Marty’s girl puts her family first

These days 80s pop star Kim Wilde is more likely to be found mulching her borders than strutting her stuff. Yet it is her family that will always hold centre stage, she tells Michael Hughes.

Kim Wilde has such an infectious laugh. She is recalling an “incredibly romantic” break she and actor husband Hal Fowler enjoyed in Lavenham and how enchanted she was with the Suffolk countryside. Was this quite recently then?
“No, it was before we married”, she replies, collapsing into peels of laughter at the inference that, now she is respectably hitched and the mother of two small children, romance is necessarily a thing of the past. Well, for those of us who remember her only as the pouting blond bombshell from the 1980s, whose first hit record Kids in America still rattles around our brains if we allow it, this image of respectable motherhood takes quite some getting used to.
Marty Wilde’s daughter, that’s who she is – and always will be. Yet, since the arrival of son Harry, now six, and daughter Rose, four, Kim has forged herself a new career and a new life – as a TV garden designer and presenter, and as a gardening columnist in one of the UK’s most prestigious national newspapers.
The decision to switch from singing to gardening may have bemused her family, friends and fans. But no one can deny that it has unleashed a refreshingly new Kim Wilde on the world. She is now numbered among the ranks of those fortysomething celebrities, including Carol Vorderman and Nigella Lawson, who combine beauty with brains. All those were born the same year, by the bye.
Just a quick glance at this month’s Let’s Talk! cover picture reveals that Kim is one of those rare (and fortunate) people who actually grow more beautiful the older they get – I don’t think it is just my age making me go all weak in the knees.
Well, Let’s Talk! readers will have the chance to judge for themselves when she returns to Suffolk on Saturday, April 17, not exactly for a romantic weekend this time – more’s the pity – but to open the newly extended Wyevale Garden Centre, in Grundisburgh Road, on the edge of Woodbridge.
She will be at the big new plant centre and 250-seater family restaurant between 11am and 5pm, “doing my favourite things – wandering around, looking at plants and buying a few”. And Kim has issued a personal invitation to Let’s Talk! readers to attend the event.
“I’ll be chatting to any 80s fans that turn up and hopefully swapping gardening tips with keen gardeners, too”, she says, speaking from her home in the Hertfordshire area.
Kim, 43, admits that being known all her life as “Marty Wilde’s daughter” has been challenging down the years. “As a teenager, I did resent it. You don’t want to be known as anyone’s daughter. I felt it undermined my individuality”, she explains.
However, she soon came to appreciate that this epithet is the mark of the deep affection in which her father has been held ever since he first topped the UK charts in the late 1950s, with the song Endless Sleep.
“These days there is a payback. I can get into a taxi and the driver will say…”, and here Kim slips into broad Cockney, “… Ere, you’re Mar-ee Wilde’s daw-ah, inya?” – and before you know it I’ve gone gone from A-to-B and haven’t had to cough up a penny.”
She was born Kim Smith on November 18, 1960, when her father (real name Reginald Leonard Smith) was at the height of his fame, and is the oldest of the four Wilde children. Her mother Joyce gave birth to brother Ricki, now 42, a year later and there followed a gap of nearly 20 years before little sister Roxanne, now 24, and brother Marty Junior, 23, came on the scene.
“I was very young when I picked up on the fact that as a family we were a bit different”, says Kim. “Ricki and I were often backstage and we were very aware that Dad was on TV a lot in those days. It wasn’t an issue for us. But it was for the kids we went to school with, and their parents.”
Kim was about nine when the family moved from South London to the Hertfordshire village of Tewin. She attended Presdales School, in nearby Ware, and in 1980 went on to do a foundation course at St. Albans College of Art & Design. It was about this time that Ricki, by all accounts the typical truculent teenager, began writing songs and was encouraged by father Marty to record some of them.
“Dad was keen to develop anything positive in my brother”, she says knowingly. It was Ricki who wrote the music and Marty the lyrics for Kids in America, that was to launch Kim’s singing career and take her to the top of the UK charts. Other hits such as Chequered Love and Water on Glass were followed by international successes like Never Trust a Stranger and Four Letter Word, while a remake of the Supremes classic You Keep me Hanging On took her to the top of the US charts in 1987. She undertook five solo tours and in 1988 performed as opening act for Michael Jackson, and in 1990 for David Bowie.
Between 1981 and 1995 she released 30 singles and nine albums, with worldwide sales of 12 million and seven million respectively, winning Best Female Vocalist in the 1983 British Phonographic Industry awards.
It is all too easy to forget what a big star Marty Wilde’s daughter became. But how did she cope with celebrity? That infectious laugh again.
