As we sit on the veranda of Michael Hutchence’s old stone villa in the South of France, looking out over five acres of rolling green landscape, with its 80-foot pine trees, its cute little lawns and the host’s 1964 Aston Martin in the garage – not to mention the swimming-pool next to which Hutchence’s girlfriend, the jewel-eyed supermodel Helena Christensen, is making last-minute preparations for an al fresco luncheon – there is only one question to ask. Michael, Michael, Michael where did it all go wrong?
“I don’t know, mate”, he says gravely.
The wine: Macon Villages, a petulant white. The cigars: Havana. The climate: intensely pleasant. Hutchence’s parents are house-guests, as are Helena’s parents and her grandparents, who, at the ages of 78 and 71, have finally sallied forth from their native Denmark armed with only three English expressions: “You are my lucky star”, “Old man, young boy” and “More beer”. They are lovely people.
Hutchence monitors the pre-prandial fuss good naturedly, chomping on his cigar. Secluded and happy in this Eden, he has no trouble from paparazzi. They expect him and Helena to be sunbathing down on the beach at Nice. Instead, he is a good half-hour away tucked into the heel of the Alpes Maritimes.
Adam Clayton from U2 was here yesterday. Evan Dando of the Lemonheads is believed to be on his way. Hutchence shrugs gamely: his circle of acquaintances stretches from the obscurest Australian punk-rock icon to Prince Albert of Monaco (whom he calls “Albie”). The villa is a haven for those who crave discreet decadence.
In June 1993, Michael Hutchence made a celebrated remark to a British rock magazine: “I am”, he announced, “a f…ing great rock star.” It was a line designed to irritate, and if you don’t like INXS – Hutchence’s six-strong rock band, whose album Kick sold millions worldwide in 1987 and whose fortunes have been in mild decline since then – it will have succeeded. But Hutchence in person is much more impressive than his group’s sweaty stadium-funk music. He is a card, a wag and a caution. He does accents. He is rock music’s Robin Williams: his rapid-fire skits include the tortured artist, the naive hick, the asinine beer-monster, the suave clubber and, most often of all, the myopic, lisping clown prince that is rumoured to be the genuine article.
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure (for me) to be correct in answers and not say things like that,” he says, recalling the “rock star”announcement. “And I perversely tend to. But what does the world want from me?And what do I want from myself? And what’s it all about, Alfie?”
Topping up his glass, he considers his enviable vantage point: “Being an Australian,” he reflects, “we’re very suspicious about any unegalitarian behaviour. You know: so what about being a rock star? I think I’m probably one of the last people around to have the madness and the courage to flaunt it. All the pigeon-toed inward-lookers of our time … I just couldn’t do it. I tried it. It just wasn’t me. I really love to go with will and spirit.”
For a famous person, he is ridiculously indiscreet. He has admitted in interviews to taking a lot of drugs, and enjoying the results. In fact, at one point in 1988, he carried huge quantities of Ecstasy around in a jar. In the late-Eighties, he lived out a semi-public affair with Kylie Minogue, the widely maligned soap-opera moppet. Hutchence, who had considerable street credibility at the time, appeared to neutral commentators to be gambling with his hard-won sleazy image.
I think I’m probably one of the last people around to have the madness and the courage to flaunt it… I really love to go with will and spirit.
On being a rock star
“You see, that’s the thing,” he says eagerly. “I just don’t care. Why the hell would I go out with Kylie – which was probably the deathknell at the time- if … ? She was all Stock Aitken and Watered Out. She’s quite a different animal these days.” (Indeed, her post-Hutchence pop star image was the raunchy, if unconvincing, SexKylie). “I don’t want to use her as an example, but I think that proves my ability to ride over what people think I should do and shouldn’t do, and Yes lists and No lists.”
Did Kylie feel the same way: sod the world, let’s just have fun?
“Yes,” he says immediately. “Definitely. Absolutely.”
Do you still keep in touch with her?
Helena Christensen, wearing a gossamer pink summer dress, is by the pool. But not only that. She’s on the coffee-table. She’s on an advertising hoarding at Warren Street station. She’s got an entire issue of Elle TopModel to herself, which Hutchence, without a word, turns face down as he walks past to get another drink from the kitchen. Inside the gloss of TopModel, Helena speaks wistfully of Michael (“J’ai craque’ pour son cote’ sexy” – I flipped for his sexy side: she speaks six languages, which is five more than he does)and speculates about additions to the villa’s dramatis personae. In ten years, she calculates, they will have four kids – two of their own, plus two adopted Peruvians. This is clearly news to Hutchence. He tops his glass up.
Outlandish press reports about him and Helena filter back to the villa, usually to their amusement. The couple were recently married (they learned from a German newspaper). Hutchence didn’t mind that so much. He just wondered what Rod Stewart, whom he doesn’t know, was doing on the guest list.
