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Showbiz phenomenon Robbie Williams blows through town next month with his Heavy Entertainment Show. It’s all bright lights and big production, but Williams tells Tom McKinlay that he’s come to understand that might not be his natural environment.
Robbie Williams has absolutely smashed it. Take for example, the Brits Icon award he received in 2016; his 18th Brit Award in all. The two previous Icon award winners were David Bowie and Sir Elton John.
He’s sold records and tickets by the million, and owned the charts. When he appears on Graham Norton’s chat show, which he seems to do quite regularly, he always gets to sit in the plum spot next to the Irishman.
That’ll be because he is so famous, but also perhaps because he doesn’t appear to have much of a filter.
Among other anecdotes he’s shared on the show are one about an x-rated encounter with a cleaner, and the time he put Geri Halliwell, of the Spice Girls, in a duffle bag to avoid the paparazzi.
So on the phone from Los Angeles, early in his day, he shares first and foremost that his principal immediate concern is about his waistline. It’s the other side of a Christmas in which chocolate has apparently featured prominently and he’s due to appear in public that night, at a Stella McCartney fashion party.
Williams’ partner Ayda Field is up already and trying on clothes. He’s still in bed with the cat, but he’s next.
"I’ll go and try on some clothes, too, and see if I am fat or not," he says.
"And then my evening will either be good or it will be bad; it will be shamefaced or I will feel good about myself."
It’s a more fragile self-assessment than you might expect from a man who once released an album titled The Ego Has Landed. But Williams has become more cognisant of, and open about, his vulnerabilities over the years.
The photos published from the event the next day show Williams looking trim and smart, even if Ms Field quite comfortably takes the fashion stakes prize.
It would have taken a lot of chocolate for the result to have been otherwise, given his naked pre-Christmas tweet, from under the mistletoe, shows a middle-aged man still packing enviable abdominal definition. There’s quite a lot of nudity on the social media accounts.
The entertainer’s good showing will have been aided by his new health regime: "Pilates, yoga, plant-based diet, et cetera et cetera," he says.
"I am one of those w****** now."
It’s a long way from his early-years of rock ‘n’ roll excess, but at 43, Williams gives every impression of having become just a little bit grown-up, at least in his own Peter Pan terms. Married, kids, the only interloper in his bed a cat.
Williams lives mainly in Los Angeles these days with Field, their two children — Theordora and Charlton — and umpteen dogs, including the grandly named Mr Showbiz OBE. And at least one cat.
"Yeah, I am a dad that goes to work now. I don’t have to have existential crises about why I am so famous and why I am so successful and I don’t understand it. I just get to go to work and put one foot in front of the other and that’s what the kids have done for me," he says.
"I didn’t finish the tour in incredibly good form and now I am back on good form," he says.
"You know, I like completing things. I get a chance to complete something that I didn’t quite finish and in much better health."
Russia dates at the end of the first leg of the tour, scheduled for September, were cancelled after a bugling disc in his back became too painful to continue.
"Arthritis in my back, a bulging disc in the middle of my back and a bugling disc in my neck," Williams confirms.
"And I had to go on tour and I had to do it, there was no way I couldn’t do it. It was complicated, let’s put it that way. I got 98% of it done, I let Russia down, which I feel really bad about but it has forced me into taking care of myself and being healthier."
Williams clearly realises his conversion to clean living sounds a little unlikely, given his hell-raising past, but says he’s coming around the to upside.‘‘It is like with anything, when there’s a change in lifestyle it takes a bit of adjustment but then you kind of get into a slipstream and I am in a slipstream of enjoying my new found ... putting one foot in front of the other and trying to act correctly, looking after my health."
It has not just been the physical rigours of the road that have taken their toll. Williams has been open about his battles with depression, and told The Sunday Times Magazine, "This job is really bad for my health. It’s going to kill me. Unless I view it in a different way."
This heightened level of self-awareness has included coming to terms with the reality that the stage might not be his natural environment after all, he says.
"To my terror I have come to realise that I am actually an introvert and I do an impression of an extrovert," Williams explains.
"And I can do an impression of an extrovert for one hour, forty-five minutes to two hours on stage and the rest of my time is spent wanting to isolate and being introverted and I don’t want that for myself, so it is kind of a battle because I want to be comfortable in strangers’ company, I want to make friends, I want to be funny, gregarious, but it is not something that my innate nature tells me to go and do. My innate nature tells me to go and be by myself or with the family because it is scary out there, so don’t try it because you will just embarrass yourself. So this is the dichotomy of what I do for a living and who I am as a real person. It is a f****** head-f***."
