Ahead of his concert in Abu Dhabi, the British superstar shared his soul.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine male pop stars threatening to beat each other up, let alone at an award show. Toxic masculinity sounds so nineties, and a poster boy for that period was the British singer Robbie Williams – it was Oasis’ frontman Liam Gallagher he challenged to a fight, after all. The offspring – Bad Bunny, Charlie Puth or Harry Styles – offer a new take on the male singer. When FACT caught up with the star ahead of his Abu Dhabi concert on 18 October, however, we found that Robbie had also gone through a transformation from the Bad Boy of Pop to the Man with a Mental Health Mission.
We spoke to Robbie from Switzerland over video call – à la John Lennon and Yoko Ono – he was in bed. Catching him from the torso up, he accessorised his famous tattoos with a gold necklace. The let’s-bare-everything approach set the tone, as he talked openly about music, marriage and mental health.
The British singer – full name Robert Peter Williams – is Stoke-on-Trent’s most famous son. His mum was a florist and his dad ran a pub. He recalls: “Music was epically important to me. It was the only thing as a preteen and teenager which you could own. You don’t have a lot of autonomy when it comes to your parents, so you had this time machine and a feeling generator that was accessible just by the touch of a button.”
In 1990, Robbie rose to fame in the boyband Take That. When he left the group, he also left fans in tears. While everyone thought that lead singer and songwriter, Gary Barlow, was set for success, Robbie rewrote the musical rulebook. In 1996, he released his first solo single, a symbolic cover of George Michael’s Freedom. He scored hit after hit with his songwriter and producing partner, Guy Chambers. As a result, he is one of the UK’s most successful artists: he sold 75 million records and notched up six UK number one singles, from the heartfelt Eternity to the humorous Millennium.
When he looks back at his 25 years and counting career, he is more famous as an entertainer rather than songwriter. He persistently pokes fun at this larger-than-life personality, from dressing up in full KISS make-up to calling an album, The Ego Has Landed. He shared: “I’ve always tried my best, sometimes successfully and sometimes not successfully to do the opposite of moon, dune and spoon. I’ve always wanted to present myself as, “I do pop”, but I always wanted my pop to be slightly different and unhinged.”
“I get my inspiration from a compulsion to express myself, and talk about what is going on for me – my lack of self-worth, my poor mental health or the way I am dealing with being a human on the planet. I don’t know why that is but I am compelled to do it. I suppose it’s a healthy dose of narcissism and a creative streak, and it gives me purpose.”
Given that Robbie doesn’t shy away from sharing his soul, he has never shared his political beliefs. On the day of our interview, British rock and roll legend Elton John has criticised the UK’s immigration policy. Should we leave politics up to the politicians? He answered: “I think it’s down to the individual. The hill that I will die on is your right to present yourself in whatever way you want to present yourself. At the same time, it gives me the ick when people do it. Just because you’re allowed to do that, doesn’t mean I like it when you do.”
“My role is to bring a smile to the mind. That’s what I am trying to transmit. For me to put a mark in the sand and present myself as the bastion of anything would be hypocritical. I have no burning agenda to get involved with social commentary. I have a burning agenda and empathy with people struggling with the space between their ears.”
Despite being famous, there is an everyman quality to Robbie. He is someone people want to watch in sell out stadiums (375,000 at Knebworth, England), and have a pint with down the pub (well, a non-alcoholic one). He has gone from London lad about town to wellness Los Angeles husband and dad of four, and been sober for more than twenty years.
He talks about mental health in a refreshingly, relaxed way, which isn’t normal for men of his generation, especially stiff upper lip British ones. His Instagram has #nofilter, and includes David Shrigley-style scribbles and statements: “Sorry about all the things I said when I was trying to figure out how to talk to people that intimidate me”. So, we asked, are you okay, Rob?
“There is a dark sense of humour attached to mental health. When you pair them with the caption, they become different. I put up a funny image and I talk about the real thing behind the dark comedy,” he laughed. “Some people see it as a long cry for help, but it’s not. It was meant to be for likeminded people. Yes, this is tough, but let’s laugh at it. It’s all about the nuance and context. Some laugh and some worry. I’m okay, I’m more than okay. I’m having a great time.”
Robbie describes this period as his third act. He has a special relationship with the UAE, as he played a gamechanger gig here in 2006 to 16,000 people, which encouraged acts to leave their mark in the sand. There is talk of a Las Vegas-style residency in Dubai. Plus, at the upcoming concert in Abu Dhabi, audiences can expect “an entertainer trying to entertain them and facilitate a transformative feeling.”
Part of that finale includes a Netflix documentary, which he confirmed for the first time is aptly titled, Robbie Williams. He revealed: “I have been filmed on camera and offstage since I was 16 years old by lots of different people. It follows my life, from the beginning to now. There are 11,000 hours of unseen footage.”
He turns 50 years old in 2024 and isn’t big on celebrations. He reflected: “I’ve been so lucky in this lifetime. Every day I inhabit a body and a place and houses that would and should have never been afforded to me. Every day is a celebration.”
Let him entertain you – watch a magnificent performer, and more magnificent mind.
GO: Visit https://robbiewilliams.com for more information.