“What do you think? I was in my 20s, travelling all over the place, earning money, wearing glamorous clothes, meeting interesting people and being spoilt rotten. It was everything I wanted to do.”
Well, all good things come to an end and in 1996, Kim, by then 36, took the role of the hero’s mum in the West End rock opera Tommy, which encapsulated the music of The Who – although she didn’t necessarily see the theatre as a natural career progression.
“The music of The Who had a profound effect on me. I was absolutely captivated by it. When the chance came to appear in Tommy, I knew it was something I had to do. After a year in theatre, I knew it was something I never want to do again.”
Yet the silver lining was fellow actor Hal Fowler, who played cousin Kevin in the show. The couple met in April, 1996, he proposed in June and they married in St Giles Church, in September that year.
Kim is reported as saying that she and Hal found they had so much in common, not least that they both come from solid family backgrounds. Since then, she has toured the UK with Paul Young and others in the Here & Now 1980s revival concerts and has made health and fitness videos propounding Michael van Straten’s ten-day detox regime. A couple of years ago she appeared in TV’s Celebrity Stars In Your Eyes, as Doris Day, singing Que Sera Sera, and last year was filmed having colonic irrigation for Channel Five’s Celebrity Detox Camp in Thailand – an experience she is not in a hurry to repeat, apparently.
However, it was while pregnant with her firstborn that Kim decided the time had come to do something about her garden. And the story of how she became hooked will strike a chord with many garden owners, faced with a completely blank canvas.
It was back in the early 1990s, some years before she married, that she moved into her own home, a converted 16th century barn, which was then surrounded by what had been farmland. “I have lived here since I was 30 and used to look out the window at this bare patch of land and wondering why I was the only person in the world with a garden that was impossible to do anything with.”
Despite being fascinated by TV garden makeover programmes and hanging on every word from the late great Geoff Hamilton, Kim failed to see the potential of her home patch. But, with the imminent arrival of baby Harry and the corresponding desire to created a proper garden for her family, Kim took herself off to Capel Manor College, in Enfield, for a summer course in design and planting.
“My garden is on top of a hill, on a south-facing slope and surrounded by open countryside. What I used to see as negatives, I now see as positives.”
She reckons that the college did a bit of name dropping when a TV research team arrived to make a programme on Capel Manor. For shortly afterwards there was a knock on her door, which led to her being offered the role as guest designer in Channel 4’s Better Gardens series.
Despite Kim’s insistence that the role was “way beyond my experience”, the producers were set on having a glamorous pop star on the programme and assured her of every support and assistance. “For me, it was too good an opportunity to miss. So I grabbed it with both hands”, she recalls. “All the same, I did feel completely out of my depth.”
After completing one series, Kim moved on to hosting BBC TV’s Garden Invaders programme, on which she worked for two series.
“It was a lot of fun, but really hard work and by then I was pregnant with Rose. It was all too much. Besides, I wanted my springs and summers back. I was working so much that I wasn’t able to enjoy my own garden.”
She returned to Capel Manor for a two-year evening course and for three year wrote a gardening column for Prima magazine, before moving on to Bella magazine. She also landed a weekly advice slot in The Guardian newspaper, in which her column appeared alongside that of the great gardening sage Christopher Lloyd, owner of the famous Great Dixter gardens in Kent. Yet despite being much appreciated by readers for her straightforward and no-nonsense style, Kim recently signed off from the Guardian.
“I loved it and didn’t really want to give it up”, she says. “But as a mother I was working too much.” In the meantime, Kim has designed a number of private gardens and in 2001 co-designed with David Fountain a show garden for the RHS Tatton Hall Flower Show, which won a gold medal and best in show. “I was only part of the team”, she says modestly.
More recently she and Richard Holmes, garden history researcher on Garden Invaders, created a permanent show garden at Spalding, which will be open to the public. While the demands of her new career may be many and pressing, Kim is adamant that her family comes first.
“I have little children and there are things I don’t want to have to get someone else to do. If anyone is going to do the school run, it is going to be me.”
She is also enormously proud of her parents – not least that Marty Senior, who will be 65 on April 15, is still touring – and of her brothers and sister. “Ricki is still in the business and plays guitar for the Here & Now Tours, Roxanne is working as a DJ and is pursuing her pop career and Marty Junior is a professional golfer, playing off scratch.”
Then more laughter. “He even won a car in Portugal!”
Well, if she and husband Hal are planning any more romantic breaks in Suffolk, Kim is not saying. “My best friend’s mother lives in Clare”, she volunteers. “So I do know the area quite well.”