Now I am glad to be a pin-up

Date
Published in
De Morgen (Belgium)
Written by
Bart Steenhaut

She is 47 by now, but in the memory of everyone who was young in the eighties Kim Wilde will always be 25. That's when she scored hits with 'Kids in America', 'Cambodia' and 'View from a bridge' and even had more success than Madonna. Until one day she'd had enough of that and started a successful career as a gardener. 'Presenting a gardening programme was refreshing. The camera was less focused on my hair, my weight and my lips'.

She still has the allure of a pop icon. Snowy white hair. Black eyeliner. A hip coat around the shoulders. When you talk with her, you can feel that she's young at heart. With twelve million singles and seven million albums Kim Wilde has earned her place in pop history. She hasn't missed music for one moment she says, but lately she gets pleasure from being on stage every once in a while. "It's a misunderstanding that I'm a dumb blonde. For starters, I'm not dumb. And not blonde, really."

Does the image that the world has of Kim Wilde differ a lot from reality?
During my successful period in the eighties there have been moments that I felt like a prisoner of my own image. The blonde siren forced me to never leave the house without lipstick and a hair full of spray. While I realise it had a lot to do with my own state of mind, because I could have rebelled against that. It's just that I didn't have the courage to do that at the time. When I turned my back on music twelve years ago, that was one of the reasons. The irony is that I can hardly wait to get the lipgloss and hairspray out.

What were the other reasons to stop singing after such a successful career?
I had no more challenges, I began to get very bored. The only problem was that I had to record a few cd's according to my contract. It was good fortune that I had passed the highest point of my commercial success. I was able to leave without a long legal battle. More than that: I think they were all too happy to let me go.

Because you were such a diva?
No, not that. I dare say that the record company had a soft spot for me. They just realised, even there, that they wouldn't score a hit with the new cd by Kim Wilde. Right after that I was offered a role in the musical Tommy on the West End. I liked the idea: I was able to continue singing and it still was a new challenge. On top of that I had to audition with Pete Townshend from The Who, which is one of the most exciting things I've ever done. In the cast of that musical I met my husband, and six months later we were married already. It made the decision to leave pop music even easier. Suddenly there was a marriage to consider. And we wanted to start having children right away.

In fact your life fell from one extreme into another. A few years before that you had worldwide hits and sold millions of records. On top of that you came from a musical family. You father and brother were successful musicians before they became songwriters.
And still: I missed nothing from my previous life. Not even the physical act of singing. I did sing at home sometimes, but they were songs by Gershwin and Sondheim. Songs from the thirties which I got to know through my husband. A lot of children's songs too. I became enchanted with raising my children. I discovered a new passion during that period: gardening. At first I took some lessons to be able to create a beautiful garden for the children, but it didn't take long for the old Kim to come forward: I wanted to prove myself. Designing gardens became a passion. I took part in contests, and won a lot of gold medals with them. I am competitive. My parents always told me when I was young to imagine a goal and to work hard to get to there.

Was it also predestined for you to go into music when you were a teenager? Most parents who are in showbusiness, try to steer their children away from it.
My father also doubted whether things would turn out okay for me. But at the same time he noticed how determined I was to take my chances. In the old days it was often said that I was a puppet who got the success thrown into her lap by her father and brother. But it's a misconception. I had my own will, my own ideas. And believe me: they were taken into account.

It even came to the point where you didn't want to depend on your family for songs. Was that a way to prove to them that you were independent?
It was part of it, certainly. At first the songwriters I admired were Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Todd Rundgren. And because everything I did could never reach their level of craftsmanship, I left writing to others. Although I did have a four track studio in my hotel room to record ideas with. It's just: when I finally got the courage to show them to my father and brother, they didn't seem to be too impressed. I just felt I could never take myself seriously if I didn't write my own songs. And indeed: I never had the ability to reach the level of a Joni Mitchell, but I learned to accept that what I did had its merits as well.

