Michele Hewitson interview: Paul Potts

By Michele Hewitson

Seven years on from his success in Britain's Got Talent, shy singer still keeps to himself and watches his pennies.

British tenor Paul Potts. Photo / Dean Purcell
British tenor Paul Potts. Photo / Dean Purcell

Almost exactly seven years ago I sat in a room in a fancy Auckland hotel with a funny, sweet, roundish little fellow who was so nervous he kept pulling at his ear. He was so green, so new to being the celebrity in the celebrity interview, that he helpfully pointed out that I could tell he was nervous because, he said, look, he kept pulling at his ear. He had terrible, crooked, English teeth and he was ashamed of them and so smiled in a heart-tuggingly crooked way - with his top lip folded down over his bottom lip - which somehow made all of him look crooked. He was on leave from his job in a place with a dispiriting name: The Car Phone Warehouse, although he liked his job. He had a run of rotten luck: A tumour and then an accident and he was so in debt that he was months away from losing his house.

He was wearing a suit given to him by the record company. He called it "a costume".

He wasn't simple: He had a BA in humanities and had been a Lib Dem member of the Bristol City Council and he liked to sing opera and had had some roles with amateur companies.

But I think because he was simply nice, people did think he wasn't all that sharp. He is. You just have to listen carefully.

Then, of course, he won the first series of Britain's Got Talent by singing, of all things, Puccini's Nessun Dorma and Paul Potts was famous and went around the world, sitting in fancy hotels, talking to journalists - who were determined to make him a celebrity - and pulling at his ear. He was terribly sweet and I was horrid and shouted at him: "Who are you then?" He had been driving me nuts by saying, over and over, in various ways, the same thing: He was who he was.

He was so sweet; he just giggled. I thought then that his story could go two ways. He'd be famous for a year and then his career would just fizzle out and you hoped he'd have made enough to not have to go back to the phone place, but you feared he might.

Or he'd make a lot of money, fast, and blow it all on fast cars and women and run off from his wife, Julz (who he met on an internet dating site and who was his first girlfriend) with a bikini model who would then dump him when he had to go back to that car place.

But how you hoped not (and I admit the second scenario was fairly unlikely.) He was like a rescue puppy who had been abandoned and abused and now, while ever so happy and grateful to have been rescued, didn't quite trust that its luck would last. He looked at his good luck as if it was all happening to somebody else. He almost flinched when regarding it. I think now that he is still almost superstitious about enjoying his luck, for fear it might vanish in a puff of smoke. "Possibly. I'm more anxious about taking it for granted and I think if you trust it too much, that's what happens."

He insists he's not a pessimist. I said: "Are you sure?" He has spent some time thinking about this and he said, perhaps optimistically, that: "It's just that I think I kind of protected myself, in a way. Because if you fall from a great height, it hurts more. If you prepare yourself by not putting yourself on a pedestal, then you're not going to smack your head on the ground quite as hard. If you fall from a great height, it bloody hurts. And I've fallen off many things."

How nice it is to see him again. He is a bit rounder, the teeth have been fixed (a dentist did them, free), he's wearing a tweed jacket. Nice jacket. "It is nice," he said. It's Harris tweed, he said, opening it to peer at the label. "I bought it because I liked it. I buy what I like. I don't buy for the label." The jacket cost 175 quid. I whistled. Talk about break the bank! He laughed and said: "If it had been 25 pounds more, I wouldn't have touched it!" I'd been teasing him about being tight. He doesn't like flash things: "Not massively." He was staying at the Sky City Grand. His suite was quite grand, he said, but what he really liked about it was that it had a washing machine. This meant that he didn't have to pay the "stupidly expensive" hotel laundering costs. "I know," he said, "that's very ordinary, isn't it?" He has never forgotten, or got over by the sound of it, sending a T-shirt he wore for rehearsals for the semi-final of Britain's Got Talent to a hotel laundry. "They charged me 12 pounds to wash that T-shirt! It cost me two pounds to buy it!" He is still outraged by this and quite right too. It was only seven years ago.