The man people see under the lights, Robbie Williams, is an avatar, a creation, he says. And one that does not always turn up as promptly as the person behind it might like.
"I suppose that I am more aware that this Batman figure will turn up at some point, whereas before it was ‘this is overwhelming and scary, I don’t know what to do with this, and it is going to be the same way forever — echo, echo, echo’," he says.
"But now I am 43 and I have been doing a lot of touring, especially over the past five years and what I have come to know is, you know, I am not going to die, he’s going to turn up and if he doesn’t I’ll do a good impression of him."
So, Robbie Williams remains entertainment writ large. At the top of the set list for his tour is the eponymous The Heavy Entertainment Show, and Let Me Entertain You.
The rest of his hits come in quick succession, mixed in with a grab bag of familiar covers: it’s like every punch he throws — on a tour promoted with boxing pageantry — needs to be a knock out.
"I know when I go to a show if I don’t know a couple of songs in a row I am bored," he says by way of explanation.
"I will give them the first one, and go, ‘OK, yeah, yeah’. And then the second one, you are like ‘I need to hear a hit now’, and that’s how I feel, so I want do what I would like to see when I go to a show: understand and recognise everything that is happening. Some of my fans are a bit like, [adopts whining tone] ‘You don’t play blah, blah album tracks’. But, yeah, you try standing in front of 35,000 people and losing the room. I am too scared to stand up there and lose a huge section of people. So it is the Heavy Entertainment Show, that’s what it is called and that’s what I want to deliver."
The approach means he cops a bit of flack sometimes, The Guardian review of the tour album quibbled that it was a bit all over the place, trying too hard to make every song a hit.
"It may be undeniable that no pop star other than Robbie Williams could release a record like Heavy Entertainment Show," The Guardian critic wrote.
"The question is, do we really need anybody to?"
But music bible NME had a different take, while doling out four stars out of five: "He’s a bit silly, but he’s a damn good pop star," it concluded.
Williams himself is pretty clear about where his strengths are and what works for him. Even if entertaining others wasn’t always the motivation.
"No, not really. I know I was in a boy band, but I kind of wanted to be in Oasis and be Radiohead and then I realised that is not my make-up and I am this showman instead. You don’t know who you are until there are a few years under your belt and go, ‘Oh, people keep telling me I entertain them, I must be an entertainer’.
"You know, I am never going to have the cool factor that the bands I have just mentioned have, so I might as well embrace what I am good at, and what I am good at is high-class cabaret. That’s how I see it, that’s what I want to do and I am happy doing that."
You can see the Oasis aspiration in some of his early post-Take That material. Old Before I Die (1997) has Manchester guitar band written all over it, but by the following year Williams was singing Millennium, from which he moved on to embrace his love of suit jackets and cabaret with the likes of his 2001 album Swing When You’re Winning, featuring a sweet cover of Somethin’ Stupid, a duet with Nicole Kidman. It’s clearly a much better fit. Williams was always going to struggle with the malevolent disdain of his pals in Oasis or the earnest high art of Radiohead. Even while aping Britpop stylings on the video for Old Before I Die, Williams mugs into the camera to share the joke.
Over the years, from Take That through to Frank Sinatra stylings, his fans have moved with him.
"I have a big audience and they are fond of me and they come for a good time and I have high standards of myself and I want to deliver what they have come to see. And I’d say that most of the time, I do," Williams says.
It’s an honest showman’s credo but Williams is never going to be po-faced about anything, so his earnestly entertaining show opens with God Bless Our Robbie, to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory, during which the audience is encouraged to sing along to an inventory of his weaknesses and failings.
"Yes, self-deprecating," Williams agrees.
"I can’t take this too seriously. I am the luckiest man in show business, Jesus Christ. You know, I can just about hold a tune, I can’t dance very well, but that’s what I do for a living and I fill stadiums; it is bizarre. So, there is a lot of self-deprecating humour there too because my life has been and carries on being just surreal."
That surreal existence next brings him to one of the furthest points on the compass, a little town called Dunedin, about which he admits to know nothing at all.
A quick scramble on the internet has him looking at an old building of some sort and he declares the town "idyllic".
What are the crowds like?, he wants to know. Will they be up for it.
Reassured they will be, he declares "I’ll bring it", immediately sounding like nothing less than that Batman-suited Robbie Williams he conjures on stage, Mr Entertainment.
• Robbie Williams’ The Heavy Entertainment Show play’s Dunedin Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 17 with support from Tami Neilson.