When I was about twelve years old, almost everyone I knew had Kim Wilde posters on the walls. You were - literally - a real pin-up. Did you feel at ease with that idea?
I didn't realise that at first. And it was just as well, because I would have gone under, just like Robbie Williams now. When I stopped making records I have said that the audiences loved my image more than my songs. But I have reconsidered that on the basis of my recent concerts. Now I can be a pin-up as well as a respected singer. And to be fair: now that I'm almost 50, I like being considered a pin-up still. When I see the men in the audience who still declare their love for me, I think: not bad for a middle aged woman from Hertfordshire. And I'm glad they haven't seen my birth marks (laughs).

Now that you've mentioned Robbie Williams: as far as I know you've never done excesses, while the eighties are about the most decadent years in pop music.
It's true. I am glad that my family has always protected me in that respect. They have shielded me, and whenever something was decided, I knew they did it because they loved me. In fact I felt like an old soul in a young body. I never started doing drugs. The only thing I did do, was drinking vodka with Lemmy from Motörhead. And on the ferry from Dover to Calais I drank too much from time to time. But it didn't become more exuberant than that.

The eighties revival is in its tenth year now. How come?
It was a very inspiring period for songwriters and producers. The new computer technology sent the music towards a new course it had never gone to. It had its influence on the songs themselves. ABC, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode... they were groundbreaking pop groups. But even with all that technology they still wrote great songs, so they would have become stars anyway. I am glad that music has gone more back to basics these days. Until a few years ago the producers had the power in their hands, but slowly the emphasis is on real songs. Songwriters are becoming more important again, and that it a positive evolution. People want to hear a beautiful song most of all. It explains why I'm so glad that The Killers and Snow Patrol are so popular.

How come that you are still popular these days? You even had a big hit with Nena not so long ago.
I like to think that the music played its part. It's also a fact that most people who looked down on me have changed their view a bit. Although I don't really care how they think of me. I enjoy it more than I used to, my band does too, the audiences love what they're hearing. No more playback for me. And to answer your question: there aren't many singers like me, are there. How many middle aged housewifes perform rock music with a big layer of make-up on stage?

How does the metamorphosis from housewife to rockstar go?
It's not easy. It takes me a couple of days on the road before I feel like a real rock chick. The other process goes a lot faster. As soon as I am home, I have to take the dog to the vet, the school uniforms of the kids are ready to be ironed and there's a whole list of housework. I just have to push the mental button and the rockstar becomes mum again.

I think it's remarkable that you say in public that you prefer to push your hands into the mud to being on stage while thousands of youngsters dream of becoming famous through a television programme.
Formats like Idols and X Factor and are not about the young people who are shown there. The only goal is good television. When you have enough luck - and talent - it's a good springboard, but so often talented people are spat out by such a programme and they are destroyed mentally. It's not very ethical.

Nonetheless: would you let your sixteen year old kid be seduced to take part?
Sure. Because it's a chance, a way to force the front door. But I'm sure I would have had my heart broken. So I'm glad such programmes didn't exist when I was young.

I realise it's a bad question, but you almost force me to pose it: are there comparisons between gardening and music? It seems to me that they are two worlds that have nothing in common.
You get in contact with people and I always liked that. But ultimately it's the relationship between you and a plant. Honestly: I love the differences. In the music business you mostly work inside. I have spent years in dressing rooms, planes and hotels, in television studios and concert halls. Now I work outside a lot. Presenting a gardening programme was refreshing because the camera focused less on my hair, my weight and my lips. Usually the plants were filmed and I explained them. It was - honestly - a liberation.

Finally: what would you do differently if you had the chance to start over again?
Not a lot, actually. I am glad I never had to work so hard to make it in America. I have always stayed a Euroqueen. I love this continent, love waking up in Berlin, Hamburg, Paris or Lausanne. 'You Keep Me Hanging On' was number 1 in the United States, but it was an accident (laughs). It was an old song by the Supremes and the day I got a thankyou-letter from Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers (the legendary Motown songwriters) is one of the most beautiful moments of my life. America never interested me because people are fixated onto it too much. I prefer working for a euro to working for a dollar. And believe me: it's got nothing to do with the good exchange rate.