Darren Hayes these days is outspoken, political and wholly engaged. It wasn’t always the case. Wind Back Wednesday skips back to 2006, when the last big pop star Australia created stopped looking in and started looking out.
BECOMING DARREN HAYES
Darren Stanley Hayes always wanted to be a pop star.
In the Brisbane outer suburb of Logan City during the 1980s he dreamt of being onstage. Paraded. Adored.
He pictured himself looking down on the pressing bodies, their hands reaching out to him, to touch him. He imagined feeling that love, knowing that love was for him, the picked upon kid from Mabel Park High School regularly called faggot and mocked for his teeth, his weight, his effeminate ways.
He got there too: half of a duo, in Savage Garden, who between 1996 and 2001 sold more than 20 million albums around the world. The only Australian pop figure who could compete with one of his idols, Kylie Minogue, for tabloid and chart status. The only singer we've had since Michael Hutchence who understood what it takes to be a star on stage.
In the group or solo, Hayes was everything he had wanted to be. Except himself.
"I spent the first 10 years of my public life creating this myth. That's what it was," the 34-year-old Hayes says now. "The music was the only true thing. Everything else was a contrivance. Not at all from a cynical or Machiavellian point of view; it was just a survival mechanism.
"Like most pop stars I hated myself, needed something, dyed my hair a certain colour, acted a certain way, imitated people. You can join all the dots and work out where I got to."
We can join the dots quite easily thanks to a remarkable public "purging" as Hayes has called it, a behind the scenes DVD called Too Close For Comfort which is true to its name in an industry where honesty is merely a marketing term.
It's here that that the working class Brisbane kid who grew up with an alcoholic father and in a blokey school culture of abuse and ridicule resurfaces with all his insecurities, his need to be liked - not even loved, just liked - and his slowly dawning realisation that life isn't working out the way it was meant to.
Filmed during his solo world tour in 2002-2003 it finds Hayes struggling personally and professionally, vulnerable and alone even among a big touring party.
His first solo album, Spin, had been a safe replication of the Savage Garden middle of the road pop sound and had done decently, but his second, The Tension And The Spark, will find Hayes turning more towards electronic sounds, more towards dance and earthier emotions (with Savage Garden he sang about wanting to take you to the moon and back; solo he sang about being rogered and being scared.)
The problem was the not all the fans were coming for that journey.
As the tour progresses the big rooms look more and more empty; his album is ignored by radio and bad luck keeps striking such as a Chechen terrorist attack in Moscow cutting short his run.
Meanwhile offstage, a bottle-blond Hayes slams doors, teeters on hypochondria (admitting in the voiceover that if there wasn't a crisis he'd create one in his mind) and spends a lot of time thinking and talking about fame and celebrity, the desire for both and the emptiness of each.
While his template for this film may have been the marketing genius ploy of another of his idols, In Bed With Madonna, the result is rawer and exposed. He comes across as genuinely sweet and almost too eager to please but failure looms, weakness isn't hidden.
This is not what any corporate publicist would recommend for release. Which is exactly why Hayes chose to.
"Making the film was clearly not a great career move," Hayes says now. "I went through two different lots of managers who wouldn't touch it because of that 'quality control' that I rebelled against in the last couple of years. What it is is kind of a debunking of a lot of things. It was self sabotaging maybe but on the other side of it I feel so free.
“I feel so happy with the music that I'm making and the choices that I'm making. Maybe it was an act of rebellion on my part but it was definitely a passage of sorts for me, a rite of passage."
Now, standing outside a London studio at midnight, where he is nearing the end of recording for his third solo record the "night-owl" Hayes is as voluble as ever though noticeably less twitchy than the hyper sensitive figure of four years ago.
It's all part of the new relaxed-with-his-place-in-the-world image. But how true is that?
Would he be prepared to be a second-tier pop star for the rest of his career? Can his ego continue to accept that he is someone who sells a show at the State Theatre rather than four at the Entertainment Centre?
"Clearly yes because I don't think I can get much smaller," he laughs. "I don't think I could sell less records than I do because at the moment the people who buy my records are the people who come to the show, that's my minimum fan base.
"When [the sales dropping] first happened I hated it. But I became comfortable with it and then had to re-establish what the scale of success was. God, I look at arenas with envious eyes. Of course I would want to play those kind of venues, of course I would like to have a big fat hit.
“But greedily, selfishly I would like that to happen on my terms. I will never ever again be in the situation I was where I had a record that was flailing and there was nothing I could do about it. If the price for [avoiding] that is I can only play small venues but no one can [direct/manipulate] me and no one can pull the rug out from under my career then it's worth it."
As open as he is on film, the elephant in the room throughout Too Close For Comfort is Hayes' sexuality. It's never mentioned but it can't be avoided as a viewer. Not when you know that the man who in the mid '90s was married for three years to Colby Taylor, his "best friend" and the woman who encouraged him to audition for what eventually became Savage Garden, in London last June married his boyfriend of two years, former theatre director Richard Cullen.
There was little real surprise (and a lot of good will) at the announcement of this second marriage, though Hayes had never publicly declared himself gay. What is a surprise however, is how long it took Hayes to be comfortable with his homosexuality.
"During the film, at the time, I think I was just fucking depressed. I think my sexuality was just one more thing that wasn't going right for me," Hayes explains. "I didn't want to be gay, I couldn't hold down a relationship, I'd left this beautiful marriage and the idea of having kids. I was a millionaire, I was a pop star, I apparently had everything but I was at the saddest point in my life.
"The cliché of what is offered to you as a gay person is changing but growing up in Brisbane, going to Mabel Park State high school and getting called a faggot from the minute I can remember hearing words, being gay was just not an option; it was a death sentence. I had to actually pretend to myself that I wasn't. [Later] I remember being really affected when someone said you're gay aren't you and I held up my wedding ring and said 'I'm fucking married aren't I, why is everyone calling me gay?'.
"I was coy about it and I'll tell you why I was coy about it, because being gay fucked me off. It was a real thorn in my side. I was on the verge of dominating the world, having number ones in America, being married to my best friend [then] all of a sudden I'm realising there's a whole other side to me I haven't dealt with.
"So during the filming of Too Close For Comfort there were times when I thought I was going to fall in love with my female backing singer. That was easier. I can tell you for me it was fucking painful because I still am a very traditional person. I'm monogamous and I love being married.
“It was such a relief to meet Richard and find another gay man who wanted to be truly monogamous, who wanted maybe to have a kid one day, living in a country where we could actually get married and wear a wedding ring and I could say hey we are together. The thing is when the film was finished, feeling comfortable about who I am and getting married maybe that was because of everything I'd been through."
Darren Stanley Hayes of Logan City, San Francisco and now London sighs. "God, I was so not going to have a therapy session with you." But he can't help himself. No, that's not right. It's more that he won't stop himself.
"You know why I think it's interesting? It's quite an artificial thing this job [as a pop singer] and I think I'm loving understanding this and I'm going to so enjoy stepping into the next part of my life and perform and make a record where I won't have to explain myself.
“I think I wasted a lot of years trying to analyse myself. There has to be some other purpose to this than me quote unquote finding myself. Now I can actually get to work."