To the tabloid animal, Hutchence must make an interesting quarry. Obviously intelligent, he mercilessly pokes fun at his own profession. He is extremely photogenic in his own right. He will go out with these fantastic women. Nightclubs will usually be involved. So far so good. And yet he is contemptuous of tabloids, not so much because of the lack of privacy, more because of the tabloid mentality that reduces people to potted histories and misspelt captions. To date, he has only hit one photographer, preferring to outfox them by more cerebral means. He’s an interesting mixture of preening layabout and down-to-earth Aussie.
“It’s not a good idea to get into a fight with me,” he says pleasantly. “I’ve only lost one.”
Ever since his taste in women sent his star status spinning off the scale, he has heard the same expression over and over from paparazzi, and he hates it: “Play the game, Michael. Play the game, old son.”
He won’t. Instead, he nestles into his Eden with Helena, reading Arthur Miller, drinking wine and listening to his signed copy of Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
Hutchence was born in Sydney in 1960; his father was in the rag trade, and Michael spent his childhood in Australia, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. He learned about funk and soul music from his big sister’s record collection. At the age of 12, back in Sydney, he was pulled out of a fight in high school by a boy named Andrew Farriss. To this day, Farriss is his co-writer in INXS, the band Farriss formed with his brothers Tim and Jon in 1977. After 17 years, the INXS line-up remains unchanged, although whole continents – America, Australia, France – now separate the grown-up, mid-thirties personnel. As a teenager, Hutchence was fired up by the punk scene in Sydney, a movement that appealed to his scruffy rebelliousness.
“Australia had a very interesting punk thing happening,” he remembers. “Of course, we had the safety pins and green hair, but that was a very English thing, a real working-class thing. In Australia, we have this enormous middle-class, and there was a perverted wish (among punks) not to have a rosy future. It was a suburban reaction of: ‘I don’t want to just have the barbie on Sundays and go, G’day mate, have another beer, here’s me four kids.’ It was definitely a big move out of that. It was like Neighbours Goes Weird.”
In 1986, starring in Richard Lowenstein’s cult film Dogs In Space, Hutchence (who can act) pulled off a compelling performance as Sam, a heroin-addicted punk living in a run-down Melbourne squat in 1978. Hutchence and his fellow actors, enjoying themselves and unable to get out of character, lived in the house for two months. He left only when a telex arrived to inform him that INXS’s song ‘What You Need’ had become a huge hit in America.
The first of INXS’s ten albums, INXS, was released as long ago as 1980, by which time the band were already in the habit of travelling thousands of miles to play gigs.
They even played prisons (“golden rule – bring girls,” he nods firmly) and, in the early Eighties, averaged 300 gigs a year. On the other 65 days, they would be trying to get more gigs. It was an education that toughened them up, by all accounts.
By 1986, having sold a million copies of their Listen Like Thieves album in America, INXS had achieved such financial success that they were advised to invest money in a new Australian film, as a tax loss. The film, Crocodile Dundee, has since made $174.6 million in America alone. (“We tried to invest in Crocodile Dundee II,” Hutchence ruefully admits. “But Paul Hogan wouldn’t let us.”)
At this point, having partaken of Hutchence’s hospitality and met at least nine members of his family, it seems a good idea to fire him a few ego-related questions and let him hang himself. The accents surely can’t save him now. Is he, for instance, disappointed that so few people consider him a genius as a rock lyricist?
“Yes! Yes! I’m glad you mentioned that. I’ve been dying to bring it up.”He giggles. “But people are interested in other things about me, that’s all. Sometimes when blood is sweating from my brow at 5 am and I’m (consumptive poet in turmoil) getting this thing, I wonder, is it all worth it? But I do get great fan letters, I really do.”
Does he worry about creeping age?
“The only reason I feel uneasy about being 34 is all the rock’n’roll crap that’s happened before. The Stones are like a weight around your neck. All that you’re-not-meant-to-rock- after-you’re-30. You’ve got to die in a car-crash or of a drug overdose. Which I tried my best to do, I promise, but it just didn’t happen.” He grins endearingly.
As an insider, what’s the difference between a model and a supermodel? “A good question,” he says thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I think a supermodel gets supermoney. Helena refuses to be one, but it seems as though she is one. Supermodels are powerful. It’s (frightened child) big and scary.”
Has he read Naomi Campbell’s novel yet? At last, he is lost for a reply, making only frantic ssssh-ing noises in case Helena happens to be within earshot. (Naomi is one of her best friends). “Do not,” he whispers. “Just don’t. (Loudly) Er, no, I haven’t. Can’t wait.”
The interview over, the cigars put to bed, he takes us to a local bar in his Jeep. The moment he sets foot in the place, it comes alive. Hands are firmly shaken, photos taken, drinks bought, any friend of Michael’s and so on. He happens to glance at the snooker table – a few of the locals kindly dust it for him. We agree to play. To make our game a little more interesting, it’s decided that the winner will keep the villa. For a while, it’s looking good -he has never played snooker before. He is, in fact, useless. Outrageously, he wins on a final, fluked black.