The only way is up: The rise and fall (and fall and rise) of Jason Donovan
He was the 1980s golden boy who won all our hearts. Then his career tailspinned as drugs and scandal took hold. Now Jason Donovan is back in the hunt for pop glory again, he tells Craig McLean.
Sunday 04 March 2012
In a big old shipping shed on the Dublin riverfront, with 3,000 women and one man (that'd be me) looking on, the innuendo is flying thick and (oo-er) thicker. On a glittery stage, the heat, passion and athletic thrusting of a night of competitive ballroom hoofing is reaching a climax.
The former footballer Robbie Savage, on the receiving end of a single-digit point from judge Craig Revel Horwood, fires back: "It's the last week of the tour and I know what's been happening: Craig's been dying to give me one."
Then Savage is told by Len Goodman that his paso doble needs "more welly and less willy". To raucous hilarity from the crowd, Goodman applauds the "Bombay mango firmness" of the host's "right chesticle". Luckily, it's not Bruce Forsyth – the light-entertainment knight of the realm has been replaced by Kate Thornton. Bruno Tonioli, theatrically salivating at the sight of Mark Foster's biceps, triceps and quicksteps, begins sniffing the champion sportsman's shirt. Foster attempts to win over the Irish crowd by promising to dance in his Speedos – "and they're green!" – if he wins the phone-in vote. If the Olympian swimmer had promised to also show the none-more-camp Italian judge his best stroke, the audience would have ejaculated laughter. Tonioli would have just... well, you get the saucy picture.
This is the Strictly Come Dancing tour at Dublin's O2. And by jiminy, its live incarnation is fabulously entertaining. Ten musicians, three judges, four singers, seven celebrities and one host, coming together in a glittery whirlwind of music, dancing, comedy patter and lascivious unscripted commentary. It's the TV show, with bells – and balls – on.
The celebs hired for the four-week waltz round some of the British Isles' biggest arenas are a rum bunch. There's the gym-toned poise of series winner Harry Judd, the drummer of boyband McFly. The hummingbird-meets-Munchkin exuberance of Waterloo Road actress Chelsee Healey. The carthorse galumphing of Nancy Dell'Olio. The cheery grab-a-granny lust of Anita Dobson, 62, as she cosies up with her camp-muscleman pro-dance partner Robin Windsor. The strenuous thrusting – and blinding white teeth – of chest-baring, mum-tickling Savage. The staggering musculature of long, tall Foster, the only contestant not from the show's 2011 run (he appeared in 2008).
And there's Jason Donovan. "More of that fantastic Jason Donovan machismo, darling!" coos Revel Horwood of an impressive Argentine tango. "Lovely jive energy!" beams Tonioli after Donovan and partner Kristina Rihanoff cavort round the O2's shiny floor to the sound of Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go". "The tango is more my speed," Donovan says later, adding that he still rues a jive-ass malfunction during the closing rounds of the TV show in December. In the end he came third.
"I did the Strictly experience because I wanted to try something different in my life. Dancing is not my comfort zone. I'm at an age," the 43-year-old will later say, "where you can sit at home and be, 'I'd like to do that...' Or you can actually get off your backside and do something about it. So this was an extension of that."
"Oh, he always came across so well on the telly," sighs 57-year-old Marion McGrane from County Wicklow, sat next to me in the audience." When I recount this to Donovan later, he replies, with feeling: "Really? Oh, great. That's great." Such approval from the public – such recognition – means a lot to him.
As tonight's live show nears the audience-voting round, it's clear Donovan really wants to win. Mirroring the face-clenched determination he displayed on the telly show, he's keen to take home, for the first time, the glitterball awarded to one celebrity on each night of the tour. Savage had won at home in Wales ("and he's a shit dancer!"), and Healey triumphed in Manchester. Donovan plays the best geographical card he can: he's a long, long way from Australia, "but Donovan is an Irish name!" he shouts to appreciative whoops and hollers.
