Will Young: Will power

Smart, talented, kind to his mum - Will Young is the pop idol that everyone loves to love. And that includes Deborah Ross
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The Independent Online

That Will Young. How's he done it? Confounded everyone's extremely low expectations, that is, of a credible and sustainable career in pop. Most "talent show" acts go kaput faster than you can say "Michelle McManus" or "Hear'Say" who, in turn, went kaput quicker than you can say "Darius Danesh". I think, in the end, even the apostrophe in Hear'Say fell out with everyone else - "I hate that Kym; she's such a bitch!" - and went solo before hurtling into commercial oblivion via Grease in rep. "Poor old Hear'Say," says Will later, "but, you know, it's just the way it is." Unless you are Will. Will has won Brits, starred in a film (Mrs Henderson Presents, with Dame Judi Dench), been tipped by Music Week to take over from Robbie Williams as the UK's biggest- selling male artist and has sold three million albums to date. How has he done it? Maybe it does purely come down to talent - he does have a lovely voice - but maybe it doesn't. It's rarely just that. What else could it be?

Because he is just so nice and adorable?

He is nice and adorable. We meet at the London offices of his PR people. I'm told, when I arrive, that Will is on the top floor. "That's the very top floor, as far as you can go." The office is in an extremely tall house so it's floor after floor, flight of stairs after flight of stairs. I would like to say that I ascend them faster than you can say "One True Voice" but I have to take two rests and by the time I do make it I'm wheezing and gasping like an unfit chain-smoker, which is the most extraordinary coincidence, because that's exactly what I am. Will, who is lounging on a sofa - low jeans showing his underpants (Calvin Klein) - leaps up attentively. "You look like you need a big hug," he says. "I do, I do," I pant. He hugs me. It's nice. I like it. I might, now I think of it, have hung on for longer than strictly necessary, possibly even longer than it takes to say "David Sneddon". I don't think Will is sexy as such. Or has a dangerous edge. He doesn't exactly smell of teen spirit. I don't think sex and danger are at the heart of his appeal, or that he'll ever be cool, exactly. Indeed, if he whiffs of anything it's more A-levels and washing his hands before tea and always having said, unprompted: "Thank you very much for having me." This doesn't do it for everyone, but it sure does it for me.

Good looks?

He's not conveyor-belt pretty-pretty with one of those silly, boy-band dimpled chins. This can only be good. Those boys are over quicker than you can say "Gareth Gates", who now appears to have also hurtled into oblivion, not via Grease, but via having his virginity snatched by Jordan, which may or may not be a reasonable alternative. Will is, it turns out, blissfully vain and blissfully candid about being so. When I ask him what Will Young does when he finds himself at home (Notting Hill) with, say, a couple of hours to kill, he says: "I'll potter. I potter, constantly, around my house. I also dance a lot around the house - very badly - and look in the mirror a lot. I love looking in the mirror. I'm very vain." Do you like what you see? "Sometimes you feel fab and sometimes you feel atrociously ugly. It depends on the company that's around. On the whole I think I do. I'm comfortable with my body. I've got a big nose and big jaw and I'm a bit skinny but I am comfortable with it." As Bertie, the camp choreographer in Mrs Henderson Presents, he has a complete kit-off moment where he shows his bits. Comfortable with your bits? "I like my bits." Dame Judi Dench, it turns out, liked his bits too. "She gave me 10 out of 10 in the nudity department." Having your penis admired by Dame Judi Dench must count for something. On the other hand, she is a terrific actress.

He's nice and adorable but no pushover?

No pushover, no. Most famously, in the Pop Idol final, he publicly took on Simon Cowell. Cowell told Will his performance had been "distinctly average". Will told Cowell where to put it, basically. He did so politely, but passionately. There have been other moments. "I always used to see a friend on Sunday morning," he says. "They [his management, Simon Fuller's 19] tried to make me work on Sundays and I said: 'No, I'm not doing it,' and I remember the stylist turning round and going: 'Good on you.' In any job people are asked, 'Will you do this?' and you do have to choose your moments really carefully, but you have to take a stand every now and then." He has been no push-over, musically. His first album was the expected post-Pop Idol stuff (lots of sloppy, squelchy ballads) while his largely self-penned second (Friday's Child) moved towards a more expressively soulful sound and received wider critical acclaim. His third and current one, Keep On, also largely self-penned, has also won widespread praise and is full of surprises: Bollywood strings, echoing slide guitars, walloping harmonicas. Immediately after winning Pop Idol, Will was contractually obliged to release the wretched Westlife track, "Evergreen" (more suited to Gareth's singing style; more proof, if it were needed, that Will was not expected to win). Was it ghastly, having to sing it? "Well," he says, "I did think singing a song about a non-deciduous tree was odd, to say the very least."

