Like a lot of women – my mother is completely smitten with Robbie Williams. I have tried to explain what a rat bag the mega successful British pop star is. That his drug and alcohol induced behavior makes headlines, his visits to rehab are infamous, he urinates in his video clips and writes songs about shagging prostitutes. But my mother won’t have it. She thinks anyone that looks that adorable and can sing Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin songs with inimitable finesse – must be “a lovely boy”. So how has such a self destructive bad boy managed to seduce teenagers and 50 year old women the world over? “I think all women love cheeky boys”, Williams tells me, “they just can’t help themselves”.
If anyone has turned cheekiness into a multi million dollar phenomenon – it’s Robbie Williams. His ability to incite audiences makes comparisons to Elvis justifiable. Whether he’s crooning Sinatra songs in a suit, or belting out pop anthems in skin tight leather, Williams knows how to make a crowd come alive. As I experienced first hand – this applies whether he is playing to 100 000 people or merely 30.
It’s a perfectly sunny day in London and I’m standing in a small room at Capital Radio’s London head quarters surrounded by a small group of inconsolably anxious competition winners. Their prize is a rare and intimate audience with the man himself. Accompanied by just a keyboard and acoustic guitar Williams will perform some of the hit songs from his latest album ESCAPOLOGY in a medium sized boardroom for less than thirty people.
As Williams’s strides devilishly into the room a teenage girl perched on the carpet closest to him gets to her feet and burst into tears. “What are you crying for Darling”, he says hugging her, “I’m not dead or anything- which is a bloody miracle when you think about it”. Over the next 40 minutes, it’s not just a flawless vocal performance we’re treated to – but some side splittingly funny self deprecation and flirtation. One minute he’s singing a love ballad with sincerity, the next he’s hanging out the window inciting the people on the street below. “Hello down there I’m Robbie Williams. I’m a big pop star I am”. Just as quickly – he turns his attention back to the room. “They’re all Japanese tourists so they didn’t give a toss. I’m not very big in Japan”! As he surveys the various posters of female pop stars on the walls he comments “I think I’ve shagged most of these birds at one time or another. I can’t be sure though, I can’t remember certain sections of my adult life. That’s why you should never do drugs kids”. Even a PR chick dressed for attention – gets it. “Do you have a boyfriend darling”? And when she says she does – “Do you have a sister then”? It’s Robbie Williams at his irresistibly cheeky best.
One can only imagine what a little bugger he must have been as a child.
He was born 30 minutes South of Manchester in the UK on the 13th of February, 1974. His parents spilt when he was three years old and Williams and slightly older sister Sally were raised by their mother who ran a local pub. From an early age, Williams gained a reputation for mischievous behavior and managed to flunk his high school exams with confidence. “I’ve always been the kind of person that is very easily distracted and easily bored”, he tells me. He did manage to make a more positive impression on the drama department and regularly made starring appearances in school musicals. His interpretation of Oliver Twist’s Artful Dodger was apparently a stand out.
After dropping out of school, Williams fumbled his way through menial jobs before his mother spotted an advertisement for a boy band and encouraged her son to audition. Williams joined TAKE THAT as a 16 year old in 1990. Btw 1992 and 1996 the band set a UK record clocking up 8 number one singles. But Robbie began to feel confined by the band’s squeaky clean image and the fact that fellow member Gary Barlow was anointed the band’s main man. Williams directed his restless energies into getting wasted with the Gallagher brothers (Oasis) and left TAKE THAT altogether in 1997.
For the following two years, Williams fell into a drugs and alcohol haze. After checking himself into rehab, he got clean and released his first single, a cover version of George Michael’s Freedom. It went to the top of the UK charts and launched what has become one of the most successful pop careers in UK music history.
Over the next three years, Williams took his collective album sales to 30 million, played sell out tours throughout Europe and the UK and managed to have relationships with some of the world’s most famous women including former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and Australian model Rachael Hunter. There were also artistic collaborations with Kylie Minogue, (on Kids in 2001) and Nicole Kidman, who sang with Williams on his hugely successful album of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra covers – Swing When You’re Winning. Despite photographs of Williams leaving Kidman’s hotel during the wee hours of the morning, he has flatly denied a romance with Kidman, claiming he was “too shy” to close the deal.
