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truly talented
post Jul 8 2017, 06:07 PM
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Will Young: ‘People confuse me with Olly Murs. That tests me. I thought I was better-looking.’

Emine SanerFriday 7 July 2017 17.28 BST
China in his hands … Will Young
Will Young has lived in his beautiful country cottage for six months, and I can’t work out how much of the house’s contents belong to the popstar or were left by a previous, elderly, owner. There is heavy furniture, gardening books, and paintings the colour of dust; a dresser heaves with china. The other odd thing is how unselfconsciously lived-in it is. There are dishes in the sink, and the cushions on the sofa, where we sit with Young’s sausage dog between us, are not plumped. I also find the odd After Eight wrapper dotted around the floor. This isn’t a criticism. If I’m expecting visitors, I cram dirty pans into a cupboard and sweep clutter under the sofa. So I like the way Young doesn’t seem to mind about impressing anyone. And I find it strange.

There was probably a time when he was bothered about what people thought, but not so much now. So here he sits, wearing a mustard-coloured boxy shirt, which is modestly buttoned all the way up to the top – an odd contrast to the fact that, on his bottom half, he wears only underpants. Earlier, for the Guardian’s photographer, he was wearing a blue dress he’s bought for his mum.

This weekend is London’s Pride parade. He says he was feeling “a bit laissez-faire about it” but then watched some of the BBC’s season celebrating LGBT lives to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, “and I actually think there’s something about this weekend that’s really special, more than I realised. It’s really important to remember all those people on whose shoulders we stand. It’s all about love and strength.”

Campaigner Peter Tatchell this week claimed its protest roots have become obscured by money.: “Big corporations,” he wrote, “see it as a PR opportunity to fete LGBT consumers. The ideals of LGBT equality are barely visible.” Does Young think Pride has become too commercialised, with brands co-opting the movement? How does he feel about rainbows on everything from trainers to drinks bottles? “I think it’s great. For me, Pride denotes acceptance. I think [the parade] is still important and I know some [LGBT people] feel very possessive over it and don’t feel it should be extended – to say: ‘No, this is for us, it isn’t about moving it into brands and corporations.’ But if you’re a 12-year-old kid and you go up the escalators on the underground, and there’s the rainbow [on adverts], I think what it stands for is very powerful and crosses boundaries.”

Isn’t it calculating and cynical? “I don’t think it matters. I think they don’t have a choice and that’s the most important thing. Of course, brands are going to get on board, they don’t want to miss the boat.”

As winner of Pop Idol in 2002, Simon Cowell’s 2002 precursor to the X Factor, Young was plucked from middle-class obscurity. Back then, it was still unusual for a mainstream star to be openly gay, particularly so early in their career. “It was scary, and I’m pleased that it has moved on so much that it’s not even really talked about.” But at the time, he says, “I felt really vulnerable.”

Once he and a boyfriend had to run into a restaurant to get away from a gang who were threatening to stab them. He remembers the then Radio 1 breakfast DJ Chris Moyles making jokes about Young’s sexuality. “I mean, f***, I should have gone for him and the BBC, but people didn’t really take it seriously.” If it had happened now, “the BBC would shit themselves. But at the time I didn’t really take any notice, I thought there’s no place for me to [challenge it]. It does seem like another world, and I think it’s really important to see how far things have come. I suppose me, and everyone else who is LGBT, has lived through a really interesting time, from same-sex partnerships to marriage, and legal rights, and now we’re more understanding and enlightened on transgender people, and what it is to be gendered.”

Still, Young gets abuse. He was verbally attacked just two years ago. “I screamed out to the whole street: ‘These guys are being homophobic to me and calling me a fag.’ And the whole energy of the street turned against them, and they freaked out. People started picking fights with them. It was amazing. That wouldn’t have been the case three years previously.”

Young’s last studio album of his own work, 85% Proof, came out in 2015 and he has no plans to release another. Instead, he is doing other things – a return of his part as the MC in Rufus Norris’s production of Cabaret; writing a TV series, and is also about to launch Homo Sapiens, a podcast conceived by, and recorded with, his friend Chris Sweeney, who sold it to Young as a kind of Woman’s Hour but for LGBT+ people. It turned into interviews with people such as Tatchell, John Grant, Owen Jones and Rebecca Root, with Young and Sweeney talking about their own lives. The common theme, he says, is “honesty. To anyone who is in a minority, and has grown up within a shaming culture for whatever reason, there tends to be an open-mindedness and acceptance of others, and that’s one of the things I love about being a gay man. I think the theme would be having experienced being an outsider, coping with that however it came up, and a sense of openness. Everyone has had their own moments of toughness.”

