‘In my job, if you turn off the phone and laptop and talk to people, things happen’

‘In my job, if you turn off the phone and laptop and talk to people, things happen’

My first solo biography was of the author JK Rowling. Back then in 2000, she wasn’t yet one of the great icons of popular culture. All I knew about her was the publicity cliché of her being a single mother made good. It was the same tired story repeated constantly about her. So I ignored all that…

My first solo biography was of the author JK Rowling. Back then in 2000, she wasn’t yet one of the great icons of popular culture. All I knew about her was the publicity cliché of her being a single mother made good. It was the same tired story repeated constantly about her. So I ignored all that and started her journey at the beginning in the villages near Bristol where she grew up.

I discovered she was childhood friends with the Potter family who had lived in the same street and I spoke to them about childhood dressing-up games and Jo Rowling’s vivid imagination. I remember Mrs Potter telling me that Jo always had a big aversion to spiders. It’s no surprise that spiders the size of carthorses feature in her books.

It’s a bit like playing detective but you’re not investigating a crime. Start at the beginning and follow the journey; imagine you are celebrating a life and chat to those who have known, liked or loved the famous person you are writing about.

I moved on to Oporto in Portugal where Jo taught English as a foreign language to local students. I met her best Portuguese friend who worked with her at the school. She invited me to a family party at a restaurant where all these delicious dishes kept on appearing throughout the night; the children ran around playing games and we drank wine and talked. It was a perfect evening. She told me the story of how she helped Jo extricate herself from her unhappy first marriage to a local man and return hastily to the UK with her young daughter. She also told me at the time she thought Jo was a nervous person, anxious and flitting around like a butterfly.

Smith tracked down JK Rowling to Oporto in Portugal, where she was married to a local man and teaching English as a foreign language (AFP/Getty)

Through the eyes of the people I spoke to, I was able to build a picture of a real person – not one created by a publicity department. People like to talk if given the chance. I realised that when I was responsible for reporting golden and diamond wedding anniversaries on a weekly newspaper. That may sound boring but I loved it – the chance to hear about people’s lives while having a cup of tea and piece of homemade fruit cake. But you can’t pretend to be interested. That’s impossible to fake. My philosophy is simple: the most disrespectful thing you can do to another person is to have no interest in them. 

The lesson I learned very early on in my career is that everyone deserves your time and attention. We live in an online world where the art of proper conversation is disappearing. In my job, if you turn off the phone and laptop and talk to people, things happen. If you follow the footsteps of your subject, you make connections. You get insight and you get lucky.

I stopped off to buy a sandwich and a beer at the grocery store in Laurel Canyon, the Bohemian area of Los Angeles where Jennifer Aniston used to live when she was a struggling actress. I asked the guy on the till if he had ever come across her. ‘She used to work here,’ he said and proceeded to tell me all about it. He made me laugh because he wasn’t so impressed with Jennifer, who, after all, was still a shop assistant in his eyes. But his eyes lit up when he told me that Sophia Loren had once been in his store.

I met with Jennifer’s school drama teacher Anthony Abeson in New York and went along to one of his classes. He had great enthusiasm for Jennifer as an actress. He told me about the time at the Fame School where his pupils had to prepare a scene for performance in front of class and she chose a particularly difficult one from The Three Sisters by Chekhov. It was meant to be very dramatic but everyone laughed. She was mortified. Afterwards, Anthony took her aside and told her she had a wonderful gift and it was marvellous that she had this ability to amuse. His words were life changing for her. 

I was in McComb, Mississippi, which is where Britney Spears went to school. I was given an address for her first boyfriend about 10 miles out of town so I drove out but there was no one there. There were no other houses. Nothing – a dead end. As I was leaving, a car pulled up. It was his mother, who was a charming woman. She invited me into her amazing mansion for coffee. She was a very accomplished painter and showed me her work. She rang up her son and he agreed to speak to me.

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears on the set of the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ (Rex)

He was great company and took me to a barbecue in the Mississippi woods. We chatted and drank beer and threw golf balls into the woods for his dog to fetch. He told me he once took Britney turkey hunting but she had to give up when she was bitten to hell by mosquitoes. This is a long way from Las Vegas and when night falls you can hear the coyotes – it’s a scary place. Britney didn’t like the nights in the woods and would get upset and have to be taken home. I don’t blame her.

