Wilde at heart

Over the last two decades Kim Wilde has transformed herself from chart-topping 80’s pop princess to gardening guru, devoted wife and mother. Mark Anstead meets her at home and discovers if she still has a wild side.

There’s a moment in the film The Shawshank Redemption when the lead character finds an escape route from the 1920’s prison in which he’s been incarcerated. He comes out through sewers and emerges into the open air, standing in the rain with hands raised in triumph.
Meeting Kim Wilde, I get the impression she feels a little bit like that escaped prisoner. She has extricated herself from a heavily controlled musical career that saw her topping the charts in the 1980s yet never feeling satisfied. When she has talked in the past about the pop star lifestyle that she so willingly left behind she often says her decisions were taken for her and that she felt trapeed inside a marketing machine.
But today she welcomes me at the door to her glorious converted barn looking as ordinary as my next-door neighbour. It’s actually hard to register this plumper, blonder and much happier Kim standing before me as being the same woman – she couldn’t seem less concerned about music.
Lounging on her sofa in her home near Welwyn, Hertfordshire, she is a picture of domestic contentment and peace. For the last eight years she has been married to actor Hal Fowler and the pair now have two children, Harry (7) and Rose (5), whose presence is felt all over the house from the bulging kitchen to the toys on the stairs.
“This is a terrific people place”, she says, talking about the open-plan living room where we chat over a coffee. It stretches three stories high to the apex of the ceiling and, were it not for the TV set and modern furniture (which seem dwarfed by the proportions of the room), you might feel as though you had gone back in time to a medieval feasting hall.
“I think that the party potential is what first drew me to it”, she grins, settling back into her cosy sofa and picking up one of her daughter’s cuddly toys. “I’m very much a people person and I knew I needed a place that was always going to be filled with human beings in one way or another. Sometimes it’s only a handful of people and at other times the whole place is really throbbing, but everyone always feels relaxed here and they all say that the atmosphere is terrific.”
She’s dressed in a thoroughly mumsy way (baggy cardigan and loose fitting jeans) but watching her a few moments earlier with the photographer I could see her showbiz experience coming through. Kim still knows how to strike a pose and turn on a radiant smile to light up any picture.
This is a woman who’s released more than 30 singles, from Kids in America in 1981 to If I can’t have you in 1993. But for Kim Wilde today, gardening is her rock’n’roll. Since retiring from pop in the 1990s she threw herself into it as a hobby and when her passion was discovered through featuring her own home on ITV’s Better Gardens she was approached to co-present Garden Invaders for the BBC.
She’s written gardening columns for The Guardian and Bella and she also designs outdoor layouts for private clients. She’s got a children’s gardening book coming out this spring and, she says, she’s never been happier in her life.
“I recognise I’m lucky because to some extent I’m still supported by record royalties”, she says. “But I do still have to work and it’s really lovely doing something that I feel I can still learn from.
Born in 1960, her father was Marty Wilde, a pop star in his own right in the 1950s and early 60s. When she was eight years old her parents moved from their semi in Greenwich, south east London, to the Hertfordshire village of Tewin, where under her mother’s watchful eye young Kim first started to develop green fingers. At 19 she completed a one year foundation course at St Albans College of Art and Design, but her plans to stay on for the degree course were interrupted when she was signed by RAK Records, and her first single became a global hit.
“For whatever reason (I’d love to know why) I desperately and single-mindedly wanted to get into the pop world”, she shrugs. “That was my raison d’etre – to be a pop performer, to make pop records. But I also really wanted to be in a position where I was in love with someone and having their children. I grew up with the real-life love story of my parents and I still think that the most wonderful thing in life is to find your true soulmate”.
But Kim’s pop career interfered with her desire to settle down. She was the object of millions of teenage boys’ fantasies but suffered from a string of failed personal relationships with other stars such as Chris Evans, Mick Hucknall and Julian Lennon. To the outside world she was the picture of success, releasing nine hit albums over the next decade, but on the inside she was now beginning to feel the strain.
The late 80s marked the start of a long period of depression for Kim. She complained regularly of stomach and back problems and a constant anxiety arising from her high-octane lifestyle and the fear that her career was going downhill. She was also suffering from severe PMS, which left her in a state of barely controlled rage for up to ten days a month. She has now learned to control it with diet and exercise, but at the time it was so bad that she even tried to avoid giving interviews.
In 1990 she decided that if she couldn’t manage to find a husband and have children she could at least manage to move to the country. She bought a barn in Hertfordshire and converted it into the six-bedroom house where she lives today.
“I thought that if I prepared a nice family house I could settle down here, meet someone special and everything would get better”, she says, speaking more quietly as though worried that if she talks too much about the past she might somehow be dragged back into the limelight that she has fled so resolutely. “But in fact nothing much really changed except I was now living in a place far too big for me and that made me feel worse. It felt like a venue and not a home – something you might see in an Adam Ant video.”
There is that Prince Charming sort of feel to it. Four large black candelabras hang down from the huge oak rafters and the immense walls have been fitted with bricks place diagonally between the original beams. Above the living space a balcony leads to her main bedroom – partially concealed by the huge stone fireplace and chimney stretching up and out to the roof. The effect is nothing if not dramatic.
Kim’s life began to turn around when her family tactfully pointed out her habit of binge eating for comfort was ruining her pop star looks and warned she should sort herself out if she cared about her career.
In order to jerk herself out of the depression she went backpacking with a friend in Thailand, and came back feeling so much more positive that she decided to join the cast of the West End musical Tommy. For the first time in years, she had stopped looking around for Mr Right and decided to concentrate on her career. It was then, of course, that she found him – in the same musical.
“We started the rehearsals in January 1996 and Hal asked me out to dinner in March, proposed in July and we were married in September.”, she says, brightening visibly. “It was the best promise that I ever made, that day in church. And we started trying for a baby straight away.” As soon as she married Hal, Kim found herself able finally to let go of her musical ambitions and throw herself into family life. At last she found time to indulge her passion for gardening. She enrolled at the Capel Manor Horticultural College for a City and Guilds course in planting design. With Hal’s help, she put what she’d learned into practice, designing and planting her own garden from scratch.
“It’s a much better lifestyle”, she says, describing the fulfilment she feels. “I’ve had a better time at events like the Garden Writer’s Guild Awards that any music award events I’ve ever been to. I find myself oddly relieved when she lets slip in passing that she’s not too much of a domestic goddess – there’s still a bit of a wild side in her. Each year she performs at the Here and Now 80’s revival concerts along with other acts from the period like Go West, Paul Young and Belinda Carlisle.
“I can handle it more easily now because I’m not the only act on the stage”, she says. “And I don’t take myself seriously any more – there’s no way I could go back to that kind of life full-time”.