Once a pouting pop icon, now a respected gardening writer, Kim Wilde is also passing on her passion for gardening to her two young children.
Driving up to the 16th-century converted barn set amidst beautiful Hertfordshire countryside, I wasn't too sure what to expect. But there she is, picking up the milk from the doorstep, wearing an old coat and gardening clogs, with her hair scraped up in a casual way. And it's hard to imagine that this is Kim Wilde, the Eighties pop star who once toured as the support act for Michael Jackson.
Kim Wilde is well aware that her homely image is not what most people expect of her. Even her four-year-old daughter Rosie comments on her lack of dress sense and frequently asks, "Don't you ever get changed?" But Kim is happy with how she looks. "I always vowed I'd never turn into the wife who slopped around not taking care of her clothes," she says. " I thought I'd be the smart wife who always looked gorgeous, running around everywhere in a sweet little dress. But I've just turned into every other mum. Too busy to worry about clothes, far too busy."
Inside, the house seems a true reflection of her style, comfortable and relaxed. The main room in the barn is a huge, combined living space, with a gallery above and kitchen in the corner, complete with that symbol of affluent country living: the Aga. Sunlight streams into the room where three overstuffed sofas are arranged around an enormous, positively mediaeval, fireplace. But this isn't one of those over-groomed, over-designed, anodyne living rooms you see in glossy lifestyle magazines. It is, frankly, messy - but messy in an inviting, lived-in and loving way. Everywhere, on every surface and every wall, is evidence of her children. Harry, six, and Rosie, four. Pictures and notices, books and paper- this is a house where children can create both mess and art. There are pens and paper on the kitchen table and piles of pictures the children have done. "I like to have all the stuff out, so if they want to paint it's not a major production," she explains.
It's a laid-back home and Kim seems absolutely content. Here is a woman who, now 43, has found a way to combine work and family in an enviable way. She tells of a house full of friends and children, of true love and domestic bliss. But life hasn't always been this good for her.
Kim Wilde had her first hit, the memorable Kids in America, when she was a 19-year-old student. Like most teenagers, the idea of being a pop star was something she craved, and, as the daughter of the Sixties artist Marty Wilde, it was a business she had been brought up around. From that first hit, written by her father and brother, Kim went on to sell seven million records here and in the US. With hits including View From A Bridge, Cambodia, and Chequered Love, she was up there with Debbie Harry and Madonna as a pouting icon with spiky, electric-shock hair and a sultry, sulking attitude. But the reality of success was not all she'd hope for. "I felt held to ransom by the business," she says. "Always doing what the record company and the managers wanted. I also felt, after about ten years, that I'd got as good as I was going to get. I began to think there must be more to life; I was looking for a way out." She was also wary of hanging on beyond her time. "I could see other stars tenuously holding onto their careers and that's all they had. It's great being a pop star when you're 20 but not when you're 36. I didn't want to spend my life in that no-man's land." Kim's escape came with Hal Fowler, her co-star in the West End production of Tommy.
They fell in love, married in 1996, and moved to the country, where they found an old barn on a lovely hillside. Even at the height of her success, she says, she wanted a family and children, so the move away from London and her career didn't feel scary. "It felt natural to marry Hal and natural to move here and to have children," says Kim. "Once I stopped chasing around looking for things- that's when my life finally made sense." And, as it turned out, this was only the beginning of a dramatic transformation.
It was outside the barn, where the hillside falls away to the south, that the seeds of a new passion were born. There was no real garden as such when they moved in; it was just a field.
"I loved the gardener Rosemary Verey's avenue of laburnum and alliums, so we put one of those in, but after that I was stuck. I didn't know what to do." Looking for inspiration and knowledge, Kim enrolled for a gardening course at her local college, Capel Manor, and was hooked. "It just grabbed me," she says. "I'm a born-again gardener. There are endless reasons why I love gardening. It's creative, social and therapeutic, but that's not really why I was drawn to it. It just claimed me. So now I'm one of those women who pop outside in their pyjamas just to look at something and come back in, hours later, covered in mud. It's great, but you get through a lot of pyjamas." Gardening wasn't in Kim's blood; she'd never really grown things as a child. Her parents were both in the music business. If anything, this career -not the pop career- is Kim's rebellion, a rebellion against expectations. The passion for gardening, as well as the career that has subsequently transpired, came as a surprise. While still on her course at Capel Manor, Kim was invited to become the 'celebrity garden designer' on the BBC programme Better Gardens, fronted by Carol Vorderman. "I wasn't looking for that," admits Kim. "I was in semi-retirement, pregnant and enjoying getting fat. And I wasn't really qualified enough."
