The boy in the corner: Why is Will Young in therapy?
On 'Pop Idol', he fought Simon Cowell – and won. On the slippery slopes of the record industry, he kept his feet and triumphed with four platinum albums. On stage, he was lauded for playing Coward. On screen, he shone alongside Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. And on 'Question Time', he dumbfounded the critics to send ratings sky-high. So why, with a greatest-hits album on the way, has Will Young spent the past decade in outright terror?
Sunday 01 November 2009
There are certain things that strike you when you meet someone famous. In the flesh they are, invariably, fatter, thinner, taller, shorter, uglier, prettier than they look on telly. Will Young? Much, much fatter. So huge, in fact, that it's impossible not to do a double-take as he emerges from behind a rail of clothes in his dressing-room.
"Ha!" he cries gleefully as I get an eyeful of his enormous belly. "They didn't tell you, did they? You should see your face!" Judging by the size of him, Young is full-term and ready to give birth any day. He is, by any measure, glowing.
We are on the outskirts of London – Woolwich, in the south-east, to be precise – at a labyrinthine school of performing arts. Little girls in pink leotards glide around the corridors, music wafts out of studios. Young is shooting a video for "Hopes & Fears", the single accompanying his forthcoming greatest hits album, which casts him as a pregnant father-to-be, complete with huge fake tummy. The film will follow him as he attends antenatal classes, waits for medical check-ups, sprinkles pepper on jelly sandwiches and sits weeping in front of nature programmes on the telly. What this surreal plotline has to do with the song isn't entirely clear, but the shoot makes for an entertaining afternoon, especially when we go out into the street for the outdoor scenes, where passers-by gasp at the sight of Young, and practically choke when they see his belly.
Prosthetic accoutrements aside, Young is as you'd expect – tall, athletic, good-looking but not in that ubiquitous boyband way. Part of his instant charm is that huge, mile-wide smile, the one that reduces myriad teenage girls – and their mothers – to puddles.
Back in the dressing-room, Young strips to his under-pants and a stylist rearranges the bump. Before the next scene he decides to slip outside for a cigarette. As he does, his publicist, assistant and assorted record-company reps contemplate the PR implications of a world-famous gay male pop star being photographed in an alleyway smoking a fag while pregnant.
The next time we meet, he's back to his toned, flat-bellied self in a café near his home in Brighton. It's three weeks later and he has just come off the train from London in his customary disguise of tweed hat and spectacles. He looks unmistakeably like Will Young to me, and to the other 20 or so customers who crane their heads to get a better look, but he maintains that no one bothers him as long as he's wearing the specs.
Brighton is, he says, his bolthole. He loves being near the sea, as he finds it calming. His main residence is a flat in London's Holland Park, which he shares with an old school chum, and he also has a 17th-century cottage in the middle of Cornwall's Bodmin Moor.
"I've just been down there having a surfing lesson," he smiles. "I must be getting old, as I find myself doing more outdoor things. Give me a couple of years and I'll probably be bird-watching." Young turned 30 this year, which he regards as a huge milestone. He has only recently started surfing – it's one of several extra-curricular activities that include riding, ballet and drawing. "I love it, particularly as in the past I didn't really get enjoyment from those sorts of things," he says. "Or really anything, come to think about it."
It doesn't, it has to be said, take much to get Young to open up. Four years of therapy have made him incredibly candid about his feelings and the peculiarities of his life. He talks a lot about working on issues and things he has learnt. He is critical of himself but not in a self-flagellating way. Indeed, for someone prone to depression, he's terrifically upbeat company. He describes himself as "nervy, shy, insecure", though he comes across as chatty and highly confident. This is the man who publicly berated Simon Cowell after he called Young's performance on Pop Idol "distinctly average" (they have since buried the hatchet), and has called Louis Walsh a cunt (though, admittedly, not to his face). So what, you wonder, has he got to be sad about?
