The second coming of Robbie Williams

By Larry Flick

Originally published on Advocate.com May 09 2003 12:00 AM ET

At a time when
the public wants—in fact, demands—its pop
stars in tidy, clearly defined boxes, Robbie Williams
is a wild card who aggressively rejects
categorization. Rather, he revels in confounding his
audience and the media, cultivating a persona rife
with contradictions. In his music he frequently darts
between playing an embittered, chronically depressed
young man and a cocksure celebrity who bluntly admits in
songs like the new “Monsoon” that he
makes music simply “to make money and get
laid.”

It is when the
England-bred Williams, 29, steps out from behind his songs
that he becomes particularly fascinating—and, as his
queer fans know, perfectly happy to play the gay card.
Rising from the ranks of the 1990s boy-band army as a
member of Take That (long considered the prototype for
Backstreet Boys), Williams has built a solo career that has
rendered him one of the biggest stars in the
world—the United States excluded, with the
exception of some video play and the minor hit
“Millennium” from his aptly titled U.S.
solo debut album, The Ego Has Landed, in 1999.
In Europe, meanwhile, Williams has rarely left the pages of
the tabloids, which glory in casting him as an
alcoholic, womanizing party boy whose alleged amours
include former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and supermodel
Pamela Hanson.

But that’s
not where the dirt-slinging stops. Reports of trysts with
women often give way to rumors of closeted gay affairs with
men such as his childhood friend Jonathan Wilkes.
Instead of squashing such gossip, Williams has
delighted in watching reporters race to report stories of
his queer canoodling, often baiting them with comments that
intentionally provoke the question “Is he
really gay?” “It’s interesting to see
how people will get all ruffled up about it,”
he says. “When you get to the whole idea of
‘Is he or isn’t he?’ I have to say that
I think there’s a gay man in everybody.”

Such comments
have endeared Williams to gay males in the States, who have
been his primary U.S. audience to date. All that is now set
to change since the April 1 U.S. release of
Escapology, the first album in a new recording
megadeal with EMI/Virgin Records designed to break him at
last into the stateside pop mainstream and already a smash
throughout Europe, as it hit stores there in November.
(In October, Williams signed an EMI contract
reportedly worth £80 million, though neither EMI nor
Williams has confirmed that figure.) On the eve of the
album’s U.S. debut, the rapid-tongued Williams
was in his spacious new Los Angeles home, pondering
the effects of antidepressants, the pressure to
“straighten” his image, and his fascination
with World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler the
Rock.

How do you feel about the fact that your following in the
States so far is primarily gay?

Is it? Well, cool. That’s fine with me.

Why do you think gay men are so attracted to you?
I hadn’t really thought about it, quite
honestly. I suppose I’ll choose to think that
it’s more than me bum that they’re after.
I’d like to believe that they’re
connecting to whatever emotions or ideas come across
in my songs. But then again, it’s probably me bum.

Does that ever inhibit you? Or does it make you do it more?
I’m a needy, greedy man. I want to be
loved by everyone, damn it! Kidding aside, why
wouldn’t I enjoy the fact that all kinds of
people—including gay men—are interested
in me and what I do?

You’ve been occasionally painted by the media as a
womanizer. There have been some who have
speculated that it’s a smoke screen for being gay.

[Laughs] I think that’s funny. I
mean, really, who cares? I know what’s going on
in my life. That’s what matters. [The speculation] is
absurd, actually. If I shagged as many women, men, and farm
animals as people claim in the media, I’d be in
the hospital. But it’s fine—speculate as
much as you want, I say.

Well, in that case, then let’s take this further.
Much ado has been made of your relationship with
your friend Jonathan Wilkes. How would you
characterize it?

I’ve known Jonny practically since I was
born. He’s my soul mate. I’m really
missing him today, in fact. I hate it when I’m not
around him. Here’s a funny story: About a year
ago we went into a tattoo parlor on Sunset Strip, and
for some reason that I still don’t know, Boy George
was there. We see him and it’s all fine. Then
we go to the Brit Awards about five months later. We
see George there, and he says, “Hello, Robbie.
Hello, Cousin.” [Laughs]. I look at Jonny and
say, “Y’know what that means. He thinks
we’re gay.” Jonny laughs and says,
“Does he? Great!”

