Wilde about Cumbria

“Cumbria is what I imagine heaven to be like. It looks like an old Constable painting and the first time I came here six years ago I heard a bird sing the sweetest song. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. And the meadowsweet, it smells so wonderful!” Eighties’ pop princess Kim Wilde, a regular visitor to her in-laws’ Lakeland home in the Newlands Valley, near Keswick, talks to Alan Air about fame, love, motherhood and her passion for gardening.

Kim Wilde, the blonde bombshell pop singer who exploded onto the UK chart scene with the synth-driven anthem ‘Kids in America’, twirls a bunch of decorative willow sticks in her hands and confesses: “I was quite anxious in my 30s because I knew  Iwasn’t going to be a pop star for much longer and what does an unemployed pop star do?”

Well, she could have bought an island off Stockholm and stuck up a bold sign declaring ‘Recluse in residence. Keep out!’ – the fate of Abba’s Agnetha, the trembling, Swedish blonde with blue eye shadow who inspired her to become a pop star in the first place. Not our Kim – she loves people and life far too much. So she chose gardening, one of the few passions that inspires and unites the English, the hobby that loosens their inhibitions enough to talk to strangers, the great common denominator.

However, if, like me, you’re old enough to remember Kim as a punky blonde tempterss pouting and preening on Top of the Pops, her lip gloss sexuality and crazy blonde hairstyles perfectly complementing delicious three-minute love songs like ‘Four Letter Word’, ‘You Came’ and ‘Love Is Holy’, the gardening bit – wellies, dirty fingernails, harvesting new potatoes, stoming on slugs – is hard to swallow, Until you meet her in the flesh.

Casually dressed in black cotton trousers, opentoed sandals and a simple white blouse that tantalisingly reveals a hint of cleavage, Kim, still extremely voluptuous in early middle age, wanders between the stalls of the Holker Garden Festival like a regular country girl. With her handsome husband Hal and two-year-old daughter Rose in tow, she comfortably blends into the crowds and my last glimpse of her is sitting at a white plastic tble, laughing with her family and soaking up the sun.

Earlier (during our prearranged meeting inside the Cumbria Life magazine stand at Holker) dead un-glam, dead un-rock ‘n’ roll, but ‘dead’ Kim Wilde circa 2002 – the only time she turns on the ‘star’ quality is when she stands up for our photographer and effortlessly strikes the right pose, shoulders heaving, eyes sparkling, perfect white teeth gleaming in a big generous dazzling smile.

As one of Holker’s two star guests (‘Fat Lady’ Clarissa Dickson Wright is her weightier bookend) Kim admits to infuriating horticultural purists with her recent meteoric rise to fame via the spade and fork. Television programmes like ‘Better Gardens with Carol Vorderman’ have rescued her from the dusty annals of pop history and catapulted her amongst today’s A-list of celebrity gardeners. It is surely only a matter of time before glossy posters of Kim clutching a trowel outnumber yellowing newspaper cuttings of Charlie Dimmock in a low-cut vest hanging inside the country’s allotment sheds. To top it all she now writes for the Guardian.

“Talk about winding everyone up”, she says, throwing her head back and laughing heartily. “Can you believe it? Kim Wilde writing about gardening in the Guardian!”

So her former pop star celebrity status has certainly opened doors? “Definitely”, she agrees, flicking back a strand of hair that keeps falling over her left eye. “I wouldn’t have got Better Gardens if I hadn’t been Kim Wilde and I do understand why it has irritated some garden designers on the show. I’m not a trained garden designer, just someone with lots of ideas, lots of energy and real passion.”

Kim is now studying garden design at college, a far cry from glamorous world tours at the height of her pop success. As a contemporary of Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Kate Bush and Annie Lennox, I wonder whether she fully appreciates just how famous she was in the early to mid-80s? “I know it now but it didn’t seem like it at the time”, she says. “I always felt like a satellite pop star travelling around every other pop star. I don’t know why, maybe because deep down inside I knew that I didn’t want to be a pop star for ever.”

But why not? After all, Madonna is the same age, is still credible and creative, even with a hubby and couple of kids at home – just like Kim. “There came a time in the mid-80s when my career wasn’t progressing (a euphemism for ‘no hits’) and I was frustrated for all sorts of reasons. The turning point came when I opened Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ tour (in 1988) and I got a close-up view of him, a real recluse who didn’t participate in anything or talk to anyone. I looked at all these megastars and they all seemed to be having a horrible time. Yeah, they were all very famous and absolutely loaded but none of them seemed very content and I wanted to be content. That became my goal, not becoming more famous.”

Later, when deranged fans stalked her while performing in the rock opera ‘Tommy’ and her personal safety was threatened, Kim eschewed any last lingering thoughts about pursuing mega-celebrity simply to grab another hit song about love. In any case, she had just found the real thing. Singer and composer Hal Fowler, who she performed alongside in Tommy, took her breath away, she says, a real case of love at first sight. He was the sexiest, most interesting, most dangerous individual she had ever met.

