Last week Will Young, England’s favourite ‘Pop Idol’ turned actor turned pin up, addressed the Union. He was polite, witty and surprisingly candid. Dressed in a navy three-piece-suit and aged a little more than airbrushing prepares you for, he began with ‘I have been famous for six or seven years…’
It is hardly remarkable that a ‘celebrity’ of Young’s standing was quickly at ease in front of an audience. Despite following with ‘wow, this is terrifying’, he quickly settled into his routine performance, charming the chamber at every turn with tales of drink driving and renegade horses. On the heels of the release of what is likely to be his fourth multi-platinum selling album, Let It Go, Young was making the suspect publicity rounds and we were but one such drop-in on the way to the X-Factor and other ‘bigger fish’.
Whilst the Oxford crowd likely presented a tame substitute for his usually over-zealous fans, I was surprised at the reaction that Young got when he first entered the chamber. It has been six years since he graced our screens on ITV’s groundbreaking Pop Idol, ultimately winning the first of what would be the start of too many talent/reality TV-shows, and three years since his last studio album Keep On. And yet, the Union was very much alive with the sounds of Will Young.
When pushed, Young is unsurprisingly tentative when it comes to criticising the genre of television that made him. ‘I think it is great’ he says of talent-television, sidestepping the question where possible with, ‘I am so that guy that gets hooked on peoples story – they are like “this man stubbed his toe” and I am like “oh my god that poor man stubbed his toe”‘.
He does, however, assure me that he has little intention of returning to it in any capacity other than guest judge. ‘I know where I came from’, he proclaims proudly, and indeed he does, ‘but I am not going back’.
However, Young is as quick to criticise as he is to praise when it comes to the cult of celebrity. The target of 90% of his negativity for the evening was one Kerry Katona, that God-Knows-What-She-Does girl that MTV follow around regularly with a camera waiting for her to drop her baby or just some weight, with 10% saved up for the special case of Jade Goody.
‘I mean, I don’t know what they do, do you know what they do? I do get a bit irritated when we are all thrown in the same bag’. It is obvious that Mr Young is referring to the talented ones, and the untalented ones for whom there should be separate bags. Cameras following you and a perfume named after you ‘do not make you famous’ in his eyes.
It was particularly interesting that Young chose to address the chamber on the specific topic of ‘fame’ and celebrity, saying ‘I am famous’ or ‘I have been a celebrity’ in excess of twenty times within the space of a few hours. Most speakers simply address the Union but Young had a ‘cause celeb’. Who knows?
Perhaps in the current economic climate even the mega-wealthy are concerned about their position at the head of the table, eager to distance themselves from those who are ‘famous for nothing’ and those who ‘actually do something’. There is no question about the power of celebrity in our world, after all ‘we are a beacon’ of hope? Or just dysfunctionality?
Young is not unintelligent by any means. He graduated from Exeter University with a 2.2 in Politics and eagerly, if tenuously, discussed Plato for our Oxford delight as much as his own personal interest. It is thus to be expected that there is a slight tension between the life that he lives and the life that he preaches.
Young recognises the cultural climate that sees celebrities as ‘the sticker of endorsement that you see on a Christmas turkey’, but is far too engrossed in a world that has Telegraph journalists and ITV crews following his every move to know quite what to say. He placidly sits on the fence when asked if with great celebrity comes great responsibility – ‘well it is subjective isn’t it. It is different for everyone’. But equally he trounces the uselessness of varying z-list personalities.
‘The key thing is balance. It has taken me a long time to find my balance’ he concedes openly. ‘I think every person has to find their universal moral truth. That is a really hard thing to do, but it is what people have to live by.’ In principle, Young’s ‘universal moral truth’ seems to be working wonders: he is wealthy, successful and largely at ease with himself despite the obvious circus that permeates his personal and public life. He is also in a very loving and happy relationship, although he is as unwilling to discuss that as he is willing to discuss his drinking habits.
Young’s particular brand of humanity and candour is especially prevalent when discussing his philanthropic ventures, especially his associations with the Mood Foundation, a charity which is designed to help people who suffer from depression to get the help they need. It was in fact Will’s twin brother Patrick who began the Young association with the foundation.
‘He was an alcoholic and both he and I suffer from varying forms of depression’ as so many people in the UK do. ‘I am incredibly proud of him’ and ‘of course I will do whatever I can to help. If my name can raise money for something like that then it is worth having people take pictures of me as I buy milk’.
By this stage of the evening Young’s honesty does little but endear him to me, particularly when discussing the people that he cares about most. ‘There are about three or four people in the world that I rely on to tell me when I am being a prat. I don’t need more than that.’
Considering how simply Young slips under the radar, how few times we read that he has gone to rehab, driven with his dog on his lap or broken a fundamental rule of Kabala it seems fair that he is very together.
For the most part Young comes across as an incredibly grounded individual who does his best to maintain some kind of autonomy in a world that allows most of us little. Highly styled – no doubt. Managed – to perfection. But, as human as one who lives their life under an unpleasantly bright media spotlight can be.
Outside the Union buildings I watched him sign autographs for those who wanted them and bum a cigarette off the nearest willing hack. When all is said and done, it did not feel like there was a star to be struck by so much as a man to meet and ask a few questions during the evening.