It didn’t bother either of you?
Not at all. Of course not. We always play with
being gay. There is intrigue and gossip about
sexuality, and it’s interesting to see how
people will get all ruffled up about it. We won’t say
either way what’s going on at any time except
that we’re best friends. He did once say in an
interview, “When Robbie wants to come out,
he’ll do it in his own time.”
[Laughs] We play with it. It’s so
tongue-in-cheek. It’s funny that people care so
much.

Ultimately, people will believe what they want,
won’t they?

And please do, by all means. Go right ahead,
believe whatever you want. If I swung that way,
it’d be a fine thing. Oh, by the way, did you know
that Jonny’s playing a transvestite right now?
He’s in the [30th anniversary] version of
Rocky Horror as Dr. Frank ’N’
Furter. [At press time the production was slated for
April 14–19 at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth,
England.]

Do you like the way he looks in drag?
He’s got these fucking huge, beautiful
legs. He’s a good-looking fellow, but
he’s not my cup of tea—especially not in
drag!

Have you ever done drag?
Yeah, loads of times. British men can’t
wait to dress like women at any given opportunity. You
can be having a few pints at a party, and it’s
like [in a deep, exaggerated voice], “Let’s
dress like women. Yeah! Right on!”

Let’s get back to you and Jonny. You did a duet of
“Me & My Shadow” for the
Swing When You’re Winning album. How
did that come about?

It was a perfect song for us. It’s funny.
It’s camp. It’s in our ranges. We had
fun doing it.

Where did the gay references during the spoken banter of
the song come from?

That was just Jonny and me having fun. It was
harmless.

On that same album you recorded “They Can’t
Take That Away From Me” with Rupert
Everett, who is openly gay. How did he come to be involved?

I fancied him for
a bit, actually, and I thought it would be fun to have
him on the album. He’s an intellectual queen, which
is a little intimidating. But I find him to be
amazing. He sounded quite good on the record.

You seemed to be singing to each other with lines like
“The way you comb your hair.”

Do you want me to say we had a relationship?
That we had mad, passionate sex?

If you did—please.
Well, the truth is that we didn’t even
record the song together because of our
schedules.

How did you come to fancy him so much?
By watching him on television and in films.
Isn’t that the way most people strike up that
kind of fancy?

Whom else have you struck up that kind of fancy for?
I quite fancy the Rock, actually. I’d
love for him to throw me around a bit.

Are you kidding me?
Not at all. He’s quite brutish and hot,
don’t you think? I should be careful about
saying more. He might find me and kick my ass.

So you like wrestler–muscle types. What about Vin Diesel?
Oh, no, no, no. Not my type.

Stone Cold Steve Austin?
No, but I’ll bet you fancy him quite a
lot. He looks like a rough fuck—the kind of man
who is totally hetero and untouchable. And if you
fancy him, that’s probably why. It’s the same
as earlier today: There was a lesbian picture lady
here to oversee a photo shoot. She was stunningly
beautiful—and completely untouchable. That was part
of what was attractive: the fact that I could not have
her. There we go again, more speculation.

Do you think you’d be as compelling to people
without the speculation?

Everyone has the things that they find
interesting about someone else. The subject of
sexuality doesn’t scare me. I find it funny. I find
it entertaining. I think every straight man has the
capability to have sex with another man. Don’t
you agree?

I think every gay man views straight men as “get-able.”
It’s true. It happens a lot,
doesn’t it?

Indeed. So I’ll just ask you directly. Have you
been “gotten”?

[Laughs] Not yet. It’s certainly a
possibility at some point in my life. I don’t
think too hard about it. If I meet a man I fancy enough to
have sex with, I will.

How has speculation about your sexuality affected your
relationships with women?

It never has. But here’s a funny story
about a girlfriend who thought I was gay. This was
back when I was in Take That. We’d been on tour with
the group D:Ream, and we’d done a long string of
shows. I fell asleep while [my girlfriend and I] were
having sex. I was so tired from dancing all night. So
she’s going down on me, and I fell asleep. I started
to dream. I’m dreaming that I’m onstage
with D:Ream, and I say “Oh, Peter,”
which is the name of the singer in the group.
[Laughing] I woke myself up from that! She
looks at me like [makes a stunned facial
expression
]. She thought I was gay. Funny story,
isn’t it?

