Despite insisting that he likes to look to the future, Jason Donovan is confronted with the past much of the time. He has just started tour of Ireland and Britain – one that has been postponed twice because of the pandemic – singing the songs that turned him into a huge star in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after his role in the Australian soap opera Neighbours (which people also always want to talk about).
“My catalogue of recent music is probably thin, so I tend to rely on my heritage a bit more,” he says. “This is a sort of moment of reflection.” But does he feel he is always being dragged back? Does it fill him with wistfulness? Does he think about time passing? “I do when I can’t sleep,” he says with a laugh. But the answer is no: “It’s just great to be able to sing those songs, still have a voice, still have an audience. I’m grateful. Those songs are going to live beyond me.”
It comes on the back of his summer run in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In 1991 Donovan played the lead role; 30 years later he returned as Pharaoh, a part for an older man. There had been talks about him reprising Joseph.
Joseph changed my life. It took me from being this soap star turned pop star turned 'What are we going to do now?' star. Suddenly it's eight shows a week at the London Palladium, and people are going to take you a bit more seriously
“I entertained the idea. I can see the kids of 1991 growing up and bringing their kids to the show, and that’s a good ticket, that’s an interesting thing. The question I’ve got to look at is: can I revisit that moment with the same passion and integrity? How do I look in a loincloth?” He laughs. It was the right decision not to take it, he says. “This was a perfect marriage of keeping my currency right there and having a moment that articulated the past but could get me off the hook a bit.”
Was it poignant to see a young man in his former role? Donovan is determinedly avoiding my pit of nostalgic melancholy. “It changed my life,” he says, brightly. “It took me from being this soap star turned pop star turned ‘What are we going to do now?’ star. Along came Andrew Lloyd Webber, who said, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ and suddenly it’s eight shows a week at the London Palladium, and people are going to take you a bit more seriously.”
He sometimes performs at 80s festivals with artists such as the Human League and Peter Hook – “all quite heavyweight. I slot in for 20 minutes, sing Too Many Broken Hearts and Especially for You and a couple of other tracks, and then I sing Any Dream Will Do,” he says, referring to the big number from Joseph. “The crowd go f***ing nuts, and it’s sort of cool. Do you know what I mean?”
What does success mean? What does a good life look like? These are questions many of us will have reflected on in the past 18 months as priorities have shifted and goals have been re-evaluated. These are also questions many fading celebrities will have grappled with – and Donovan has been there. There was a time in the 1990s when he was well aware it was not “sort of cool” to be singing Joseph songs; he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do now that his teenaged fans (me included) had grown up and got into Nirvana.
His reaction was to spiral into drug addiction. But now? At 53, his career rolling along, with a long marriage, three children (his daughter, Jemma, is now in Neighbours), a house in Notting Hill and a sense of humour, getting through the years must bring its own perspective about what constitutes success.
If I am feeling overly nostalgic it is because teenaged me would never have dreamed that I would one day be sitting in a cafe with Donovan. (He is warm and down to earth; the cafe is near his house, and the staff greet him like a friend.) In the era of streaming and niches it is hard to emphasise just how huge Neighbours was – or the number of huge careers it launched. Just about everyone in my generation will be able to say where they were when they watched the episode in 1988 in which Donovan’s character, Scott, married Charlene (played by Kylie Minogue), because the answer will be: at home, after school.
I think, initially, Angela would get a little frustrated with Kylie stuff, but she's such a strong woman, and our relationship is so solid, that it transcends that moment that, with respect, mostly journalists are obsessed with
Donovan and Minogue were a couple at the time. Is it weird having people scrutinise their relationship – and Donovan's first love – more than 30 years on? "Well, I've become used to it. That's sort of a brand." He has been with his wife, Angela Malloch, for more than 20 years, he says. How does she feel about it? "I think, initially, she would get a little frustrated with stuff, but she's such a strong woman, and our relationship is so solid, that it transcends that moment that, with respect, mostly journalists are obsessed with."
