John Rowles is still simply fabulous

By Michele Hewitson

Cheryl Moana Marie opens the door and from inside the house a long, deep, low "hellooo there" travels up the hall.

This is all quite thrilling, although at this moment I'm not sure why.

John Rowles is home for a show and this is the Te Atatu house he bought his mother and where Cheryl, the sister for whom he wrote the song, now lives. So there are two icons, of a sort, here today. That could be the thrill. But it is also that voice. You'd think that no one other than a Vegas showman could actually speak that way, but Rowles really does.

Of course he was a Vegas showman for a while and he spent years in Hawaii when he was in his early 20s, singing and going out to fancy restaurants, "sometimes with two girls on each arm". He always wore a suede jacket. In Hawaii! "Ha, ha. Yeah, instead of aloha shirts. I always wanted to look cool all the time."

He was hot stuff, he couldn't leave the house without being recognised. "The girls were a bit of a problem. Well, you know, it was like, next please. I was the young, attractive, Polynesian guy in Hawaii in my turquoise shirts and beautiful off-white suits - with the suntan."

He always had good hair, big hair, too.

He's sitting in the kitchen drinking his second glass of wine at three in the afternoon.

He has a big, bright white smile and he still has that hair. He is 59 now - how did that happen? - and he looks fabulous. Oh, look, he is fabulous. I adored him. Even before he hummed "Michelle, ma belle ... " You can ask him anything.

About his hair, for example, and how lucky he's still got it.

"Well, most of it. I'm getting a bit thin at the back. My hair's so fine I've always had to use gel or hairspray because, if I don't, I can't do anything with it."

He shows me his thinning hair.

Has he had any facelifts? "No I haven't, no. I'm getting a bit droopy around here." He lifts his chin to show me. "But that's with age. It's hereditary, my mother had it and my brother. But I mean people have got wrinkles too but I don't, so I mean you can't win in every aspect. However, you've got to feel good about yourself and I feel pretty good. I take a few nice herbal things. I've kept my body in reasonable shape." He pats his stomach.

I can't imagine many men, especially ageing former sex gods, entertaining such questions with such equanimity but he isn't bothered a bit.

I have been wondering how to ask how he feels about his career these days.

How do you put such a question? I looked at the old clipping files. There's a photo from 1969 of Rowles smoking a six- inch cigar and "referring modestly to his Mercedes car and luxury apartment in London". He's described as wearing a "green suede jacket, tight green trousers and pleated orange silk shirt". I bet he thought he was the cat's pyjamas.

"I was different, I didn't dress normal. I used to have the big buckle and the tight velvet suit. It would look absolutely ridiculous today but I did the Johnny Carson show in New York with that."

In 1970 the Hollywood Reporter wrote about his Vegas show: "Rowles has a sex appeal like Presley and plenty of superstar appeal." Women reporters went to interview him and asked him about finding love and he'd say things like, "It could be you, X". He once said to a reporter, "I've been in love three times. No, make that four. Once with myself." He was joking wasn't he?

"That's just stupid! It's just, you know, throwing it out. And everyone goes, 'What a big-head'. "Yeah, what a big-head. I joke a lot and people take me the wrong way. I often get into trouble from my jokes because some people take me seriously." I don't. I think he's one of the funniest people I've met. But you can see how it might go a bit awry in print.

He recalls how he met Elvis in Vegas, was hanging out back stage with him. "I didn't think he was going to die. I wish I had my photo taken with him."

I ask him what sex appeal is and he says: "I always had a hairy chest - but not too hairy. But that has been one of my, aah, sex parts, I guess."

The main thing to remember about him is that he describes himself as "the showbiz ham".

He says he never really went big-headed at the height of his fame but it's hard to imagine he didn't. It must have been heady stuff for a boy from Kawerau. He says his mother, Phyllis, who died in 1998, always "pulled me down to earth ... whenever I came back it was 'Get your feet off that chair'. I used to drink in front of her and she'd say, 'You're drinking too much'. She was right on top of me. It doesn't matter how successful I was, she pulled me down if she felt I was getting a bit carried away."

He never got really carried away. "Not to the extreme. I've always been pretty disciplined. I never took drugs. I might have had the occasional bit of, you know, volcanic marijuana but I never got carried away with it."

The irony of his career is that, when he was rich and famous and being compared with Elvis, he didn't think he was much good. "If I had known how good I was at 19, I probably could have been very, very internationally successful."

He was cocky but not confident. "I was quite insecure really. It took me a long time to gain the real confidence of a performer. I'm singing better now, if I may say so myself. I can reach higher notes and strong notes with clarity and confidence." But then, "I don't know, I was never comfortable. I was too nervous."

The expectations must have been huge. It's possible that he's confident now because those expectations are not so arduous. "That's right and I think that had a lot to do with being in a very insecure game and always looking for recognition."

It doesn't seem quite fair though, that he has grown into enjoying his career now and didn't enjoy it at its peak.

"No, it isn't and there's no explanation for it. It's a shame."

Still, he's very happy and the reason for this is his two boys - "my pride and joy" - who are seven and three. He doesn't live with them and their mother - they have their own houses in Sydney - although he calls her "my partner".

Before the boys there were times that "I'd sit in the bathtub and go 'Oh god, what's this all about?' That sort of loneliness. But when I got them I've never been lonely." But he can't live with anyone. "I'm a sort of loner and I like my own space. It's sad really." Sad for him?

"No, it's not sad for me! It's probably sad to a lot of other people but I like it that way. And I've got my music, see. My first love is music, of course."

He says - and this should sound slightly plaintive, but doesn't - that he only had a few really big hits and "I'm always trying to have another hit. Always, constantly, yeah." He thinks he might have one in his new single I Know I'm Bad ... but I'm Good for You. "I have an uncanny feeling about this song." If he never has another big one, "I'm still happy because I'm performing on stage" - which is what he'll be doing on November 3 and 4 at SkyCity. His fans are the people who have "never forgotten those songs, never ever forgotten - the ones who are still alive, I mean".

He has a loyal contingent of fans in Australia who go to all his shows; they've been to hundreds. He doesn't understand why. "They know every song, every humorous line. It's almost embarrassing to me, doing the same thing in front of them. But they don't care. They love me. I don't understand it. But if I make them happy, I've learned to just live with it."

I think I might understand it.

I've met a few showbiz hams in my time but never one who owned up to it.

Who could fail to love him?

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