The bare bones of Young's story suggest a blessed life: a middle-class, privately educated (Wellington College) university graduate (Exeter, 2:1 in politics) wins the pot of gold at the end of the Pop Idol rainbow and goes on to sell gazillions of records. He has had four number ones, nine top-10 singles and has been nominated for 10 Brit awards (he won two). In his seven years in the limelight, he has behaved impeccably. Aside from announcing he was gay shortly after Pop Idol, thereby neatly sidestepping a newspaper exposé, his life has seemed drama-free. No hissy fits, no drug addictions, no kiss-and-tells – not so much as a parking ticket.
But few lives are quite so perfect. A year ago, Young began to talk publicly about his twin brother Rupert, who has suffered from depression and alcoholism since his mid-teens. Throughout his brother's Pop Idol auditions, Rupert played the role of the supportive sibling in the audience – but, privately, he was raising hell.
At the end of 2001, when Young was getting ready to appear on the first live show, Rupert slit his wrists. Their parents were away, and Will had to take charge. "It's strange how in those situations where you'd think you would go to pieces, you just get into a different zone and emotions don't really feature," he says. "Seeing him on the floor with blood everywhere and a knife, you just do what you need to do – pick him up, call the ambulance. I never really cried about it, I just went into survival mode."
Bit by bit, Young and his family became inured to his brother's melodrama. "There was this occasion when Rupert threatened to jump off a roof," he recalls. "I said 'Go on, jump then. What do you think is going to happen? You're just going to land on grass.'" There was guilt for Will, too, for always being seen as the bright one, the successful one. His lowest point came when Rupert was arrested after getting into a brawl. It got into the papers and the case went to court.
"They were going to send him to prison," Young remembers. "And that was really because of me and my job. If he had gone to prison, he'd have killed himself. The case went on and on, and the judge fell asleep twice. The papers called him an 'evil twin'. They said that he ran after me with a baseball bat when he found out I was gay. And I couldn't sue them because I didn't want to draw any attention to anything else that was going on."
In the end, Young and his parents resolved to ignore Rupert's phone calls, bar him from their homes, and force him to cope by himself. "It was awful but I'd had enough, and my parents were at that stage too," he says. "My mum still doesn't sleep well because of the phone calls that she used to get in the middle of the night."
Now, Rupert has got his life together and works full- time at the Mood Foundation, the charity that he and Will have set up to help people struggling with depression. "Seeing him so well, it's the best thing that's ever happened in my life," Young beams.
But as Rupert's life settled down, Will was left to focus on his own somewhat strange existence. It didn't feel good. "I had always been the one sorting my brother out, and it was easier to do that than actually look at myself," he explains. "I had thought I was coping well with my job and being famous but I became scared about going out and meeting people. I was going into loony, reclusive-pop-star mode, which is very easy to do, because you're always busy and people tend to do what you want."
Eventually, he consulted a therapist and found that as he talked about it – his career, his brother, everything – he began to get better. He went on a week-long self-esteem course with a group of strangers where he stood up and said, "Hi, I'm Will, I'm a pop star and I'm not very confident.
"It was like being in a Richard Curtis comedy," he giggles. "But it was extremely valuable. I'm going on another one soon. I'm looking forward to it. I think everyone should do it."
Young now sees his therapist once every two months, for general maintenance. These days, he worries about more everyday things – his current obsession is the bags under his eyes. "I'm so vain," he confesses. "I find myself staring in the mirror and pulling my skin back as if I've had surgery." Surely everyone does that, I say.
"Do you?" he asks.
Frequently, I reply.
Young has had to put up with a fair bit of flak over the years, for his appearance – "It was odd," he observes, "after Pop Idol, to hear people talking about the size of my jaw" – and also for his route to fame.
