Joined by a host of stars
Michael Ball helps children's dreams come true in Lapland
~ Hello Magazin issue 950 - 02/01/2007 ~
"The children's laughter and their singing around the fire are memories I'll always carry with me"
Christmas exerts a powerful emotional pull on musical star Michael Ball and he usually spends the holiday with his long-term partner Cathy McGowan and their extended family. But last year in New York, where he was performing in The Woman in White, it failed to live up to expectations as he and Cathy were without their nearest and dearest. "I only had Christmas Day off and, although I usually cook Christmas lunch, we had to eat in a restaurant," he recalls. "It was miserable."
The singer said the experience left him "bereft of seasonal joy", so this year he is determined things will be different. Michael who has starred in a host of Broadway and West End shows including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, doesn't have children of his own, but 1960s style icon and TV presenter Cathy has a daughter, Emma, by her ex-husband Hywel Bennett.
"Not having kids has never been a regret for me," says Michael who has been given the nickname Ballsy by Emma's two children, Connor, seven, and Grace, four. "I'm surrounded by them - I have Emma's, and my sister Katherine' and brother Kevin also have kids. They're my family."
For 44-year-old Michael, Christmas means kids: "Watching their faces, relishing the pleasure you can give them, the magic and the joy. The trip I've just returned from was all about that - and, yes, a tear or two."
The singer has just come back from Finnish Lapland after accompanying 87 children with life-threatening illnesses to meet Santa Claus and his reindeer. The trip was organised by Stockport-based charity When You Wish Upon A Star, which makes dozens o wishes come true for sick children every year, and it's an annual event that Michael was keen to be a part of.
"I met people from the charity when I was doing a concert," he explains. "I talked to them for ages and said, 'If there's anything I can do to help just give me a ring.' Then they asked if I'd like to come with them on this trip. I feel really honoured that I've been able to do so, but there were moments when I found it heart-breaking."
He admits that it has been one of his lifetime's ambitions to visit Lapland at Christmas in the company of children. "I think if you're going to visit the real Father Christmas in Lapland, then it should be through the eyes of kids.
"The children I went with were very ill and I think that the trip was as important for their parents. To see their kids having a moment of proper childhood, away from hospitals and injections, was just fabulous for them."
The trip began when Michael and the families were joined at Manchester Airport by other celebrities, including The X Factor boy band Eton Road and Coronations Street stars Wendi Peters, Nikki Sanderson, Danny Young and Helen Flannagan.
After a three-hour flight, everyone traveled through the Enchanted Forest on husky-pulled sleds and motorised snow mobiles to get to Santa's Village. When they got there, the children boarded reindeer sleighs for the most emotional part of the day - meeting Santa and Rudolph.
"It was humbling to see these kids sitting on his lap and telling him how much they'd been looking forward to meeting him," recalls Michael. "There was a boy of 14 who, because of growth problems stemming from a brain tumour, only looked about nine years old. But he was the brightest, wittiest, wisest little soul I've ever met. Then there was little Emily, who was in a wheelchair - she took a shine to me and was my girlfriend for the day.
"These were kids with very special needs. We all moan about our lives, but there wasn't a single moan from these kids all day long. Their smiles and laughter, and their singing around the campfire, are memories I'll always carry with me. I wouldn't have missed their company for the world.
"I was a child again, but then I'm really just a big kid when it comes to Christmas. I was brought up in a big family in Warwickshire, where we always had amazing Christmases."
Michael confesses that some of his most cherished memories stem from these times. "Mind you, Mum did everything - the cooking, tidying up, washing up," he laughs, "And she wouldn't have it any other way. We had a family tradition where we could open one present after church on Christmas Eve, and then no one could open the rest until we were all around the tree in the morning. And now Connor and Grace have exactly the same tradition."
After Christmas, it's back to work, with a schedule including judging on ITV1's Soapstar Superstar in January, a UK tour in March and the ENO' s West End production of Kismet in June.
"I'm lucky - I've got a lot to look forward to," he reflects, "but the future for many of the children I went to Lapland is uncertain. But I think the joy the trip has given them will sustain them more than anything else. One little chap told us on the way home, 'This was the best day of my life.' How do you top that?"
Interview: Ian Woodward
Photos: Kip Carroll
Co-ordination: Marquesa de Varela Intl Ltd.
When You Wish Upon A Star, tel: 0161 - 477 7277 . visit: www.whenyouwishuponastar.org.uk