“The kind of guy I always wanted to be with but someone only other girls seemed to get. I never had the guts to go for someone like him”, She reveals. Not that she’d been squeaky clean you understand. “But I was cleanish compared to my girlfriends who were FILTHY!” she laughs. Nor was she insecure about her looks (how could she be?) but because of the inner demons that plague most of us at some time or other.

“I was comfortable with the lipstick, the hair and everything but I wasn’t at peace with myself inside, I worried about how I was perceived”, she explains, waving her willow sticks as she struggles to explain herself. Anyway, being with Hal was something of a coup, she reckons, breaking into a huge smile as she recalls the powerful impression that he made on the cast of Tommy.  “Everyone loved him, the director, Pete Townsend, the singers. And all the girls fancied him!” she says. She still adores him, after several years of marriage and two children. So what is Hal’s X factor I ask, conscious that every bloke who dreams of marrying a pop star will be lapping up the explanation. “He lives for the moment, is intensively positive, believes in making dreams come true and he’s got the most gorgeous, haunting voice”, she says wistfully, holding herself in with delight as she thinks about him.

Hal’s good fortune is ours, because he brought Kim to Cumbria. His parents have a hillside cottage in the Newlands Valley and Kim, Hal and their two children Harry and Rose are regular visitors, taking walks in the woods, swimming in Derwentwater, getting away from it all in glorious mountain scenery – the country’s greatest attribute. “Cumbria is what I imagine heaven to be like”, enthuses Kim. “It looks like an old Constable painting and the first time I came here six years ago I heard a bird sing the sweetest song. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. And the meadowsweet, it smells so wonderful!”

So has she risked offending her in-laws by offering to redesign their garden? “No, but they’ve just bought a field adjacent to the house and I’m itching to plant a wild flower meadow there, something lovely and romantic”, she says. “My mother-in-law Penny is a painter and she would have the sensibility to do something really creative there.”

Kim’s love of gardening and all things natural began in childhood after the Wilde family – father Marty and brother Ricky later wrote and produced her records – left London for a thatched cottage in Hertfordshire. “The move from London when I was eight years old had a huge impact on me”, she explains. “I used to pretend I was a witch and I would run off into the woodlands and play in the bluebell patches. I had a broomstick and I would leave my bedroom window open at night to go flying away with my friends. The woods were a place of mystery and magic for me. They still are.”

Years later, after returning from promotional tours, she would head for the garden to get her whirling head straight, to get her hands dirty in the soil, to sow something, to relive her personal midsummer’s night dream. Certainly, when her pop career began to flounder (“either because the fans suddenly didn’t want me any more or because I didn’t want to do it”) it became a kind of therapy, a release she confirms. “That’s how I got into it realy.”

Her first big success, when she won an RHS gold medal at Tatton Park, Cheshire, with her woodland garden inspired by Alice in Wonderland, astonished her. “I was absolutely staggered that it did so well”, she says. Kim’s work has since displayed at Chelsea and she continues to enter designs at other major Royal Horticultural Society shows up and down the country. Her appearance at the Holker Garden Festival confirms her new celebrity status. Only her two children, Harry and Rose, appear to threaten her composure. “I was quite a tough old bird before I became a mother”, she claims, “but since I’ve had them it’s like I’m walking around with an open wound of emotion. I’ve always been very sensitive inside and it’s incredible how vulnerable they make me feel but I love being part of a family.”

Which is why she has never employed a nanny and why she never seriously tried to ressurect her pop career for a contemporary audience. “Pop stars don’t spend much time at home and I didn’t want strangers looking after my children. I wanted to be there with them, to cuddle them and to enjoy them. Any spare time I have these days is spent reading to them, chasing them around the house.”

Proof, if any were needed, that Kim isn’t at all starry or sees herself as part of some celebrity elite comes with the revelation that she doesn’t have any famous friends apart from Carol Decker, the lead singer of rock group T’Pau. “All my friends are the same ones I had when I was young. Even during my pop star days I never hung around with other pop singers or went to the clubs and restaurants where they hung out”, she says. “I became great friends with Carol on an 80s’ revival tour we did last year but she’s not exactly the most famous person in the world is she? It’s a lovely friendship because we have a giggle, we laugh at ourselves.”

In a nutshell family, friends and her two guiding philosophies to life – love life and it loves you back and you don’t have to be different to be good because good is different enough – keep her feet firmly planted on the ground. “My life now is so far removed from my 20s and 30s which were a bit of an emotional torment for me. These days I’m in a really peaceful place and I’m very happy. I loved being a pop star and I had a great time but I’d never want to go back to it. My life today is much more challenging and inspiring.”