"There's a perception of you getting this massive cheque and getting a deal and suddenly selling loads of records. It's as if you've never struggled, even though when any artist breaks, you haven't seen what they've been through to get there. So at first I was like, 'Yes, you're right, this is awful, I'm crap and I shouldn't even be doing this.' The vitriol was powerful, very powerful. It was awful hearing comments. I remember doing the Party at the Palace for the Queen's Golden Jubilee and hearing Paul McCartney say something about me, and I was so upset because obviously he's an icon. But then I met him again recently and he was lovely. And all I could think about was me singing his song 'The Long and Winding Road'. I was like, 'I'm so sorry. I fucking murdered that song.'"
Young grew up in Hungerford, Berkshire. His dad owns an engineering business, which he has had for more than 30 years, while his mother runs a plant nursery. He and his brother were packed off to prep school when they were nine. After bedtime, they would sneak into each others' dormitories to kiss one another good night. At 13, Will was offered the option of going to drama school but turned it down and went to Wellington because he wanted to be with Rupert.
He worked hard to fit in. If there was a mantra that he used to survive, it was "to just shut up and get on with it. I loved the learning side of things, and I liked sport, but I never wanted to stand out. Ever." '
He realised he was gay when he was eight or nine and did his utmost to mask it. He knew he could sing from an early age, but he kept that to himself, too. He "came out" at university, where he first fell in love. Sadly, the object of his affection was straight. It hit him hard, he says. He was depressed for a year.
He sang in student musicals. He found a car park on the university campus that had beautiful acoustics and would go there and sing when no one was around. During the summer holidays, he worked at Sony Music Publishing in an attempt to get his career started. By the time of the Pop Idol auditions he had begun a three-year musical-theatre scholarship at London's Arts Educational School in Chiswick. Having left college with £20,000 in loans, the Pop Idol proceeds were welcome. His debut single "Evergreen" went into the record books as the fastest-selling British debut ever.
Young is still sporadically involved in The X Factor, the rebranded Pop Idol, and feels huge affection for the show that started everything. He is astonished at how huge it has become. A recent stint in Marrakech helping the X-Factor judge Cheryl Cole whittle down the contestants brought memories flooding back. "You have to work so hard!" he exclaims. "You're doing everything – the interviews, the performances, all the extra stuff. All this in between shitting yourself and wanting your career and singing to go as well as it can. You're not just the stars of the show, you're creating the show, even though you're in it. You're acting it out even though the script hasn't been written. It was very weird."
If Young's winning seven years ago raised a few eyebrows – many thought it should have been the sweet, stuttering Gareth Gates – you can now see why he was streets ahead of the competition. Along with those pristine vocals, Young was instantly likeable – unthreatening, mature and, at 23, apparently self-assured enough to handle the pressure. "I never felt that I needed to be like anyone else," he reflects. "Yes, I think I was old enough to handle it, but I don't think I would ever have got a record deal without it. I wasn't writing my own stuff, I didn't have any direction. I was gay, I was posh, I was straight out of university. I was different from the notion of a pop star, and that's why I think that show is amazing. It gives you a chance you wouldn't otherwise get."
Since then, Young has grown up before our eyes. He has moved from gauche, grinning newbie to seasoned pro. He describes his public coming out as his "second coming", since his friends and family already knew. Commercially, it was certainly a risk. By revealing his sexuality, he threatened to alienate his fan base – though, if anything, it served to make him appear more human, more sensitive, more loveable. As he says of himself: "I am the gay guy that people would take home to meet their mums."
Over the years, Young's music has changed too. Gone is the gloopy balladry of old, replaced by a more grown-up soul and R&B sound. He gets to decide what goes on the albums these days – his management, headed by Simon Fuller, trusts his instincts. Even so, he admits that the type of music he makes isn't necessarily the music that he listens to (he's just bought The XX and the new Dizzee Rascal albums) and that "you have to go through hoops to get your songs played on the radio. I mean, I would love my seven-minute piece with Nitin Sawhney to get on the radio as a single but it's never going to happen. It took me a while to get my head around that."
