Robbie Williams on his demons
The cheeky teen who dominated the pop scene in the ’90s has morphed into an elder statesman of showbiz. Robbie Williams opens up on his depression, freezing his sperm and sleep-eating
CONNECTING Robbie Williams’ hotel suite and the room next door is a rail with a white sheet thrown over it. It looks like the kind of thing a painter might erect. “For privacy,” a member of his entourage informs me. Even here in Norway, where Williams is due to perform in front of a stadium crowd the following night, he’s a huge star.
I wait for him in the adjoining room. He pads in, barefoot, wearing a vest and long shorts. At 43, he’s still handsome, if slightly puffier than his current press shots might suggest. He’s with his father, Pete, a former pub manager and comedian, and his mutt, a giant Bernese mountain dog called Mr Showbiz OBE. Introductions over, Williams leads me behind the sheet and into his huge suite.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been so bored,” he declares. “Shall I show you what I’ve done today?”
He proceeds to give me a walk-through of his day so far. It begins over by a west-facing window. “I got up and came over here to have a cigarette,” he explains. “Then I thought I saw a flash from over there.” He gestures at the apartment block opposite. “And I got paranoid there was someone taking pictures of me. So . . .” he walks the length of his suite to another window, this one covered with a net curtain. “I spent the rest of the day down here, trying to catch them.” He lies prostrate on the floor, demonstrating how he spent the subsequent hours stealing occasional glances under the curtain. It’s now 5 pm. Did he ever spot his phantom paparazzo? “No,” he admits. “It was probably just someone turning on a coffee machine.”
Still, you make your own fun when you’re on the road for the second month of a European tour and trapped inside your own head.
“I’m agoraphobic,” he announces. “I haven’t left my room on the whole tour.” What does he do? “I watch a lot of
podcasts on YouTube. I spent a long time contemplating atheism and religion – not that I’ve come up with anything.”
What’s so bad about the outside world? “I’m a chronic people-pleaser, which leads to a sort of exasperation with everybody wanting a picture and me wanting to protect myself from having to do that all the time. I hate saying no because I don’t want them to think I’m an awful person. And I don’t like saying yes because I’m socially awkward and every single moment I have, meeting a stranger feels like trauma to me.”
Really? It’s hard to marry that description with the cheeky teen who broke a million hearts in Take That in the early ’90s. The cocksure bad boy who jumped ship, bleached his hair and romped around on a ton of drugs during the Britpop years. The international star who spent the turn of the century effortlessly knocking out hit after solo hit (Angels, Rock DJ, Let Me Entertain You) before signing what was then the biggest recording deal in British music history (£80 million, then R1,1 billion), with EMI in 2002.
It doesn’t tally with the Robbie Williams I’ve just met either. The one who hasn’t stopped talking. “I’m a showperson,” he shrugs. “I fill a space with something – and that space is like everybody’s Facebook page, a snapshot of the best bits of their lives. But it’s not real.”
If you want to know how unreal the projection is, take a look at his new biography, Reveal. Written by his longterm journalistic collaborator, Chris Heath, it’s a follow-up to their 2004 book, Feel, which first revealed that, for Williams, being a monumentally rich and famous pop star might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
The latest book cuts back and forth over a 10-year period, from 2006 – when he was living in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles in the US, depressed, creatively bereft and temporarily retired, following the biggest tour of his career – to his current set-up as a middle-aged family man, elder statesman and raging mass of ego, insecurity and recovering addictions. It’s tremendously well-observed, capturing not just Williams’ demons – his self-absorption, anxiety and often paralysing self-hatred – but also the things that have kept him in the game for so long: his bulletproof wit and unexpected self-awareness.
It’s also shocking, full of his masochistic desire for self-exposure. One story from a decade ago sees him lying alone in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor, thinking, “I’m dying and I’m not bothered”, after mixing cocaine with an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia. Another – a seedy sexual encounter with a toothless cleaning maid who comes to service his room at a country estate – will haunt me forever.
For all the sex and drugs, the stories I found most stomach-churning were the descriptions of his vulnerability. “The more cocky and arrogant I look onstage, the more terrified I am,” he says of the trauma that is performing in front of thousands every night.
He’s obsessive about reading everything anyone posts about him on the internet: “And it crushes the soul. If there’s 10 good comments and one s**t one, I concentrate on the s**t one.”
Then there’s the constant self-laceration that finds him comparing himself with everyone else in the public eye and finding himself wanting. He nods. “It’s dark, the whole thing’s dark. That’s what I was left with after reading the book, just how difficult it is up here, between the ears. I want that to change. If I’m lucky to be alive for a third book, I want me to be a bit brighter about my outlook about me and the world.”