Oh, yes. Did you fancy Peter [Cunnah, the lead singer of D:Ream]?
No. Oh, God, no. He was a good bloke, though.

In one of your new songs, “Handsome Man,”
you refer to yourself as a male chauvinist pig.
Are you?

No, I’m not. I’ve been a really
good boy with women, actually. I was being glib when I
said that in the song. The truth is that I’ve not
always been honest in relationships. Over the past two years
I’ve been learning how to be honest.
It’s been painful, but it’s easier than lying.
Lots of growth for me. I’m getting to the place where
I can perhaps be in an honest relationship.
It’s great to keep sober and get some strength.
When I was drinking I couldn’t be honest with myself
or with anyone about what was in my heart. I’m
getting to the point where I can be.

What has been the hardest part about staying sober?
The relentless depression. I used to think it
was about other things—superficial things. Then
you cut everything away and see the part of you who
gets sad or depressed. It’s tough because you then
have to deal with everyday life sober. It’s
hard.

Have you ever been on antidepressants?
I’m on them now. Effexor. They’re
great except for one thing: They take the lead out of
the ol’ pencil. I can get going, but I can’t
come.

Is that so?
[Swatting his hands in the air] Stop
that! You’re lulling me into a false sense of
security. Now I’m spilling my guts! I can see the
headlines now: Robbie Williams Fancies the Rock, But He
Can’t Come! [Pauses] Hey, that’s
kind of brilliant, isn’t it?

You love it, don’t you?
[Grinning] Yes, I do. Y’know, I
was once going to pose nude for a gay men’s
magazine.

Really? When?
Back when I was in Take That. Our manager, who
was gay, loved to think I was gay, and he’d
tease me about it all the time. He’d say,
“Robbie, come on out, it’s fine.”
We’d have a laugh about it. Well, he decided to play
a joke on me and said that a gay magazine would pay me a lot
of money if I would pose nude.

And you agreed?
I wanted a Jeep. I said that I’d do it if
they paid me enough money to buy a Jeep. Of course,
they all had a huge laugh about it. There was no
shoot, and I was crushed. I’m standing there crying,
“I want a Jeep, here’s my cock!”
But there was no magazine.

Was the manager of Take That your first encounter with a
gay man? Or were there others before?

No, he was it. He was a fine man. I liked him
quite a lot.

Did he ever show personal interest in you beyond work or
practical jokes?

Not at all. The funny thing about that period of
time was that Take That was first discovered by men in
gay clubs. That was where we wound up doing a lot of
our first gigs. It was great fun. We’d just jump
onstage in bright outfits and dance our asses off. The
boys loved us.

Did any of them ever make passes at you?
If they did, I was too naive to even know. But
no, no one ever forced the issue to the point where it
ever registered in my mind. It was all positive. We
were set on a path with this audience. Then we did a random
gig for a teenage crowd, and the girls went wild. From there
our manager and label at the time [BMG International]
saw the potential for the band to be massive on a
completely different level.

Was anyone in Take That gay?
Not that I know of.

Having started with a teen audience, do you feel any kind
of responsibility to be a role model?

No. I feel a responsibility to be a good person
for myself. That’s it.

Let’s fast-forward to the present. How important
is it for you to have a hit record in the States?

I go back and forth on it. This morning I was
done with it all. It’s a lot of work and
stress.

Have you been asked to tone down the gay sexual innuendo
by the label?

No. If they did, I’d tell them to fuck
off. Besides, there’s nothing to tone down.
This is who I am. Should I try to act more
“straight”? How does one do that? Should
I pose with guns or women? No, I’m sorry. I
don’t play that game.

There are some interesting words on a hidden track of the
import version of the new album, during which you
ponder about Adam and Eve, and if Adam had bred
with Steve, would we all be gay. Would you care to elaborate?

We were just being rude the way we’re
rude about a million things, quite honestly. There was
nothing more to it than that. We were just having a
laugh.

It seems like that’s the most important thing to
you, at the end of the day.

Well, there are a lot of serious things to
ponder and worry about. And I do. But you can’t
lose yourself in the muck for too long. You might not
come out one day. I write about things that are very
personal to me. Some of it is quite serious. But I
also see the value in having a laugh, enjoying the
people around you. If you can enjoy the day, that’s a
good thing. I do all that I can to enjoy my day with
anyone I’m with—gay, straight, or
whatever. It’s all lovely to me.