Interview: Will Young

Sarah HardyWill Young was the first ever Pop Idol winner and has since blazed a trail other hopefuls seek to emulate. Now he has become the first ever pop star to play at the Queen's Sandringham Estate. SARAH HARDY catches up with him.Sarah Hardy

Will Young was the first ever Pop Idol winner and has since blazed a trail other hopefuls seek to emulate. Now he has become the first ever pop star to play at the Queen's Sandringham Estate. SARAH HARDY catches up with him.

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You may have been one of the millions who watched and wept as Will Young battled with Gareth Gates to win the inaugural Pop Idol series back in 2002.

It was compulsive viewing and really got us all hooked on talent shows. Just look what has followed - X Factor, Britain's Got talent and many more.

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Unlike many wannabees, Will not only emerged from prime time reality TV with likeability, humour and dignity intact, but has, against many people's expectations, stayed the course - presumably because he has actually got some talent.

Blessed with a soulful, tremulous vocal timbre, he has gone on to enjoy a credible pop career selling eight million albums featuring hits like Leave Right Now, Who Am I, All Time Love and Evergreen.

Within days of becoming the first ever Pop Idol winner, he came out as gay, exhibiting a relaxed honesty that would characterise his future relationship with the media.

The public school educated, university graduate has also presented the more thoughtful face of the music business, invited onto Question Time and to speak at the Oxford Union, as well as articulately championing several charities including those for mental health and domestic violence.

He's certainly not your average identikit pop star then, as he manages to get the balance right in satisfying his own artistic needs and be commercial enough to make some cash.

He's made some catchy hit pop tunes too, appeared in a movie with Dame Judi Dench and even been the subject of a South Bank Show - one of the last - and now he is about to become the first ever pop star to play at the Queen's Sandringham Estate.

So life is pretty good, a view he readily agrees with. 'Yep, I'm very comfortable with life at the moment. It was very exhilarating during Pop Idol, we were chased everywhere by the paparazzi but now I can go out and about without people jumping out at me to get a photo. I quite like being left alone. And obviously I'm happy with the way my music is going,' he says.

Again unlike many previous talent show participants, Will is happy to chat about his Pop Idol experiences and is very grateful for them.

'I'll always be proud of the show - and thankful. It was an amazing and manic time. But it is where I found my voice, discovered what I could do - and wanted to do,' he says.

And he adds that he enjoys watching talent shows such as the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. 'We all do, don't we, they are great fun. I'd never be snobby about them,' he says.

The Sandringham performance is particularly exciting as Will hasn't been on the outdoor concert trail for a few years so he's itching to get out there in all that fresh air. 'You are a lot freer outside, it's a different atmosphere, especially as the light starts to fade and the shadows begin.'

The audience can expect plenty of his hits, from Leave Right Now to Changes plus new material. 'I do tend to try out new pieces, to road test ideas and see what the reaction is,' explains Will, who says he hopes to see Prince William or Prince Harry in the audience.

'That would be something, wouldn't it' he laughs. 'I'd get them up on stage, get them up dancing!'

This summer's shows, of which Sandringham is the highlight, were pretty much last minute decisions in what was meant to be a quiet year.

'This year was meant to be a quiet one, but it's ended up not being so quiet,' says the singer who released his The Hits greatest hits album last October and recently duetted on a Groove Armada dance track.

'The last tour was very much the greatest hits, which is great for the audience. I always give the audience what they want at a gig but outdoor gigs are fun to play around with it. That's part of the creative process, working out what kind of vibe, and what kind of covers can change things around. People respond to that because that's part of live music, otherwise you might as well put on a CD.'

The 31-year-old is infectiously enthusiastic about live performing. 'I love it more and more as I have got older. I used to be really hard on myself if I missed a note but I have got more confident on stage. I started learning my craft a bit more. I have a new singing teacher and I feel a lot more accomplished as a singer.'

He also takes regular dance lessons and pilates classes. So he's not complacent about himself as a performer? 'I do take it really seriously, that's what's so wonderful about my job, there is always so much more to learn about performance,' he says earnestly.

