Hi Andy. Where and how are you?
In Miami and I'm really busy. I'm quite into horoscopes and this year is the Chinese year of the horse and it said, "You need to work."
Tell us about your new solo album and Edinburgh festival one-man show, both titled Torsten the Bareback Saint. (1)
About five years ago, at the Kerrang! awards, I met playwright Barney Ashton, who mentioned that he'd written some songs and a show around a protagonist character, Torsten. I said I'd have a listen, but had no idea of how intricate or in-depth it would be. When I'd heard it, he said he'd written it with me in mind, and that he only wanted me to play the character. Torsten isn't necessarily autobiographical, but I can really appreciate some of the stories the songs tell.
I was about to ask if it's autobiographical. The posters for the Edinburgh show read: "Andy Bell IS Torsten the Bareback Saint."
I do feel like that, actually, because of certain things that have happened in my career. On tour, the groupie thing – and you do find yourself in some dangerous situations. And you get a bit jaded sometimes. So Torsten's a reflection of that. I didn't have to change a single lyric: Barney has written as if he was inside my head. I still don't know how he did that.
The blurb describes Torsten as a "semi-immortal polysexual sensualist". What does that mean?
That he's a randy bugger, basically (laughs).
I don't know if he's mortal with a semi! But basically you don't really know whether he's a mythical figure or alive, because he seems to be able to transcend time and appear where he wants to. When narrating as Torsten, I think of Irish comedian Dave Allen. I loved his cold, non-judgmental deliveries.
The songs – just your voice and piano – are beautiful, but with brutally frank lyrics about sex, drugs and stardom. The album's opening line is "Freshly buggered, he made his way into school". Are you going for Radio 1 airplay, Andy?
I don't think Radio 1's gonna be interested, but I think old ladies will like it, actually. They tend to be the most open-minded.
Tell me about growing up in Peterborough.
They had a burgeoning punk scene, which I tried to get into, but I was too soft. I went to a few gigs but didn't like the violence. I tried to put a safety pin through my mouth at school but couldn't push it through. I got as far as being sent home for dyeing my hair. Unfortunately, there was nothing for young people to do except get drunk and fight. There was no gay scene. There were rumours that you could go to the back bar of the Bull Hotel or whatever it was called. I went there and made best friends with a punk girl called Jill, whose brother was gay, so I'd hear stories about him going to [London nightclub] Heaven. She wanted to move to London so we did. I saw Boy George and Kenny Everett at Heaven, but was so shy I didn't speak to anyone there for a year.
You were bullied at school, weren't you?
I was bullied outside the school. I was from a large family on a council estate but ended up at a posh school 'cos I passed my 11-plus, so I was mixed up. From a rough family with a posh voice. I had four sisters so I was like a girl, really. I was used to playing with girly things.
Is that why you wore the tutu in Erasure?
Yeah. I'd had enough of being bullied so I thought I'd put myself out there, as outrageous as I could be, so there was nothing more that people could say.
Is it true that when you answered Vince Clark's Melody Maker ad (Clarke was looking for a singer) you were working on the meat counter at Sainsbury's?
Not quite. I did work at the meat counter as a teenager, but when I met Vince I was in a band called the Void and selling ladies' shoes in Debenhams.
Before finding you, Vince had worked with Dave Gahan in Depeche Mode, Feargal Sharkey in the Assembly and Alison Moyet in Yazoo. Was it daunting to follow three of the most renowned voices of the 80s?
Very much so. In the studio, I was so enamoured of Vince I just kept staring at him. He was my hero. I couldn't believe I was there and kept running out of breath, especially on Oh L'Amour. They were trying to get me to relax and they had me lying down on the floor and telling me jokes. The weird thing was, after Yazoo split up I was thinking of writing Vince a letter offering my services. We were listening to Alison's first solo album and my mate said, "That's going to be you in a year's time" – and then I met Vince.
You were one of the first openly gay pop stars, unlike Freddie Mercury or George Michael, who hid their sexuality.
Yeah, but that's just how society was. People like me and Jimmy Somerville were just very honest. It's staggering how it's changed, gay marriage and all. I think the public is in tune with mother nature and we evolve without realising it. We fight for our rights and stuff, but politicians are the last people to sign everything off.
