PROFILE / Mockery, where is thy Sting?: Gordon Sumner, causing a buzz at the Grammys

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The Independent Online
AT THIS week's Grammys, Sting flew the flag for Britain. Our pop music has rarely been less visible in the United States, but at least the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, in its annual awards ceremony, voted one of our boys Best Male Vocalist. His album and his video won awards, too. Afterwards, in the backstage press corral, wearing a smart jacket and a knotted scarf, Sting smoothly did his stuff: to be nominated was an honour, he said, but winning was 'very special'.

And then he went home - in all likelihood to his Upper West Side apartment in New York, formerly the property of Billy Joel, overlooking Central Park. If not, then maybe to the mansion he owns in Los Angeles that was once Barbra Streisand's. Or failing that, all the way back to Lake House, his 14-bedroom, eight-bathroom Jacobean mansion in Wiltshire, worth pounds 2m. Or perhaps he popped up to the town house in Highgate, next door to Prince Faisal's, the one that used to belong to Yehudi Menuhin . . .

To count Sting's blessings you need a calculator. He is a talented singer and bass-player with an ear for a million- selling pop tune. Good-looking, too: as far as we know, he has never looked bad in a photograph. Not once. He is 42, though he seems about 30 in his videos and (astonishingly, unnervingly) even younger in the flesh. He is glowingly fit (take a look at those bulging upper arms), happily married, has kids with cute names - Mickey, Jake, Coco. In the late Eighties, his personal wealth was estimated at pounds 21m.

In the downstairs loo at the Highgate house, there is a framed newspaper cartoon which shows two businessmen in a bar, one of whom is saying to the other: 'Oh, I'm pretty happy. I just wish my life was more like Sting's'

His mates called him Sting because of the stripey sweater he wore when he was knocking about with duff jazz-rock bands in Newcastle. But before that he was Gordon Matthew Sumner, raised in a flat above a sandwich shop, the son of a milkman (named Ernie, amazingly enough) and a hairdresser - 'a family of losers' he called them abrasively in an early interview, though more recently his attitude has mellowed: he dedicated his second solo album to the memory of his mother, and the third to the memory of his father.

His is, in some respects, the routine pop-star story: a working-class boy, propelled by an urge to escape his circumstances, hits the fast lane and never looks back.

So how come people hate him so much? Why is our most successful pop export also our most mocked?

The Police had their first hit single in 1978; come the Eighties, Sting was going to America as part of Britain's most successful rock act since the Beatles, playing the 70,000-capacity Shea Stadium to prove it.

By then, Sting had become, in his own words, 'a total monster'. The band was originally Stewart Copeland's - the drummer's - but gradually Sting took over. He was the one with the catchier melodies; he was the one the press wanted to photograph. 'I started to be very cruel and very ruthless in order to get the songs done,' he confessed recently. Copeland once said of Sting: 'Not only does he hate humanity, but every human within the species, except for his family.' Backstage on their last tour, Copeland cracked Sting's rib in a fight over a copy of the New York Times. In 1983, Sting walked out for good.

He was one of the biggest rock stars on the planet and he did the rock star things: he bought the manor, he jetted around, he grew his hair, he upped his film appearances (Dune, Stormy Monday, Julia and Julia - nothing staggering, but nothing completely embarrassing). He also turned vegetarian and adopted a punishing daily yoga routine. At the same time, he began to furrow his brow over the discrepancy between his status as a famous person and his status as a serious artist.

Isolated, he indulged his inwardness. He was undergoing Jungian therapy while writing his first solo album, which he titled The Dream of the Blue Turtles. The title of . . . Nothing Like the Sun alluded to Shakespeare; Ten Summoner's Tales, his most recent album, makes a Chaucerian pun on his surname. Attempting to defeat the writer's block he suffered before releasing The Soul Cages in 1991, he sped off to Normandy and booked a hotel room that Proust had used. He suddenly seemed posey and literary in a way that pop stars weren't meant to be, in a way that annoyed people who liked him for his big, simple tunes and chant-along choruses.

