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Gary Barlow on life, growing up, parenthood and the secrets of his success

PUBLISHED: 16:12 14 January 2019

Gary Barlow by Laura (CC BY 2.0) via flic.kr/p/dFMKi2

Gary Barlow by Laura (CC BY 2.0) via flic.kr/p/dFMKi2

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National treasure Gary Barlow speaks openly about life, loss, family and fame

Gary Barlow OBE is one of the most successful British singer-songwriters of all time. His extraordinary tell-all memoir, A Better Me, reveals his struggles with weight and bulimia, but with an army of fans behind him (not least here in Berkshire where he famously turned up to sing at one super-fan’s wedding), his journey back to health and pop success has been stratospheric, and we even saw him feature in the star-studded line-up for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle.

Now, as Take That prepare to turn 30 this year, and their new release, Odyssey, a 25-track career retrospective, storms up the charts, we caught up with one of the UK’s most beloved pop stars to find out the secrets of his success.

Growing up and family

“Music is all I ever wanted to do from a young age. As a teenager, I’d do gigs and play five hours straight then get home, put earphones back on and play literally until I fell asleep. It’s tough telling your mum and dad you’re going to be a pop star at that age! But my parents believed in what I was doing. My dad used to work in a factory; we weren’t wealthy at all. But I remember dragging him to a music shop. We saw this professional keyboard. I wanted it, but it was £400 − an unbelievable amount of money in 1984. My dad turned to Mum and said: ‘You know all that time off I’ve got? I’m going to sell it to buy this.’ It was a turning point for me. I spent the next six months playing it every night until I mastered it. My dad said: ‘If you work hard enough, the luck will find you.’”

Fame and friendship

“I started this journey just wanting to perform music, then this other thing arrived in the room − being famous. We were adored, screamed at − and I ended up at one point believing it all, it’s whole-heartedly unhealthy. Before the record label dropped us and it all went wrong, my Filofax (a thing we had in the ’90s!) was full of friends; they all disappeared overnight, except for six people. Those six people are still in my life today and they mean the world to me.”

The fans

“They are like an army. We all started out together in 1990 and I know so many of their first names now, it’s great. We have watched them get married, their kids going to college… we have this crazy, long relationship and they have been with us every step of the way. Our audiences range from six to 80; it’s amazing.”

Facing failure

“I counted 18 months worth of daily, horrible press at one point. I’d love to say it doesn’t bother you, but every word does. People would shout: ‘How’s Robbie doing?’ at me in the street. The higher he got the further down I felt. I started to think the answer lay in just staying in the house. I stayed inside for four months at a time once, because it was my safe place. I realised if I put on weight, fewer people recognised me, so the more invisible I was. This happened over a two-year period and by the end of it I was 17st 2lb.”

Living with bulimia

“As soon as I got home after a big night out I’d go to the very furthest corner of the house away from Dawn’s bedroom and be sick − easy. The good thing about me is I do have a stop button, it just took me a bit longer than normal. It went on for a couple of years. Every time I wanted a night out, I’d go home and do that. Women have talked about this sort of thing for years now, men not so much. I hope by talking about it it helps other people.”

Weight issues

“I was unrecognisable but in heaven because no one bothered me. Food used to numb everything, it was like a big hug. The day it all changed I call ‘Fat Day’. I had ballooned to 17st. It started with me trying to get enough momentum to actually roll out of bed because I’d got so big, and I sat there − 5 stone heavier than I am now − and thought: ‘This isn’t me.’ It was not meant to be like this, and Dawn said: ‘Maybe you should go to the doctor’s.’ It was the only time she ever mentioned it but it had got to the point neither of us could ignore it any more. He weighed me and said: ‘You’re not just obese you’re quite far into that bracket, you’ve got to do something or it’s going to start affecting your health.’ It was the wake-up call I needed.”

Parenthood

“Back in August 2012, we’d been really excited [about Poppy’s arrival], decorating the bedroom, buying clothes, the kids were preparing for their little sister. Then I got a phone call from Dawn, saying: ‘The baby’s died.’ She’d had a scan and the doctor said: ‘I have terrible news.’ I went into fight or flight mode, but these sad events need organising so I just sorted things. I was dreading it, but when she gave birth the next night it was amazing; we had the most incredible hour with our daughter. It was gorgeous; we held her, had pictures together, took footprints, just the most gorgeous hour before they took her away. We went home to a very empty house and started organising the funeral. It was a strange time. It was heartbreaking watching the person you love walking around the room with their dead baby, all I could think about was taking care of her. I couldn’t even grieve yet − we had three other kids, after all, to look after. It’s something we will never recover from completely.”

It was an experience that led Gary to become a patron of the charity Child Bereavement UK.

Happiness

“When we [Take That] came back we shot straight to No.2 in the charts. I’d had a few kids and time off, and I wanted to hug everyone individually! It was an amazing feeling. I felt this big change. I go out and give 150% each and every time now. I never just see it as ‘let’s get through tonight’.”

His legacy

“I like to be thought of as someone who makes people happy. That always plays on my mind and as a legacy that’s all I want to leave behind.”


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