But she took the opportunity, albeit with some reservations and a degree of anxiety. "I didn't want to tell them I was pregnant in case thy dumped me, so I made sure we'd done two or three episodes before they found out," she says. "Then I thought, they've got me now, they can't get rid of me." It might have been stressful, but the programme gave Kim the opportunities to learn more and has led to further TV programmes, writing and a whole new persona.
"I still feel like an outsider in gardening circles, but I suppose I'm not now," she says. Kim was thrilled- and unexpectedly tongue-tied- when she met Alan Titchmarsh. "Here I was alongside these garden celebrities, people I'd watched on TV and never thought I'd be among them." There are many great things about Kim's new career, but top of her personal list is the fact that she can work at home for much of the time - and it's a long-term career. " With gardening, I'll become more and more useful as I get more experienced," she says. "And how wonderful to have something to look forward to in life: like getting old. When I'm old I'll be so knowledgeable." And you don't hear many pop stars talking like that.
As we take a tour around the garden, Kim points out how it has been designed perfectly for herself and her children: from the huge eryngiums and grasses to the soft, tactile lamb's ears and strongly-scented herbs. "Rosie and Harry like the plants, both the children are still young so really it's just getting them to notice things, like the ladybirds and the scents of plants." Kim would much prefer to inspire her children to become gardeners by example, rather than tell them to do it. The hub of the garden is a large table under a pergola. "It's really important to have a useable outside space like this. And it's covered, so we can sit here even when it's raining. " Here too is a controlled chaos of pots and children's projects, of seeds and spades and watering cans. The idea is to have things around for the children to try. "Harry had a school project to make a miniature garden from a seed tray, but he wasn't interested," says Kim. "So I got going and enjoyed myself creating a little plot, with a shell water feature and a tiny forest of twigs. Of course, when Harry saw it, he wanted to make one, too."
Both Harry and Rosie love to make dens and there's plenty of room for that. "We're going to build them a house on stilts this year - and they don't know it yet - with a rabbit hutch underneath, which they'll love." Further down the hill is meadowland with long grass and newly planted trees - an endless expanse for the children to explore. There used to be a large old pond but for safety reasons this has been drained. "We had to get rid of it, it was too much to worry about," says Kim. "When Harry was only tiny I was in the vegetable garden and heard him crying. I ran over and found him balancing precariously on a bucket of water right in the middle of the pond. It makes you realise how awful accidents can happen. That's when we decided the pond had to go." Now there's a child friendly shallow pool with toads, and the former pond will become a tropical garden. Kim also designed a kitchen garden in which she grows fruit and vegetables. "We don't use chemicals, so the children can just pick what they want and eat it," she says. "This year we're giving them one of the plots, so they can grow their own things. They're a bit young for it, but they'll have a go and that's what matters. If they want to put 20 seeds in a pot, that's OK. They'll soon see what happens." Seeing her with a child's watering can, pouring water onto different leaves to demonstrate different droplet shapes to her children, you can tell that Kim relishes her role as a mother and a gardener.
Funnily enough, now that Kim has a new career, her old one is making something of a comeback. She is doing a round of Eighties Revival Tours in the UK and Europe, with the likes of ABC, Nick Heyward, Heaven 17 and Paul Young. "All the old gang are involved and we're much better friends now we've grown up," says Kim. "I have this totally normal life, but then Steve Strange rang up last night for a chat." For Kim, the concerts are simply a means to support her life in Hertfordshire. "If I can go on tour and make some money for a few years, that suits me fine."
So the pop star is still lurking there; but, for the most part, Kim keeps the two lives separate. It's much like the divide any working mother crosses when she puts on a suit for work and then comes home to dirty nappies and cake- baking. Kim's life is just a bit more extreme. When Kim dresses for work, her hair, clothes, make-up and attitude have to change. When she's in Hertfordshire, she's Home-Mummy, with her mucky garden hands and a house full of children.
It's a duality that's not gone unnoticed by her children. "When Harry saw me all dressed up for a show, he just cried, 'I want my other mummy back!' He definitely likes Home-Mummy best; she's shy of the other one. But Rosie loves the way I look when I'm all done up. The other day I was doing some pictures for a magazine, all dressed up like a Barbie doll - a middle-aged Barbie doll- and Rosie said, 'you look beautiful, can you wear that dress all the time?"
It's clear that Kim would hate to be a full-time pop star, but she learnt early on that you have to threat the 'pop star' as separate person, someone to have fun with and not take too seriously. Now Kim's children and home are her real life, with her garden as her long-term project. The field running down from the house, which she's planted with young trees, is her statement- to say, both literally and metaphorically, that she's putting down roots. "To plant and grow a woodland that I can look at in my old age and say, 'I did that' "