'I was on magic mushrooms at Bono's house once' - Robbie Williams
He is one of the most famous pop stars ever. And the most tortured. Robbie Williams tells Barry Egan about his self-loathing, his negative patterns, having sex with his then-drug dealer in 2006 - and how his wife saved his life
Self-hatred. That's the trait Robbie Williams most deplores in himself. The pop star loved by millions upon millions of fans around the world proves in a long conversation that he is a complex and - by his own admission - prodigiously "f****ed up" genius. A tortured soul dancing between the shadows of his mind in his adopted home of sunny Los Angeles.
Hugely insecure as well as hugely wealthy (more than 77m record sales worldwide), Robbie has never seemed particularly content or at ease at any point in his life or his career. Not that, perhaps, Robbie could be happy in his one-time chosen career as supermodel-shagging, drug-hoovering, multi-millionaire pop star. This is because, as Rafael Behr put it in The Guardian in 2004, that "all the drink and the drugs and the women were really a desperate cry for help by a depressed victim of the cynical, exploitative fame industry".
To his credit, like our own Sinead O'Connor, Robbie has been talking about depression and mental health for a long time now, certainly when pop stars were a lot less candid about such emotional and psychological inner-truths.
Robbie said recently that he was either thin and depressed or fat and ashamed. Which is he now?
"I'm a mixture of both. One of the better days in my life was going to a doctor and explaining to him how I feel about my weight and how I look. And he told me that I was dysmorphic. That I had body dysmorphia. I was like, 'Well, that's wonderful news. So it doesn't exist then!'," he says meaning his loathing of his body.
"It was kind of a weird thing to be excited about. But, yeah. it is an ongoing thing. It is part of my - I've got an ego. I'm a pop star. I want to look good. And a lot of the time, I don't. And I have a penchant for sugar and things that are bad for me. And I am constantly fighting it. I'm finding - and it may not be true because a lot of the things that I tell myself aren't true - that I am either eating like a monk and denying myself and I'm depressed because of it; or I'm indulging and I'm depressed because I'm fat."
What does his wife say to him?
"She has kind of got the same thing, too," he says of American actress Ayda Field. "She has kind of got the same thing going on. The pressure to look good. . . "
I ask if it is almost like sadomasochism for him, that he seems to enjoy the pain at some deep psychological level? "Maybe I do. Maybe the pain is a comfortable place for me to be in. And I need to work on that too. But it seems to be a truth in my life that has gone into my head as, 'It is either this or it's that.' Maybe there is a middle road. I have yet to find it."
Is he worried his 'ism' is so linked to his creativity that if he lost his 'ism' he would in turn lose his creativity? "No. I wish I could extrapolate on that. But no," he says. "I don't think that whatever particular 'ism' that I have is going to leave any time soon. So I don't have to worry about not having the sadomasochistic spark, whatever that is. I think that is something that is now with me for the rest of my life. Maybe that is not true, either. But I don't have to worry about having the energy to be who I am and do my job, because bits that are really f****ed up are mine; and I have to deal with them."
Which bits are really f***ed up?
"Just the space between my ears! And the language that I speak to myself. The space between my ears is the bit that is f****ed up. I think in negative patterns. I doubt myself."
Is he trying to break the patterns?
"Yeah, but you know, it's slowly, slowly catchy monkey. It's happening a lot slower than I would like. . ."
Robbie and I are talking because he is promoting Reveal, the official Robbie Williams biography by his collaborator Chris Heath (who in 2004 also worked with Robbie on the similarly revealing tome Feel). In Reveal, we learn Robbie was high as a kite on drugs when he went on his first date in 2006 with Ayda, the woman who would eventually become his wife and the mother of his two young children, daughter Teddy Rose and son Charlton Valentine.
Robbie, being Robbie, ended up at a party in a Jacuzzi "clucking like a chicken" on Class A drugs. Instead of giving him his P45, Ayda moved into his Los Angeles mansion and nursed him back to a sanity of sorts and became, says Robbie, his saviour.
Is it true that on the night before he went on that fateful date with his future wife, that he had sex with a woman who was his then-drug dealer at his popstar home in Bel Air?
"Yes, I did. Yeah!"
How does he end up shagging the drug dealer? Is it like getting the drugs on tick? "Oh, no. I definitely paid for it. Not the sex. But I definitely paid for the pills. And it wasn't really the drug dealer," Robbie helpfully clarifies, "it was the drug dealer's friend that brought me the pills."
Did he tell Ayda the following night?
"Did I tell Ayda that I've just shagged my drug dealer? No, I didn't tell her that. She only found out when she read the book."
