Something of an unlikely book for me to be listening to, given that I wasn’t ever even much of a Take That fan and I’m not particularly interested in Robbie Williams. I was aware of Reveal but I’d assumed it was the usual ghost written celeb biography/hagiography and I wouldn’t have gone near it were it not for it being picked up on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast. I’m always on the look out for long books, too, and this clocked in at 17 hours.
The book is actually written by Chris Heath, who seems to have shadowed, interviewed and had a bunch of friendly chats with Williams over more than 10 years. Although Heath does make his own stance very clear, particularly when recounting the Twitter abuse Williams gets, the book is very much warts and all. Two things become clear very quickly: First, that Robbie Williams has no filter. Despite his years in the business, his tendency is to react first and then deal with the consequences later. But secondly, that despite or because of his success, he’s a hugely polarising character and plenty of people seem to hate him just for being there. They are very happy to express their hatred, for which we all have social media to thank, without any seeming realisation that there is a person at the receiving end of the invective. That’s disturbing and probably unhealthy and I’m sure studies are being done on the way that internet anonymity intensifies force of expression, and I’m equally sure that the results will tie in with those famous torture studies. Net result – people suck, unless they are very watchful of themselves.
Add to that the consistent and deliberately negative misrepresentation by the press, and there is absolutely no way Williams can win. His choice is either to work very hard at crafting a press friendly personality that then has to be maintained 100% of the time. Or just to carry on being himself as much as possible.
So I found Reveal very interesting, although less because of Williams himself and more because of the insight given into the damage that fame, money and the press can do to someone. In this case, particularly if that someone started as a 16 year old with pre-existing depressive and insecure tendencies. The book goes up to about 2016, by which time Williams is describing himself as agoraphobic. If this were an allegory, it would be one at which people could nod wisely and note the irony in being a hugely successful pop icon who yet prefers not to leave his own estate. But that’s his life, and if I had that kind of money and faced that kind of relentless scrutineering and abuse I wouldn’t go outside either. In fact, I would reinforce the bars of my gilded cage with something a whole lot stronger than gold, hire bodyguards with a zero tolerance policy and become a complete recluse. All of which means that I simply could not do the job that is ‘being famous’.
Fame just looks like an absolute nightmare, a game that is played with loaded dice. Robbie Williams is just a regular bloke, except with such incalculably huge insecurities that none of the markers of success manage to weigh in the balance against them. He loves his wife, he loves his kids. He falls out with people, his weight fluctuates, he’s a songwriter even during the period when he thinks he’s retired from the game. After making it through his wild years, about his only remaining vice is smoking. I lost track in the narrative but I actually think he quit that too. His job is to make music but it’s every single aspect of his life that is continually judged and usually found wanting.
There were times when I had to stop listening, usually when Heath was listing the troll comments Williams gets on social media. Experiencing the abuse third hand was overwhelming. The other eye-opening moments were when Heath unpicked various media storms. We all know that the tabloids are purely exploitative and will never let the truth get in the way of a damning story. Turns out, it’s not just the tabloids – everyone will run with the dominant narrative. So the take aways for me from this book were that I need to re-evaluate my own relationship with social media, and with the press in general.
As for the famous, it’s a reminder that they give us their talent. They don’t owe us their lives. As Neil Gaiman put it ‘G RR Martin is not your bitch.’