His depression, he believes, is genetic. “It sprints through my family.” But he believes his fame amplifies the problem, making it more “gross” and “powerful”.
“You get a magnifying glass in the shape of the world’s attention and your defects will obviously magnify too. I’m not moaning about it. I would still have signed up.”
His piercing blue eyes, once twinkly, now seem haunted
But he realises that the job is bad for his health. “It’s going to kill me,” he says later. “Unless I view it in a different way.”
HE SITS opposite me, looking and sounding a lot like a man clinging on to reality by his fingertips. His piercing blue eyes, once twinkly, now seem haunted, while his voice cracks with a shaky vibrato. The 50-odd cigarettes a day he smokes probably don’t help.
Yet, he’s also tremendously funny – the consummate entertainer. Along with debilitating agoraphobia and self-doubt, the book reveals another oft-overlooked peril of fame: he can no longer wash his hands after using the toilet in a public place. “Because I’m always going to shake somebody’s hand when I leave the toilet, so I never want my hands to be wet, because that’s awful.”
Robbie’s is a street-smart wit, learnt growing up on the rougher edges of Stoke-on-Trent, where he spent a childhood pacifying and side-stepping a
colourful range of psychopaths. He was always a performer, singing in front of the jukebox as a toddler in the pub where he grew up. Aged three, he went missing on holiday in the Spanish resort town of Torremolinos. He was eventually found next to a swimming pool collecting money in a hat, having entered himself in – and won – a talent contest singing Summer Nights from the musical Grease.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell believes exceptional achievement is only possible after at least 10 000 hours of practice. Williams concedes that his younger self – dyslexic, dyspraxic (impaired motor-control system), suffering from ADHD and destined to leave school without any GCSEs – dedicated his 10 000 hours to “showing off”.
Williams was always too boy-nextdoor to be a god on Earth – but it’s been those relatable, everyman charms that have been his secret weapon. Even when he became insufferably rich and famous, the joke was always on him – the smug smirk that became his trademark was both cocky and knowing, as if to say: “No, I can’t believe it either.”
His fanbase is enormous. In 2005 he broke the world record for the number of concert tickets sold in one day – 1,6 million. Last year he released his 12th UK No 1 solo album, level-pegging with Madonna, making him the most successful British solo act in history.
Of course, looking back, his pain was always hiding in plain sight. It’s what gave even his most braggadocio performances their depth and a song like Angels its emotional resonance, elevating the piano ballad into a universal anthem of love and loss. For all his charisma though it’s not Williams, the protagonist, who steals the book, but his wife, Ayda Field. He married the American actress in 2010. They have two children: a five-year-old daughter, Teddy, and a two-year-old son, Charlie.
They were initially set up by mutual friends. It was 2007 and Williams was in LA, at his most cynical and messy. He prepared for their first date by inviting around his drug dealer – with whom he also happened to be sleeping.
“She’d given me all these pills – morphine, Adderall, Vicodin, a few more things. So I’d slept with the dealer, taken a bunch of pills.” He and Ayda went to a party where he got nervous, took more drugs and ended up in his underpants in a Jacuzzi, clucking like a chicken.
Somehow, she agreed to stick with it – even though he was horrid to her over the next year, continually ditching her whenever his feelings got strong, due to a strange set of rules he’d previously written for himself pledging that he wasn’t going to get into a relationship, get married or have children. It wasn’t until he found himself at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood one evening in June 2008, chewing Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore’s ears off about how brilliant this woman he’d just chucked for the third time was, that he realised how stupid he was being.
And he can thank his lucky stars he did because if anyone’s going to save him, it’s Ayda. The woman is a hero. She has the same razor-sharp wit and compulsion for outrageous self-exposure as her husband (see her willing participation in his decision to live-vlog the birth of their son on Instagram), combined with a magnificent ability to keep cool in the face of Williams’ madness.
“She’s always got the corporation’s best interests at heart,” he says. “She has the smarts to know how not to sink the ship, and I just want to sink the ship to see what it looks like.”
She’s even chilled about his rich sexual history – another area where he’s not renowned for his discretion.
“Every time we turn on the television, I kid you not, he’s slept with someone on TV – whether it’s a commercial for antiHIV medication, or it’s a crime-scene show, or something from the ’90s,” Ayda reveals in the book.
He knows there’s only one reason he can get away with it. “We wouldn’t be able to have the open relationship we do – where I can point at the television and she’ll know that I mean I’ve slept with her – if I ruin that by straying outside of my marriage for sex. But you don’t get a medal or an award – and I should,” he laughs, “because I’m subjected to more than my fair share of adoration. I go out and look at a stadium full of people who are incredibly fond of me and quite a few of them are incredibly good-looking.”
