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Will Young: ‘I worked out that nothing really matters, then found simplistic joy in everything’

Singer Will Young didn’t always love the songs he had to sing on TV. But he always knew he was going to win

Will Young was born in 1979 in Wokingham, Berkshire. Musical from an early age, he was head chorister at school and learned how to play the piano aged nine. For a time, he dreamed of being an Olympic sprinter, but cemented his love of the stage when he joined a Footlights group while at university. His first attempt at a TV singing competition was on This Morning, but it was his 2002 performance on Pop Idol, ultimately winning the contest, that shot him to fame. Here, in a Letter to My Younger Self, he talks about sexuality, grief, and how letting go of everything is the key to contentment. 

My main preoccupation at 16 was basketball. I also loved art and music. I started doing a lot of my own art, inspired by what I saw when my grandmother took me to the Royal Academy. And I started watching a lot of MTV, particularly Trevor Nelson’s show. It was all about R&B pop for me – D’Angelo, Mary J Blige, Aaliyah. I would find a place in our sitting room to dance and watch myself in the mirror, singing into a hairbrush. So, I was already a narcissist. And, oh, I was so beautiful. Such a pretty boy. 

I was very content, really, in my own world – I think because I wasn’t engaging with my sexuality. That was definitely a conscious decision. Probably because I was at boarding school, so most of my time I was just among boys, and I didn’t feel safe enough to be open about my sexuality at that stage. So, I didn’t come across those complications. I was quite happy just being in the countryside, doing my art, playing basketball and listening to music. And I had my twin brother, so I had my best friend with me. 

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From 16 onwards I really started to blossom. I was finding my confidence and my humour. I always knew I was going to be a singer, but it was a very private, internalised desire at first. Then I went to university and joined a Footlights society, so I was singing a lot. I also started singing in a barbershop quartet with my friends. Then I started recording songs onto MiniDisc and sending them off to different competitions. But I didn’t know what to do next.

I did enter a boyband competition and won it. I got on TV for that, on This Morning [in 1999]. But, even then, I just felt frustrated. I was doing musicals, but I didn’t want to do musicals. And I didn’t want to sing in a group. And I wasn’t writing my own music at that stage. It was like having this amazing gift but not knowing what to do with it.

I always knew I was really good. It’s weird, because I was so unconfident in so many other areas, but I knew I was a really good singer and I’d be a pop star. Doing Pop Idol live was the first time I’d ever sung with a handheld microphone with reverb. That was just amazing – a very liberating, self-affirming experience. And I knew I was going to win. I remember posting the entry form and saying to my friend, I think I’m going to win this.

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It wasn’t until I went to university that things started catching up with me. Things like repressed sexuality. Abandonment issues.

Will Young
2002 With hosts Ant and Dec on Pop Idol Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I don’t remember the moment on Pop Idol when they announced the winner and said my name. It was quite hard on that final show [in 2002] because I had to sing two songs that I really didn’t like. So that kind of took the shine off. But I still wanted to look really grateful, and not seem snobby or up myself.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy myself, but I was just like, oh, god, you’re going to have to bide your time here. I was quite good at being political and I knew how lucky I was, so I accepted that it was going to be a bit of a waiting game before I could do my own thing. I only remember one moment during the show, when I was singing Light My Fire, and I looked up and saw Annie Lennox in the audience. That was really cool because I was a massive fan. I met her beforehand and she said to me, “Fuck them, fuck them all!” I loved her. And afterwards the first person I saw was my friend Claire. Apparently, the first thing I said – so she tells me – was, “think of all the free parties we’re going to go to!”

I think the younger me would be absolutely fine with everything that’s happened to me since I was a teenager. He was quite cool and relaxed. He knew who he was – he was a cool dude. I’m envious of the simplicity of his life. OK, there are lots of difficult times when you’re young, you’ve got hormones and all these things rushing around. But, really, you don’t care about all that nonsense. No one can buy what a teenager has, which is… they don’t give a fuck. While you’ve got youth, you don’t give a fuck.

I spent a long time trying to come back to who I was as a teenager, before life got complicated and I came across death and heartache. For many years I wanted to return to that time in myself and I think I have managed to do that now. So, I remain young and curious and content.

It wasn’t until I went to university that things started catching up with me. Things like repressed sexuality. Abandonment issues. I remember falling in love with someone and getting very low about that. And there was definitely a pattern to do with relationships. Life started to bite me in the ass a bit – the effect of having gone to boarding school from a very young age. I didn’t really understand that until I was about 26. That’s when I started having therapy. 

It was difficult when the papers started writing about my sexuality, but it wasn’t the main event in my life. Being famous is not the main event. And I knew that. It was frustrating and complicated and boring, but I was just thinking, who gives a shit about this? I wouldn’t read the papers – I wasn’t really engaged in that way. And, luckily, there wasn’t social media then. So, it made my life a bit more difficult, but I didn’t have deep trauma from being famous. 

Will Young in Mrs Henderson Presents
2005 Playing Bertie in the Oscar-nominated movie Mrs Henderson Presents Photo: 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

The most important thing I’ve learned about life is that it doesn’t mean anything. It’s all nonsense. Once I learned that nothing had any worth, everything had worth. It’s the classic kind of Buddhist thing – I unattached myself from life.

The process of learning that lesson is dramatic, because it’s a breaking-down of everything we’re told. And that is traumatic. It’s like, what do you mean, getting a bigger car isn’t important? What do you mean, my house isn’t an extension of me? Who am I then? But going through that thinking process is necessary to reach an enlightened state on life. When I worked out that nothing really matters, I found really simplistic joy in everything. Through unattaching from everything, I’ve reached a deeper level of connecting to things. Attaching to love can be based on dependency, a survival instinct, or a fear instinct. Connecting to love is based on a healthy, equal enjoyment. I just imagine that I’m on a river and life’s just tottering me along.

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Like everyone else, I do fear loss. I’ve lost people [Will’s twin brother, Rupert, died in 2020]. I don’t have children but the closest I have to losing a child is my dog getting run over last summer. It was the most traumatic thing. It was horrific. And it just sort of sits there, the pain. It’s not affecting me day to day, but it’s there and it’s awful. It was just so instant. One minute, I’ve got my dog with me, the next minute she’s gone. That’s it – it’s that bleak. I’m looking at my dog and she’s dead and I’m like, what the fuck? If I could meet anyone from my past again I’d like to just hang out with her. To be with Nellie one more time, to just have her on my lap, that would be lovely. But then it would be really sad when she went away again.

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be this amazing moment, a very spiritual moment when I was 17. I woke up very early one morning in Cornwall and I cycled to this beach called Dana Bay. It was very peaceful, and I just sat on my own listening to Joan Armatrading, thinking. And I had a sort of moment. I suddenly felt very at one with life. Some people would say it was almost a calling. And it was brilliant. Remarkable. I’d love to experience that again – just because it was so much fun the first time around.

Will Young’s new podcast The Wellbeing Lab with Will Young is out now. Be Yourself and Happier: The A-Z of Wellbeing by Will Young is published by Ebury on April 21. Will Young’s 20 Years: The Greatest Hits album is out on May 27. Tickets for Will Young’s UK tour in October and November are on sale now

@Janeannie

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