Will Young says he had to re-record Leave Right Now because he 'sounded gay'
Star opens up about homophobia in the music industry
Will Young is standing centre stage at London’s Café de Paris wearing leather trousers, a white tuxedo jacket and singing Love is in the Air, the dreamy disco ballad that topped the charts in the late Seventies. Dancers in sparkly Cinderella-type ball gowns swirl around him while another couple dance a romantic rumba.
Rather fittingly, it’s Valentine’s Day. But this is no pop concert for doe-eyed lovers, rather a preview for a new musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s cult 1992 film Strictly Ballroom, which took the song as its theme.
“I hate musicals,” says Young later, when we settle into two high-backed velvet armchairs on the nightclub’s wraparound balcony. “I went to musical theatre college, so my idea of musicals was people sing-talking. I didn’t like it because I wanted to become a songwriter.”
So, the obvious question: what is he doing here? The answer, apparently, is the reckless nature of his character, a band leader who scores the action and serves as the show’s narrator.
“There’s something very anarchic about being a storyteller and a master of ceremonies – they’re always slightly dangerous because you just don’t know what they’re going to do,” he says. “There must be something in me that relishes the attention or likes the manipulation of an audience.”
Throughout the show, Young takes the lead on pop classics such as Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time and Doris Day’s Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps. He confesses that he prefers to sing cover versions. “It’s one of my favourite things – I feel safer,” he says.
It was, of course, cover versions that propelled him to stardom in the first place – on the TV talent show Pop Idol (the forerunner of The X Factor), which he won in 2002, and then with his UK debut single Evergreen, which was first recorded by Westlife, and which, in Young’s hands, became the fastest-selling UK debut single ever (a record he still holds).
In the 16 years since, Young has had nine further top 10 hits, four number one albums and won two Brit Awards. He also made his acting debut in 2005, starring alongside Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in the Stephen Frears film Mrs Henderson Presents, and his musical debut (despite his feelings about musicals) in 2012 as the master of ceremonies in Cabaret. In fact, his new role in Strictly Ballroom, he says, is part of an “elongated” break from music.
“I don’t really have much to do with [the music industry] any more. I listen to Radio 4 and The Archers,” he says.
His last album – 85% Proof – was released in May 2015 and he is even thinking about selling his Brit awards. “Paul from S Club 7 sold his Brit for £60,000. Bloody brilliant. I want to sell my Brits and give the money to charity. If you’ve got kids and you need to pay your mortgage then sell your Brit. If someone else wants it, then brilliant.”
Young, who is gay, has encountered homophobia in the music business, which may be one of the reasons he is so disillusioned with his pop career.
“I didn’t know at the time, but when I was recording [his 2003 hit] Leave Right Now, someone at the record company said I ‘sounded gay’ and kept making me re-record the track,” he says. “There’s a real flavour to homophobia and bigotry. It’s really shaming. People don’t understand the power of language.”
Homophobia is a topic that Young often discusses on Homo Sapiens, a warm, informal podcast series that he co-hosts with his film director friend Chris Sweeney.
“I still don’t really understand what a podcast is, but I think the reason they’ve become so popular is because people can be themselves on them,” he says.
Billed as a “queer” version of Woman’s Hour, the show touches on a variety of topical issues and has featured, among others, the transgender actor Rebecca Root and human-rights activist Peter Tatchell. The first guest on their new series, which started last month, was Jeremy Corbyn, who discussed teaching gay rights at school and improving the treatment of mental illness.
The latter is an issue in which Young has a keen personal interest. Plagued by self-doubt, he began seeing a therapist in 2004 but then suffered an “excruciating” emotional breakdown in 2012, the same year that he appeared in Cabaret and, although he carried on with that show, hit the headlines in 2016 when he abruptly quit BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing.
He later revealed – in an interview with The Daily Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon for her Mad World podcast – that he had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), something he believes stems from being separated from his twin brother Rupert, who was placed in an incubator when they were born, and from being bullied at a “vicious” prep school.
“I was really ill. I just couldn’t do it any more,” he said of Strictly. “It was so bad I thought about breaking my leg to get out of [the show].” Young then spent six months at a trauma centre in Oxfordshire; he estimates he has spent £500,000 on therapy, including sessions with a shaman and a course of “shaking therapy”, in which the patient learns to “shake off” their trauma. He is now writing two self-help books and wishes to train as a psychotherapist.
Can he see why some people might accuse him of being just the latest famous name trying to make money from trendy psychobabble?
“Hell yeah! I can see why people may think that celebs are trying to make a fast buck,” says Young with a slight squawk. “But if just one person gets something positive out of, say, Gwyneth Paltrow’s life manuals then it’s OK. And if she can buy a Ferrari with the proceeds, then that’s OK too.”
Despite his problems, Young is entertaining company and unflinchingly honest. He tells a story about writing a rant on Twitter about a rugby player who he thought had used the word gay in a derogatory way on TV, only to realise later that he had misheard. “I got it completely wrong and apologised,” he says. He now limits his social media use and says he is tired of “nutters mouthing off”.
Insincerity, including that of celebrities, is another bugbear. “We’re always sold perfectionism, but it’s not obtainable so why not just be yourself?” he asks.
“People are fed up with others pretending. Why don’t people on chat shows just ask guests how much surgery they’ve had, especially when they’re 70 and look 20, instead of saying ‘Wow, you look amazing’? Sharon Osbourne is the only one who says ‘I look this good because I’ve got a great surgeon’. People should just own it. Look, I’ve had hair plugs,” he says, showing me the top of his head. “I got them five years ago. Everyone is told to be a certain way. And that comes back to why I’m doing this show.”
Indeed, Strictly Ballroom, a story about a maverick dancer who breaks strict competition rules, is all about creative freedom and daring to be different. Will Young is probably the best person to front it.