'It's about having that artillery to hand and the different disciplines aren't mutually exclusive. I do acting as well and as quite a nervous person I never knew what to do with my hands. It took me three years to stand with my feet apart with my arms out by my side not clutching a mic.'

In fact he sees the gigs as part acting, so if he's having a bad time, it doesn't necessarily mean the audience is too.

'It's more of a service. The art is to look as though you are relaxed and enjoying it even if you are not. My prime responsibility is for the audience to have a good time - but I do enjoy every gig. I still get really excited just singing into a microphone. I love sound checks, they go on for hours.'

The mention of acting is telling as he has also dipped his toe into the acting waters with some success, appearing opposite Dame Judi Dench in the film Mrs Henderson Presents and playing the lead in Noel Coward's The Vortex at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

His next project is also a bit different - he's the executive producer on a new movie based on Shakespeare's Coriolanus which has been filmed in Serbia, with Ralph Fiennes as the director. It's a big, meaty piece with Will also taking a small role. 'You get to learn a lot from someone like Ralph so it's a big opportunity for me.'

The film world definitely holds some appeal for Will who seems to like being both behind and in front of the camera and it's an area he wants to explore more and more. And it's obviously great to have different strands to a showbiz career. 'Sure,' agrees Will. 'I've got bills to pay and nephews and nieces to look after - and a mortgage, of course!'

Will has also just been in an episode of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, with Julia McKenzie as the seemingly innocent little old lady turned ace detective, Jane Marple. In the Mirror Cracked From Side to Side, he plays Casey Croft with Joanna Lumley and Lindsay Duncan also in the show. He has also just taken part in an episode of Skins, too, the edgy C4 youth show about Bristol teenagers and their rites of passage.

Despite his success which keeps him away from home for long periods, Will remains close to his family, particularly his twin Rupert who has struggled with depression and alcoholism and now runs a charity called the Mood Foundation, which aims to help others with similar problems.

Will grew up in Berkshire, and he says he wanted to be a pop star 'from day dot'.

His mum had 'really good taste in music' and he would listen to her Joni Mitchell and Beatles records as well as buying his own - memorably Michael Jackson's Thriller.

'I remember putting it on the turntable with that picture of him lying down in a black suit with white socks, and I would sing along. There were no moves, a more mal-coordinated man you wouldn't find.'

After making a pact with a childhood friend to become a famous singer, he nurtured 'a stubborn belief ' that that's what he was going to do.

'You have to have that kind of belief and weirdly it goes very contrary to my character, but in that field I have been very driven and I think the reason I enjoy it so much now and haven't lost my love of the job is because I didn't have it for so many years and it was such a quiet passion.'

Once he got his foot onto the Pop Idol stage, Young's enthusiasm just exploded. 'I enjoyed every minute, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I couldn't believe it.'

Afterwards he says he didn't feel pushed around by his handlers. (He is still represented by Simon Fuller's 19 Management.)

'I did feel in control. There was a bit of illusion that people would force me to do things but I was very aware it would take time to work out what I was doing and I was extremely lucky that Simon Fuller gave me a lot of space. If I didn't want to do something, I didn't do it and he was respectful of that.'

It's telling that Will keeps in touch with some of his Pop Idol colleagues, especially Gareth Gates. He says it was an "instant decision" to include their No 1 duet Evergreen on his new greatest hits album.

'We run into each other quite often, I think he's done really well for himself - and, of course, he's married with a child so it's all going well for him, too.'

The only time the good-humoured Young bridles is when asked whether he writes his hits. It turns out he pens around half of his material.

'My writing has got much better but I love singing other people's songs,' he says. 'I have never been ashamed of singing other people's songs but a lot of people are and it's bizarre. That's why I love singing jazz. You can sing all these covers that people have done over time but people get funny about having a career like that as though there is some sort of false credibility in saying 'I have written that'. It isn't about that, it's about delivering the song. If you have written it that's amazing. If you haven't, it doesn't matter.'

t Will Young is at Sandringham Estate on August 7, �32.50, children �20, both subject to booking fee, 0871 224 1112,