Of course, it is not just journalists: it is fans, too. Donovan, affably combative, smiles and softens. "And fans, I agree, as part of that nostalgia. It's something I'm not obsessed with, but I understand it is what people want to hear about." (He says Minogue is "awesome"; they message each other occasionally.) The video of the pair reuniting at Minogue's 2018 concert in Hyde Park in London, to sing their hit Especially for You, has been watched nearly 6.5 million times.
The first time I watched it I surprised myself by bursting into tears – it was the idea of first love, enduring friendship, lost years; the teleportation back to one’s youth that a brilliant pop song can provide. Donovan’s relative dishevelment and vulnerability (he had arrived at the gig by bike – he cycles everywhere – and the idea was sprung on him) compared with Minogue’s dazzling superstardom only added to the emotional impact. “It is one of those moments that means a lot to many people,” he says.
Donovan and Minogue first appeared together on screen as children, in the Australian show Skyways. His father, Terence Donovan, is an actor, as was his mother. When his parents broke up, his father got custody; he grew up on film sets "because we didn't have a babysitter". It was unusual then for a father to be given custody. Did Donovan feel different from his friends? "Yeah, I did, actually. I do remember things like lunch boxes, normally given to you by your mum with this array of food in it, and my dad ... The bread wasn't always fresh. But I had love."
His father remarried, and Donovan became close to his stepmother. “We’re still very close; we spoke today. My grandmother was a big part of my life, so I never felt like I missed out on anything. I’m sure, psychologically, those things have an effect on people’s lives, but ... I guess the net result is with my own family – how important it is to make sure that those moments aren’t repeated.”
Donovan would pester his father to set up auditions. He did a few shows other than Skyways before his debut in Neighbours, as the mulleted Scott Robinson, a few months before he turned 17. What was it like to deal with sudden fame so young? “I don’t think anything prepares you for that. At the heart of it, I didn’t join Neighbours to become famous. I joined it because I loved getting up in front of people – a little shy, but I felt confident with the right script to be able to express myself.”
He had already seen fame up close – people would stare at his father in the street. “I understood it is a currency – it’ll go up and down, make the most out of the moment – but the moment kept on going and it grew. How do you process, at the age of 19, people going nuts for you, people outside your house for two or three years? I don’t know. It can be very claustrophobic and overwhelming, and it can be wonderful; it can be all sorts of things.”
I was a big New Order fan, I loved the Cure. I was a little bit confused, but I knew the Stock Aitken Waterman route was the right way to go, to complement what I was doing on Neighbours
He had always loved music, but becoming a pop star seemed accidental. "I saw what Kylie was doing" – Minogue's first album was a huge hit. "That gets you motivated pretty quick." She had been produced by Stock Aitken Waterman. "I suppose they looked at her and said, 'Who's next?' and I went, 'I think I could do something here.'" Especially for You became Donovan's first No 1. He would have five more Ireland, as well as seven other top-10 hits.
The music he was into was more David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Australian rock bands. How did he feel about the commercial hits he was singing? “I still loved pop music,” he says. “I never forget being in clubs, hearing Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, going: ‘Wow.’ But at the same time I was a big New Order fan, I loved the Cure. I was a little bit confused, but I knew the Stock Aitken Waterman route was the right way to go, to complement what I was doing on Neighbours.”
Once Especially for You became a hit and cemented Donovan as a teen icon, “there was no turning back”. Sometimes he catches old episodes of Top of the Pops. “I pinch myself and go, ‘That happened to me.’ It’s about timing. I could have been fussy and gone, ‘I need to be a bit more indie,’ and the moment would have gone.”
He did try to become edgier for his third album, but it didn’t sell particularly well. Even then his past had a stranglehold – his new label shoehorned Donovan’s old hits into the album, resulting in an odd mix. It came out in 1993, two years after he had taken the title role in Joseph. That had been a huge success, but it wasn’t exactly the height of credibility. “I looked at myself at the Palladium in a coat of many colours and a loincloth, going, ‘What am I doing?’ In hindsight, what I thought at the time wasn’t cool was so f***ing cool. But it takes a generation.”