It works. Donovan is the champ in Dublin. When, at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour show, his victory is announced, he falls to the floor in joy unconfined. I imagine that when he joined the rest of the cast and crew for an afterparty at their hotel, both Revel Horwood and Tonioli gave him a warm hand on his entrance.
But before that celebratory shinding, as the clock ticks on towards 11pm, Donovan meets me in a conference room at his hotel. The father-of-three and one-time Scott from Neighbours, teen heartthrob and pop idol is showered and casually dressed. It's almost a quarter of a century since he released his first single (1988's Stock-Aitken-Waterman-produced "Nothing Can Divide Us") but he's looking well. The strict Strictly training regime has helped tone his upper body and arms. He asks whether I mind him eating his plastic boxed food (it's salady) and orders a dry New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. He may be a recovering drug addict but Donovan is no fun-free, zero-tolerance zealot strenuously avoiding all stimulants. For a man who, in the 1990s, infamously entered what he calls a "black hole" – a split with Kylie Minogue, cocaine, allegations of homophobia, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Donovan is remarkably functional, sanguine and sorted.
Right now, he has every right to be. After more than one period in the wilderness – although he's never wanted for West End work, he's sometimes wanted for the right kind of work, ie stuff that isn't musical theatre – Donovan is enjoying a moment. His success on the reality-TV show brought him back into the nation's living-rooms, and affections. Now he's using that post-show bounce to restart his music career.
Next week Donovan releases Sign of Your Love, just in time for Mother's Day. A couple of new compositions aside, it's a collection of covers of songs from the Great American Songbook ("Every Time We Say Goodbye", "What a Difference a Day Made"). Donovan is no fool: he knows it won't frighten the horses, and he cheerfully acknowledges the marketing confluence of an album being targeted at Strictly viewers.
"This has been quite a tough tour," he admits as he forks leaves into his mouth. "I found the whole Strictly experience on TV extremely exhausting. Very rewarding and I got beyond where I expected to go, but it really took me a lot of time to come through that." Exhausting, even though he'd come straight off a run of big slabs of musical theatre, and was used to performing in front of big crowds: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; War of the Worlds; six months touring The Sound of Music. "I was match-fit. Going out in front of an audience was not going to give me a heart attack. But I still found it an incredibly anxious experience."
He was accused on Strictly of being too serious. He would receive notes from the producers, asking him to "lighten up and have some fun with it. But that's sorta me – I am quite serious."
What does he think appearing on the show has done for him? His reply comes straight and fast. "There's nothing like 10 million viewers over a period of four months to increase one's currency. I would lie to you if I said I wasn't aware of what it can do. But I can tell you I was nervous about going out week one. So there's always that risk element. I did I'm a Celebrity... for the same reasons."
But it always seemed that, apart from the profile-boost, his appearance on the 2006 run of in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! also fulfilled another function. Yes, it enabled him to go home and work in his "backyard", in Queensland, Australia, and was a more appealing offer than a concurrent one from Celebrity Big Brother ("North London? January? It was a no-brainer"). But under jungle starlight it also let him talk candidly to his fellow wombat tail-eating celebs, and to the great British public.
"My currency in the UK wasn't as strong as it had been," he shrugs. The acting jobs weren't coming. Or, as he puts it, he wasn't being cast as "an Aussie with a Geordie accent in some Robson Green TV series, so that was difficult... I'd been through that black-hole period in my life. I needed something, a platform, to give me a bit of leverage. And at the time I'm a Celebrity... seemed like the best option."
A year later he also sought to exculpate himself in the pages of a ghost-written autobiography, Between the Lines. He talked candidly about his cocaine years. It takes some doing to be responsible for the most talked-about event at Kate Moss's 21st birthday at Los Angeles's notorious Viper Room in 1995 (scene of River Phoenix's last party), but Donovan managed it after having a drug-induced seizure.
"I get a buzz out of being honest. It's like a drug to me. Cos it scares people. It doesn't scare me. Maybe it's because the way my life has been fashioned. Everything has been so much in the public spotlight that there isn't any other option but to be brutally honest."
