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Digital Subscriptions > Attitude > Issue 277 > WILLIAMS THE CONQUEROR

WILLIAMS THE CONQUEROR

THEY GREW UP THOUSANDS OF MILES APART BUT THEIR STORIES ECHO EACH OTHER. SO WHEN SOLO SUPERSTAR ROBBIE WILLIAMS MET AMERICAN SINGER-SONGWRITER JOHN GRANT, MAYBE IT WASN’T SURPRISING THEY CLICKED. THE DUO, WHO HAVE CO-WRITTEN A TRACK FOR ROBBIE’S NEW ALBUM, TELL MATTHEW TODD ABOUT THEIR DEMONS AND BATTLES AGAINST ADDICTION
Robbie wears coat by Gucci at Matches Fashion, trousers (throughout) by Tom Ford, and necklace (throughout) Robbie’s own

The moment you see them together, it’s clear that Robbie Williams and John Grant have a connection. It’s partly because they are both singersongwriters, partly because they’ve written and recorded a track for Robbie’s forthcoming album, The Heavy Entertainment

Show. But fundamentally it’s because of something more profound. Despite different backgrounds, underneath they were going through the same things.

Robbie grew up amid the social conservatism of Thatcher’s Britain, in Stokeon-Trent in the Eighties. At the age of 16, in 1990, he found himself swept into the biggest boy band and celebrity soap storyline in British history. Six years later he fell down in a drunken haze, out of the mega-success of Take That and across the front pages.

Instead of licking his wounds, he released a cover of George Michael’s Freedom to a British public who, used to championing the drunken underdog, got behind him and cheered a career of smash hits that saw Robbie become the most successful male British solo artist since the man whose song he’d covered.

Behind the success, Robbie was wrestling with addictions to drink, drugs and sex. The public only loved him more for it.

Across the pond, another man was battling his own, strikingly similar demons. John Grant was born in Buchanan, Michigan, in 1968. He too grew up absorbing social conservatism — this time of Ronald Reagan’s America.

In 1994, as Take That were enjoying success across Europe with their Everything Changes album, in Denver, Colorado, Grant formed a band called The Czars with his friend Chris Pearson. Years later, after splitting from the band, in 2010, John returned with the fantastic solo album Queen of Denmark and has since been acclaimed as one of the most brilliant and important recording artists of our time.

Robbie was very much a celebrity of the time. As Tony Blair changed the political landscape, what it meant to be a man in Britain started to change. It was starting to become OK to be gay or a man who expressed vulnerability and sensitivity.

Take That began in gay clubs and Robbie also shared what you might (or might be offended to) call a gay sensibility: he was sensitive, loved George Michael, his favourite band was the Pet Shop Boys, he duetted with Kylie, Rufus Wainwright and camped it up with the best of them. He made it clear he was cool with gay people and, upon leaving the band, played the 1996 Stonewall Equality Show in support of gay rights when it wasn’t usual for mainstream pop stars to do so.

There have been a couple of bumps, too. In 2005 Robbie successfully sued The People and the Daily Star for printing a story alleging that he was lying to the public and had had gay sex with a man in a Manchester toilet and by a canal. He said at the time that he was suing because the papers were suggesting he was lying not because he felt being gay was a bad thing.

In 2013, when he duetted with Wainwright on a charming and breathlessly camp duet, the title track on his album Swings Both Ways — written by the two of them — Robbie joked in an interview that he was 49 per cent gay. What many of us saw as a throwaway, affectionate line of inconsequence, provoked criticism; on Twitter, of course.

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About Attitude

On the cover, pop superstar Robbie Williams talks exclusively to John Grant about drink, drugs, sex, fame… and finding happiness. Elsewhere in this issue, Spice Girl Melanie C on her new album, gay rapper Cakes Da Killa, artist and activist Scottee, and the real lives of TV’s most famous gay ‘housewives’ as we meet the Gogglebox Gays. Plus, Outliving a Death Sentence: meet the men who have been living with HIV since the bleak days of the 80s and 90s.
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