by Katherine Hassell - 31/03/09 ~
The star of musicals Aspects of Love and the current production of Hairspray tells Katherine Hassell how the enduring relationship with his partner Cathy McGowan saved him from self-destruction
Michael Ball can't believe how time has flown. Sinking in to a brown leather recliner armchair, munching on a juicy pear, the 46-year-old singer shakes his head.
“Twenty-five years in the business,” he sighs. “It doesn't seem right. But it's a milestone worth celebrating.
“I always wanted to be on stage, but as a child, it never occurred to me that I could do it for a living. God knows I couldn't have got a job doing anything else – I muddled through school. What excited me was theatre.”
His first job was playing Judas and John the Baptist in Godspell at Aberystwyth's Theatr y Werin.
“It was bliss. I couldn't believe I was being paid to do something I would've done for nothing ... although I wasn't paid much!” he laughs.
Getting into drag
Fast-forward a quarter of a century and Michael admits he has never been as happy as he is today. We are chatting in his dressing room at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. A glittering red dress hangs in the corner – evidence of his latest cross-dressing turn as agoraphobic mum Edna Turnblad in the hit West End musical Hairspray .
He admits that getting into women's clothes – that long-standing theatrical tradition – has given him two of the best years of his life. In fact, his transformation is so convincing it won him an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Another slap on the back came by chance, early on in the show's run, when fans demanded refunds at the interval, when they were convinced Michael wasn't in the cast. He had to be pointed out as the tall one in size 10 heels and a 54EEE false bosom.
The show has had such an impact, Michael can hardly bring himself to think about leaving on 25 July, after which he'll prepare for a national singing tour in September. “ Hairspray is my favourite musical ever. Who'd have thought a housewife from Baltimore would be my soulmate?” he says.
Interestingly, John Travolta – who played Edna in the 2007 film Hairspray – was a teenage inspiration for the boy who was born Michael Ashley Ball in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in 1962.
“I was at sixth form college when Grease was released and every Thursday afternoon for about 14 weeks, a load of us would bunk off to go and watch it. I thought he was the coolest guy on Earth!”
By then, Michael was performing with Surrey Youth Theatre, which led to drama school ... but no singing lessons. He learnt by singing along to songs in his mother Ruth's record collection, featuring Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
“‘I'll tell you what I am proudest of in my career, muses the man who has sung with James Brown, Ray Charles and Dusty Springfield, represented his country in the Eurovision Song Contest, stepped into Michael Parkinson's shoes on Radio 2 and has a clutch of gold discs for his 19 albums.
“I'm proudest of what has happened in the last two years. To rejuvenate this theatre, to have won the Olivier Award ... and still to be making records.”
The possible dream
His latest is a compilation of hits and favourites, Past & Present , including Sunset Boulevard, The Impossible Dream and Empty Chairs and Empty Tables from Les Misérables . He made his West End début in the latter, after theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh spotted him in Pirates of Penzance .
“I'm really proud of it,” Michael grins, revealing his famous dimples. “Record companies are loath to spend money making records these days, but they gave me Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles recorded, a 75-piece orchestra and 25 backing singers! I felt like the Fab One.”
Asked to choose the song that means most to him, he struggles. “They're all my babies; every song represents a memory, but If Tomorrow Never Comes is special. It's mine and Cathy's song.”
Michael's partner, Cathy McGowan, presenter of the 1960s music show Ready Steady Go! – entered his life courtesy of another song on the CD, Love Changes Everything from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Aspects of Love . Cathy was sent to interview him in 1989 for Newsroom South East .
“We couldn't stop talking and laughing,” he recalls. “We did the interview and she contrived to do another three! Since then, we've probably spoken every day of our lives.”
Michael credits Cathy with turning his life around. Before they met, he could be self-destructive. She also saved his life in 2000 when an electrical fault sparked a fire at their home. His adoration is clear when you listen to Just When , also on the CD, which Michael wrote for the love of his life.
Just when my body felt broken and bruised, nothing could ease all the pain. Just when my whole world was falling apart, you put me together again ...
When she first heard the song, Cathy was embarrassed, but thrilled. “She's the centre of my world,” he says. “And I really don't think I could have had a relationship as profound as this with anyone but her. I think it's a lovely song – not a grand, over-blown thing, but very personal. I wish I'd written more. It's very exposing though and you don't want to write anything naff. What you say has to be worth saying.”
Cathy has chosen to shy away from the limelight in recent years. “She's the most far removed of anyone who wants to be a celebrity in the world; she's just not interested,” says Michael. “She's been there, done it and is not remotely interested in going back.”
The real Michael, underneath his stage costumes, has a similarly healthy attitude towards fame.
“I'm a homebody,” he nods. “I don't like going out much. I have a highpressured job that takes me round this country and abroad, so home time is precious. You won't find me having a photo shoot at my house. I'm very protective of home, always have been. That's my bubble.
“I love to open a bottle of wine, watch telly – I love movies – and stroke the dogs. We have two ... where are my boys?”
He jumps up to find a photograph. “This is them – Ollie and Freddie. They're Tibetan Terriers and gorgeous. I love taking them out in Richmond Park or on the beach. And we get the grandkids over ... ”
Bosom of the family
Michael looks proudly at shots of his step-daughter Emma's children.
“Connor will be 10 in April and Gracie's seven. They call me Ball-y.”
And what do they think of Ball-y wearing a dress? He grins. “They think it's the best thing ever – they howl, especially when I show them my boobs, which are as big as their heads! They're lovely, well-behaved, beautiful kids. Not showy at all.”
And they know how to keep his feet firmly on the floor. “When I sing at home, Grace is like ... ” Michael jams his hands over his ears. “A lot of teasing goes on. They do it to wind me up. I say, ‘Shut up, I've met the Queen, she loves me!'” He giggles. “They're proud to bits, though. I catch them watching my DVDs when they don't think I'm around!”
Music to Your Ears
- Past & Present: The Very Best of Michael Ball (Universal Music, £8.95), which includes The Impossible Dream, Stranger in Paradise, This is my Beloved (Kismet), Love Changes Everything, You Can't Stop the Beat (Hairspray) is out now.
We have 10 copies to give away. Send your name and address to: The Very Best of Michael Ball Offer, The Lady , 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER by 24 April 2009.
- Hairspray is at Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2 (020-7379 5399).