Whose idea was the title? "Mine. The publishers wanted originally to call it Jason Donovan: Real or something like that. I just thought that was a bit bland and boring."
He obviously understood the reference to lines of cocaine, but did they? "I think so. Yeah. It wasn't something I laboured on. It was just a nice phrase. In fact my second record was called Between the Lines, and I wasn't even..." he begins. "That was in my pop, clean-living... ish [time]."
He met his stage-manager wife Angela in 1998 when both worked on a touring production of The Rocky Horror Show. Even though he has been clean of drugs since the birth of their first child in 2000, his reputation, he ruefully concedes, precedes him. As he stood outside the west London studio where the pictures for this article were taken, a couple of youth went by. "Oi, Jason, want some coke?" they yelled. "Yeah, well, that's, uh yeah, you know, sad," he smilingly stutters now.
The other trouble from this time that he can't quite shake is the episode when he sued style magazine The Face for printing erroneous allegations that he was gay. He won £200,000 in damages, but some sections of the media interpreted the lawsuit in such a way as to make him appear homophobic. Donovan insisted he had pursued the action only because he had been accused of lying to his fans – but the end result was an alienation of much of his audience.
As part of a forthcoming instalment of Piers Morgan's Life Stories on ITV1, Donovan's interview is being rounded out by chats with staff associated with The Face. (Full disclosure: I used to work for the magazine, too, albeit after the Donovan episode. But his court victory had almost resulted in the closure of the magazine, and the resentment lingered for quite a while.)
"That was a tough one," he says. "I don't regret what I did. I don't think it was my greatest moment. But I do think it was an opportunity for me – in hindsight, even though I mightn't have realised it at the time – to put up my hand for those people who don't have an opportunity to stand up for their own rights. Sometimes when you're picked and pushed at school, you've got to throw a punch.
"I guess I grew up as a human being after that. But it was the tabloid press that saw it as homophobia, that's the irony. I was just trying to say that everyone has the right to be what they want to be. No one can suggest something in writing that isn't true for their own gain."
He acknowledges that, of course, The Face would have had a different viewpoint. "Unfortunately they were the unlucky ones who got my..." He stops. "I'd had enough at that point. The fact that I was standing in a loincloth with the gay flag [the Rainbow flag of the LGBT movement, mirrored in his coat] in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat probably didn't help!" he smiles.
His other problem was that few read the fine print, or the substance of his court case. "I was brought up with gay people all my life. I said that; I was very specific about that. But it did become blurred by the headlines."
Was his reaction also blurred by the lifestyle he was living? One of huge success but also one of drugs? "Well, that wasn't really that apparent at that point. That was only probably afterwards. But I'm sure that didn't help." He talks of his "desire to want to crash the car, as I call it, because I'd sort of snookered my next career. I was trying to jump from Smash Hits into the cool world of... The problem was, I couldn't match artistically that creative step," is his candid acknowledgement of the limitations of his talents.
The irony isn't lost on him that his former Neighbours co-star Guy Pearce took a professional route that Donovan might well have grabbed for himself. Prior to starring in the stage version, Donovan declined a part in the 1994 film of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Pearce took it instead, and after films like LA Confidential and Memento, now works steadily and to regular acclaim in Hollywood.
But Donovan doesn't really do regret. What-ifs, he says, "are cancerous. I've made mistakes but I don't regret what I've done because that's made me realise what I don't need to do in my life."
What he does need to do is grasp opportunities. As a husband and father, he has obligations to work. So he doesn't think reality-TV shows are beneath him, and he'll happily submit to a promotional campaign for his album that is centred on Mother's Day – even though his troubled relationship with his own mother is the one moment in our late-night interview when he tries to avoid going into detail.
