CHRISTINA PATTERSON'S BIG INTERVIEW
Jason Donovan: 'I'm a survivor in this life'
Jason Donovan's career seemed lost in a combination of drugs and ill-judged legal action. Now he's back and recording again
Friday 26 September 2008
My life to date," said Jason Donovan in the foreword to his autobiography Between the Lines, "has been a roller-coaster ride". It's the truth. The boy who got a part on a television soap and who shot to superstardom as a teen pin-up and global pop star, and who threw it all away, not for love, or family, or pursuit of artistic integrity, or even to find himself, but for a hefty daily dose of little white powder up the nostrils, has certainly had what he calls his "ups and downs".
And now, apparently, he's back, after many years in the wilderness, via that very contemporary form of public redemption called I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, and a TV series, Echo Beach, which has been axed but which did, at least, have a sense of (postmodern) humour about its own slender storyline. He's back to pop: to his first album, in fact, for 15 years. Let it Be Me, a collection of Fifties and Sixties pop classics and love songs, comes out in November, coinciding with the launch of a 24-date tour.
Great art it isn't, but it's a perfectly pleasant collection of perfectly pleasant songs, which has swapped some of the tinniness of those Eighties hits for something mellower and richer. Clever production is probably a part of that, but Jason's voice (sorry, but you can't not call a teen pin-up by his first name) has also matured. And so, it seems, has he. Not having been a pre-pubescent Smash Hits reader in the Eighties, or a young gay man, I was, I'm afraid, immune to the charms of the sun-kissed surf-god who triggered more hysteria than a Nazi rally. Today, in a posh members' club in Notting Hill round the corner from where he lives, I am not so immune.
First, there's the smile. It's so unutterably sweet that it's extremely hard to imagine this creature crashing, in a coke-fuelled seizure, to the floor at a party (Kate Moss's 21st-birthday party, as it happens) and ignoring the pleas of his friends and family not to do it again and again and again. And then there's the energy. In his shorts and sweatshirt, tapping his fingers on the table, gesturing to make a point, leaning firmly forward, he has the air of a kind family dog, one that's stuck inside for the moment, but dreaming of freedom, dreaming of the park. And then there are the eyes. When they focus on you – and they do, they do – you feel your heart melt.
"I've been doing a lot of recording over the last four years, and a lot of writing and collaborating," the vision volunteers, "that's been very rewarding. I don't know whether any of it will commercially see the light of day, but I certainly hope it will." Not just polite, then – he arrived earlier than me and apologised profusely when his phone rang – but humble, too. "It's difficult when you've had such a long space between recording to present a profile like mine in a recording sense and expect it to go out there and capture the imagination. So I think to a certain degree that this was a very acceptable compromise."
Phew. He said it before me. So does he, er, feel that he's in more of a position to make his own choices about his music? He has, after all, been extremely honest, in his book and elsewhere, about the fact that "the kids" loved his music, but he didn't. For a moment, the lovely smile fades.
"Look, I think every poet's a thief. They are. I'm sorry. There's not too many new things in the world. I'm very proud of this record. I think it has authenticity. I'm a sort of survivor in this business. There's no textbook on where I'm going and how I'm going to get there. I try to work with what I've got. There are very few artists in this world who get to be exactly who they aim to be. People can make decisions not to do certain things and end up not working, so it's a constant struggle, but honestly I feel very happy being me."
Ah yes, Let it Be Me. Well, it's not hard to see why it would take a while to work that one out. If your mother walks out on you when you're five ("I have always consoled myself with the fact that she must have felt something for me" he writes poignantly in Between the Lines) and you spend much of your childhood hanging around TV studios waiting for your famous father to finish work, and at 19 you're mobbed in shopping centres and confused with a fictional character, and you're digitally morphed into a plastic pop star, and you regularly perform at concerts where literally hundreds of girls faint, and you do eight shows a week playing a rather camp Joseph in a West End musical and discover that the whole world thinks you're lying about being gay – well, you can see that it might be a little bit tricky to know exactly who "me" was.
The gay business, in particular, is still a sore point. In a TV interview with Donovan earlier this week, Piers Morgan talked in some detail about his decision to sue The Face for implying that he was concealing his homosexuality, a decision, according to one guest, which made him look "stupid, arrogant, homophobic and vindictive". "You know in your heart" said Morgan fiercely "that it was a bad mistake." Poor Jason wriggled in his chair. "Had I known what I know now," he tells me, "I probably would have left it to rest, but it was an injustice and it was a decision I made, and I stood by that decision. Unfortunately, that tinge of homophobia and the tabloids overshadows it, but that's life."
Redemption, however, may be nigh – in the unlikely form of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Adding to that public redemption with "celebs" in an Australian jungle (a nice symmetry for Oz's biggest blue-eyed boy) and the private redemption through marriage and children (with Ange, a steely-willed stage manager who helped him get his life back on track) there's now the opportunity to make some public amends to the gay audience that he alienated, in next spring's stage version of the award-winning film about what one character calls "cock on a rock". It's a further redemption, too, since, to his eternal regret, he turned the film down.
"Yeah, things have come full circle," he says, "and even my dad said, 'how do you feel about doing this part?' I don't think about that. I just get on and do things. I like to work," he adds. "It's very simple. I just love to keep busy. When I'm busy, I'm good."
Like everyone else these days, when he says "good", he means "fine". Actually, I think he's more than fine. The boy who has sold more than 13 million albums, and whose past fame still kicks back in some unlikely places – poor, kidnapped, Shannon Matthews's step uncle apparently changed his name to "Donovan" in homage – and who went from squeaky clean to sleazy has-been, and who was one of the early guinea pigs for our now ubiquitous model of manufactured car-crash celebrity is, as he says, a "survivor".
But he's an awful lot more than that. He couldn't sing, and now he can. He can turn his hand to telly, theatre, musicals and films and do it all pretty well. "I believe we all have a responsibility to do something with our lives," he says, "and get off our asses. What I've done, that's my profession, that's how I've paid my bills."
And on celebrity, that curse, or perhaps blessing, of our contemporary culture, he is level-headed. "I have lived with celebrity for 20 years," he continues, "so nothing surprises me. The power of celebrity is a currency in its own sense, it's interesting because we're in a country where you've got the class system, and royalty, and business, and you've got the currency of celebrity through the OKs and the Hellos. Look at Bob Geldof and Make Poverty History. That alone, to me, is a good use of celebrity. It can be abused as well. It's not politics. I'm not advocating what's happening to Amy Winehouse as a good thing, it's a bad thing, but people buy into it because it's not perfect.
For the future, all he wants, he says, is for his "gorgeous" children to be healthy and happy. If pressed, however, he will admit to just one ambition. "I would love to write a song, or co-write a song that is successful commercially and that affects not just the friends I play it to, but that a lot of people go, 'wow, I heard that on the radio and it affected me'."
He wants, in other words, to be a rock star, but then find me a man who doesn't. In Between the Lines, it's clear that the person he really wanted to be was Australia's rock god, the man who stole Kylie, Michael Hutchence. But Michael Hutchence is dead. And lovely, talented, pragmatic, hard-working, and, I have to say, extremely handsome, Jason Donovan is alive.
'Let It Be Me' is out on 10 November on UMTV; Jason Donovan tours the UK from 27 November to 19 December (see www.jasondonovan.org.uk)
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