ZANG TUMMM TUMB ARTICLES “the first draft of history”

I will survive

The former singer of Frankie Goes To Hollywood has made his first album in 10 years — and his first since he learned he has Aids. Simon Hattenstone finds him handsome, healthy and mature.

The photograph on the right was personally approved by Holly Johnson. We dont normally give interviewees picture approval, but Johnson won the sympathy vote. Six years ago it was announced that the former leader of eighties pop group Frankie Goes To Hollywood had Aids, that he wouldnt be with us for much longer. Johnson set to work — first an autobiography, then an exhibition of his paintings in the west end. And now hes recorded his first album in 10 years. So much to do, so little time.

No wonder he wants picture approval, he must look a right sight, says one colleague. Hes dead isnt he, adds another. The rumours about his appearance spread round the office — disfigured, wheelchair-ridden, cachectic. Poor sod. Of course, weve got to give him picture approval.

Wolfgang and Funky answer the door. Funky yelps and climbs my lower leg, while Wolfgang makes the coffee. Wolfgang, the lover, and Funky, the white poodle, have been living with Johnson for more than a decade. Upstairs, I hear scrapings and squeakings. Sorry, Hollys not quite ready yet.

I wonder if hes going to make a grand Norma Desmond sweep into the room — I am big, its the pop business that got small. Funky isnt looking at his best today, what with the lampshade over his head. “Its to stop him licking his willy,” explains Wolfgang. “Hes got a nasty sore on it, and you know what dogs are like — theyll lick and lick till theres nothing left.” More scrapings and squeakings. I look at the walls, which are covered in paintings. The whole house is a wonderful gallery. While the lounge is dominated by urbane Bloomsburies (Wolfgang collects Duncan Grants and Vanessa Bells), as we scroll up the stairs the paintings become progressively more louche. Gorgeous sailor boys, Amazonian breasts and bionic pecs, and bejewelled penis after bejewelled penis — all Johnsons own work.

Eventually he walks in, and Im shocked. Johnson looks wonderful. More jowly than in the old days, when he could have been a poster boy for the school of homo-erotic kitsch, but handsome, healthy, mature.

He wants to play me the new single, so we head off for his recording studio in the attic. He turns on the video, tells me its his directorial debut, and starts smiling. The song Disco Heaven seems to be a celebratory throwback to his clubbing days.

The video features celebrities such as Boy George and Jasper Conran imitating great gay icons like Divine and Leigh Bowery. “All me fabulous guest stars — it was bloody hard work.”

Johnson, now 39, still talks in the same high camp of yesteryear with a pouting stress between syllables. “Its a song about remembering in a positive way your friends that arent here any more.” Johnson has plenty of friends to remember. He can count 15 friends with Aids, all of them now dead. “You know theyre all there dancing together in disco heaven.”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a phenomenon. At a time when pop stars such as Freddie Mercury, George Michael and Elton John were closeted, Johnsons band were all leather, bulges and gay pride. Relax, the first single, was released in 1984. It caused an uproar when Radio 1 finally realised it was about delayed ejaculation.

Their first three songs got to number one, Two Tribes was number one for an incredible nine weeks, and at one point they had the first and second best selling singles in the charts. Johnson preened and strutted and sucked up the celebrity with fabulous arrogance. He knew he was made to be admired.

Was he really as confident as he seemed? “Oh yes . Id gone through my teenage years as if global stardom was my divine right. I was already there as far as I was concerned, it just took the world some time to realise it. You are that confident when youre young. The arrogance of youth is brilliant.”

But the arrogance of youth was soon to be washed away by doubt and misfortune By 1987 he had fallen out with the other Frankies. He rowed with the “horrendous calculating” people at the record company, and for the first time in his life found things werent going his way. Johnson took them to court, and won a case for restraint of trade, He went solo, managed a number one album in 1989 and then fell out with his new bosses MCA. He has never released another album. Until now.

The fallout must have been tough? “Yes, but not as tough as getting ill.” A week after finding he was HIV positive he was told he had full-blown Aids. He had already lost most of his “extended gay family” to the disease by then, and he prepared himself for the worst.