"Firstly, it's not a subject I'm gonna go into great depth about," he begins. "I don't speculate as to why it's not. But I respect her opinions and I certainly don't want to be involved in any... give any ammunition to a..." Again, he falters. "But you know, what I do see is an understanding through my wife's and my children's eyes of what it takes to be a great mother. And in answer to your question, when people ask me about Mother's Day, that's the answer I give. Yeah," he nods as he sips at his wine. "I don't elaborate on that much. I just don't want to enter into a media to-ing and fro-ing. I have too much of my own life to explore."
Is he on speaking terms with her? "No, I'm not."
But he is with his dad? "Yeah. I wouldn't say not on speaking terms. I'm sure if I rang her up she wouldn't hang up on me. But it's just not cordial."
His parents, both actors, split up when he was very young. In Between the Lines, Donovan wrote that, "to say that my mother abandoned me would be too strong... When she walked out of the family home that day I realise now that she wasn't walking away from me but from her marriage. However, as a small child there were times when I didn't see it that way; I couldn't understand why she had left... to this day I am none the wiser."
Last year his mother responded in an interview with an Australian magazine: "I was a young girl involved with someone who drank and I didn't cope well... For a young girl it was not only shocking but extremely upsetting, but Jason is totally dismissive of my version of the past."
Tonight in Dublin, Donovan won't be drawn. "The story goes back a long way," he says heavily. What he will say is that his grandmother "had a massive part in my youth. That was my mother's mother, so that was a weird juxtaposition. That's probably my only real regret – in the sense that I didn't spend more time with her as she was moving to the next world. I was in another place at that point."
"She died," he adds, "in the 1990s" – so I think it's safe to say the "other place" he was in wasn't a geographical one.
But that was all a long time ago. Now Donovan wants to get back in the musical saddle. One of his closest friends is Gary Barlow – in fact, Barlow was at his house the night before Donovan travelled to Dublin. He and the Take That majordomo met through their kids attending the same west London school, and after five years are "very close", Barlow tells me. "We go on holiday together."
"Absolutely," adds the pop star when asked whether Strictly has rejuvenated his Aussie pal. "I'm with Jason a lot so I know how nice he is, how hard he works. And I know he wants to be doing music again. I'm so pleased he's doing another album. I know that above everything else, music, recording regularly, is the place he'd love to be."
Sure, Jason Donovan says with that hard-won lacerating self-analysis, he'd be thrilled if Sign of Your Love sells well enough to enable him to tour it. Similarly, he'd love to be sitting here talking to me about his part in "the next Ridley Scott or Coen brothers film". But equally, if the opportunity arises to "be a mentor on a bloody television show for ITV", he'll take that too. "As long as my family are close by."
"I like to think positive. And I'm working my arse off," he grins. "I said that to my son tonight on the phone – you've just got to keep pushing, pushing through. And sometimes things work and sometimes they don't."
"But," he concludes as he drains his glass of Sauvignon, "I won't be doing the jive too often in the next few years, that's for sure! No more fucking sequins for me."
'Sign of Your Love' (Polydor) is released on 12 March
The ups and downs of Jason donovan
The highs and the lows – from the 'wedding of the century' and that Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to the cocaine-induced seizure and the accusations of homophobia.
First acting role, aged 11, in Australian daytime drama 'Skyways'
Plays Scott in 'Neighbours'; world goes crazy over on-screen wedding with real-life love Kylie Minogue
Begins pop career; his duet with Kylie, 'Especially for You', is a huge hit, topping the British charts
Plays Joseph in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' in London
Sues magazine 'The Face' for suggesting he was gay; wins case, but is accused of homophobia, alienating fans
A heavy cocaine user, Donovan has drug-induced seizure at Kate Moss's 21st birthday party
Meets future wife Angela, the assistant stage manager for 'The Rocky Horror Show', in which he is starring
Donovan swears off drugs as he has first child with Angela
Headlines 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' at the London Palladium; Sondheim's 'Sweeney Todd' follows
Appears on 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!', boosting career; releases Greatest Hits album following year
Stars in musical 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' in London; takes unfortunate role in ads for Iceland
Appears on 'Strictly Come Dancing', placing third; begins work on new album
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