‘The mastectomy was scary but not that bad in the end’

Patricia Kelly, once of the mega-selling Kelly Family, has gone solo. She talks about Ireland, the migration crisis and surviving the disease that killed her mother


When Patricia Kelly sings, you listen. Her voice has been a constant throughout a life in the public eye as a member of one of Germany’s most famous bands, the Kelly Family.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Kellys’ brand of folk-pop-rock struck a chord with millions across Europe. The 12 siblings who sang in the band’s various constellations became megastars, selling 24 million albums, until the pressures of fame and touring saw them go their separate ways.

Most are still performing solo. On March 10th, Patricia Kelly will give a rare performance in Ireland, at a cancer benefit in Arklow.

Cancer has cast a long shadow over the Kelly Family. Patricia was 12 in 1981, when she lost her mother, Barbara-Ann, to the disease. In 2010 she had to confront her own diagnosis with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Patricia made a full recovery and is determined to use her experience and fame to drive home the message that regular check-ups can cut breast cancer mortality by 90 per cent. “Early detection can save your life,” she says.

Despite many setbacks over the years – chronic back pain, burn-out from the pressures of touring and fame, miscarriages – Kelly, a mother of two boys, has just returned to the studio to release a new crowd-funded album, Grace & Kelly.

With the music industry in flux, she says this latest chapter in her career was made possible by embracing social media, which brought her closer than ever to her loyal fans. The Arklow gig is one in a series organised by fans around Europe.

“The concert is a nice occasion to go to Ireland and spend a few days there.”

The story of the Kelly Family is an irresistible showbiz tale. Patricia was born in Gamonal in the Spanish province of Toledo in 1969 and, with her siblings, spent her early years moving around Europe with their restless Irish-American father, Daniel.

Patricia holds an Irish passport, lives in western Germany, is married to a Russian and speaks five languages, including English with a slight New York twang.

The older children began performing in 1974 as the Kelly Kids. Living in the Basque country in the dying days of the Franco regime, they were caught up in the region’s Celtic revival.

Fate struck in Rome in 1976 when, robbed of their passports and valuables, the Kellys busked on the streets to earn their fare home. From the enthusiastic reaction, the Kelly Family band was born. In 1980, Who’ll Come with Me went to No 1 in the Netherlands and Belgium. It was the first in a series of hit singles and albums.

Divided opinion

Although their music and Celtic appearance have always sharply divided opinion, the Kelly Family became one of the biggest acts in continental Europe in the 1990s. But endless touring and a devoted, occasionally obsessive fan base eventually took their toll.

The Kellys used their Irish heritage as their unique selling point – something she is aware made Irish people wary of them.

“I’m never going to be 100 per cent Irish, but I’ve always felt very welcome there,” she says. “We lived in five or six countries on two continents and, while I’m very grateful [for the life] our parents gave us, it has its disadvantages too.”

Ireland never really embraced the Kellys (they were dismissed as “bloody Americans” after a 1970s Late Late Show appearance). That eventually proved a blessing in disguise, offering them a getaway from the pressures of fame in the 1990s. Patricia lived for several years alone in Killarney. She still remembers the time there as a “dream”. She would like to retire there.

“I just loved the people, the positive attitude, that people say hi even if you don’t know each other,” she says. “Even with the changes in the last years, when I go to Ireland I have the impression that things – in particular the people – have changed less than elsewhere.”

Her mother was pregnant when she was diagnosed with cancer. She refused chemotherapy to save her unborn child. Despite a double mastectomy, doctors were unable to save her. “There weren’t the same prevention measures you have today back then. When women went to the doctor it was usually too late,” says Patricia.

When cancer struck her in 2010, Kelly’s first reaction was fear. “I was dead afraid, but I soon learned that, thank God, things have changed since my mom died. Nowadays breast cancer is one of the most curable cancers around.”

Complications of fame

Her fear and her fame complicated matters. For the first 18 months she told no one she was in treatment, even after she had a breast removed. When the tabloid Bild found out, Kelly chose to go public. It was a liberating experience, she says, and her fame – which she had always been ambivalent about – became a force of good.

“People who have a name have the power to go out and tell women to go check themselves,” she says.

Kelly’s cancer diagnosis has seen her become a prominent ambassador for regular checks – and for a German cancer research charity.

“The mastectomy was scary, but it wasn’t that bad in the end,” she says. “The human being is capable of surviving more than you’d think.”

These days she keeps one eye on her health and the other watching Germany’s growing migration crisis. After accepting 1.1 million asylum seekers last year, the welcoming mood in Germany has fallen away dramatically. Many Germans are concerned about how the country can master the challenges ahead.

“I think fear is natural,” she says. “It’s a very healthy thing that helps protect what you have. But we cannot let fear decide for us.”

What bothers her most, she says, are the emotive black-and-white assertions in what is a complex, grey issue. As Germany faces into uncertain years, Kelly’s hope is that its citizens will accept that not all crises can be planned for.

“Germans are very detail-oriented. That is why they invented the motor. That is their nature, but perhaps they need to learn to become a bit more flexible.”

Do they perhaps need to become a bit more Irish in their approach to life?

“Well, you have to leave space for spontaneity in life, but perhaps we Irish are a little too flexible,” she jokes.

Her concern over the migration crisis is perhaps no surprise, given that her own family has been on the move since her great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland 150 years ago.

“Europe has to accept that it has always changed and always will,” she says. “I am a child of emigrants. Hunger forced my great-grandfather to leave on a boat. If he had stayed, I’d probably not be here today.”

  • Patricia Kelly performs at the Arklow Bay Hotel on March 10th in aid of the Purple House Cancer Support charity in Bray. Tickets are €20 (€15 concession; children under six free), available from the hotel by phone (086-3598854/086-4013473) or email, danyeire80@yahoo.com
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