’s none of it in sight. It must be all the bubble gum pink that’s auto-suggesting it. In fact the backstage food is made by a team of chefs that specialize in delicious organic food. Both her managers are here on tour with her and one of them talks in a delightful Alabama accent which adds to the syrupy warmth. There’s a quiet announcement that her single E.T. is Number 1 in the US. Everyone cheers and their joy seems genuine and she much loved.
Perry and her band and dancers in multi-coloured pastel furriness and candy striped sneakers gather in their circle. Perry herself is looking more and more like Wonder Woman. She arches back as if she is mustering her super powers. I wait expecting a little prayer asking Jesus to guide the show into loveliness. All their heads go down like a rugby scrum and they shout “Robin Hood!” and head for the stage.