‘Touring with Michael Jackson showed me the ugly side of fame’

Pop legend Kim Wilde on her career highs and lows, hanging out with superstars and why she never thought she’d sing Kids In America again.

Back in the 1980s, Kim Wilde lit up the charts with a succession of sparkly pop gems, including You Came, You Keep Me Hangin’ On and, of course, her debut smash hit Kids In America. Nearly four decades on, the London-born star is still going strong. When we caught up with Kim shortly before the country went into lockdown, we were keen to grill her about the secrets of her success, what it was really like touring with troubled Michael Jackson and why – unlike many celebs from her heyday – she’s resisted the lure of reality TV.

This year Kim, 59, celebrates her 40th year in pop and we’re pleased to report that the legendary singer – currently self-isolating in her Hertfordshire home – has no intention of hanging up her mic just yet. And why would she, given that her last album – 2018’s Here Come The Aliens – gave the star her biggest chart success in more than two decades. Later this year, Kim will embark on a greatest hits tour – so far still going ahead – with a greatest hits album released to coincide.

“To be going out in my 60th year to celebrate a 40-year career is a really amazing prospect,” she says.

Here Kim, who’s been married to actor Hal Fowler, 52, for 24 years and has two children, Harry, 22, and Rose, 20, opens up about the struggles which forced her to rethink her career in the 1990s, her disdain for reality TV and why she’s a fan of pop sensation Billie Eilish…

Hi Kim! If someone had told you, aged 20, that you’d still be going strong 40 years on, would you have believed them?
I don’t think so! When I was 20, I remember thinking everyone over 30 was old! I vividly remember Olivia Newton-john reaching 30 and thinking, “Poor thing, she’s over the hill!” Your perception of everything changes as you get older. I never thought in a million years I’d be in this position.

You hold the record for having more hits than any other British female in the 80s. Which of those songs do you love performing the most?
Kids In America has incredible potency and it’s still a joy to sing. When you see people react to that song, you fall in love with it all over again. There was a time where I really didn’t want to sing Kids In America. That’s when I retired, got married, had our family and got into gardening. I actually really believed at that point I had left Kids In America behind. It wasn’t until the 80s revival concerts that I got lured back in, kicking and screaming! They were such a huge success and I enjoyed them so much – things have snowballed from there.

Thank goodness! What would you say is the secret to your success?
There’s been a lot of good luck. I was very fortunate to be born with such a talented brother and father [Ricky and Marty Wilde, who co-wrote Kim’s early hits], so I can’t pretend that a lot of it hasn’t been down to great fortune.

It’s not all about good luck, surely?
It’s also been really hard work! The hardest times have been when it hasn’t gone well. When the going gets tough, you know if you’ve got it in you or not. In 40 years I probably had no more lows than highs, from a career perspective, but it’s made me realise how much I love music, how much I need to do it and love to sing.

What are the standout moments from your career?
I’ve had so many incredible experiences. Recently, on the Here Come The Aliens tour, the response from the British public was overwhelming. I was amazed and delighted.

You toured with Michael Jackson on his Bad tour in 1988. Was that a surreal time for you?
It really was and it seems more surreal as the years go by. I was thrown into the thick of it and it was a sink or swim situation. I was on tour with someonewho was perceived as the greatest artist of that generation and it was pretty overwhelming for me. But I really managed to step up to the occasion and it was one of the best things to happen to my career at the time.

What was it like touring with someone so famous and controversial?
It gave me an insight into that level of fame – there were lots of ugly aspects to it. The ugliness of the fame was evident in many different ways, like the way it isolates people. At the time, I had second thoughts about what achieving more fame could actually bring to my life, as it seemed to only bring isolation and loneliness into Michael’s life. I couldn’t live mine like that. Not being able to go to the supermarket, or hang out with my mates and just lead a normal life – you can’t put a price on that and it seemed he’d paid such a huge price already. Ultimately, he paid with his life and looking back, that was always going to happen somehow. I felt that – and that was one of the reasons I retired a few years later.

You retired because of what you saw Michael go through?
There were a number of factors, but that was certainly one of them. I thought, “What’s the point of chasing even more fame? There’s only one place it could potentially lead.” So I started to look for more meaning in my life and I found that through meeting my husband and having my family and getting into gardening. Now I have a wonderful balance of family life, being close to nature, but also loving playing live. They always say, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” And I am that busy person.

Did getting out of the industry in the 90s lead you to the nice life you have now?
Yes, because I put a stop to what had begun to feel like a merry-goround. I just needed to get off. My career was more in control of my life than I was. It started to feel very uncomfortable for me, so I stepped out and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It helped me to appreciate all the great things that my career was, instead of resenting it as I had begun to. When I stepped back into it years later, I realised how precious it was and how much I wanted to share it again. I’m really praying this tour happens at the end of the year and I can share it with all the wonderful people who put me in this position.

We hope so too! Now, a lot of your fellow 80s stars have gone down the reality TV route. Why have you never been tempted?
It’s not really my thing… the thought of it doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. I don’t watch it and I certainly wouldn’t want to be part of it.

Fair enough. Speaking of stars from your heyday, do you enjoy appearing at all the 80s pop festivals?
I love doing those. I get to hang out with all the people whose records I used to buy and that’s still a thrill for me. It’s just a miracle to me that I’m hanging out with Nik Kershaw, Carol Decker [from T’pau] and ABC. To hear Martin Fry sing The Look Of Love while putting on my lipstick backstage is amazing.

Today’s acts have to deal with criticism on social media. How would you have coped had that been around in the 80s?
We thought it was tough with newspapers knocking on the door and taking pictures of us with no make-up on, after stumbling out of bed following a late night. For a lot of people who were famous at that time, that seemed difficult to deal with.

Did you find it difficult?
I was very philosophical about it and accepted that was part of the journey. The intensity of social media now is overwhelming for many people, but at the same time you don’t have to be actively involved in it – it’s a choice people make. I despair sometimes when a lot of people moan about it, when literally all they have to do is disengage. I’ve distanced myself from social media as it’s more of a toxic environment than when it began.

What do you make of today’s young female singers?
I think Billie Eilish is a fascinating artist because she works with her brother, just as I have done all my life. She reminds me a little bit of me when I was 20. I was a bit of a punk and a tomboy and didn’t want to be glamorised – I didn’t wear lipstick, although I’ve learnt to love it with a passion. When I first started out I was a T-shirt and jeans kind of girl, who would wear my dad’s old dinner jacket and cut my own hair.

Your Greatest Hits tour is due to kick off in September. With the coronavirus crisis ongoing, are you worried it could be cancelled?
Yeah, already most of my live work for this month has either been cancelled or postponed, so I’m fully expecting anything to happen. But at the moment we’re being very positive and proactive about it, although people’s health comes first and we’ll be dictated to at that point.

Fingers crossed everything goes to plan. You must be so excited?
If we were to put all this aside, then I would be, absolutely. It’s incredible to be in this position at my age… but not as incredible as my father [50s rocker Marty Wilde] who is releasing a new album at 80 years old!