Still, there was a time four years ago when he came close to giving up on pop. His third album, Keep On, had been hard work and he had just made his big-screen debut in Mrs Henderson Presents, the Stephen Frears film co-starring Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, about a wealthy widow who buys a West End theatre. Young loved being able to hide behind a character and wondered whether he'd found a new calling.
Two years ago, he took to the stage to play the troubled young musician Nicky Lancaster in Noël Coward's Vortex. The Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh wrote of his performance that it had "taken more than 80 years and the performance of Will Young to bring out the full truth about Nicky Lancaster".
In both instances, Young says, he was petrified. Of what, exactly? "Oh, you know, ridicule, not being taken seriously, of being out of my depth. But I loved every minute of it." Enough to give up music? "No, definitely not," he smiles. "I don't see why I can't do both."
Fear is clearly a galvanising force for Young. The things he has loved doing most are the things he's been most scared of. "Even having those surfing lessons this weekend, I nearly bottled out. With the singing and acting, these are things I just have to do. It's like I don't really have a choice."
It was the same when he went on Question Time in February. "That was terrifying. At the risk of sounding like a self-help manual, it's about fulfilling your potential. That's surely what life's about. There's a part of me that so wants to be a recluse and not do anything that I push myself into mad situations just to prove to myself that I can do it."
This would go some way towards explaining the ever-increasing breadth of Young's career. Earlier this year he delivered a talk at the Oxford Union. He has written opinion pieces in newspapers and presented TV documentaries. He is on this year's judging panel for the BBC National Short Story awards. He's also soon to appear in the Channel 4 drama Skins, and ITV's new Miss Marple drama The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side. While, with Question Time, there were the inevitable accusations of "dumbing down", Young's appearance boosted the programme's ratings to 3.6 million. The producers have asked him back. "I hadn't had a chance to use my brain in that way since university, and I always thought you should keep your mouth shut. But Question Time was the right setting, I thought, and it was good fun. I even made up a word – 'blame- ocracy" – which was interesting. A friend texted me and said, 'What the hell is that?'"
Young and I have been talking for nearly three hours. When I tell him the time, he gasps at his ability to talk about himself for such a long time. "Oh God, did I ask you any questions?" he frets. You did, I say, but remind him that that's not really the point. Tonight, he has a date. His last relationship was with a dancer named Conor and it ended two years ago, though "it seems like yesterday". He enjoys going out with new men, though fame can make things awkward. "No one ever asks me, 'What do you do?'" he notes dryly. But he giggles at the "Family Fortunes moments" when he silently awards his date a huge "X" for some unconscious infraction. One would-be boyfriend suggested that they go jogging together – "Ten minutes later, the date was over."
So now it's back to his house to tidy it – and himself – up, and back on the train to London to meet the suitor who may or may not be the man of his dreams. The hat and the specs go on, he thanks me for my time and bounds off down the street – still unmistakeably Will Young.
The single 'Hopes & Fears' is released next Sunday on RCA. 'The Hits' is released on 16 November, also on RCA
Idol or idle? How the winners have fared...
Michelle McManus (Pop Idol, 2003) went to number one with her debut single, "All This Time". Now out of music but a regular guest presenter on Scottish TV's The Hour
Steve Brookstein (The X Factor, 2004) was dropped by Sony one album after winning the first rebranded Idol. His self-released second album failed to chart. In August, he played Pizza Express in Maidstone
Shayne Ward's (The X Factor, 2005) long-delayed Breathless album debuted at number two (held off by Leona Lewis, below). His new album is due in March
Leona Lewis (The X Factor, 2006) is widely regarded as the best singer to come out of a reality show. She has sold more than 6.5 million albums and 15 million singles worldwide
Leon Jackson's (The X Factor, 2007) first three singles inexplicably went top 10. He was then dropped and merged his tour with (ahem) Same Difference
Alexandra Burke (The X Factor, 2008) was, with "Hallelujah", the first British female solo artist to sell a million copies of a single in the UK. Her second single, "Bad Boys", reached number one, too
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