He wanted to be Kurt Cobain – "but grunge was a rebellion against people like me" – or Michael Hutchence, the INXS singer (and the man for whom Minogue had left him). "I looked at someone like Michael and said, 'I wish I was you.' In hindsight, that all doesn't matter, but the kid in me had to crash the car to be able to realise what I want and what I don't want."
IN THE 1990S, there couldn't have been anything cooler than being invited to Kate Moss's 21st-birthday party at the Viper Room in Los Angeles, which was part-owned by her boyfriend at the time, Johnny Depp. Donovan was carried out on a stretcher after having a seizure, brought on by too much cocaine.
In his 2007 autobiography he recounted the humiliation with painful self-awareness: “I’d tried to party with the big boys, tried to be so very rock and roll, but all I had done was make a complete f***ing idiot of myself. Who was I trying to fool? There was nothing rock and roll about me.” Was that his lowest moment on drugs? He laughs. “Well, it’s one of many moments that weren’t great.”
A couple of years earlier Donovan had sued the music magazine the Face for libel. He won £200,000 in damages, which he waived, but it was disastrous for his image. The magazine had printed a story implying Donovan was lying about his sexuality; posters of him had appeared around London, presumably posted by activists who were trying to out closeted celebrities. By suing for libel, Donovan was not only attacking a fashionable magazine but also inviting accusations of looking homophobic. At the clubs and bars he went to in London, he had become a pariah.
Does he regret that, to some, his libel action looked like homophobia? 'I was brought up by a dad who was an actor and a stepmother who was a model, in a very open world,' Donovan says. 'The issue was not about sexuality'
In his book he called suing the Face the biggest mistake of his life. Now he says, “I’ll stand by the decision. But no one won.” It was about what was morally right, he says. “It was about the suggestion I was lying.” There were also political considerations – Donovan did not agree with the campaign to out people. “You can’t out someone because you think you have a right to tell their story. It’s not right. That would not happen today.”
Does he regret that, to some, it looked like homophobia? “I was brought up by a dad who was an actor and a stepmother who was a model, in a very open world,” he says. “The issue was not about sexuality.”
Feeling stressed and bruised, a cocaine habit took hold. By 1994 he had been dropped by his record label, and, with no work to anchor him, his partying took over. He moved back to Australia for a while. After collapsing in a cafe after a two- or three-day bender (he can't remember), the media started to report on his state. Those around him tried to help. "The problem was I wasn't worried about what they were thinking. It's a very selfish existence. It's an illness."
It was meeting his wife – a stage manager on the UK tour of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, his first foray back to work – that marked the turnaround, followed by the birth of their first two children. She said they could live together as a family only if Donovan came off drugs. It wasn’t a hard decision – Donovan adored being a father – and he also had a sensible streak. Even at his lowest, he “always kept one foot in the door of responsibility”. (He continued to exercise regularly, and, although he spent a fortune on drugs – “I don’t know how much” – he was financially savvy in other areas.)
For the past few years Donovan has worked steadily in theatre, presented a radio show, released albums (largely of covers) and embraced his role as an entertainer and object of public affection. “I’m a survivor and I’ve made mistakes. No life is perfect. When you’re young you’re fearless, and then you realise how fragile we actually are. It’s not about necessarily having chart success or the most successful this or that. I take comfort in the fact that every career has its ups and downs, and, as you get older, you think, How many bedrooms in a house do you actually need? I don’t need to show anything off.”
When did he make peace with his – dare I say it? – uncoolness? “When you have kids your life changes, because it’s not about you, it’s about them. It mattered about working and keeping moving forward.”
Even if you are too old to mind about such things, and even when others constantly want to drag you back to the past, what could be cooler than that? – Guardian
Jason Donovan plays the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on March 1st, 2022, and 3Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on March 2nd, 2022