Will Young: ‘Teachers looking at us in the shower, the bath. It was awful. That’s why I’ve got PTSD’
The singer on losing his twin brother, lockdown, and memories of his unhappy schooldays
Will Young: ‘I was nervous about wearing red trainers in case people thought I was gay.’ Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage via Getty
Will Young exits a cab and ambles towards me up a quiet south London street, where I’ve been loitering outside his terraced house like a superfan. No sooner has he shown me through to his garden than he has popped back out to buy cigarettes. There can’t be many pop stars who would feel comfortable leaving a journalist alone in their home, especially one who has had as many run-ins with the press as Young.
The walled garden is filled with bushes and trees that neither of us is able to name, as well as a tremendous number of plant pots. “I’ve gone completely insane: I’ve never bought so many bulbs in my life,” says Young, on his return from the corner shop. “Did you see the tulips out the front? I’ve gone potting crazy. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I have such a passion for it now.” His neighbours have started calling him “the garden centre”, as he is always trying to foist cuttings on them.
As well as his four dogs, gardening has been a comfort for Young in a difficult year. In July his twin brother, Rupert, took his own life. Young doesn’t want to talk about it today, but in January he told an inquest that Rupert had struggled with depression and anxiety for more than 20 years. Rupert had tried to take his own life several times before.
About eight years ago Young himself had a breakdown: he couldn’t get out of bed, his anxiety went through the roof, he became addicted to shopping and he would cry constantly. But today the 42-year-old is feeling very Zen and “in the moment”. He still has “dreadful” anxiety and hypervigilance – a state of extreme and often inappropriate alertness. But lockdown seems to have offered a kind of respite. When he wasn’t obsessively oiling all his wooden furniture, he worked on his next album, Crying on the Bathroom Floor, a collection of cover versions.
“I’m mildly agoraphobic, so being given permission to stay at home: hallelujah!” he says. “I don’t miss the social pressures. I’ve completely recalibrated, and given myself permission to act how I want to act. It’s actually been amazing for someone who suffers from anxiety.”
“The only thing,” he adds with severe understatement, “is that I lost my brother. It’s not been the best experience of my life. However, there’s a whole backstory to that, which I will tell another time. Even with that, I would say my mental health has been really okay.”
He has talked before about dealing with various addictions – love, pornography, shopping – but, bulb-buying sprees aside, he has largely contained them in the past few months, except for smoking. “I absolutely love it. I’ve turned into Dot Cotton.”
The key to dealing with addiction, he says, is to tackle the shame it brings. “You don’t have to be shamed, and don’t let other people shame you for it. My approach is just to be open, because it certainly takes away the shame for me to own it. Shame doesn’t help anything. It just piles s**t on to something that’s already s**t.”
And there’s already plenty of that to go around. A few years ago he was diagnosed with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – something that he has learned to treat by focusing on his body, not his mind. “For example,” he says, “notice when you’re calm. Trains for me are the most calming things, because I can see the world but my hypervigilance isn’t on, because I’m nice and cocooned. It’s perfect for me. I feel like I’ve meditated.”
There was such a sense of injustice from things that I experienced and witnessed in prep school
He traces his PTSD back to his childhood. Will and Rupert (younger by 10 minutes; there is also an older sister, Emma) were sent to board at prep school in the 1980s. In recent months he has found himself dwelling on what he remembers as a miserable time.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about prep school, and wondering if any of those institutions will be brought to justice for the things that I saw happen.”
What did he see?
“Well, kids thrown against radiators. Other things I can’t talk about.”
What he will discuss includes the teachers who “ripped out” the phone that would have let unhappy pupils call ChildLine or their parents. “That was a big deal for us. It was ripped out twice.” He also remembers drunk teachers “rolling around dormitories”, and one “you wouldn’t go for a ride with”.
“We weren’t allowed to wear pants under our football shorts, so my dick used to fall out of my football shorts when I got tackled. Less washing. I saw kids being made to change on the football pitch because they had worn pants. Teachers looking at our penises in the shower, in the bath.
“It was appalling,” he says. “That’s why I’ve got PTSD. There was such a sense of injustice from things that I experienced and witnessed.” He adds: “I think I escaped – not that it didn’t damage me.”
After moving on to a private secondary school in Berkshire, west of London, Young went to the University of Exeter, where he studied politics. He then moved to London to study musical theatre at the Arts Educational Schools. He knew he wanted to be a singer, but he didn’t start professionally until he was 21 because of a lack of confidence in his voice. Within a couple of years he was a household name as the star of Pop Idol, ITV’s hugely successful twist on the prime-time talentshow.
“I was nervous that my voice was very expressive and soulful, and probably seen as more feminine,” he says. He is still regularly mistaken for a woman on the phone. “I wasn’t really confident in that until I went on Pop Idol. But, to put that in context, I was nervous about wearing red trainers, in case people thought I was gay.”
Which he was – although, when he became famous, he was out only to his friends and family. He has since written a book about homophobia and gay shame, To Be a Gay Man. The first line reads: “Imagine being born into a world where, from the beginning, your true nature is under attack and ridiculed from the second you enter life.”