Young has had several. Pop Idol, he says, was “magical. Becoming famous, that’s weird. Wanting to get a singing career established – that took five or six years. Dealing with the fame thing, how I felt in my job, going into acting, having a breakdown, getting through that, getting really ill, dealing with that.” He smiles. “Now I’m here.”

About five years ago, Young was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has said it was probably caused by any number of things - being separated from his twin brother at birth (they were born six weeks prematurely), being bullied at school, or feeling shame for being gay. He experienced depersonalisation (he felt detached and couldn’t even recognise himself in a mirror) and anxiety, stopped sleeping and eating, and had suicidal thoughts. He knows he is fortunate to have had the means and time to get better, and still has treatment. It flares up sometimes. “My hypervigilance is still really bad,” he says of one of the symptoms, which makes him acutely sensitive to his surroundings and puts him on constant high alert. He went to a wedding of a friend in Portugal and his anxiety became so bad, he had to come home. “Relationships are very triggering, they’re hard for me. They’re upsetting, I feel upset talking about it. But I don’t have it bad, so there’s no point sitting there going: ‘Woe is me.’”

He pulled out of the last series of Strictly Come Dancing because it was making him ill. “There was no option. What was the point? I had reached a limit. I rang my manager and I was stammering, I couldn’t even get words out and she was like: ‘This is enough now’.” At the time he said the decision was for “personal reasons” but later said it was as a result of PTSD. It’s still unusual to be so publicly vulnerable. “I’ve got nothing to be afraid of,” he says. “The worst fear is what can happen in my nervous system, there’s nothing that’s going to affect me like that.” He didn’t worry how it would affect his profile, his career, because he says “That’s not my happiness. I’d be a fool to make it my happiness because then I’d be up and down the whole time. My happiness probably lies in little moments.”

He admits to being irritated when people ask him if he’s still singing, because there’s a hint of failure in the question (he is, and will be releasing a covers album – he just says he has no desire to write his own material at the moment). The TV series he is writing is a comedy about what it’s like to be a 38-year-old pop star. “I think there are just lots of funny moments,” he says. “People constantly confuse me with Olly Murs, and that crucifies my ego. I think, ‘Oh shit, he’s more important than me.’ That tests me. I thought I was better-looking than him.” A company approached him offering free teeth-whitening in return for a promotion. “I don’t particularly want to have my teeth whitened and it’s also the thing of have they seen a picture of me and just gone ‘He needs to get his teeth whitened’?”

Then there’s the challenge of being famous and going on Grindr. Young told a friend he wanted to go on it because he hadn’t had sex for two years, but that he was worried because he was famous. “He just said: ‘Who cares?’ And yeah, who cares? I’m an adult.” One of the apps blocked his account because people reported it as a fake. He laughs. “That was a time then, and I think it can move into unhealthy behaviour. Now I want a relationship that is a different thing to having a shag.”

Young was shopping in his local town recently and someone approached him and asked what he was doing there. “They don’t think I do anything normal.” He does have quite a pop-starry life, he points out (he has three houses for a start) but he seems live a quieter existence now. “I did try to do more of a pop star thing – go to parties and hang out with famous people and I just didn’t like it. But I think at the time I felt I should be doing that. I felt very ashamed that I didn’t have more famous friends, I thought there must be something wrong with me.”

Will he go back to writing music? “It would be silly to go ‘No’, but I don’t know. There’s nothing worse than a popstar who goes ‘I’m stopping now’ and then: ‘I’m back again!’” he laughs. “People are thinking ‘Nobody gave a shit’.” There are other things he wants to do – writing, and activism around mental health and issues facing young LGBT people. “I feel much more vulnerability writing songs than I do writing scripts, or writing a piece. If a script doesn’t work, I can blame the director. If a piece doesn’t work, then it’s just my opinion. If the music doesn’t work, then I’m the face of it, and I find that harder. I just realised what makes me happy and what doesn’t.”
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Lo-Fi Version Time is now: 28th July 2017 - 02:45 PM