Asked how Ayda would describe him, Robbie says it would depend on the day. "She is totally and utterly in love with me," he says of the woman he married at his Beverly Hills pad in August 2010. "She really likes me. She sees the best of me. She can see the person that I am despite me telling myself that I'm not. But she is very similar to me. She is racked with self-doubt. Racked with anxiety. Neurotic. All of the above."
"We are both crazy," he adds, "and our crazy dovetails."
Your marriage sounds like a modern Carry On movie meets Curb Your Enthusiasm. "Listen, people think to themselves that they have a really interesting reality TV show. People think: we should do that because our family is mental. This family is for real. It would be reality television gold."
What do his kids think of him? Do they ever say to him, "Oh dad, c'mon!"?
"They are not old enough to be, 'Oh dad, c'mon' yet," Robbie answers. "That's not part of their pattern of thinking. Ted is five. Charlie is three. I take them everywhere I go and to work when I can.
"It is interesting how comfortable and at home they are - particularly Ted because she can talk the most. She is at home watching a stadium of people respond to her father, and how normal she thinks that is. That is interesting."
"And also," he continues, "I did [ITV programme on which Ayda is a panellist] Loose Women the other day. I took Teddy with me, and by the dressing room there was 50 women who have come to see me, and she was looking out the window and saying to me: 'Dad, why are they there?' 'They have come to see me.' 'Why?' 'They like me, babe.'"
"Then," Robbie continues, "she thought for a second and went 'Oh', turned on her heels and was off to think about princesses or whatever. But it is interesting to see her see this world as normal. She hasn't got a concept of what fame means."
Would he still have done this, if he had known what fame would do to him?
"I'd absolutely do it, of course. I had a ticket to the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory and now I own the chocolate factory. The chocolate factory might be a pain in the arse a lot of the time but it is a lot of fun too.
"Fame, for me, is like the feeling you get it is your birthday and the cake comes out and eight or nine people sing Happy Birthday to you either at your house or in a restaurant. And you know how uncomfortable that is? And you just want them to finish the song? That feeling is how fame feels. You know, people are well-meaning, they are wishing you the best, but can you not sing and can the song finish! That's what fame feels like.
"Success is another thing. Success is really addictive. Really potent. And a lot of fun. It is a nightmare to think that you are going to lose it. So I would say that I am addicted to success, but not really addicted to fame."
Which songs is he most proud of? "Feel. That's the first song that comes to mind," he says. "Yeah, Feel," he laughs. "That one."
Any others? "There's been so many, and there's been so many album tracks that I'm really fond of but just nothing is coming to mind right now."
Is he writing songs now for the next album?
"I'm always, always writing for the next album. But this time, I'm not. I'm 43. I've written 12 albums of my own. I've done promo for 15 albums; 16 albums with Take That. I'm kind of running out of energy to be bothered. Maybe that will return at some point."
I wonder again about his body image at the moment.
"I'm kind of thin-fat," he continues. "That's where I am now. I'm on the border of thin, but I'm also in a town called fat.
"This happens to coincide with a wonderful bout of body dysmorphia. So I think I'm fatter than I actually am. So when I'm actually fat, you can imagine how fat I think I am. So that's where I'm at."
Does he actually think he's ugly?
"Er ... yes."
So, no matter how many beautiful women he has slept with or dated, it means nothing to his self-esteem?
"Yes. I have an 'ism' that won't listen to me or won't see that, despite the evidence of my whole entire life. That's me. I'm sure there are other people out there who feel the same way, and have the same predicament that I've had and that I've found myself in my life. But it is not the thing that is a complete composite of who I am.
"There are different bits of me, too, that are quite happy with what I've done. But, yeah, I don't like looking at myself. I don't like watching myself. It's like having a telephone and having to listen to your own voice back on it."
I ask: If I could sit down with graphs and show Robbie all the beautiful women he's been with, all the millions of albums he's sold, etc, would that help him any?
"No," he says. "That's just not how it goes. My 'ism' is my 'ism'.
"And like I said, despite the evidence, the force is strong with me. The force is really strong and, you know, it is a shame. It is as sad as it sounds. But there are other days when I feel great."
Did the negative force he talks of weaken when Robbie became a father?
"It kind of stops you thinking wholly about yourself and makes you concentrate the senses, sharpen the senses to worry about other things. That's a blessing."
What is he like as a father?
"I'm pretty good. Then I'm pretty crap. Like every dad. I'm full of love.
