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.

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