Those people were even more dismayed when Sting decided to save the world. Catching the rock-for-charity bug that flourished in the mid-Eighties, he campaigned hard for Friends of the Earth, Sane (a charity assisting schizophrenics) and Amnesty International (he raised dollars 2m for the organisation in 1986 alone). Most prominently, in 1989 he helped to organise a foundation to protect an area of the Brazilian rainforest from logging companies. He befriended Chief Raoni of the Kayapo tribe (lampooned thereafter as 'Sting's chum with the CD in his lip') and accompanied him on a six-week, 20-country media and fund-raising tour. Sting was photographed in Amazonian clearings, lathered in loam and war-paint. The Indians nicknamed him 'Potima', which means 'liver of a little armadillo' and is evidently a compliment.

Some critics jeered at this millionaire's Third World Mission, this public crisis of conscience. What, they wondered, was in it for Sting? But these were probably the same people who wondered about Bob Geldof's 'motives' in organising Live Aid - as if the question of motives wasn't infinitely regressive (what were the motives of the people who questioned Geldof's motives?) and irrelevant when set beside actual achievements. In Sting's case, the achievements are these: that a piece of forest the size of Switzerland is now officially preserved by the Brazilian government; and that dollars 1m has been raised to establish educational programmes for the Kayapo.

'If the press haven't made you,' he once said, 'it's harder for them to destroy you.' Which his own case proves. He always had what it takes: he would do what it took. He noticed when he was young that newsreaders didn't have Geordie accents, so he dropped his own: 'Access to power and success had to mean changing the way I spoke,' he has explained, coolly, in his new polite and classless tones.

But it didn't happen overnight. He went to teacher-training college and then taught English in a convent primary school. Every publisher in London had turned down his songs before he joined Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers in a group called the Police.

Copeland came from a wealthy American family and drummed in an explosive, random style; Summers was a former hippy, interested in ambient sounds; Sting played the bass like McCartney and sang high in a voice stolen from reggae. They hitched a lift on the back of the punk rock movement but, spikey hair-dos and a couple of fast numbers aside, they had little in common with it. They could all play their instruments, for one thing. They were too old, for another.

In 1978, when the band had its first hit single, Sting was already 27, two years into a receding hairline and married with a child, one of the two by his first marriage to the actress Frances Tomelty. Their relationship was a casualty of the Police's success - as, for a while, was Sting's good nature.

Brazenly ambitious, the Police virtually forced themselves on to the American market, organising a tour there without co-operation from their record company, flying over on a cheap Freddie Laker flight, playing tiny halls, staying in motels. Sting returned the first time with dollars 15 in his pocket and handed it over to his wife for the housekeeping.

His press for the past 15 years - frequently cackling, wildly cynical, openly discouraging - would have wiped out someone who had played the game differently. Sting has always appeared immutably self-confident, but it is not the kind of confidence that has, in other rock stars, fuelled a glitzy, carefree openness. It is rather a confidence in his own reserve.

In interviews, he will rarely meet his questioner's eye. According to the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who has toured with Sting, 'he will not look into the audience when he plays'. His touring band once tried everything to get him to crack up mid-show: they flung a dead chicken across the stage, they sent on the tour manager in blackface, they threw Sting's jacket into the audience. Nothing worked.

Sometimes the misunderstanding looks wilful. In 1992, he married Trudie Styler, an actress turned film-producer, the daughter of a packer in a lampshade factory, raised near Hereford. She attended the service in a pounds 20,000 gold- swirled Versace gown, riding on a white charger, led by Sting. To prevent the press pack over-running the event, the couple arranged in advance to make available pictures taken by their own photographer. They were promptly accused of orchestrating a media event, despite the fact that they had turned down a pounds 100,000 offer for exclusive rights from Hello] magazine.

Sting's recent album suggested a lighter, more relaxed touch, a return to pop for its own sake, a rekindled sense of fun. But Sting has never given the impression, as other performers tend to, that he needs the public to love him. Self-doubt never troubles him publicly, which makes him a hard person to feel involved with. He has it all - and he gives the impression that he has never seen why it should be any different.

Odd to remark, but recently there have been money troubles. Last November, Sting's former accountants, Moore Sloane, were questioned by the fraud squad after it was claimed that pounds 7.7m of Sting's money had disappeared from the accounts, allegedly misappropriated in the course of setting up an investment company on his behalf. The partners in the firm, which has denied misappropriation, proposed that uncontested debts be repaid over five years.

Still, what's the odd million when you're Sting? 'I'm curious and brave,' he has said. 'And I have an interesting life because of it.' It's enough to make you spit.