Is having it in for trees the answer, then?

Not a bit. Will, in fact, likes trees a lot. He once protested against the Newbury bypass and stood with others in a circle around a big oak tree, crying: "This tree will not be cut down, you chainsaw bastards!" They'd been there for two days when, he says, "one of those guys in the orange jackets came up to me and said, 'Actually, we're not even cutting down this tree.'" Oops. "So we just sort of ... well ... sidled away." He laughs. He has a very big smile that takes up most of his face. It's smashing. His first public performance was as a tree in a play at school. "I was a narrator and I was a tree as well and my mother made my brother and me these velvet cloths with a hole in to put over our heads. I was very proud." He didn't, he says, mind singing "Evergreen" too much. He knew the score. "It wasn't a song, obviously, that I adored and it didn't reflect anything I'd sung on the show but you can't have everything at once. I did get the chance to effectively sing and get instant feedback every week in front of millions of people." The first performance he can ever recall seeing, by the way, was Cilla Black in panto (in Reading) when he was four. The fact he appears to have suffered no long-term ill effects must, surely, also count for something. Cilla Black is not a terrific actress.

Nice boy, nice family, well-educated?

You bet. He grew up in Berkshire. His father runs an engineering company, his mother a plant nursery. He has a sister, Emma, and a non-identical twin brother, Rupert. He attended: Horris Hill (prep); Wellington College (one of the most expensive schools in the country); Exeter University (politics; 2:1). He is currently reading George Eliot's Mill On The Floss which he picked up when he wandered into a charity shop and was too embarrassed to leave without buying anything. And? Are you enjoying George Eliot? "The first 200 pages were hard work, but I do like him." Oh-oh. "Him and Dickens, very dark ..." I don't say anything. Hey, come on, he hugged me when I couldn't breathe! (Also, I thought A S Byatt was a fella for years and when I first saw her on telly I thought: "Blow me, a transvestite!") He boarded from nine years old. Tough? "I'd wait until lights out, have my last pee, then me and my brother would give each other a goodnight kiss that no one else could see." He gave his first proper performance at Horris House. "It was an old-fashioned school in many ways, but one of the things that they did really well was musicals. In my last year I played a camp director - and was very good at it, ha! - in Dracula Spectacular; and I sang and people were, like, 'Ohh, Will, that's lovely.'" At Wellington he was, a contemporary of his tells me, popular and sporty and funny. His match reports in assembly were hilarious. He'd say: "Well, the opposition turned up wearing the most awful purple colour, cut just above the knee ..." And he was worried that he'd shock people when he came out?

Ah, the gay thing. Is that it?

Might be something in this. When, Will, did you first realise you had "other inclinations" as Bertie puts it in Mrs Henderson. "Quite early on. Eight, nine." That is early on. "I had a sexually active mind at a very young age." How did you know? "Well, you just get aroused by boys rather than girls." Did that worry you? "You just get a notion of being different. I think that is something that binds all gay men and women. How do you live with it and for how long?" He "came out" at university. "Coming out is both a liberation and an anti-climax. You expect people to crucify you and spit on you and at the same time you expect a massive disco glitter ball to just appear out of nowhere and it's not really like that. No one was even surprised." Had you previously told your brother? "No." I think he learnt to keep part of himself - and possibly one of the most important parts - to himself. This is good. Those celebrities who hand over everything of themselves often come to a sticky end. I'd assumed he was a kind of celibate gay, having never seen him pictured with a lover. He says he is not a celibate gay. He has been in love twice: once unrequited, and once very requited, thank you very much. Requited love is a wonderful thing. "Everything takes on a completely different feeling. You have that lovely feeling in your stomach and suddenly that restaurant, which is so mundane, becomes a completely different environment." I say that I'm secretly hoping my son will be gay because, from what I have seen, gay men are nice to their mothers and often do their gardens, too. Will says he is nice to his mother but isn't into gardening. I do think he has a strong sense of what and who he is. He agrees. "I was very lucky because I had a strong sense of identity going into this job. People couldn't tell me who I was because I already knew who I was."

Lastly, because he writes charming little thank-you notes to journalists after they've interviewed him?

Yup. Does it for me, even quicker than you can say "Steve Brookstein", which can be very quick indeed.

Will Young's new single, 'All Time Love', is out now