With hindsight, isn't it amazing that in those conservative times, a gay man in a tutu could become one of the biggest stars in the country (2)?
It is amazing. In America as well. They didn't really twig, but we never got much grief. It comes when you least expect it. In 1996, we supported David Bowie in Brazil and the whole audience were chanting "puta puta", which means whore. Luckily I had some kind of forcefield around me 'cos not one thing hit us. The stage was lined with military police. I was thinking, "Are they here for the crowd or us?!" I had to go offstage straight into an MTV interview. I was furious and Vince put his fingers to his lips as if to say "Ssssh." They asked me how the gig went and I said, "Oh it was amazing" (laughs). Vince is such an earth-leveller. I'd have gone doolally if it wasn't for him.
You had a 10-year cocaine addiction in the 90s, which sounds a bit doolally.
It is a bit doolally. I was lucky I didn't lose my marbles, really, during that period.
You described just one gig. Is it inevitable that you end up using some kind of crutch to deal with that sort of craziness?
When you're so young and then all of a sudden you have so much money, that you're not used to, the world's your oyster. That's what sends people crazy because you feel there's nothing you can't do. No one will say no to you. I can't even think about how much money I spent [on drugs], because it breaks my heart.
In 2004, you announced that you'd been HIV positive for six years. Was that a difficult decision?
A few years before, some newspapers had been going to publish stories saying I was HIV when I wasn't. We had to threaten them with lawyers. So when I did catch it, I thought honesty was the best way to protect myself. It was on MTV for a bit and then it just died down. People tend to brush those things under the carpet.
People were more shocked when you suggested in interviews that you deliberately sought to become HIV positive.
What I said then wasn't true. That's how I was feeling at the time, because I was in a self-destructive cycle. Then I thought it was some badge of honour, but it's not at all and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I just said it to punish myself. I wasn't in the right frame of mind.
Is it true that Narcotics Anonymous analysed that you had always sought to be part of social groups. Was a lot of your recovery down to learning to like yourself as an individual?
That's it exactly. Just to love yourself and be happy with who you are. I think it takes a lifetime.
And yet you were – and are – enormously loved by the public.
I think when you go to a Christian school and learn about Jesus being crucified and everything, you can tend to crucify yourself. The whole myth of suffering for your art is not true. It gives you good material, but that's not going to last forever.
Does living with HIV make much difference to daily life?
The thing that's tricky is when you're travelling around so much, you have to make sure you have enough medication, especially on tour. We've got an Erasure tour coming up and that's 90 shows. If there's a flu bug going round you generally get it. You have to be so strong and healthy to carry them all through.
And you've had two hip replacements (3)!
It's nothing. The lead-up to having them is worse, because you don't have a clue what's going on. Basically the frame of what's holding you up is breaking down. In the end I was holding on to tables just to walk around, like a monkey.
With the replacements, can you fly around on trapezes and stuff like you used to?
The only thing I don't do now is the splits. I'm not Madonna, but I can get around pretty good. Once you've had the replacements you feel back to normal. You think, "How on earth did I cope with that?"
Do you feel like that?
I lost my partner (5) two years ago. I was so young when we met, so really it was like the rug was pulled and it was time to grow up. The loss is indescribable, but I have a new partner and just feel so lucky to be with someone now.
When you've been a superstar like you were, can you ever go back to how life was before?
In 1992, when Abbaesque (6) came out, I remember walking down the street and thinking everyone was staring at me. I was thinking, "Please, God, switch it off". And boy did he switch it off! (Laughs.) From 1995 it was like starting from scratch. Sometimes I do miss that thing when everyone knows who you are, but I can go on the tube and everything again. Sometimes when someone recognises me and says hello I get shocked. Before I would quite like that. Now, it's flattering, but it doesn't give you credence.
Do you still get back to Peterborough?
Yes, I visit my mum and dad. I go to the pub.
Considering your experiences, you seem remarkably down to earth. Have you changed much from the person working in Sainsbury's?
I'm still really shy, which lots of famous people are. Your job becomes your alter ego. I'm still enamoured of anyone on television, even the weather lady. I once plucked up the courage to go up to Tracey Emin, but I don't think she knew who I was (laughs). My first ever autograph was Paul Daniels at the donkey derby in Great Yarmouth.