Are you ‘one of those’? You’re not, are you? Go on, you must be!’ I was always wryly amused, when Supermarket Sweep was the biggest game show on daytime TV, at how many ways journalists could ask the question.
This was the Nineties, when it was much less usual for stars to come out as gay.
Some would be blunt: ‘Can you confirm that you are homosexual?’ Others would be more disingenuous and say: ‘Is there a Mrs Winton?’ or ‘Would you like to get married and have children?’
I preferred to be ambiguous about my sexuality, but I’m wise enough to realise that if you appear on the telly, there are certain things people think they have the right to know.
Still, the level of interest never failed to amaze me. So let’s just say that by my 40s I had tried most things, but only ever with people my own age who were mature enough to know their own minds.
Sheree Winton is pictured with a young Dale. She was struggling with depression and I was walking on eggshells, trying to balance her ill health with my working life
The key word for me is ‘love’. I’m a romantic. I want to give and receive true, heartfelt passion. But when I first fell in love, aged 18, I was struggling with a difficult home life: my mum, Sheree, was in a low phase and the fear that she would take her own life always haunted me.
This was the early Seventies, and I’d just started working as a pub DJ. People were into drinking and having fun, and when one thing led to another that frequently meant sex.
I was doing what came naturally, shall we say, and discovered that I’d fallen in love with two people at the same time — one called Caroline, and one named John.
My big concern was that Mum might take it badly. I so wanted to open my heart to her. But she was struggling with depression and I was walking on eggshells, trying to balance her ill health with my working life.
Really, she should have guessed long ago, what with my Dusty Springfield obsession. Boys at my school would be into the Stones or the Monkees, but all I cared about was Dusty.
Put it this way, my favourite of all my mother’s boyfriends, after she divorced my dad, was a man called Aubrey who listened to Dusty singing Son Of A Preacher Man with me, and pronounced it ‘a very strong song’. That won my approval!
The extraordinary thing is that, though I have met so many stars in my career, I only ever spoke once to Dusty. And that was by phone when I was a presenter at Radio Trent in Nottingham. I did see her once at a book signing, but I was too shy to go and say hello.
Shortly after she died in 1999, I went to an exhibition of her memorabilia and a woman approached me to introduce herself as ‘Barbara — Dusty’s secretary’. She told me a story that broke my heart.
My big concern was that Mum might take it badly. I so wanted to open my heart to her. Really, she should have guessed long ago, what with my Dusty Springfield obsession
A couple of years earlier, when Dusty was being driven around Soho by her chauffeur, she spotted me on the pavement and cried out: ‘Oh look — there’s Dale!’
At first, I was astonished at the very idea, then I realised I had mentioned her in just about every interview I had ever done. She probably knew what a huge fan I was.
And here’s the saddest part: her driver suggested stopping so she could get out to meet me and she said: ‘No, I’m too shy.’ Isn’t that awful? I was suddenly overcome with emotion at the thought, and collapsed on a chair, knocked off my feet by an incredible wave of grief.
I was luckier with another musical heroine, the wonderful Cilla Black. We’d been friends for years and she was a great fan of Supermarket Sweep — so much so that she invited me to come to push a shopping trolley on a Christmas edition of her top-rated show, Surprise Surprise.
I wanted to repay the compliment, and when I was asked to stand in for Lorraine Kelly for a week on GMTV, Cilla was top of my guest wishlist. She couldn’t make it because she and her husband Bobby were at their villa in Marbella. But when I told them I was due in Marbella for a TV shoot, they insisted I visit them.
Sitting on their patio, chatting to Bobby while Cilla rustled up the most fantastic lunch, I couldn’t have felt more at home. From that moment, we all became firm friends.
After Bobby died in 1999, it would have been easy for her to fall to pieces but, heartbroken though she was, she said: ‘I may have lost the love of my life, but I haven’t lost my love of life.’ That’s so Cilla.
Another of the grandes dames of showbusiness whose company I adore is Barbara Windsor. At her 60th birthday party I had a great time meeting almost the entire cast of EastEnders, before finding myself the centre of attention with some quite different East End characters.
Dale Winton is pictured leaving Scotts restaurant in London on July 26, 2016
Tony Lambrianou, an infamous Sixties gangster who had served time for his part in a notorious murder, grabbed me and said in the gruffest of voices: ‘Hello Dale, I’m taking you to meet the guv’nor.’
This was Freddie Foreman, a former associate of the Kray twins and the self-proclaimed ‘godfather of British crime’. ‘Don’t forget, Dale,’ Mr Lambrianou growled, ‘he’s the guv’nor. Show respect!’
I wasn’t at all sure what to expect — but I have to speak as I find, and say the two of them could not have been more charming to me. Dusty, Cilla, Bar . . . I suppose I’ve always been drawn to strong women, and that’s my mother’s legacy.
