I quit smoking when it almost ruined my voice

~ Cheryl Stonehouse for - 08/03/2011 ~

MICHAEL BALL, 48, built an international music career on his wonderful singing despite being a heavy smoker for more than 30 years. Here he describes what finally helped him kick the habit...

LAYING on Broadway has to be every stage performer’s dream. Yet when I was offered the chance to take my role as Count Fosco in The Woman In White to New York my biggest concern was whether they would let me smoke in the dressing room. There is a kind of arrogance or maybe it’s a kind of bloody-mindedness that goes hand in hand with smoking.

I hope most people who know me would say I’m no prima donna and I have never gone about making ridiculous demands but I do look back at my 30 years as a smoker and cringe at the way I behaved to make sure I got my fix. I can hardly believe it now but on Broadway I actually said to the theatre manager, “well, if I can’t smoke you’ll just have to fire me”.

For the entire run I sat in my windowless dressing room chain-smoking and the place stank. This, in New York, where smoking is almost as dreadful as shoplifting. It took a pact with my stepdaughter Emma, also a heavy smoker, to kick the habit for good and put my health and hers back on the road to recovery.

I have done all the bad things smokers do. I have booked into no-smoking hotel rooms and put shower caps over the smoke detectors. I have smoked when I had horrible chest infections even though my lungs and vocal cords were my living. My manager Phil Bowdery, who is vehemently anti-smoking, would throw his hands up in despair and say, “you know what you’re doing to your talent. You know it can only get worse”. He was right of course.

Yet the one thing any smoker or ex-smoker knows for sure is that being lectured doesn’t help one bit. In my early-40s I began to see some worrying effects on my health. I was increasingly unable to reach some higher notes at all and my feet itched and throbbed because my circulation was so poor. It was killing my stamina and that was no good for a career that depends on being able to perform live for up to three hours on stage eight times a week. I was catching every passing bug and every cold went straight to my chest.

There was a day when I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “now you’re starting to look like a smoker. Anyone who sees that complexion will know the dull grey skin comes out of a fag packet”. Emma was 16 when I first met her mother Cathy (the Sixties Ready Steady Go! presenter Cathy McGowan). Some years later Emma owned up to being a smoker herself and we would smoke together. Cathy would sometimes have to leave the room to get a bit of air. I have just recorded a new album called Heroes which includes some of my favourite classics by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Scott Walker and the difference in my voice after four years without a cigarette amazes me. I get very cross when I think how much better I could have been singing through my 30s.

I’d been smoking since I was 12. It was in 2000, not long after Emma’s first child Connor, who is also my godson, was born that I began trying to stop. I tried reading Allen Carr’s book Easy Way To Stop Smoking and that worked for a few months until I started saying to myself “I can have just one” and then, “I can have just one more” usually when I was having a glass of wine. After that I tried Zyban, the medication that for some takes away the craving for cigarettes, and then hypnotism but they didn’t do it for me.

Eventually Emma and I went to an Allen Carr face-to-face session and both of us stopped that day. About two weeks later I thought I was weakening so I went back for a top-up session. That was about five years ago.

I HAVE never looked back. Not so much as a crafty puff. Neither has Emma and we have both made her mother happy. The health benefits have been enormous. This winter when I’ve been turning up for shows to find half a dozen people are off with flu I’ve been amazed I haven’t picked up anything. Eight shows a week are a pretty good workout anyway but I also take my vitamins and eat good food. Perhaps too much, because the downside of not smoking has been putting on weight.

Fortunately I’m playing the 20st Edna Turnblad in Hairspray so I almost have a contractual obligation to be well-upholstered to give the fat suit a helping hand. At least that’s what I like to tell myself. I would like to drop a few pounds when I play the much slimmer Sweeney Todd later this year in Chichester. Even carrying a few extra pounds is worth it for the return of my health. My circulation is better, my skin looks alive and I have bags of energy.

When you’ve been a smoker for more than 30 years you have to be philosophical about whether all the damage you’ve done will catch up with you one day. Even so there is nothing that could ever make me wake up one day and think, “Oh, I do wish I hadn’t given up smoking”. It’s like being released from prison. I’m not one of those ex-smokers who hates being around smokers now.

All I ever do say if the opportunity arises is no matter how many times you’ve tried to stop before it’s always worth one more try to see whether this is the one that works for you. For every cigarette you manage not to smoke your health will thank you.

Michael Ball’s album Heroes is released this month. He is starring in Hairspray in Nottingham and at the New Wimbledon Theatre in March, in Aberdeen in March and April, and also in Bristol in April.

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