‘Good red lipstick will let you get away with murder’

Popstar became garden queen and then popstar again. Kim Wilde sold twenty million records, but likes to talk about the beauty of a rose bush just as happily. The garden gave her selfconfidence. ‘I could do something else’.

Kim Wilde, pop icon from the Eighties, doesn’t live in a show off and starproof penthouse made by a hip interior decorator in hip and expensive London, but deeply hidden in the green countryside, where men wear overalls, women wear flower patterned dresses, the taxi driver does indeed come at the exact time ordered and only a passing rusty train drowns out the birds every half hour.

She may be over 51 years now, Kim Wilde laughs like a naughty girl when the move of that other blonde, more or less equally old but still slightly more famous singer. In 2000 Queen of Pop Madonna decided she wanted to live surrounded by nature as well. On the English countryside. Just a few kilometres from Wilde’s town.

Madonna and Kim Wilde, together in the local supermarket.
No, no, I have never met her. She is rather fabulous, but she also seems a little scary to me.

Suddenly she comes to live here around the corner. What did you think?
Do you really want to know?

Okay, I thought, ‘This countryside isn’t big enough for the both of us.’ Wilde falls back on her couch, which is particoloured but not too hip. Laughter. Hoarse voice. ‘So I said to myself: Kim, accept the fact that she is the Queen Bee here.  I’d already done a step back in my career, so I could easily do that at home too. Reluctantly, of course.

So when she left again…
‘I can’t say it was the saddest day of my life!’ Again that laugh.

No more full English breakfast

In the house of the family Fowler-Wilde it is obvious that here doesn’t live a popstar enjoying her pension, while still in love with herself. The driveway to the 400 year old barn conversion leads up to an impressive electric fence, but there are no Maserati’s or Bentleys behind it. There is a hybrid Toyota Prius. Inside no constant references to a glorious past – gold records, soft focus glamour photos or other ego-polishing material – but children’s drawings on the wall and a lot, a whole lot of family photos.

She as always less wild than her surname made her out to be, still there’s a bit of rock attached to her. Kim Wilde receives us in sleek and lacy black. Little dress, high heeled boots. The lips not as bright red as they used to be, but still as full. The hair has remained blonde and jumpy, but it’s clipped up. The woman who was the opening act for Michael  Jackson’s Bad tour, performed with David Bowie for weeks and sold more than twenty million records worldwide, leads us to a kitchen which is telling of a busy family life. She pours instant coffee.

In 1996, at just 36 years, she decides to say farewell to the music business quite suddenly. Five years later she is back, just as suddenly. Now, eleven years later, Wilde points to a calendar on a full whiteboard. Her gigs. Monte Carlo, Esbjerg, Munchen, Paris. And October 3: Paradiso, Amsterdam. Amused look, while she straightens her dress: ‘It’s good to perform again, you know. It keeps me from taking a full English breakfast every morning.’ With a dirty look on her face: ‘Instead of that I take the porridge option.’
A popstar eating porridge.
Deep sigh: ‘In fact I’m pretty lazy. I would love to sit on the couch all day, eating things that are bad for me and do nothing. But my family and career stimulate me to overcome that laziness.’

Sex & drugs & rock-‘n-roll

Is the music world now very different from when you started in 1981?
There are more media now, there’s internet, mobiles used to make pictures of you. The photos aren’t very flattering most of the time. But it was just as easy to get lots back then as it is now. Things have been offered to me back then. Drugs, drink. So I don’t know if it was easier back then. What worried me, is that stars that do get lost can remain successful. Take Kate Moss for instance. She is a megastar, while she has been caught with harddrugs numerous times. Still, young women want to be like her. And I’m afraid that they think: if she’s doing it while she remains this famous it’s probably not that bad. Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse: they didn’t end up well, but until then they were very successful. Rich, famous, independent. Role models for girls. That is confusing. That’s why it’s so important that parents support their children. Don’t leave it to the media, the government or any celebrity. I never did drugs, because it was spoken about at home. When something is declared a taboo, it makes curiosity grow.

You’re from the same generation as Whitney Houston, whose success was also a family thing. Why did she end up like she did, and you didn’t?
I don’t know if you can blame the trade or the fame. For me it wasn’t about money or attention, but aout making music and performing – all the things it should be about. And of course the fame was enjoyable. But it also made me feel uncomfortable. I had to do a lot of interview when I was young, while I didn’t even know who I was. I was forced to have an opinion about things I didn’t have an opinion about. I lived like a lot of women my age: falling in and out of love with inappropriate men. The question is whether Whitney Houston would have made other choices if she hadn’t been a megastar. I don’t think so. Some people are born with a tendency towards addiction.

