Rosemary Conley Magazine
In the Kitchen with Michael Ball
"I love cooking for friends, it's another form of entertaining, it's my therapy"
Sensationally successful singing star Michael Ball is a sex symbol to millions of women - but he still sees himself as "the fat boy in the class". He talks to Rosie Jones.
As a schoolboy, Michael Ball hated exercise so much that he pretended he had a heart condition to get out of cross-country running! Now he's so passionate about it that he lsts "Keeping fit" as one of his recreations in his Debrett's People of Today entry.
Michael howls with laughter at the memory. "I was desperate to get out of running, so I made myself hyperventilate in front of the sports master, just managing to gasp out that I wasn't allowed to run because of my heart. It worked! I never had to do cross-country at all that term. Later, I invented a musical appreciation society which I said I had to attend so that I could avoid other sports." No surprise that after school he decided he wanted to be an actor, then, he admits: "I suspect I hated sports so much because I wasn't the best at it - I don't like doing anything I'm not the best at. I was always the fat boy in class, and that's how I still see myself." Pardon? Surely some mistake. Is this not the Michael Ball singing star regularly mobbed by armies of adoring fans? It is. But Michael just can't see it himself.
He says: "I see myself as a fat person. I've battled with my weight for most of my life. It's been constantly up and down. I can put on a stone in a month, no trouble at all! Even looking at photographs of myself at my slimmest and fittest, I literally don't recognise myself. I think, 'that can't be me.' I can totally relate to people such as anorexics, who have a distorted self-image."
But this isn't a sad story, because now he's got his weight under control, and in perspective, after years of battling with his body. He is 5 ft 11in tall and weighs 13st 7lb. He has a 34 inch waist an takes 42 or 44 in a jacket. he says: "I'd still like to weigh half a stone less than I do, but now I know how to get fit these days. I finally realised that the only way to be in control of my weight is to be physically fit and watch what I eat."
Michasel is, in fact, full of the joys of spring, despite suffering from a streaming had cold he caught while looking after his mother when she had flu. His new album, The Movies, had just gone platinum, having sold more than 300,000 copies, and he'd just learned he'd been named as the Royal Variety Club of Great Britain's Recording Artiste of the Year. "I am so, so chuffed," he enthuses. It is impossible not to feel thrilled for him, because he is one of the least "starry" stars around and has also just volunteered to make yet more coffee - of which he freely admits he drinks far too much.
Michael, 33, says: "I must admit that my approach to fitness tends to be cyclical. When I'm not working I like to party hard. I put on some weight, then I'll do a blitz do shift it. PI put on quite a bit making the album. What happens is that you're in a dark studio for hours on end. You never see daylight, so people bring you things, all the bad comfort things - pizzas, curries, chocolates, pints of beer. And if I can't decide what to do in a song I think, 'I'd better have a Mars bar, that'll do it for me.' then you get home in the early hours, tired but not sleepy, slump in front of the TV and you snack. You put on weight. Then you have to do promotion for the album an you think, 'Oh God, I've got the photos to do now! Panic!'
"And now I have to be fit again because I'm touring the UK from the end of March through April, and I love my work so much as I can. My show is very physical, with lots of dancing, lots of rock and roll. Before when I toured, I'd convinced myself that the best thing was to conserve more energy and do nothing but the show each day. Now, I enjoy the benefits of exercise. It gives me lots more energy and stamina.
"So I make a conscious decision. I become vile at home (he lives with former TV presenter Cathy McGowan in south west London), but I can't blame anyone else, because I do all the cooking! I stop drinking for a month. Beer is a biggie for me - I love a couple of pints. I eat low fat, starting with a big healthy breakfast, and then I go to the gym for a couple of hours. I go four or five times a week and do 20 minutes on the bike, 20 minutes running, using the heart monitor, and then lots of stretching exercises. In some I'm like a ballet dancer, and in others I'm like a 90-year-old! Then I'll have a steam and a relax and think about ways I can treat myself for being so good! I enjoy it. It's essential to enjoy exercise. It's no good punishing yourself, which is what I used to do. I'd go on a starvation diet, go mad and over-exercise, lose the weight, then watch it pile back on.
"The best I ever looked was when I was doing Passion in London's West End three years ago. It opens with me bonking on stage, and if you are going to be seen with very few clothes on eight nights a week, you don't want wobbly bits." he says roaring with laughter.
Michael, who has sold millions of records, starred in smash musicals such as Aspects of Love and Les Misérables, as well as hosting his own TV shows, is so often recognised and stopped in the street that he frequently resorts to disguise. Sometimes just a hat and a different facial expression will do it. Today he is sporting a pair of square black-rimmed spectacles, but the glass is clear! "I love'em. I bought them in Carnaby Street when I realised a large number of people were about to pounce on me. They make me unrecognisable don't you think?" Up to a point, Michael.
He is passionate about his career. And he is dedicated to the work he does for his charity , Research into Ovarian Cancer (ROC). He helped set it up six years ago, after Cathy's sister-in-law died from ovarian cancer. And he has recently lost a dear friend, the actress Mary Miller who played Rose in Keeping up Appearances, to the illness too. He says: "They call it the silent killer because it's hard to detect in its early stages when treatment is 98 per cent effective. It's not picked up in smear test, and most women only find out they've got it when it's too late and it has spread out of the ovaries. We raised 40,000 for the charity with one concert at the Drury Lane, In six years, we've raised one million pounds, which is helping to fund a research project involving 120,000 female volunteers, but there is still so much to do."
But when he's not working he switches off completely and then he's passionate about his second home (on the coast, near Chichester), cooking, Delia Smith and Aga cookers!
"Cooking is my therapy. I do all the cooking at home and I cook just about every day. I love all food and I love making food for friends, it's another form of entertaining. There's that same satisfaction of producing something that people can relish. I very much believe in the family meal where we sit down together, lay a nice table, switch off the TV and catch up." At the moment, Michael is cooking for four, as Cathy's daughter, Emma, who is expecting a baby, and her husband Dean are living with them while they find a new place for their own.
"I used to be just a basic cook, and then one year Cathy gave up buying ready-made meals from M&S for Lent and I took over all the cooking. I started by following Delia, God bless her! She gets slagged off, but her recipes always, always work. Now there is no holding me. My roast potatoes cannot be beaten, I do a triumphant crispy duck and watercress salad, and my banoffi pie is an art form!" Sounds fab, when can we all come for dinner?
Breakfast sounds pretty good, too, because most mornings Michael makes his own breakfast muffins! "They only take 20 minutes in the Aga, and this delicious smell fills the house." Michael only ever cooks with an Aga. "The truth is they are brilliant. At our house in the country I chose the Aga first - in racing green - and then had the kitchen and conservatory designed around it. Honestly. It's the very centre of our home there. That house is my joy!"
Once Michael's passion for food did aggravate his only health problem - peptic ulcers. "I was a curry freak and it would set them off. Some mornings I'd wake up and find my voice had gone because the acid would reflux and burn my vocal chords! I had to sleep with my legs lower than my body to ease it. Stress made the ulcers worse too. They haven't been a problem for ages. And I've cut down on the curry."
And at Christmas he found himself pursuing the cookery writer Nigelia Lawson through a London department store in an attempt to get her to autograph her book for him. "I asked her to sign it 'to Michael and Cathy' and add the PS 'Cathy, will you please learn to use this'. I don't think she recognised me, but she did it." You suspect that the PS was redundant, as Cathy's chances of getting anywhere near the Aga must be remote.
At the end of our photo session, Michael, who has battled through by chomping cough sweets and flu remedies, asks the photographer: "Could there be an easier person than me to work with?" He knows the answer.