My father was much less influential in my life, though I can’t deny his death had an effect.
He had always made it clear he felt little responsibility for me. When I was ten and my parents were divorcing, he told me: ‘Your mother will always look after you, Dale, so I’m going to spend all my own money. I’m leaving you nothing.’
He was true to his spiteful word — his will amounted to £284.
Aged 13 and coming up to my bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony that marks a boy’s transition to manhood, I was taken to Westminster Hospital to visit him.
Though my mother had warned me he was not expected to live more than another day or two, she tried to keep his spirits up.
‘You’ll be fine,’ she said to him, ‘you’re going to get better. You can come and recuperate at the house. We’ll nurse you back to health.’
By now, Mum was living with another man (Aubrey, who shared my admiration for Dusty), but her kind words perked up Dad’s morale. He began to make a miraculous recovery.
This was a time when gays were taken for all kinds of treatments, including electric shock aversion therapy, and it was pretty clear from Mum’s words that if I was ‘that way inclined’, I could be straightened out
Mum was in a state of panic. ‘My God, what are we going to do?’ she exclaimed. ‘I’ve given him a reason to live and he’s getting better by the minute. I’ve made a promise to this man and he could be living with us within a week.’
More than that, he was planning to come to my bar mitzvah.
I hadn’t attended synagogue on a regular basis, and I was learning the Hebrew words of the ceremony phonetically, memorising the sounds without understanding their precise meaning. Dad would expect me to be word perfect. The big day was two weeks away, and it was all turning into a black farce.
Then Dad had a relapse. Plans changed: he wasn’t coming to the synagogue at all. Instead, I would do my bar mitzvah before the rabbi, with all my relatives watching, then take my tallis, capel and book to the hospital and read it to Dad.
As I performed the ritual, speaking everything I had been taught, the congregation was in tears.
It wasn’t until afterwards that Mum took me to one side, kissed me, congratulated me and then put an arm around my shoulders. ‘Dale,’ she said, ‘your father died this morning.’
She had to speak to the rabbi about Dad’s funeral, and to deal with all the relatives. Aubrey the boyfriend took me to sit in his car.
I asked him for a cigarette, and though I was only 13, he understood that I’d been through enough. He let me sit in the passenger seat, blowing the smoke out of the window.
I don’t know what became of Aubrey. After a while, he just wasn’t around any more. Maybe if he had still been there when I reached 18, I could have talked to Mum more easily about my love life. Because she really didn’t want to know.
I remember inviting her to look at a second-hand car at a garage on the Edgware Road. This was about 1972, the era of flared trousers and corduroy caps, and guys didn’t have to be gay to carry a shoulder-bag.
I preferred to be ambiguous about my sexuality, but I’m wise enough to realise that if you appear on the telly, there are certain things people think they have the right to know
Feeling very much the dedicated follower of fashion, I flounced into the garage with a bag swinging against my hip.
I must have looked like a pastiche of Seventies camp, and Mum burst out laughing. ‘Dale, if you could just see yourself,’ she said. ‘You’re such a character. I wouldn’t have you any other way.’
That wasn’t really true. Soon after, I fell in love with John who was unmistakeably gay, and in the way of Seventies teens we used to natter for hours on the phone.
One day, while we were chatting, Mum burst out of her bedroom in a rage. ‘Are you talking to John again? You know he’s gay, don’t you? And if that doesn’t bother you and you’re hanging around with him, that probably means . . . you’re going to be gay yourself!’
This tirade came out of the blue, and it got worse. ‘I’ve worked with gay people in the theatre and the movies,’ Mum told me. ‘They’re great fun, but being gay makes for a very lonely old age.
‘You don’t have to be gay, Dale. There is an alternative. We can get help. This doesn’t have to be the way for you.’
Shocked, I walked out . . . though I came back a week later.
I’ve never blamed Mum. It was the way most parents thought then. She wanted what she thought was best for me: marriage, a family — and grandchildren for herself.
This was a time when gays were taken for all kinds of treatments, including electric shock aversion therapy, and it was pretty clear from Mum’s words that if I was ‘that way inclined’, I could be straightened out. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why, when journalists asked if I was ‘one of those’, I preferred to say nothing.
I never forgot that afternoon. I was stunned and filled with guilt at having caused Mum such terrible distress when she was already depressed. I loved my mother with all my heart and I didn’t want to disappoint or offend her. But I knew I could never be the person she wanted me to be.
Until the day she died, I was never able to tell her: ‘Mum, I’m gay — and I honestly think that’s OK.’
- Adapted from My Story by Dale Winton (Arrow Books, £9.99). To order a copy for £7.99 (20 per cent discount), call 0844 571 0640 or go to mailshop.co.uk/books. P&P is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until May 7, 2018.