Wilde by name, not by nature

She had it all – fame, a flurry of pop hits and millions of teenage boys swooning after her. But it wasn’t enough. So she swopped the gladrags for gardening gloves and exchanged Top of the Pops for Garden Invaders.

Looking at her in her tweedy, country-lady outfit, surrounded by her award-winning garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, you can imagine such words as these coming out of her mouth. “I’d be happy just to get a nice little place somewhere. With a piano and lots of records and a nice warm bed. And some turtles. And I’d live this terribly studious life . . . I can see myself sitting at a desk with the lamp on, reading some terribly educational-type book. Pencil in my hand. Taking the occasional note. Then doing a spot of painting in the late evening. And then sitting down by the fireside with my big glass of brandy . . .”

But when Kim Wilde said this to a Smash Hits writer, at the beginning of her eighties pop career, it might have sounded like nothing more than a throwaway whim. It would appear, however, that, even when she was considered the untouchable Bardot of pop, singing such deep and meaningful hits as Kids in America, and touring with Michael Jackson, right, she fantasised about domesticity. Among her non-singing pastimes, she said, were “acting, drama, dancing, writing, singing, playing… flower arranging. Anything creative – I love it. Anything that needs a bit of flair and I’m there. I’m there – with the flair.”

Clearly she wasn’t quite ready for the life of a mother hen. On her 24th birthday she decided she would make dinner for her family and friends. The food was such a disaster that one of her friends didn’t even bother picking up a knife and fork. From the release of her first hit in 1981 until 1986, it was all about the pop music. Kylie she wasn’t, but she is as similar a precursor as you could find. She understood, perhaps more than her own fans did, that pop was valid even at its most ephemeral and that, in fact, was the whole point.

“There seems to be this tremendous disrespect for Pop Stars but if people put this ‘art’ sticker on you, then they don’t feel so guilty about liking you . . . They won’t admit to themselves that it’s just a pure, natural gut reaction. You either like it or you don’t. If they just accepted what they felt instead of trying to reason it out, life would be far more interesting, ” she told one of the teen magazines that, at that time, were true authorities on the content of the charts.

Her immediate success mirrors the easily-won fame of today’s quick-hit teens, the difference being that her career lasted far longer. She was born in Chiswick, west London, in 1960 but when she was nine years old her family moved to Hertfordshire, where she now lives. In 1980, the same year she completed a foundation course at St Albans College of Art and Design, she signed to Micky Most’s RAK Records.

It was first thought that it would be Wilde’s brother, Ricky, who would follow their father Marty Wilde’s footsteps into the music industry. Ricky released a string of songs with fictitious-sounding titles – I Am An Astronaut, Do It Again A Little Bit Slower, I Wanna Go To The Disco and Teen Wave – in the seventies. In the end he became his sister’s co-writer and producer. Wilde described their partnership as being “like Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s”.

Over five years, the hits dried up slowly. The first single release from her efficient 1986 LP was an uninspiring version of The Supremes’You Keep Me Hangin’ On. Her suggestive video for Say You Really Want Me led to accusations of contributing to the corruption of the nation’s youth, and suggested a growing desperation for attention. Wilde insisted it was just a bit of fun, since she felt her image had been getting far too wholesome.

By 1989, having enjoyed a mini-renaissance with You Came, Never Trust a Stranger and Four Letter Word, Wilde was able to admit to having felt at a loss for what to do during her career slump. The difficulties, she explained, were much to do with disagreements about tours with Most, whose son, Calvin Hayes from Johhny Hates Jazz, she was now dating. It was seen as a more scandalous souring of relations than it was, since the tabloids were under the impression that Most was big friends with her father.

“But the truth is that my father knew Micky like I know Yazz and George Michael, ” she said. “Just a colleague – that’s all.” Around this time, Wilde became concerned for the environment and, in a move that suggested she was comfortable with the eighties drawing to a close, stopped using hairspray. “And my car can’t ride on unleaded petrol, so I’ll sell it and buy one that can, ” she said. “I’m not perfect. I do eat meat. But I also give money to Greenpeace. Can you remember the conference between Reagan and Gorbachev on Iceland? They were there to abandon short-range missiles, but it was just a publicity stunt from both sides, to win votes. I didn’t like it. That’s when I wrote [the song] Stone”.

The resurgence of confidence was short-lived, and, just as Oasis, Blur and Pulp were having their first taste of stardom, Wilde was increasingly aware that being a pop star was only so satisfying. “My record had bombed, I’d made a mess of my private life and no-one dared to tell me I wasn’t 21 any more and I had to watch out what I was eating and drinking. Man, I ate so much, it’s unbelievable. I became as fat as a pig and I didn’t care any more, ” she confessed. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been any lonelier than that. A strange scene. I don’t enjoy pubs, don’t go clubbing. I hate it when people behave differently under the influence of alcohol. So I sat alone at home, surrounded by people who weren’t really my friends. The turning point was my move to the countryside. I now live in a cottage, only minutes from my family.”

She said her rediscovery of her “two hands” was like a religious experience, and she relished the idea of owning a toolbox and pottering in a shed. After several f lings, including an intense six-week relationship with Chris Evans after she co-presented the Channel 4 breakfast programme The Big Breakfast, she also met her husband-to-be on the set of the West End show, Tommy. They married in 1996 and have two children, Harry and Rose.

The marriage, and the gardening, had a restorative effect. While pregnant, she began studying gardening at Capel Manor, Enfield, obtaining a general certificate in horticulture, and went on to appear on the BBC’s Garden Invaders.

Her co-designed entry into this year’s flower show, which won a gold medal and the award of best courtyard garden, is a million miles removed from the explosion-in-achemistry-lab efforts by the notorious horticultural heart-throb Diarmuid Gavin. Inspired by the beauty of the Lake District, her Cumbrian Fellside Garden features sheep’s wool snagged on barbed wire and green Cumbrian slate. She might not even bother to scrub her fingernails before she settles down by the fireside with that glass of brandy.