Young and older

The first Pop Idol winner, Will Young is now seven albums into his career and increasingly vocal about politics

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Woe betide those who get on the wrong side of Will Young. Earlier this year he camped outside education secretary Nicky Morgan’s department, wearing a sandwich board adorned with statistics about the suicide and self-harm rates among young people. As a figurehead for Stonewall’s campaign to curb schoolkids using homophobic language – specifically the word “gay” as a synonym for “crap” – he was incensed that she wouldn’t reply to his tweets.

“I’m not a massive fan of her,” bristles the 36-year-old singer today. “I want to see politicians with passion. And I want to see the education system changed so that young LGBT people don’t have to put up with latent homophobic bullying. And they just won’t do it! I don’t understand why. It makes me so angry.

“You meet politicians like Nicky Morgan and they tell you nothing. I don’t care if she has lots to do. All I care about is the attempted suicide rate of 26 per cent of young LGBT people and all I care about is the fact that 54 per cent self-harm. I don’t give a shit if she’s got five meetings to go to. I give a shit that every day young people are suffering. It makes me so cross when the government say we’re such a forward-thinking nation – we are for adults but not for children.”

Is this really the man famed as the politest in pop music talking?

Despite his unaffected boy-next-door image – you’d entrust him to give a best man’s speech that was witty but unlikely to scare your maiden aunt – and even as unexpected winner of the inaugural Pop Idol in 2002, he was unafraid to stand his ground. When his nemesis Simon Cowell, with whom there still remains bad blood, dismissed one of his performances as “distinctly average”, he famously retorted: “I don’t think you could ever call that average.”

Whereas the average talent show winner is expected to have the lifespan of a mayfly, he’s carved out a career now in its fourteenth year. He possesses a considerable mumsy fanbase, yet releases challenging pop promos tackling transphobia. He’s a mainstream artist, yet has made esoteric choices such as playing tormented young musician Nicky Lancaster onstage in Noël Coward’s The Vortex or extolling his love of Magritte in an ITV documentary.

He’s also increasingly become involved in politics, campaigning for change on gay rights and speaking out on issues via his Huffington Post blogs. “I just think I’ve become more passionate about it,” he says of his activism. “I think it’s part of getting older. It’s part of looking at the world. Now I know who I am as a person and am really comfortable with that, then I can start looking outwards.”

Broodiness has played a part. “At this stage, there’s a huge desire to nurture. You know, I’ve become very paternal.” He laughs. “Actually, I just asked somebody if I could hold their baby. I think she thought I was trying to steal it! But because I love kids – and having my own isn’t on the agenda at the moment – I want my nieces and nephews to live in a country where it’s as good as it can be.”

“I want my nieces and nephews to live in a country where it’s as good as it can be.”

Yet he’s still burning bright in the pop firmament. In May, he scored his fourth chart-topping album with 85% Proof, a scattershot collection of styles that veers from 1960s R&B (the Tomkraft-filching Love Revolution), to funk (U Think I’m Sexy) and empowering Sam Smith balladeering (Brave Man). “The plan at this stage of my career is just to write something authentic. If I was going in and saying I’m purposefully, scientifically writing this to make a hit, that’s different to genuinely putting something in my songs that I believe in.”

He’s pleased that he still has pulling power. The day after we meet, he performs to an audience of 10 million on Strictly Come Dancing. Yet a week later, his video to Brave Man generates debate by showing a transgender man walking naked around a city, facing public abuse. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he beams. “I’m so excited by it. Out of everything I’ve done in my career, it’s the thing I’m proudest of. I hope it gets people talking.”

Despite confessing today to “not being aligned to any political party”, he previously denounced May’s general election as a “wet fart” and sighed that Ed Miliband was “media-trained to within an inch of his life”. What has he made of the “new politics” under Jeremy Corbyn? “Oh, I think he’s wonderful. What I really like is seeing a man who is bucking the system and sticking to his principles. We’ll wait and see how long it lasts. How long can a truly principled man or woman remain in politics?

“I love the fact that he didn’t sing the national anthem. When I go to church, I’m not religious so I don’t sing any of the hymns because I don’t believe in them, and how many people who aren’t religious get married in church because they want to be in a nice building? I love the fact that he doesn’t want to bend down and kiss the Queen’s hand or swear allegiance to her. He’s a breath of fresh air and I actually think he’s the fulcrum upon which politics will evolve and change.”

In 2002, 4.6 million voted for him to win Pop Idol. The total viewing figures for the final were over 13 million, compared to the five million the ailing X Factor is receiving now. Watch YouTube footage of Pop Idol now and it almost feels as dated as Pathé newsreel, when contrasted with the contrived carnival of cruelty the shows have descended into. How would Young have coped with overnight fame in the age of Twitter?

“I think I would have been fine because one, I would have been more aware of it. And two, what’s always allowed me to cope is my love of live singing. On that show, we actually sang live every night. Nothing was Autotuned. Who knows if it’s the same now. I think that chapter will be opened probably in a decade’s time. People will look back at these shows and go: ‘How duped were we as the public?’ But that’s not for me to say – that’s for a Panorama investigation or something.”

“I can’t ever forget that people rang up on a Saturday night and spent time and money to vote for me. That kind of connection is unique and probably why I’ve remained so level headed.”

TVs Pop Idol winner Will Young poses for photographers at Fountain Studios London
Young celebrates his Pop Idol win in 2002. Photo: Reuters

It’s not the only thing that’s changed. After winning the show, Young came out as gay in the News Of The World, a move that was considered so taboo for a teen-pop idol that it was splashed as a “shock revelation” across page one. “I remember thinking, well, if people don’t buy my music or come to my concerts because I’m gay, then I don’t want them buying my music or coming to my concerts anyway.”

In the week we meet, Sam Smith has scored the first ever Bond theme in the UK with Writing On The Wall from Spectre. “Nowadays, it’s great because people don’t care so much. You have brilliant people like Sam Smith and Years and Years frontman Olly Alexander and I think that’s fantastic because that’s exactly the way it should be.”

Having been open about his demons (he’s battled post traumatic stress disorder, depersonalisation, and derealisation), he’s evangelical about how mindfulness is the key to mental wellbeing. “I think we have a slightly warped opinion about what a happy society can be in the West. We concentrate on money rather than the things that matter. A good example is the National Health Service. I mean, we go on about how bad it is. I’m like: ‘Bloody brilliant! If I get ill, I can go to the hospital for free and someone will treat me.’ Stop bloody moaning. This is making me emotional actually…” His voice quavers. “But in Africa, I visited a charity where they have to stretcher pregnant women for three days to get to hospital. Stop. Bloody. Moaning. It’s the premise of capitalism, that negativity – that we’re made to feel bad about ourselves so we’ll buy things we don’t need to feel better.”

Then he stops himself and adds with self-deprecating ease: “You’re making me want to go on Question Time again.”

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