In 2001, Young saw an advert for Pop Idol in the News of the World. The 23-year-old secured his place in the competition by performing the Jacksons’ Blame It on the Boogie, accompanied by some very awkward, half-hearted dancing, then went on to win the final, beating Gareth Gates in a show watched by more than 13 million people. His debut single, Evergreen, went straight to number one, and stayed there for three weeks; his album From Now On, released shortly after, sold more than 880,000 copies. His status as Britain’s first phone-vote pop star was confirmed.
Two decades on, there is widespread criticism of how TV talentshows have treated their young stars. Katie Waissel, who appeared on The X-Factor in 2010, recently said that her involvement in the show left her feeling suicidal, and that she is still being treated for PTSD. Her rival from that season, Cher Lloyd, has also said she was “exploited”, while Jedward, the Irish twins who made it through to the 2009 finals, called out the show and wider music-industry issues on Twitter, including a reliance on exploitative contracts, NDAs, threats and blacklisting. Rebecca Ferguson, another X-Factor finalist in 2010, recently met the UK culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to discuss how the music industry could be reformed to protect artists.
“Just you wait,” says Young. “It’s all going to come out. It has to.” He seems angry on behalf of others rather than himself. Because no one realised how huge Pop Idol would be, those first stars got relatively generous deals. “We got a lot of money. Sure, we could have got more. But we all came away with 60 grand. Sixty grand is a f**kload of money.”
He had a lot of fun on the show itself. “We would jump out of hotel windows to escape security guards – there was something very pure about it.” Even Simon Cowell sitting on the judging panel couldn’t change that. “I remember thinking, We’re not two peas in a pod,” says Young. “But I don’t like bullies, so I would have always reacted that way.”
My old therapist used to tell me that our sessions paid for her Tiffany earrings
The real toxicity came from the media – such as the Mail on Sunday, which in 2002 attempted to break the “news” about Young being gay before he could come out himself. When he found out what was planned, Young beat them to the punch, telling his story in the News of the World.
There are other articles that he wishes he had sued over. “There was one saying I was part of a gay bullying ring – basically abusing boys at secondary school – and I let it go. I think I will always regret that. And there was a story once about my brother chasing after me with a baseball bat when he found out I was gay, and I’m really mortified that I can’t go that far back and sue. I regret that; I did tell Rupert that. But, unfortunately, the climate wasn’t so forgiving for someone who was gay.”
By and large, however, record-buyers didn’t seem to care much about his sexuality – even if for a long time some men felt the need to caveat their love of his music. “I very occasionally still get it now, blokes going: ‘I listen to your music, but I’m not gay.’” Young’s second album, Friday’s Child, came out a year after he did and sold 1.8 million copies.
His label wanted him to go international. “I turned it down,” he says. “That’s why I don’t sell internationally.” He describes “the most hysterical meetings I’ve ever had in my life” with his record label, intended to plan his path to international stardom. “This dickhead came in, and he was, like, ‘Enrique Iglesias said to me ...’ – I just want to preface that I don’t know if he [Enrique] said this, this is what the guy said – ‘I don’t want to walk down any street and not be recognised,’ and I made that dream happen.’ And I turned around, and went: ‘Well, I can categorically tell you, I want the complete opposite.’” The meeting came to a swift end.
Young has still had a dazzling career, with numerous multiplatinum albums, as well as two Brit awards and 12 nominations. He has been able to explore other creative avenues, too, such as acting: in 2013 he played the MC in a revival of Cabaret, for which he was nominated for an Olivier award for best actor.
Crying on the Bathroom Floor celebrates modern women in pop who inspire him. It’s not, he insists, “Will does Kylie! Will does Dolly!” Instead there is a slightly more “left-field” focus, covering songs by Muna, Clare Maguire and Everything But the Girl (as well as some slightly more mainstream artists, such as Robyn and Solange). He is immensely proud of the album and will be playing a few acoustic gigs later this year. While he is adamant there is not much he has missed about daily life during lockdown (he is one of the few people who loves Zoom meetings), he can’t wait to be sharing a stage with his band again. “It’s almost churchlike,” he says. “You go to a different place.”
Beyond showbiz, he is keen to use his experiences to help others who have struggled with their mental health or sexuality. He jokes that he should join the British government in a sort of Mary Portas role, but to improve wellbeing rather than the high street. He started training as a psychotherapist but has parked that for the time being, on the advice of his psychiatrist. “She said to me the other day: ‘You should be a therapist,’ and then we both stopped, and she was, like, ‘No, actually, I don’t think you should – you’re too sensitive.’ So I stopped.”
But he has been doing some mentoring for the past six years, mainly people in their 20s who contacted him via social media. He can be a sort of “parent figure”, he says, “who’s also gone through a lot of therapy and doesn’t charge them. I wish my old therapist was like that. She used to tell me that our sessions paid for her Tiffany earrings.” – Guardian
Crying on the Bathroom Floor is due to be released on August 6th
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