Pete Waterman: The hit man

The young DJ was a 'big fat git', broke, and so illiterate he had to get his bank manager to sign his cheques. So how come he turned into a millionaire prince of pop, creator of Kylie Minogue, sage of Pop Idol and now adviser to Ministers on talent-spotting?

He still remembers it as the most humiliating moment of his career. Pete Waterman was a young disc jockey and had been invited to do a gig at, of all places, Smethwick Baths. The man who was to go on to become one of Britain's most successful song writers - with more hit singles to his name than The Beatles and Elvis combined - pitched up with his boxes of records and his groovy disco lights. No dice. "On my arrival, the manager said, 'You are a big fat git, now piss off.'" Waterman recalled recently. "'Why?' I asked. 'I don't want fat blokes in my club,' he replied." But, added Waterman, the pool boss was right. "I was a mess. After that I lost weight, shaved my beard off - I took it as constructive criticism."

Forty years on - Waterman is 58 on Saturday week - and the weight has come back. But these days the millionaire businessman and television star who gave the world Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Steps and Westlife is unlikely to be told he's unwelcome by anyone in the music business.

Last week he was awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours list for "services to the music industry". He has delivered lectures on talent-spotting to civil servants at the invitation of the Cabinet Office. As if that were not respectable enough, a week ago the Pop Idol judge presented an edition of the BBC's Songs of Praise. The fat bloke and father of four has come a long way from his Coventry council flat.

Waterman was selected for the God-slot programme not for his distinguished line in theology but for the feel-good nature of his story. A sometime miner, gravedigger and railway worker, he came to success from the very edges of poverty - he claims to have slept rough at Euston station and to have been taught in a class of 63 children at his primary school - and was semi-illiterate until the age of 38.

"We had no paper to write on, no ink," he has said. "We had a teacher called Mrs Beasley and we used to have to write in the air. How she could tell if it was a P or an F? No way. It was impossible." Later in life, he says, "I had an arrangement with my bank manager where he would write out the cheque and I would sign it. I never had to worry about it." He says he finally learnt to read one holiday, at the insistence of a girlfriend.

At the Cabinet Office seminar, "I asked, 'How many of you got A-levels?' and they all put their hands up. I then asked, 'How many went to Oxbridge?' and they all put their hands up. I then asked, 'How many of you are millionaires?' and mine was the only hand to go up. They got the point ... just because a guy can't read or write it doesn't mean he isn't talented. A lot of the greats in British history were not academic geniuses."

That start in life, say those who know him, moulded his attitudes. He is almost dangerously opinionated and does not always respect those whose views differ from his own. With three divorces to his name, there is a fierce stubbornness to the man. Little wonder, then, that as a judge on ITV's Pop Idol talent show, his harsh verdicts on some of the acts - he famously stormed out when another fatty, 15-stone Michelle MacManus won the 2003 series - earned him the nickname "Pete Slaughterman".

He displays an almost entertaining lack of modesty. On his website, he describes himself as "the pop music phenomenon"; he also uses archaic language that might have been outlawed when Dave Lee Travis left Radio 1, referring, for example, to his "legendary hit-making record-breaking team".

His supporters would argue that he has earned a right to such immodesty, through economic performance if nothing else.

Together with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, whom he spotted playing in a north London pub, Waterman virtually controlled the top of the music charts from 1985 to 1992. They called Stock, Aitken and Waterman the "Hit Factory", and it was an appropriate name.

The songs were written, they were delivered to a singer - Kylie, Astley, Jason Donovan, Sinitta, Sonia, did it matter who? - and out popped a number one at the other end. Stock, Aitken and Waterman was the most recognisable producers' sound since Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.

During 1989 their records accounted for 28 per cent of the total sales volume of the entire UK music industry. Sadly, when it came the split with Stock and Aitken was sour. A few years ago they (unsuccessfully) sued Waterman over allegedly unpaid fees.

Waterman once explained his winning music formula: "When we make records, there is always a villain, always a hero, always a glorious moment; the winner always wins, the loser always comes last. I don't want to know about the realities of life."

Curiously, he says his greatest influence has been Richard Wagner, his hero. Dead or Alive's 1985 number one "You Spin Me Round", for example, was "Ride of the Valkyries at 130 beats per minute, with a bass to knock over a brick wall".

His love affair with Wagner is on-going, but there is a non-musical hinterland. The former railway boilerman is fanatical about steam trains, to the extent of buying up the old London North Western Railway name and converting it into a company that repairs and refurbishes the trains he loved as a child.

The LNWR employs 180 people, and is the biggest privately owned provider of rail maintenance services in the country. Waterman is also patron of the Guild of Railway Artists. Another passionate interest is fish: he travels around the world collecting koi carp.

The television presenter Michaela Strachan worked with Waterman on his first television venture, The Hitman and Her, from 1988 to 1992. She is still very fond of him, and says there is a softness but it is buried away.

"Underneath, he is a really sweet bloke. Yes, there is that definite working-class exterior - a hard, rough side to him - but when the crunch came he was really very protective of me. Then once he knew I was OK, he would be as rude as anything.

"Sometimes he could be quite nasty. If he wanted his way, he could get quite harsh. He has a certain way of giving a backhanded compliment. I remember him saying to me, 'You know why you work on this show, kid. It's because you are not threatening to women. If we had a really beautiful woman with a fantastic figure, they wouldn't like it.'"

The Hitman and Her was the typical post-pub TV - it was set in a nightclub, and featured drunken punters swapping clothes and taking part in games such as "Get Your Gums Around These Plums" - and its 2am broadcast slot provided Waterman with an opportunity to perfect his rudimentary broadcasting skills.

"When we first started, whenever the director said anything into his earpiece, Pete would answer on camera," recalls Strachan. "He was quite rough and ready in those days."

It was a gig far more peculiar than anything at Smethwick Baths. At the time, Waterman was already a multi-millionaire. Yet once a week, he would force himself out to a grotty nightclub to film a show watched by a few thousand drunken students.

"I used to wonder why someone as wealthy as he was would want to schlep all over the country at two o'clock in the morning," says Strachan. It certainly was not for the fee.

"Sometimes he used to forget to send in an invoice asking for his money."