Robbie was "the sort that girls could take home to their mums". He joined the group when he was 16, in 1990. He left spectacularly five years later after a drunken binge at the Glastonbury festival. The binge went on until a six-week rehab course sobered him up and got him back into action.
So will "Jovial Bob, the joke from Stoke" have us laughing at him or with him?
Kate Thornton thinks we will stick by Robbie. As former editor of Smash Hits magazine and the Mirror pop gossip column, she reckons it was obvious that Robbie was the one with star quality. "What he has over the others is being a born entertainer," she said.
Even at the height of the group's fame, everyone agreed that Robbie was the cutest, the funniest, and the best dancer. "People were initially interested because he was cheeky, sexy and the naughtiest," said Kate Burt at 19 magazine.
What's more, his street cred has increased. He moved from the bubble- gum pop of Take That to the indie camp, and became associated with something that was much more credible and music-based. It was a radical break from the boy-band image, and it seems to have been all that was needed to make the transition from the baddest in the group to the baddest in town. Kate Burt said: "He looks very good, he hangs around with all the right people and everyone likes him because he is cute. Of course this will help his music."
As for musical prowess, Neil Mason, albums editor at Melody Maker, is more dismissive, but not about the man or his likelihood of success. "I am not sure that people care about the music," he said. "There is the myth of Robbie Williams. He is good value. A cheeky, fun chap stuck on an album is going to be all right. It's not going to fail."
Mason suggests that there has also been a general shift in attitudes. With the warm arm of Oasis around him, Robbie Williams doesn't need to be a great musician: he fits in with the Oasis culture of the blagger, the lucky chancer done good.
Williams has produced an album about the experiences of himself and those close to him at the hands of the press.
"In the last two years his solo career has produced some very mature pop. He has matured massively as a performer and as a writer," says Kate Thornton. "Any great album has to come from the heart, and it is brave for him to put all of this on record. It's like signing off that part of his life. What he has said in his songs is nothing that he hasn't said in public."
So Mr Clean is still coming clean. Even musically, according to Neil Mason, Robbie is not trying to be something he is not.
Which is perhaps where the other members of Take That have failed. "Mark Owen has done something completely different, and is still trying to find his way after releasing his debut album. Gary Barlow wants to do a George Michael, but is actually doing a Cliff Richard. Essentially, Robbie Williams is still the same guy he was in Take That," says Mason.
New single: `South of the Border'. Album: `Life Through A Lens'. Tour starts today at Norwich UEA. Tomorrow: Southampton Guildhall.Reuse content