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The second coming
of Robbie Williams

The second coming
of Robbie Williams


Riding a wave of gossip, the British hunk and former boy band idol surfs back into America

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 PS80 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.

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