Kenny and Holly find positive ways to face up to a new kind of fame: Celebrities may own up to HIV freely or under pressure, but the result is usually the same, writes William Leith
Sunday 11 April 1993
The People said: 'Comic Kenny Everett looks pale and gaunt in this amazing picture which shows why friends are so concerned about his health . . . two years ago, his gay lover Nicolai Grishanovitch died of Aids.'
There was no proof at this stage. Everett had not stated that he had HIV, and his medical records are confidential. But the hints were very broad. The People's word 'gaunt', used of Freddie Mercury, has taken on the status of a code word. And under the headline 'Zany Comic Kenny 'In Aids Anguish' ', the News of the World said: 'Friends in the gay community say rumours are rife that the zany comic loved by millions is HIV-positive.'
Now that the rumours had been printed, their substance could be confirmed or denied. Everett, who was on holiday in Italy, was due back at his Kensington home that Sunday afternoon. When he got out of his taxi, the journalists were waiting for him.
'There's four of us outside the house,' said Chris Pharo of the Sun. 'We said: 'Well, Kenny, you've obviously seen today's papers.' We said: 'We have to ask the question: are you HIV-positive?' To which he replied, 'Yes'.'
Kenny Everett was born Maurice Cole in Liverpool in 1944; his father, Tom Cole, was captain of a Mersey tugboat. At school he was 'hopeless' and bullied. 'I wasn't really built to be born in Liverpool. . . . I spent most of my time as a schoolboy hiding from the other kids,' he told the Daily Mirror in 1979. He left school at 13, having suddenly decided to become a priest, but was expelled from a seminary in Yorkshire for stealing wine and bread and admitting it in the confessional.
As a teenager, he bought two tape-recorders and spent several years recording himself talking in funny voices and making 'daft programmes just to amuse myself'. He sent one to the BBC, which interviewed him on air and auditioned him as a DJ. He enjoyed it but didn't pass.
In 1967 he heard the pirate station Radio Caroline for the first time. 'Suddenly here was this station with real disc jockeys who were obviously all having a jolly good time.' He sent his tape of daft voices to another new station, Radio London, was taken on, and changed his name to Kenny Everett. Then he started taking drugs - 'I used to rave it up on LSD every weekend' - and developing his 'zany' style, a twerpy, highly-strung patter.
In 1968, he put on one silly voice too many and was sacked for mimicking one of Radio London's advertisers. He moved to the BBC as a disc jockey, but in 1970 was sacked again for making a joke about Mary Peyton, wife of the then transport minister, who had just passed her driving test: 'She probably crammed a fiver into the examiner's hand.'
He had met his wife, Lee, in 1965. High on drugs and depressed, he told her he felt suicidal. She told him to think about how beautiful trees were. 'And I thought, 'Oh yes, the trees are lovely, aren't they?' I'd never really thought about such things.' They married two years later, and stayed together for 14 years, finally splitting up because of Everett's homosexuality, which he tried to suppress for years.
In the 1970s, he worked for Radio Luxembourg (sacked for admitting he'd taken drugs), Capital Radio, and then in television for Granada, before real stardom arrived with The Kenny Everett Video Show, which began in 1978 and gave full rein to his bizarre array of comedy characters.
When his marriage broke up, his wife wrote a book about their life together - she had encouraged him to accept his homosexuality - and in 1985 he went to live with Nicolai and a Spanish waiter, Pepe Flores, in a flat in Kensington. He had attempted suicide a few years before, after being rejected by a man he fell in love with.
In 1983, at a Young Conservatives rally, he famously said: 'Let's bomb Russia.' A year later, rehired by the BBC as a DJ, he was fired again for making a tasteless joke about Margaret Thatcher. In 1989 he gave up TV, saying he was sick of all the attention, reportedly cutting his earnings from pounds 150,000 to pounds 80,000.
Since then, he has hosted a weekday show on Capital Gold radio, being zany and irreverent between playing old hits.
Of his ordeal last Sunday, Sharon Ring of the News of the World said: 'He handled it brilliantly. I don't think you can point to a news story which was handled so brilliantly, so wittily, so cleverly.' Still, Everett's celebrity will now take on a new tone: he will be an HIV-celebrity, someone famous for being famous and testing positive for HIV.
There is, as yet, no easy way to avoid this status, no matter how the news emerges. Last week, another famous figure in the British pop world chose voluntary and dignified disclosure in an interview published in the Times. Holly Johnson, the lead singer of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, said that when he first learned that he was HIV-positive he could 'hardly hear what was said to me for fear of the media and what they would do when they got hold of the story'.
He added: 'I imagined the headlines. I was afraid that the first thing they'd say (would be) that this person who'd promoted a promiscuous homosexual lifestyle was, basically, getting his just deserts.'
And indeed this happened, exactly as Johnson predicted. Before the Times published the story on the Saturday, it leaked out to its stablemate, the Sun, which rushed into print on Thursday with large headlines ('I was part of a huge explosion of gay promiscuity, says Holly').
On Friday the Times apologised: 'It is a matter of regret that stories based on the . . . interview appeared in newspapers other than the Times yesterday.' But the Sun was unrepentant. 'The single most important message we should be teaching our kids,' wrote its columnist Garry Bushell, 'is that sodomy kills.'
So a popular figure who is HIV-positive has no real choice. He can be doorstepped and questioned by reporters, or he can 'come out' at a time and in a manner of his own choosing, but the result will be the same: a new kind of fame and some degree of ignominy.
Last week, in fact, it was the involuntary Everett who fared better than the voluntary Johnson. 'The way comic Kenny announced (sic) his personal tragedy showed maturity and a sense of proportion,' wrote Bushell.
In this case, maturity equals humour. 'My sense of humour will be the last thing to go,' Everett said. 'I've been wondering what to put on my tombstone and I think it will be 'No punchline - ring Barry Cryer'.'
He added: 'It's not affecting my work. How healthy do you have to be to play 'Da Doo Ron Ron'?'
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