My chance to speak more intimately to Williams eventuates several weeks later down the phone line. His tone is immediately warm, friendly and relaxed. He is currently in LA where he has been spending a lot of time in an effort to break the biggest and most fickle of all music markets. Already a multimillionaire – he clearly isn’t doing it for the money. “On one hand it’s absolutely superb that I can walk my dog in this country and nobody gives a toss”, he says, “on the other hand my ego is saying – we must conquer all”. There are also strong rumors circulating that Williams is in discussion to launch an acting career. “Part of me thinks that it’s so obvious – I couldn’t be bothered”.
There was a time not so long ago when Robbie Williams couldn’t have been bothered doing anything. After releasing the “Swing” album in November 2001, Williams took some well earned time off and focused his energies on staying drug and alcohol free by attending regular AA meetings in LA throughout 2002. “You have to understand that I have been doing this career thing for over 15 years now and apart from being completely bored with it – I was bloody exhausted”. As well as teaching Williams “not to make important decisions when you’re really tired” the sabbatical rejuvenated the artists’ enthusiasm for his chosen profession. “I just fell totally in love with the whole process of recording and performing music again”, he says, “when it came time to make the next album – I couldn’t wait to get going again”.
There’s nothing but optimism coursing through Williams’ latest hit single “Something Beautiful”- “if you’re lost, hurt, tired or lonely, something beautiful will come your way”. Now that Williams is a clean living highly acclaimed pop God – there’s only one thing missing from his life and he’s keen to acquire it. “I haven’t found the right girl yet”, he says in a mock wounded tone, “but I’d really like to”. I ask Williams why the search for Mrs-right-for Robbie has had so many false starts.
“Well, the thing is, celebrity people just don’t seem to last long in relationships for some reason” he says in a contemplative tone. “I’m not really sure why that is”. I graciously offer to enlighten the 28 year old– and he earnestly accepts.
I carefully explain to Williams that for a relationship to really work, both people have to make the other person their first priority. However, most because celebrity types are used to paying so lots of people to treat them like the most important person in the universe. Therefore getting two people raised on that mentality to come to terms with a tricky little concept called ‘compromise’, often ends in, well divorce or endless break ups”.
For a few seconds I am wondering whether or not Williams is still on the line. “Bloody hell Dr Freud’, he says finally, “you could be right”.
While he concedes that he might not quite ready for that compromising caper just yet – he does really look forward to raising a family one day. Infact, Williams describes playing with his infant nephew, Freddy as ‘blissful’ – not to mention cost effective. “I used to pay a lot of money to feel that high”.
So is fatherhood a status he is keen to embrace” “Absolutely”, he says with genuine passion, “I think I’d be a great Dad, very understanding if you know what I mean”. In that case, I ask Williams what his reaction would be to a 21 year old version of himself turning up to whisk his teenage daughter away for the weekend. “What a bloody depressing question”, he says after another long pause, “I’d castrate the bastard”!
The songs on Robbie Williams’s latest multi platinum album, ESCAPOLOGY, lyrically accentuate the dichotomous nature of his personality – “so unimpressed but so in awe, such a saint but such a whore”. On one hand he just wants to “feel real love” on the hand he wants to “get another drink in” and “come undone”.
I ask Williams if he’s really as bad as some of his lyrics suggest. “A lot of the songs on the album are meant to depict my life the way I believe people believe it to be. In reality – I’m not that much of a bad boy at all”.
So you’ve never “sung songs that were lame and slept with girls on the game”.
“Actually, yes…and yes”.
So are we going to see a better behaved Robbie Williams from now on?
“Well…probably not actually”.
After 40 minutes chatting intensely with Robbie Williams, I’m enchanted, but still confused. He is as self effacing as he is self indulgent and is most comfortable poking fun at his ego when he is simultaneously feeding it. He sings and jokes about the number of women he’s been to bed with but is lost for words when asked how many people in the world love him unconditionally. “Well there’s me Mum”, he manages finally, “she’s a bloody Angel that woman”.
Since we’re on the subject, I can’t resist telling Williams that my own mother – an overly enthusiastic fan – has come over to follow me around the house throughout our entire phone call. Then something typically Robbie happens – he asks to speak with her.
Before my better judgment has time to kick in – I hand the phone over to my mother, who embraces it with dangerous confidence. Over the next ten minutes, Robbie Williams and my mother fire endless compliments at one another while I stand in the background making that irate wind up signal publicists are usually making at me.
“He’s going to make another album of those Frank Sinatra songs just for me”, says a beaming 55 year old, (happily married) woman as she hands the phone back. “I told you he was a lovely boy”.
I tell Robbie Williams that he’s either a genius or just a pathological attention seeker.
“In this business darling, it helps to be a bit of both”.