Child between artists

Her surname is the artist name of her father. Reginald Smith calls himself Marty Wilde when he is successful in the Fifties as a rock ‘n’ roll singer. Kim’s mum, Joyce Baker, is also musically inclined: she dances and sings in the ensemble The Vernons Girls, until she meets Marty. Wilde: ‘At home it was all about my father and his music. I saw him on television or during performances. It was difficult for my mum. She had me when she was just 20. Less than a year later she had Ricky. She was always stressed, in fact. She didn’t have a car, no washing machine, nothing that all of the mums now have. We lived in South-East London, a not very glamorous part of town, in a modest house. All the money my dad made in the Fifties, had gone. There was always an air of uncertainty. Until he started songwriting in 1968 and suddenly wrote some big hits for artists like the Casuals, Lulu and Status Quo. Suddenly he hit the jackpot. A year later we moved from London to the countryside in Hertfordshire, a few kilometres from here. It changed our lives completely. I got my own room and woke up with a view of the garden full of flowers and rabbits. We baked our own bread, raised our own vegetables. The neighbours were artists or musicians, a very creative atmosphere. At home we became a family for the first time. Between my parents thing became better too. It had a huge impact on me. I decided my adult life had to be like that: the certainty of a solid, close family – and a beautiful garden to go with it!

It’s 1972 when Kim Wilde does backing vocals on ‘I am an astronaut’, the single by her eleven year old brother Ricky, recently covered by Snow Patrol. Wilde, now: ‘I was a bit jealous of him. He travelled a lot doing promotion, did exciting things. It seemed fun to me, one day. I wasn’t in a hurry. My father didn’t want his daughted to get caught up in the music industry. The women he’d met in that world were sad and unhappy. ‘
It didn’t impress Kim much, though: Kim Wilde is just 20 years when she scores a worldwide hit with ‘Kids in America’. In the years that follow she has one success after another. ‘Chequered love’, ‘Cambodia’ and her version of the Supremes ‘You keep me hangin’  on’ (in 1987 number 1 in the American charts) make her one of the biggest pop stars from the new wave in the Eighties, next to icons like Cyndi Lauper, Kate Bush, Nena and Belinda Carlisle. Her hits are written by father Marty and brother Ricky. Manager of Kim Wilde is mother Joyce. Her success is a family affair.

They were golden times for musicians: people bought records. There was no illegal downloading at all.
When a single of mine was released, my record company boss called the next day: ‘Yesterday you sold 64.000 copies, today you sold 32.000’. And that was just Great Britain. My contract stipulated that I would be paid extra when my debut album ‘Kim Wilde’ sold more than 1 million copies. Nobody thought it would. But after two months in Europe alone we sold a half million. Instead of making quite a bit of money, I was making a hell of a lot of money. The whole Wilde family profited from it. Soon we had enough money to buy our own recording studio.

You were a sex symbol besides a popstar. Did you like that?
I did! I loved it! I thought it was wonderful to do photo shoots, someone doing my makeup, someone else dressing me up nicely. I was in awe of strong women in the music world. Agnetha and Frida from Abba, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Joni Mitchell. And on the walls in my house there were pictures of Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly. I read books about them. I wanted to be like them, just like any other girl I think. And suddenly I was the woman being photographed. I always guarded my limits, though. You won’t find pictures of me that go too far. No nude, never topless, like Madonna and later Gaga did. There was a lot of pressure put on me to do it as well, but I’ve always felt strong enough to refuse that. It’s appropriate for them, but not for me.

Did you ever have any airs and graces?
I don’t think so. Especially since I lived at home when I became famous. My mum had two more children around that time. I performed and sang all those hits, but when I was ready I didn’t go to the pub, but I went home to change my sister Roxanne’s diapers.

Worried about the future

Years after her first hit success Wilde starts living on her own in London.  ‘When I look back now, that wasn’t a happy time in my life. I felt lonely. My house never became a home. I lived out of my suitcase. Being a popstar means a lot of fun, but there are also lots of things that are not fun at all. Having to wait around all the time. On airports, in planes, backstage in dressing rooms. I was young, fit and ambitious, which made it okay at first, but after the first setbacks came, it became increasingly difficult.

The album Now & forever was a worldwide flop.
Yes. Even before that I used to have very big hits, followed by lesser hits. My career seemed like a rollercoaster ride. The first dips were a big shock to me. It was a strain on my selfconfidence. There was that voice in my head, asking me what I was going to do when no-one wants to hear me. What does an unemployed popstar do? It drove me crazy sometimes. What are you gonna do? You’re useless! You can’t even type. You couldn’t be a secretary. You’re useless! And so I started to feel useless. I’d studied at art college for a while, but so what? If Vincent van Gogh ended up without any money, why should I be able to live from my art?