He is funny about money and frightened of having it in the way he used to be frightened of not having it. He is used, he said, in the present tense, to having his bank card spat back at him, out of money machines: "At high velocity". He never looks at his bank balances for fear, perhaps, that if he did look there would be nothing there. He is supposed to now be worth between 5 and 10 million quid but as he never looks, there is no use asking. But as he is frugal, according to him, and tight, according to me, it is highly unlikely he'll ever feature in one of those stories the British tabloids specialise in of the Rags to Riches to Rags variety.

He said: "You know, there's an old saying: 'When it's gone, it's gone.' I think it's actually quite healthy to be a little worried about it; it's just not being obsessed by it." He gave me one of his still lopsided grins - he says that's just the way his face works and that if you went around beaming your head off all the time, "people would be carrying you off - on a stretcher".

He is as nice as he ever was - "Well, I hope so!" - but he can be pointed. He meant, I think, that there was one person in the room obsessed with his money, and it wasn't him.

I was, a bit, but I wanted him to be having some joy from having some money. He says he gets that from having a career doing what he loves doing and which he never in his wildest dreams thought would happen. Besides, his wife, Julz, is even more frugal than he is and "doesn't do shopping". He buys her beautiful shoes but she doesn't wear them, just looks at them and strokes them.

They live in an art deco house in Port Talbot in Wales, which is where they were already living, just in a posher neighbourhood. It is a lovely house but hardly a blingy mansion. They don't have a cleaner. They have a white German Shepherd called Caesar and two hamsters he gave Julz for a Christmas present. The hamsters are called, appropriately, Jingle and Bells and they get up in the night and make a racket going round and round on their wheel, which squeaks.

Julz is very private and doesn't much like travelling and so he travels and she stays home and plays a video game called Dark Brotherhood (about which he knows nothing other than it's some role-playing, fantasy game) and, presumably, vacuuming up after Caesar.

His hobby is photography and he does spend money on cameras; he has 13. He'd been up on the Hopetoun St bridge earlier in the week, taking pictures of traffic. Why? "Why not?"

I wondered whether his celebrity had caused any wobbles in the marriage, because it often does, but he looked at me as though I was barmy. They are blissfully happy still (they met on on the internet and she was his first girlfriend) and lead a pretty self-contained life. They do have friends but you get the impression they'd rather be on their own, really. He has no celebrity friends. He's never been interested, he said, "in trophy friends".

They would like to have a family, and have tried, but now he says if it happens, it will "be a bonus". But would he mind terribly if they can't have a child? "I think life sometimes gives us what we're meant to have and sometimes things aren't meant to be. We're happy as we are."

She was the first person, really, to be kind to him. I think he didn't smile often not only because of his teeth; he had nothing to smile about. He appeared on the Oprah show after winning the TV talent show and he said, later: "I was really, really nervous, but she was so kind - everyone is so kind now."

It is that "now" that makes you want to weep. The extent of the unkindnesses emerged only slowly. He didn't, for example, tell the makers of the film about him, One Chance (in which he is played by James Corden) that he had been sexually abused by the leader of his Sea Cadets group, who has since been found guilty of the abuse of other children. He wanted the film to be a comedy. A comedy! He was horribly bullied at school and when he was 12 a classmate shouted "Paul Potts is dead!" and everyone cheered. He did try to change, to fit in, but nobody noticed and he just made himself even more confused and miserable and nobody liked him any better than they had before.

Which makes sense of that mantra that had driven me mad: He was who he was and not changing who he was was all he could control in his early life. He told me a story about once being on a flight, in business class, and having to go the loo which was near the galley and so he took his meal tray with him and deposited it on the way. This was just common sense because he knows how clumsy he is and if he nodded off once back in his seat and the tray was still there he was likely "to send the whole thing flying. But it got back to the [record] label that I had suggested they [the cabin staff] weren't doing their job. I explained what I'd done and they said: 'Well, you can't be who you want to be; you have to be what people you imagine you to be because if you stand out for any reason, it's wrong."' I knew how that conversation ended without him having to tell me.

He said: "It does matter a huge amount to me. I'd rather be taken for what I am. And that's not an answer that's changed!"

Well, hooray for that, I say now. So one of us has changed.

It's as corny as could be, but his is a story that warms the cockles of your heart, and so does he - the funny, sweet, roundish little fellow who doesn't change.

Paul Potts is at the Civic, Auckland, tonight and at the Civic Theatre, Rotorua, tomorrow night.

- NZ Herald

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