ROBBIE WILLIAMS is sitting alone in a sprawling hotel suite at Crown Towers, almost 40 stories above the Melbourne skyline. “It’s as if Scrooge McDuck in the ’80s had a hotel suite of his own,” says Williams, admiring the stunning view and the sheer size of the blank TV that reflects his silhouette. It’s 8.30 on a Thursday night. A half-eaten plate of sushi sits in front of him, alongside a giant platter of oranges.
Williams is two days out from cancelling a concert and going into self-isolation due to COVID-19. Just like the rest of us, he’ll try his best to shield himself and loved ones from an invisible, indiscriminate menace. It’s unchartered territory for everybody but it’s perhaps a particularly novel experience for Williams, a man more used to grappling with a formidable collection of internal demons – depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drugs, body dysmorphia, sex addiction and agoraphobia – that have haunted him throughout his iconic 30-year career. “I’m addicted to anything that changes the way I feel,” he says plainly. “You know, I haven’t had a drink for 20 years. I haven’t done cocaine for a long, long, long time. But I will always drift towards self-sabotage. There’s a magnetic North. And in that magnetic North is just self-destruction.”
And yet here he is, as irrepressible and irreverent as ever. One of the most successful British solo artists of all time with 12 No.1 albums and over 75 million records sold globally, Williams has either beaten or brokered a truce with most of his vices. The one exception and, indeed, the hardest one to combat, is food. But with the help of WW (formerly Weight Watchers), he’s well on the way to reaching a détente with that one, too. “I probably have to live a life that other people will find extreme,” he says, speaking slowly and deliberately. “But not extreme in a bad way. Just like, ‘Okay. A, B and C are making me feel really guilty and full of shame, where I don’t want to go out because I don’t look my best and I don’t want people to see me. So, what am I going to do to guard against feeling like that?’ I look after myself.”
This points-tallying, step-counting version of Williams is something of a revelation. He notched up 13,000 steps today playing 18 holes of golf, he tells me proudly. At first, he was mystified as to why that was 2000 fewer than the previous day before deciding it must have been a reflection of his performance. “I realised I hit it straighter today,” he laughs.
This is what happens to popstars if they get old. If you manage to survive the crucible of super fame and its chorus line of potential saboteurs – decadence, debauchery, self-denial and destruction – you’re going to be transformed. Because Lord knows, when you’ve soared as high and sunk as low as Williams has, if you do make it to the other side, you can’t help but be a better man.
MH: You’re in the best shape of your life. Can you explain to us how you got there?
RW: Well, it’s a process of elimination. Also, unfortunately, it has been a case of progress, not perfection. The progress has been millimetre by millimetre. And then it’s been a case of three steps forward, five steps back on the way to finding some sort of balance. I’m naturally inclined to do extreme things that don’t work to my benefit. You know, slimming pills, restricting what you eat, all of the above. Everything that you can possibly imagine, other than educating yourself properly.
I’ve released 13 albums. At the start, this is how it would run for me. I’d start an album, do the promo and I wouldn’t have eaten anything. So I’m thin. And by the time Christmas comes and I’m three months into it, I’m fat. Then I’d spend the next six months trying to lose the weight that I gained from the previous three months, to varying degrees of success and failure. I just got fucking sick of the cycle of mental torture, shame and guilt.
But I’m 46 and I walked through the horizon. I thought that as a 21-year-old with very low self-esteem, huge depression, no self-worth, that I would walk through the horizon and when I’d get there, everything would be fixed. I’ve come to realise that food is the last thing for me to conquer to actually feel whole and content. I wish that I would have reached this place 15 years ago, but I didn’t. But now, I am here. Today has been a very successful day with what I’ve eaten and hopefully tomorrow will be a very successful day, too.
MH: The way you’re talking about food – day by day and vicious cycles – it sounds like you could be talking about any number of substances. Would you group it with the other things that you’ve struggled with?
RW: Oh, absolutely. I’m an addict. But as a 46-year-old with four children and a wonderful wife, I now have laser-accuracy purpose. Daddy goes to work. Daddy has to be the best version of himself. My wife’s husband has to be loving and caring and not grumpy and miserable, to the best of his ability. There was a person that I always thought that I could be, but it was camouflaged and bogged down underneath so much shit that it was becoming impossible to be that person. As it happens, the person that I always thought I could be, I’m becoming. But fuck me. It’s taken its time. But it’s here now and it’s a blessing and it’s beautiful. It’s just a shame that in my prime and in my pomp, I was just completely and utterly devastated with depression and misery.
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