While you were making enough money at the time?
I probably did. Although I had no idea what was on my bank account – the money was handled by my mum. Also, it was more about: would I ever find anything I would feel as passionate about as music? It was a constant dilemma in my head. What happens when it’s over? It ruined the fun of being famous regularly. I wish I could have told that Kim: ‘Don’t worry so much, just enjoy it when it’s happening.’ But I wouldn’t have listened anyway, probably. My grandma, who’d had a hard life, said it regularly to me. And I just though ‘Ah, you silly old nan.’

Michael Jackson’s loneliness

1988 is another successful year for the popstar, who is called Wilde Child and Wilde Thing by the tabloids. Her best selling album ever, Close, is released, and stays in the English charts for eight months. Wilde herself is asked to be the opening act in Europe during Michael Jackson’s Bad world tour, his first ever concert tour. But even then Wilde’s uncertainties play up. ‘I was afraid that they would expect too much from me. I knew I was okay, pretty good maybe, but not that good. When I shared those doubts with my mum, she said: “Kim, for God’s sake, get over it! You have had a lot of hits and only have to perform for half an hour. Get up there and sing!” The start of the tour took place in Italy. Coincidentally the country where my career never really took off. So when I got on stage they threw fruit and bottles at me. I had to duck but still kept singing. Bloody Italians!

And how was Jackson himself?
Only after three weeks I saw him for the first time. Because the press kept asking whether I’d met him, and I had to answer every time that I hadn’t, a photo call was organised. After that I never saw him again, except on stage. My little brother and sister did see him a few times in his dressing room. Together with the boy that sued him later. It was obvious that he only felt at ease with children. He came across like a fragile young man who wasn’t able to deal with adults mentally. In the end that tour inspired me as an artist. As a person it made me see what the reality of being a superstar is. You end up in an ivory tower. Surrounded by bodyguards, ever more isolated, never meeting a normal person again. I realised that I didn’t want such a life myself.

The best decision ever

Two years later you toured with David Bowie.
He was very down to earth. Everyone deals with fame differently. My husband recently worked with Sting for a couple of months. He just sat down and had dinner with all the other artists in the canteen. Drove his own car. Never had any bodyguards. Even though he’s just as big a star as Michael Jackson was. Anyway, my ambition decreased after the Michael Jackson tour. It was all getting a bit boring. I got bored, and the audience became bored with me. It seemed the best thing to just stop as soon as possible, before it would really become ugly.

You were 36. Did you regret stopping then, looking back?
No. Stopping was one of the best career moves I ever made. I got the courage to do it after meeting my husband Hal during the musical Tommy. Muscial seemed like a good way to stay in the music buiness as well as getting out of it eventually. I wouldn’t have to fly for a year, it seemed wonderful to me. And I could think about a normal life. I liked to act a little, although I knew I am a crap actor. Hal had no idea who this Kim was, who was doing audition. Theatre was his world, not pop music. So he wasn’t afraid of me, or my image. Sometimes I wonder if he really didn’t know me. The first time when I was in his house I saw a photograph of Kylie Minogue on his fridge. “She can go!”, I said. Six months later we were married. And then the old dream returned. The solid family with the beautiful garden.

But the success of Kim Wilde was a family business.
Yes. My family wanted to keep the show going. They liked things the way they were. So it wa sa big decision to put a stop to that. They haven’t always been happy with that, although I wouldn’t want to say too much about that. Sometimes you’ve got to live life on your own terms. My mum, Ricky and my current manager Nick had children by that time. And I thought: hey guys, that’s all very nice for you all, but I have to share my bed with my gold records every night. I don’t think so! I want a family of my own. So Hal and I got married. And I got out. The best thing I did.

Not so long after that a remarkable article in the newspaper: popstar Kim Wilde has become a gardener. You started a new career.
It was not my intention to start a new career. In fact I was still in that phase where I was wondering what an unemployed popstar would do. I didn’t think I was able to do anything else. Except becoming pregnant – and I loved that. All the pressure of being slim, watching your looks, scoring hits and keeping the family business going fell away. It was a fantastic time. I’d bought our farm, in fact a 400 year old barn, with a barren garden. Because I liked the thought of doing something with that, I enrolled in the locally very famous horticultural school for a few courses in gardening. And even during the first time it felt as if fireworks went off. I sat there in the school bench, a baby inside of me, a woman who spoke lovingly about a flower and I thought: this is great.