Not only did he have to come to terms with Aids, he had to come to terms with the attendant prejudices. Just after getting the result he visited a counsellor who said that if he thought this was bad he should wait till the media gets hold of it and tells the world that Holly Johnson has got his just deserts for spouting on about gay sex.

“It was a bit of a headwrecker. I had a bit of a nervous breakdown,” he says quietly. He wouldnt leave the house, wouldnt tell his friends he had Aids, wouldnt face up to reality. Depressed and ill with chronic pancreatitis, he locked his door on the outside world for a year.

He was so frightened, he says. “I wasnt scared of death, but scared of life and scared of pain, and scared of suffering. Scared of physical disfigurement — all those horrendous images that were being printed of people.”

At least, he says, he didnt miss celebrity. When fame did come, Johnson found it a letdown — banged up like battery stars in the fetid dressing rooms at Top of the Pops, forced to chat to Roland Rat first thing in the morning because the obnoxious puppet had huge viewing figures. What most upset him was that Frankie never got the critical credit he felt they deserved. In one of the first major interviews he said Frankie were “a work of art”, asking “Does that sound pretentious?”

Johnson is having his photo taken, enjoying every moment of it. “Do I look respectable. Not too shiny? Yes, of course it was pretentious, but whats wrong with pretentious? It was my art degree really, it was commercial art, pop art.”

Meanwhile, the press just labelled them another glossy manufactured band in the pockets of producer Trevor Horn.

When he talks about the happiness of the early eighties, he mentions meeting Wolfgang, who became his personal manager and is now a successful art dealer, rather than the adulation and the gold discs. Ironic, really, that the star who was touting pop promiscuity had already turned into a slippers and cocoa boy.

After a years illness, the despair was replaced by a sense of urgency.

Johnson wrote his autobiography A Bone In My Flute and says even now hes still a little shocked by how confessional it is. “Well I didnt expect to be around for the publication.” The exhibition of his paintings was also part of that process of rushing to realise dreams. “You know, quick youve got to do this, quick youve got to do that, before you pop your clogs. If my HIV diagnosis gave me anything it did give me the desire to live in the moment and appreciate it. Being here now, and knowing how lucky I am to be seeing that eclipse with Wolfgang.” He says so much of his youth was spent living in the future.

Johnson thinks we should finish the interview by six. “Otherwise Wolfgang will go mad.” Why? “Because its Friday night and we always finish work by six.”

Actually, he says, if we stop now well be bogged down in the past, and there is so much happening today. About three years ago he underwent another shift. He had changed his lifestyle — healthy food, herbal remedies, vitamin supplements, no fags, no touring, no hassles, and the finest medication. He started to feel better. Yes, he still tired easily, but he no longer succumbed to the first lungful of bacteria in the air.

“Im winning,” he says. “For years now Ive felt I can go on living, Im bigger than it ,” he says with a wonderful melodramatic gesture and giggle.

When he started to feel better he built the studio and began to sing again. “When youre ill you dont feel like singing. It was really quite tough getting my voice back into shape.” Psychologically tough as well? “Yeh. You ask yourself is it still there? Can I still do it? Will anyone want to hear it?” On the new album, he has re-recorded his famous ballad, The Power Of Love.

“Whenever people come up to him in the street and him if hes Holly Johnson, he says, they always mention that song, and tell him how they fell in love to it.” He says this version is more mellow.

Johnson seems so balanced and calm. “Is that the right word?” he says. “I dont know if its calmness. I dont know what it is. Its called growing up isnt it, not caring so much about what people think about you as an individual, accepting yourself for who you are.” Did he really care so much? “I pretended I didnt, but I think I did. I was the pop star who wouldnt wear the same outfit twice.”

A few weeks ago Frankie Goes To Hollywoods classic album Welcome To The Pleasuredome re-entered the charts, and in October the new album will be released. Is the renaissance complete? He quickly reminds me the album was only in the charts because it was on special offer. But what if things did take off like last time? “Lightning doesnt strike twice,” he says.

“Im not expecting or hoping for that to happen. But you know its almost like the success has already happened in my head by virtue of recording an album that Im really happy with and that I can put on in front of you without cringing. Thats pretty good going isnt it?”