Are the women he encounters still as predatory as he describes them in his book? (The toothless maid, by the way, turned out to be a resourceful fan.)
“They’re in the audience. But I don’t put my head in the lion’s mouth. I’m never in that set of circumstances.” Because you don’t trust yourself? “If I stay in a pub too long, I’m going to have a drink. If I go to a barbershop long enough, I’m going to have a haircut. So do I trust myself not to drink? Do I trust myself if there was a pile of coke out there? I’d snort it at some point. So no, I don’t trust myself. But history has taught me I’m quite good at not doing it. And so it is with women. When I’m not on tour it’s a lot easier.”
He has a low testosterone level so has had his sperm cryogenically frozen. “We want – and wanted – kids and if I take testosterone, it knocks the swimmers out. If I don’t take testosterone, I feel dreadful. So we had to bank some,” he explains.
So does the frozen sperm mean they’re planning on having more children?
“I don’t want another one but I have to
weigh up crushing her hopes. I have to weigh up whether my not wanting to have one is worth her heart breaking every time a pram goes past.”
DESPITE his battles with alcohol and drug addictions, it’s worth pointing out that Williams has spent the majority of his life sober. He started drinking at 16, realised he had a problem by 18 and has tried to be sober – for the most part successfully – since he was 19.
It’s similar with drugs. Despite a few rather public trips to rehab – and not the luxury celebrity clinics, but the gritty prison-like ones with plastic bedsheets and bars on windows, where he had to share a room with five others – he has, for the most part, fought temptation valiantly.
These days, along with the cigarettes, his other unresolved addiction is sugar. “I have a sleep-walking and eating problem that’s happening every night. You see when you walked in and there were the rails with the white sheet over them? It’s only there because I get up naked and walk into the other room and ask them to order me things from room service. I’m totally and utterly asleep. This can happen three or four times a night. Last night I ate everything that’s in the minibar. Nuts, mainly, and a quarter pack of Pringles.”
Food and body image are a constant source of shame and anxiety. He was delighted when a doctor once diagnosed him as dysmorphic rather than overweight. “I’m what? I’ve got a mental disorder that thinks I’m fat and ugly? Brilliant! Thanks!”
Today, he describes himself as looking like “an out-of-shape doorman”. “I love food and I want to eat, so whenever I look slightly good or my shirt’s fitting in my trousers it’s a horrendous time for me because I’m thinking about food all day. I’m either thin and depressed or fat and ashamed. There’s no middle ground.”
It has, he says, been “a s**t year”, both mentally and physically. He gets arthritis in his back so decided to get in shape for his current tour with some gentle yoga and Pilates, and immediately popped a disc. He was in agony.
“It led to stressful months. Then I got the first few gigs out of the way and it would appear that even without any exercise and with a bad back I can do this thing. And so I’m now on an upward curve, because I know we’ll get to keep the houses.”
Ah, the houses. In 2013, Williams bought a £17,5-million (then R306-million) mansion in London but has spent most of the subsequent years locked in battle with his new next-door neighbour, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, over building works. Remarkably, Williams won’t be drawn on it – legal reasons, I’m later informed. But anyway, £17,5-million mansions don’t pay for themselves, which is why Williams is still touring. He did try to retire at the end of 2006 – a period when he “sat on the
sofa, ate potato chips and
‘I’m either thin and depressed or fat and ashamed’
chocolate, got fat, grew a beard. Looked like a serial killer”. When his clothes got too tight he took to wearing cashmere kaftans like Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi. Three years later he was back. “I got incredibly bored. I found the boredom overwhelming and this [the touring] was preferable to that, but I haven’t been myself performing since I came back.”
In what sense? “Before, it was natural, it was just a force that happened. The insecurities didn’t overwhelm the showmanship. When I came back, I’d had too much time to think and the insecurities slipped through the mask. I’ve found public performances overwhelming.”
Still, he’s hopeful. “I’ve definitely thought my way into this mess. I’m doing my best to think my way out of it,” he nods. “The force is strong in me. If I can just learn to generate that power in a different direction the rest of my life could be a good place to live in.” He smiles – not quite the trademark Robbie Williams smirk he turns on for the cameras, but a good effort nonetheless. ©KRISSI MURISON/THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE/NEWS SYNDICATION. SOURCE: REVEAL BY CHRIS HEATH, BLINK PUBLISHING
LEFT: Life in the spotlight has taken its toll on Robbie Williams’ mental health. ABOVE: He regards his wife, Ayda Field, as his saving grace.
(Turnline) ABOVE: Robbie married Ayda, an American actress, in 2010. They have a daughter, Teddy, and son, Charlie. LEFT: The couple also dote on their dog, Mr Showbiz OBE.
Williams is the most successful solo act in British pop history.