One of the myths about Britney is that she is some sort of trailer trash from the Deep South. This is nonsense. She went to a private school, where, incidentally, she was taught creationism. She had private dancing lessons. Her teenage boyfriend’s house had an elevator between floors. Money was tight when her dad’s building firm collapsed but she was brought up as a nice little girl. I remember speaking to her teacher at the Disney School in Orlando, Florida, when she was under contract to Disney. He told me that she was ‘the most wholesome, huggable little girl that you would ever want to see’. This is the real Britney Spears. 

Britney used to date Justin Timberlake, who I also wrote about. I flew into Memphis, where I thought he was from, only to discover he was actually brought up 20 miles away in the comfortable middle-class community of Shelby Forest, on the outskirts of the town of Millington. 

On my first day there I went into the local Millington library and asked loudly, ‘Does anyone here know Justin Timberlake?’ A woman piped up: ‘My daughter was in his class at school.’ She put me in touch with her daughter and we had a lovely lunch and she told me about growing up in Shelby Forest.

Robbie’s father left the family home when he was a youngster. It had a profound effect on him (Rex)

Apparently Justin was a Maths geek at school and was in the algebra club. She also recalled the school’s Christmas concert when the power failed. The enormous school gym was packed with bewildered parents and children sitting in complete darkness. Suddenly a voice launched forth from the gloom. It was Justin, aged 11, singing ‘O Holy Night’, unaccompanied. My lunch companion remembered, ‘The whole gym was in tears.’

I also had lunch with Justin’s delightful first girlfriend, who was looking forward to her wedding to a local doctor. She told me about the time she and Justin had decided to make love for the first time. They needed to buy condoms but that was tricky because Justin’s stepmum was the local pharmacist. In the end they had to catch the bus into Memphis to purchase a pack of three. Danielle’s pet name for Justin was ‘Stud Muffin’, a dream nickname for any teenage boy. 

I love being able to share interesting new things about people we admire and care about. Take Robbie Williams for example. I had a great time in Stoke on Trent drinking with his old school buddies. They called him Rob – he wasn’t Robbie until Take That’s manager decided to call him that for his image. Rob and his friends were rascals. They used to ring up random numbers and tell jokes on the answer machine until the tape ran out. 

The most interesting thing about Rob, however, was learning that he wasn’t entirely Jack the Lad. He was a rather a sensitive boy and a highly talented one who preferred to take part in panto than kick a ball around in the park. His father, a professional comedian, left home when he was a youngster and it had a profound effect on him.

I learnt much of his true nature from a wonderful woman called Zoe who was his closest friend in amateur dramatics for 10 years. They were inseparable. They were in Chittty Chitty Bang Bang, Annie, Pickwick and Oliver together. In Oliver he was the Artful Dodger. On the opening night, Zoe knew something was wrong. He was singing ‘Consider Yourself’ and he just wasn’t himself. Off stage she could see he was upset, so put her arm around him and asked him what was wrong. He told her: ‘I just started my first lines and I look up and there is my effing old man in the front row.’ He started crying but he went back out and gave the performance of his young life for his Dad. 

I really warmed to Robbie.  

I don’t write about celebrities. It’s a meaningless word these days, isn’t it? Celebrity used to mean something when we idolised proper stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn or Elvis.  Now, everybody is a celebrity who has been on television for two seconds. I write about the most famous people in the world: Adele, Cheryl, Kate Middleton and my latest subject, Ed Sheeran.

But, more than that, I write about real people. When I was looking at the amazing life of Adele, I went into the flower shop in South London where she used to buy flowers for her mum and the young assistant in there said to me: ‘I love Adele. She keeps it real.’ 

George Michael, who I wrote about following his very sad death, is an example of someone who the world didn’t really know during his lifetime. He was poorly treated by the media while he was alive. He turned out to be a thoroughly decent man, a good man. But he wasn’t George Michael until he was 18. He was Georgios Panayiotou, a Greek Cypriot boy.

I interviewed his girlfriends from school and they were so warm about him. It was a joy. first girlfriend told me the story of how at her 16th birthday party, Yog, as she called him, turned up at her parents’ house with Andy – Andrew Ridgeley. It was a great night and later in the evening she looked out of the window into the garden to see the two future superstars of Wham! peeing into the fishpond.

Now that’s real life…..

Ed Sheeran by Sean Smith is published by HarperCollins and is out now. 

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