You think if only I'd been one of those nice Mormons none of this would have happened: Holly Johnson talks of his fight against Aids

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AIDS has brought Holly Johnson to death's door. Perversely, it has also given his career a new lease of life.

The flamboyant former frontman of Frankie Goes To Hollywood was always known for his style and nerve. Now he is a bona fide gay icon, attempting, he says, to 'give a two-finger job' to the serious and unpredictable bouts of illness that afflict him. 'I'm still here and I've got this life-threatening disease, I might as well do exactly what I want to do with the time that I have on the planet,' he said last week. 'If it's a nail in my coffin, it's a nail in my coffin.' What he wants to do is release a bold new single called 'Legendary Children', a celebration of gay creativity through the ages, including Alexander the Great, Michelangelo and Shakespeare.

'Add your name to this hall of fame/the answer is clear, they're all of them queer' runs the chorus. It's hard to imagine the song or its transvestite-populated video being played on Top of the Pops - but that would be nothing new for Holly, whose debut Frankie single Relax was banned by the BBC in 1984.

It created a media furore that helped break sales records and make number one hits of the first three of the band's singles. The tabloid press saw the band's fierce hedonism and Holly's open and glamorous homosexuality as the biggest threat to the morals of the nation's youth since the nihilistic punk of the Sex Pistols.

But these days Holly Johnson is better known for being sick. Friends were shocked and a wave of sympathy was unleashed last year when he revealed he had Aids.

He was already very ill when the diagnosis was made in October 1991, and nearly died soon afterwards. But he recovered strength and courage while writing a frank and catty autobiography called A Bone in my Flute, published earlier this year. Hello] magazine visited the elegant four-storey Parsons Green home he shares with long-time partner Wolfgang Kuhle and a dog named Funky.

In June this year he appeared at the Gay Pride rally in Brockwell Park, London - his first live performance for seven years. 'It was incredible, 150,000 people went apeshit when I went on stage. People had told me I was now a gay icon, but I didn't believe them until that day.'

Stepping back on to the promotional treadmill of the music business will be difficult. Our meeting was delayed a week by a savage bout of gastro-enteritis that put him in hospital for two days. When we did meet he looked blotchy and puffed up, but seemed strong. 'It's unpredictable. I can be really ill for a week and then be perfectly fine.'

Television recordings and photo-calls have to be scheduled around daily visits to a clinic. 'God, I'm snowed under with medical appointments. If you involve yourself with medical trials like I do, you have to have even more of them in order to be monitored.'

Precautions must be taken. 'I try to avoid flying, because of the air conditioning on planes - filters are never cleaned and things like that.'

He has paid for the recording of the new single himself and licensed it out to the label Music For Life. 'If there's an album coming it'll be done bit by bit, when I feel like it, with no deadlines imposed on me. I can't work in the studio for 18 hours a day like other people do.'

Many members of his 'extended gay family' have already been claimed by Aids. One of them, Karl, was among the first 30 people in Britain to die as a result of what Holly said he knew at the time as 'the American disease' because you seemed to catch it by sleeping with natives of the US.

'It got very close to me. Friends my age started to die, and I thought, 'Well, I did more or less the same kind of thing as he did when I was 23'. I knew that there was a definite possibility - although one you tend to deny. It seems I've probably been positive since 1983, so for my entire public life. Who would have thought it of that lightly overweight, healthy looking Holly Johnson person?'

He was told his status on the same day Freddie Mercury died. The doctor said the lumps on his skin were the tell-tale Kaposi's sarcomas.

'I had a nervous breakdown, to use a cliche,' he remembered.

'My brain collapsed. I lay on the couch and waited to die for quite a few months.' Experimental drugs made him worse. 'The first year was very black. Some people adjust to it quite quickly but I didn't. I'd say I'm still not completely adjusted to it.'

It helped to write his memoirs 'before they started interviewing old friends'. The book paints a rough but blackly funny picture of how young Billy Johnson grew up in Liverpool with a passion for make-up, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, and changed his name to Holly after the character in Lou Reed's song 'Walk on the Wild Side'. It is open about the drugs and promiscuous sex of the life he led before meeting Wolfgang ten years ago.

Telling people was hard, ''Most people with an Aids diagnosis don't even tell their family, let alone the world. I kept putting it off because while I wasn't talking about it, perhaps it wasn't happening. Like, 'If I don't tell me parents, then it's not really there' - know what I mean?'

He did tell his parents first, then a newspaper. Which was how many of his friends found out. 'I'd been very insulated and alienated a lot of my them in the previous 18 months anyway, because it was just too difficult to lie to your friends when they asked, 'What's that strange mark on your face?' or 'Where have you been for the past week?'.' Wolfgang was a strength. 'It's not easy to maintain a gay relationship anyway. I suppose I was lucky that he didn't immediately run away. I'm not gonna pretend that it's been easy and we haven't had our ups and downs and nearly killed each other several times, or left each other. It's hard for people who don't know us to comprehend how normal the relationship is.'

He has tried to avoid becoming a professional 'person-with Aids', shying away from charity work. 'But I might do a few things. It's unavoidable. If I can possibly help to destigmatise the whole issue then that's a good thing.'

Occasionally the defiant tone drops. 'You get weird thoughts like, 'If only I'd been one of those nice clean-cut Mormons who knock on your door on a Friday night when you're having dinner, none of this would have happened to me'. '

He has had more than the 15 minutes of fame his childhood hero Andy Warhol apportioned him. 'At least it wasn't all in vain. When I'm ill and go to hospital, which happens a couple of times a year, it seems, there'll be a male nurse who'll twitter round me and say, 'Oh, Frankie Goes To Hollywood meant so much to me when I was 14'. It's quite endearing, really. I can relate to that, to being a fan.'

A Bone in My Flute is published by Random House on the Century imprint. 'Legendary Children' is released by Music For Life on 3 October.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments