In 1998 Peter Andre disappeared. This was at the peak of his early fame, when he couldn't have appeared more confident in his own skin – a sun-kissed, six-packed beefcake singing cheesy songs. He had made his name in the UK with the reggae single Mysterious Girl, had two No 1 hits (Flava and I Feel You) and released four more singles that reached the Top 10. "That's when the panic attacks started," he says. For six years no one heard a thing from him. He became so invisible, so swiftly, that radio shows ran Have You Seen Peter Andre? competitions.
Now he is a boyish 46 – black hair and stubble, not an ounce of fat on him, wearing his skinny jeans with conviction. We meet because he is starring in Grease the Musical, on a tour that comes to Dublin in September. Andre is playing Teen Angel – his first theatrical performance since he was a 17-year-old in Australia.
But he also wants to talk about reality TV and mental health, two subjects he knows a lot about. It was on I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here that he met the former glamour model Katie Price; they married on their reality show, their children, Junior and Princess Tiaamii, grew up on reality TV, and he started a new chapter on his own reality show after their divorce. Reality TV allowed him to reinvent himself after a breakdown and gave him a huge profile, considerable wealth and a second chance at celebrity. So when he says reality TV can be dangerous, it's worth listening.
It was all blond-haired, blue-eyed Australians. At school one day they tied me to the fence and took turns throwing stones to see who was going to hit me in the head. I was petrified
For the best part of two decades he has been on and off medication, in and out of therapy, trying to understand the roots of his mental-health problems. Only recently, he says, have the panic attacks stopped. He thinks it all goes back to his early years in Australia.
Andre was born in Harrow, in northwest London, to Greek-Cypriot parents. When he was six the family emigrated to Australia – first Sydney, then, when Andre was nine, the Gold Coast. That is when the problems started. “When I moved to the Gold Coast we were the only ethnic family I knew. It was all blond-haired, blue-eyed Australians. At school one day they tied me to the fence and took turns throwing stones to see who was going to hit me in the head. I was petrified.”
He says it was pointless going to the teachers, because they were just as bad. “I remember a teacher saying to me: ‘Listen here, you greasy wog, if you think you’re going to do well in my class you’ve got another think coming. You sit in the back corner. I don’t want to see your face.’ That’s how they talked. The teachers!”
Years later he met the teacher again. “I actually gave him a hug. And he said: ‘Listen mate, I’m so proud of you.’” Didn’t you want to hit him – or at least remind him? “No. I had no grudge against him because I knew that’s what it was like back then.”
Perhaps it's not surprising that one of Andre's favourite films is The Truman Show, the movie starring Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a 29-year-old oblivious to the fact that his life is a reality show. Unlike Truman, of course, Andre chose to be a reality star and has cashed in on it. But, like Truman, Andre is an innocent in a cynical world: sweet, trusting and desperately sincere.
His teen years were happy. At 16 he appeared on Australia’s New Faces and was offered a contract, live on TV. He had a Top 3 hit, supported Madonna on tour and became a household name in Australia. Then, in his early 20s, he was attacked by a stranger. “This guy grabbed me in a nightclub in Sydney. He pushed me into the bathroom, pulled out a knife and put it on my neck, and said: ‘Give me a reason I shouldn’t finish you off.’ He kept picking at me with the knife.” Eventually, he let Andre go. “He said: ‘You better watch your every step, because when we decide the time’s right, we’re going to finish you.’” Andre says that for every fan, there was somebody who hated him.
He moved to the UK, where he enjoyed his greatest success. But the anxiety never left him. Then, in 1998, the panic attacks began. “I couldn’t breathe. I ended up in hospital, and the panic attacks would come one after another. Years later, after therapy, I realised it all stemmed from that fear of being killed.” He comes to a stop. “I know it sounds dramatic,” he says.
Andre told his manager Claire Powell that he needed a break. He returned to his parents in Australia, said he was fine but knackered, and stayed in bed for months. Eventually, he headed off to the United States, telling his family he was going to make a record. Actually, he was going there to hide. And this time he really did disappear. Not even Powell knew where he was.
Finally she came across him one night in a restaurant. “He came over to the table, and it was the most bizarre thing,” she says. “I’d given my life to making him famous in England. Then I’d just not seen him. It was like, Oh my God, how has this bloody happened? And he just didn’t seem the same dynamic guy he was.”
I got to some very dark points where I remember praying to God, please get me through this day, just to get through one more day. That's how bad it got
Powell gradually coaxed him back to work. In 2004, after six years away, he was invited to be on I’m a Celebrity. Powell told him it could be good for him, and it was – he met Price, and the TV audience loved him. When he emerged from the jungle, Mysterious Girl had been rereleased and was No 1. The whole thing was unbelievable, he says.
What strikes me as most unbelievable, I say, is that you chose to return from a breakdown by exposing yourself on a reality show. He says things were different back then. He didn’t know anything about reality shows, and there was an innocence to them. “They said it was a challenge show like Survivor, and I thought it may help me overcome my fears.”
If you’d just had a breakdown now, would you go straight into reality TV? He shakes his head. “No.” But he was lucky, he says – he had good management. He looks at Powell. “When I came out I had her, I had my family. If I was left to my own devices I don’t know where I would have gone. Reality really helped me, and there’s no way I could say otherwise.”
It certainly helped make his relationship with Price. Ultimately, though, does he think it was partially responsible for breaking it? “Oh, I won’t talk about this at all.” For a long time he and Price made a fortune from pulling up the blinds on their private life. Now Andre simply says he has promised Junior and Princess that he will not talk about their mother publicly.
When he went on I’m a Celebrity he was still in pieces. He came out a born-again star. But he was still a mess. Four months after leaving the jungle he released his first album for seven years, The Long Road Back. Powell reminds him of the state he was in when that came out. “We were at a hotel, and you wouldn’t come out of your room because it hadn’t gone into the Top 3. Do you remember?”
“I was going through a really difficult time,” he says.
“Yeah, but I remember saying: ‘Come on!’ I was actually talking to you under the door.”
“You can go a number of ways when this happens,” Andre says. “One person might turn to the alternate reality – drugs. My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, very anti-drugs. I didn’t want to break their hearts. You’ve got the option of doing therapy or doing nothing and just hoping it’s going to sort itself out, or you can top yourself.”
Did he ever want to kill himself? “I got to some very dark points where I remember praying to God, please get me through this day, just to get through one more day. That’s how bad it got.” In the end, it was medication and therapy that helped.
Last month Andre appeared to defend Jeremy Kyle after ITV axed the presenter's daytime-television show following the suspected suicide of a guest. Now he says his comments were misinterpreted. The point he was trying to make was that Kyle was being unfairly singled out. "I thought, What about all these other shows – Love Island, for example – where people have died? They were attacking Jeremy Kyle because his name is attached to the show. There has to be a duty of care across the networks. It's not just one person or one show."
It is only a couple of weeks since a suicide verdict was recorded at the inquest for the former Love Island contestant Mike Thalassitis. Last year another Love Island star, 32-year-old Sophie Gradon, also took her own life. Andre says questions have to be asked about whether such shows are providing adequate support.
“Look at a guy like Mike Thalassitis,” he says. “I only met him once or twice, Greek guy, 26 years old, looked in peak condition, good-looking guy, and he went and took his own life because of mental health. Twenty-six years old!” He stops, appalled.
He talks about the contestants who spend months dieting for a show, come out and put on weight, and are ripped apart on social media. Then there are those in constant demand until the next season, when they are discarded as reality relics. “You’re going to fall into some sort of depression if you’ve got one ounce of weakness, which we all have. You’re going to fall.”
Was it right or wrong to take Kyle off air? “It is the most horrific thing that somebody took their own life; we cannot forget that. What I do think is if they are taking that show off, they should be taking a lot of shows off.”
What else would you take off? “Any show where there is a reality side. I think they’re all great shows in their own way, but what about the people who have left The Voice or The X Factor who have been devastated because they’ve been told they’re rubbish, and it drives them to drink? You’ve got to go across the board if you’re going to do this. You can’t single out.”
Look at a show like The Undateables. It's a good show in that it shows that people who are classed as undateable can actually date, but there's vulnerability there
What’s the answer? “They need to look at the whole thing. They need to analyse who’s going on these shows. They should be checked before they go on; they should be talked to after. They should know whether they’re in the right frame of mind to do that sort of thing. How are they going to cope with pressure? They can’t just go, Okay, that person looks good.
“Look at a show like The Undateables. It’s a good show in that it shows that people who are classed as undateable can actually date, but there’s vulnerability there. We need to really care before and after. And I tell you, it’s very easy after to go, right, next! Who are we finding next?”
Four years ago Andre got married for the second time, to Emily MacDonagh, a doctor 17 years younger than him. As with Price, they met in bizarre circumstances. In 2010 Andre had emergency surgery to remove a kidney stone. As a thank you he gave his surgeon a couple of tickets for one of his shows. The surgeon couldn’t make it, so he passed the tickets on to his student daughter – Emily.
Now he and Emily have two children – five-year-old Millie and two-year-old Theo. Andre says Emily is determined the children should lead normal lives. “Emily doesn’t want Theo and Millie in the public eye at all, which I respect, because they weren’t born into it. Junior and Princess were born into it.” Do they miss being on television? “You know, we never really talked about it. I always looked at it when we were filming that we were making fantastic home videos that we’d have for ever. But we still do those videos. We just capture them on our phones now.”
So much of his life has been documented, and surprising footage continues to emerge. In March a scene in Leaving Neverland, the documentary about Michael Jackson and sexual abuse, showed an 11-year-old Andre in the background. He had finished runner-up in a dancing competition where the prize was to meet Jackson. The winner, Wade Robson, alleged Jackson went on to sexually abuse him. Robson was only five years old – officially you had to be seven to enter the competition. If he had been disqualified, Andre would have won.
Does Andre think, There but for the grace of God? No, he says, he still adores Jackson and does not want to believe he was an abuser. “I’m still thinking, Could it have happened? Of course. And if it did, it’s beyond horrific. But what if it didn’t?”
Does he still wish…? He answers before the question is out. “Yes, I still wish I’d won.” Would he have let his kids go to Neverland? “To be honest, I wouldn’t let them go anywhere. You can put Michael Jackson out of this equation, because I would not leave my seven-year-old child, boy or girl, with anybody unless they were family or I’d known them for years. It’s just not going to happen.”
Now Andre is making up for lost time, career-wise, doing what he would have done a couple of decades ago if his breakdown and reality TV had not intervened
He says he is happier now with Emily and his four children than he has ever been in his adult life. But there have been setbacks. In 2012 his brother Andrew died at the age of 54. Andre hit such a low that he advised Emily to leave him. “I said: ‘You can either stay and stick with me through this, which personally I wouldn’t, or you can go.’ And she said: ‘It’s not even a question. We’re going to get through it together.’”
And they did. Coming out of that trough coincided with the last of his panic attacks. He says he realised he had mistaken grief for another bout of depression, and the realisation that he was simply working his way through his grief liberated him.
Now Andre is making up for lost time, career-wise, doing what he would have done a couple of decades ago if his breakdown and reality TV had not intervened. As well as touring Britain and Ireland with Grease, he recently made his big-screen acting debut, in The Inheritance, a short film about a heroin addict for which he received a best-actor nomination at the North Hollywood film festival. He tells me, gleefully, how full his diary is.
You were supposed to be a here-today, gone-tomorrow pop star, I say. How come you’re still here? He grins. “I have no bloody idea,” he says. “But I’m grateful.” And with that he is off to Grease rehearsals and to prepare for his third coming. – Guardian