Great Ball of Fire

~ 31/07/1994~

 Showbiz Exclusive by Billy Sloan

Michael Ball has never been a gambling man, but he is willing to bet every penny of his vast record royalties that America's most notorious theatre critic will NEVER forget the sound of his silky smooth voice.  

When Michael made his Broadway debut as the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical, Aspects of Love , the show got a unanimous thumbs-up from the fans.

But it got a merciless thumbs-down from New York's most hated theatre critic - Frank Rich, the Butcher of Broadway.

He wrote a scathing two-page review of Aspects and ritually slaughtered Lloyd Webber's now legendary show.

Poor Michael was singled out for some real vitriol. "The review was incredible," he recalled. "Even though we were playing to packed houses, Rich really put the boot in. And I got it in the neck. He said I sounded like a member of the Van Trapp family from The Sound of Music . It hurt. I wanted to bomb him.  But revenge was sweet. Andrew bought a race horse and when the stable said 'What do you want to call it?' , he replied 'Call it Frank Rich'. It's a real donkey and it's never won a race." 

Now Michael doesn't lose any sleep over what the critics say about his singing. For the 32-year-old Londoner has become a sex symbol to millions of adoring women who find his hunky good looks and velvet voice simply irresistable.

Michael was in Scotland his week for a hectic whistle-stop tour to launch his latest single, From Here to Eternity - a track from his new pop album One Careful Owner . When he arrived in Glasgow, Michael was ambushed by a posse of female fans all clutching autograph books and cameras. But the easy-going singer takes this adulation in his stride. 'I had no idea this would go through the roof,' he said. "But when success comes along, you just go for it. Since I appeared in the West End, I've got used to people hanging around outside the stage door. And the more exposure I've got, the bigger my fan club has become. And of course, most of the members are women. But I don't take this sex symbol lark seriously at all. How can you? I've had girls hiding in my hotel bedroom, and following me around in cars. The usual stuff. Most of my fans are very respectful, kind and know what the limit is. There are a couple who go over the top, and I have to sort them out. It's hard to fathom. I've never been in the position where I've been so keen on some girl I'd wanted to get into her life and take it over. I always try to be polite and respectful - as long as people are polite and respectful towards me. If they're not, I'll soon let them know. But there is fantasy and reality and my reality is at home. I switch off from my public image as soon as I walk back through my front door."

The former £95-a-week unknown actor hit the headlines when he represented Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1992. He now drives a top of the range £40 000 Porsche convertible, and rakes in a small fortune in royalties from hit songs such as Love Changes Everything .  Next week, his new TV series hits the small screen. In the show, Michael will perform alongside musical legends like Joe  Cocker, Erasure, Tony Bennett, Lulu, Montserrat Caballe, Julio Iglesias, Shirley Bassey and Cher.

While recording the show, Michael performed with Cher and, halfway though their song, he grabbed the shapely superstar and hoisted her up into the air. "Cher screamed at me to put her down," recalled Michael, "because she had NO KNICKERS ON . She didn't want everyone to see up her dress !"

But if Michael is adored by millions of women, he only as eyes for one girl - gorgeous TV presenter Cathy McGowan. Michael met Cathy - the ex-wife of actor Hywel Bennett, and the former hostess of the 60s TV show Ready Steady Go - when she interviewed him for a magazine.  The pair have lived together for the past five years. And Michael has the perfect recipe for a happy showbiz "marriage". DON'T GET WED! "People say, 'When are you going to settle down and get married?' he explained. "But I AM settled down. Cathy and I have NO plans to marry. We don't see the necessity for it. We're very happy as we are. We moved house recently and we don't seem to get much time off. But when we do, we like to go down to our little cottage in the country or else mess around on our boat.

"Cathy takes care of me, and helps organise my life. That's her priority." In the 60s when Cathy presented Ready Steady Go , she rubbed shoulders with supergroups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five. She was crowned Queen of the Mods and became an icon to millions of teenage girls who carefully copied her straight, black hairstyle and figure-hugging mini-dresses. Now Cathy is always on hand to offer advice - or criticism - to her musical partner. "Cathy is thrilled that everything seems to be happening for me," added Michael. "I value her opinion probably above anybody else's. And she's completely straight with me. She'll listen to something and if she doesn't like it, she'll let me know. She doesn't spare my feelings. She tells me exactly what she thinks, whether it's good or bad. I wouldn't want it any other way."

Despite the enormous demands of his recording career and his new TV series, Michael would still like to return to the theatre - in London's West End or Broadway. And he'd relish the proposition of working with Lloyd Webber again.  "Andrew is very much a hands-on guy," he said. "So there is a lot of pressure involved in working with him. But that's only because he's a perfectionist. And so am I. We both wanted Aspects of Love to be as good as possible. In the final weeks of rehearsals, that cast would arrive in the morning to find he'd written 10 new changes and thrown in a brand new song. Right up until opening night, he was changing things as he went along. He can be very tough, and incredibly powerful. But that's what makes Andrew such a successful guy."  When Michael starred in Lloyd Webber's other smash hit musical, Phantom of the Opera , he made some changes of his own. Joked Michael: "I'm terrible for playing tricks on other members of the cast. So during one performance of Phantom I stuck on a hairy chest wig, false moustache, medallion and fake teeth. I looked horrendous. As the Phantom and Christine sang All I ask of you , I sailed off in the background in a gondola clutching a Walls Cornetto ice-cream cone. It melted all over my hand! Then it came to the one line I had to sing, 'Say the word and I will follow you.' But I couldn't do it for laughing. Later, some friends popped backstage to see me. One of my mates said: 'The emotion in the final scene was extraordinary. You were wonderful.' I couldn't believe it. If only they knew!"

Transcribed by Julia Sedat


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