What did you love about gardening so much?
Firstly it brings back memories of the old days. But it also appeals to my love of painting, design and composition. And then there’s the total perfection of a flower: I find it aesthetically overpowering.It was also great fun to learn new things. I did my best, handed in all my assignments on time, read books about it until the middle of the night. It was all very inspiring. But soon TV producers found out what I was doing. And since we, the English, love gardening, I was immediately given my own programme. First Better Gardens at Channel 4, then Garden Invaders on the BBC. I wrote a book about gardening too. And before I knew it I was travelling up and down the country to design gardens, being a mum of two. Incredibly tiring. Everybody thought: she has become a mother and she’s raking the back garden, but as it turned out I went from one rollercoaster into another.

Back in leather trousers

Shining eyes. ‘Shall I show you the garden?’ It’s not a question. Wilde is already outside. Prefers to talk about pergolas instead of gold records. She points out the rose bushes, the artichokes, rhubarb, tulips, grapes, cucumbers, mint, thyme. Proud look. Suddenly I notice her nails. There’s no dirt under her nails. Even though the edges of her green nailpolish have gone. She can’t resist just to touch the bark of her apple tree. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
In 2005 Kim Wilde from Welwyn North wins a gold medal during the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show of the equally prestigious Royal Horticultural Society. She says: ‘One of the craziest days of my life. It changed me completely. Winning that prize has done a lot for my selfconfidence. I could do something else. And I was good at it too. Eventually it gave me the courage to get back on stage. Without that medal I’d never have been able to.’
It begins as a comeback with a wink. Wilde and fellow Eighies icons Paul Young, Belinda Carlisle and the Human League are asked to perform during a Here & Now Tour (dubbed the Been & Gone Tour by her, jokingly). Wilde: ‘I just thought: I will do that show, then bugger off back home, en go on with my life.’ But soon the Eighties revival is a hit, German singer Nena asks her for a duet (Anyplace, anywhere, anytime), that song gives them top 10 hits in Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands and before she realises it, Kim wilde is back in the leather pants she didn’t wear anymore since she left music. And which didn’t fit anymore, that too.
Wilde: ‘I would prefer to buy my clothes two sizes smaller. But in fact I’m happy that I can get into slghtly flattering pants at all and do a good imitation of a woman with size 38. Corsets and high heels are a great help. I like being a rock chick.

Do you pay a lot of attention to your looks?
Not hysterically so, but I do have a personal trainer, walk the dog a lot, work hard in the garden. Part of my beauty ritual is to jump into our swimming pool every morning. Freezing cold! One round of swimming and then out. I don’t smoke, I drink – usually – in moderation. I owe the rest to dr. Hauschka: he makes great cremes.

And mister Botox?
‘No. Never done that. My grandmother and my mum had a young face for a long time, it helps. The genes are good.’
Then: ‘I wasn’t exactly a 25 year old when I did my comeback. It’s quite scary to get on stage as a fortysomething mother of two without size 36. But when the audience still loves you it gives you an enormous thrill. The audience has grown up with me. They too have gotten children and a mortgage. The pressure to still be a sex symbol is gone. I can just be who I am. That’s why I enjoy it more than I did. The show is really good. In the beginning my sister Roxanne did backing vocals, but she sings with Kylie Minogue now. Ricky is still my music director. His daughter Scarlett sings in my band.

Kim Wilde, parttime popstar.
Yeah. The nice thing is that I can get home after a gig and worry about a rabbit that has been gnawing on my plants. The combination is great. The timing is good, too. In the current music world performing is the only way to make money.

Do you need that?
Yes. My mortgage is high. Also I don’t rely on the thought that everything will work itself out in the end.

Did you miss the spotlights, too?
No, not at all. I did it for the money. And because it was a good stimulant to get myself in those leather pants again. I was not looking forward to the spotlights. Afraid of criticism. If they would say: “Look at her, she’s over the hill”. I’m only human. But for now that hasn’t happened. Also because I live rather discrete. I don’t walk the red carpet often enough. It takes hours to scrub up. These days I do it with my niece Scarlett. I do my nails, she does my hair and I get a layer of red lipstick on. Good red lipstick will let you get away with murder.

I read that you don’t use hairspray anymore, because of the environment
Aha. Well, that’s not true. The other day I sprayed my hair with a whole can of the stuff. Until I heard Scarlett laugh very loud. Turned out I used a can of deodorant. I’m starting to become shortsighted, I think. Sometimes I behave a little old-womanish.

Do you get a lot of male fanmail?
It was never that much, really. Most men were too afraid to make a move. Those who did, were lucky. I went out with them immediately. These days there are young men in the audience quite regularly. In their eyes I can see that they fancy me. The I think you’re lovely-look. Isn’t it great? My ego thinks so anyway.