"Then I get pissed off and I can't be arsed," he says, "and then I can be totally arsed; and then a lot of the time I feel like I'm staring at the universe and the universe is beaming back its love at me, and other times I'm really frustrated and they really piss me off because they're being d***heads. I suppose like every other parent!"
"I do promo and I go to work. I don't have to think about the state of my head and because I am willing to talk about what goes on for me - really what goes on for me - I find myself having to justify things that I've said in other interviews. So I do a lot of interviews and when I finish them, I think: 'Oh, yeah. I'm going to have to think how f***ed up I am for the next three days at least.'
"I do go home, live in the sunshine and have a nice life too, but it is not until I get questioned about what I've said that I have to address what is going on in my own mind."
Does it bother him having to address what is going on in his mind?
"No, because I like showbusiness and it is part of the game. I used to think back in the day, in the peak glory years, that I would tell my truth because the media would tell so many lies about me. I used to think that it was most important that, warts and all, that I told everybody what was going on. Or at least there is a voice out there that is mine, that is authentic," he says.
"And now that media spotlight doesn't shine on me as brightly. So there is no need to be as honest."
He adds a tad ridiculously: "There is not that many lies about me because not that many people are writing about me any more."
"It is less intense. Either which, I want to entertain. And I have found if I speak my truth, people find that interesting.
"And I often say that me doing my job is like a bar fight and you grab whatever you have got as a tool to help you win that fight. And if one of those tools is me being honest and speaking my mind about how f***ked up I am, then it is a good tool to have."
Is he changing?
"Yeah. I am. You know, I think 43 years of me talking to myself with a negative voice isn't going to change over night. But I do bibs and bobs to make sure that things are changing.
"I have started to do yoga. I have started to do pilates. I was meditating. I say a prayer in the morning. I say a prayer in the evening.
"I take actions to have a bit of a better life. My life outwardly is absolutely incredible, nothing to complain about. But the life inside my head is where it all happens."
Robbie recently said that "this job is really bad for my head; it is going to kill me". Why doesn't he stop and do something else for a couple of years? He could do a John Lennon and disappear for a few years. . .
"I did that in 2006. I retired. But that quote you quoted me is from this year when I was really f***ing ill. So, at the best of times, for me to cope with my life, I've got to be a 100 per cent fit. Then if I am not 100 per cent fit, which is what happened this year, then stuff is difficult. I retired in 2006."
What was retirement like?
"Well - I got really f***ing bored. My head started to turn into Swiss cheese. What I found was: a man needs a purpose. This man needs a purpose. I was just kind of wasting away. Mentally, I went to seed. So I knew that I had to come back. So I did come back.
"I'm finding that my career is like a Rubik's cube. I've just got to try every combination before I give up and realise that I'm never going to get the colours to go the way I want them to go."
Does anyone really get the colours to go the way they want them to go?
"No. I don't think so. But it is fun trying, right? I can only speak about what's going on inside my head and how I think and how I feel."
In reality, when you get him away from his head, Robbie Williams is extremely funny. He once famously said: "I am the only man who can say he's been in Take That and at least two members of the Spice Girls."
When his child was born, he described seeing it as like watching his favourite pub burn down. "And after the second child, it pleasures me to say that it has opened up an off-license around the back!" he laughs.
When was the last time he had a drink?
"Eighteen years ago."
When was the last time he had cocaine or E or anything like that?
"There was a slight relapse but I won't place the time in people's heads. But it was over a decade ago."
Robbie has, however, a great drugs story. "I was in Bono's house years and years ago and I was looking at an amazing painting. I managed to get hold of some mushrooms before I went there. So I wasn't really of the planet at the time.
"But the great and good of the world were there and I just felt like a fish out of water. Primarily because I was on magic mushrooms! I'm in love with Bono. I love him. And I am wandering around his house and I stop and I look, and I realise Bono has purchased the most beautiful painting that has ever existed, the most beautiful painting known to man.
"And there I am standing, staring at it. In my head, I'm thinking: 'Of course Bono is going to have the most beautiful painting in the world. He deserves it and so he should have it.' And at that moment, Bono appeared. And I said to him, 'Bono - this is the most beautiful painting that I have ever, ever seen.' And Bono said to me: 'Robbie, that's the window.'"
Whatever about Bono, what is Robbie doing for Christmas?
"I'm going to be with the kids, with the family. Ayda is going to spend lots of money. We are going to have a house that is going to look like the [Blackpool] Illuminations. I am going to wander around the house enjoying Christmas but worrying about the electricity bill."
Reveal: Robbie Williams by Chris Heath is out now, published by Blink, priced €12.99