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Martin Kemp and his wife Shirlie tell how their marriage has survived pop’s pitfalls

The song they’ve just been singing together is Sinatra’s You Make Me Feel So Young, but Martin and Shirlie Kemp’s account of how they met and romanced each other actually makes you feel pretty old. 

There were no Instagram updates or even text messages. Their wooing involved the sending of postcards, for goodness’ sake, which puts us back somewhere in the Dark Ages.

‘I was away a lot on tour,’ recalls Martin, 58, the bass player with 80s chart-toppers Spandau Ballet. 

‘There were no mobile phones, and you couldn’t use a hotel phone because it would cost you a fortune. The only form of contact was postcards, ridiculous when you think of it really.’

Martin Kemp and his wife Shirlie, who are set to release their joint album In The Swing Of It is released on November 22, have spoken candidly about their marriage

But oh-so-romantic. Shirlie has kept them all, too. ‘I’m not sure I sent any – it was a very Martin thing – but I’m in tears when I read them now. 

He sent some to my mum and dad too, ‘Tell Shirlie I miss her’, that sort of thing. It’s upsetting because we don’t have our parents any more.’

There have been other losses too that make the memories of their courtship all the more bittersweet. 

The cupid who first decided that Martin Kemp and Shirlie Holliman – both pop icons at the time, he with Spandau, she as one half of Wham!’s backing singers Pepsi and Shirlie – should get together was Shirlie’s old school mate George Michael. 

Martin takes up the story. ‘I’d seen Wham! on Top Of The Pops singing Young Guns, and I couldn’t take my eyes off Shirlie. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d seen. 

George Michael (pictured with Shirlie, Andrew Ridgeley, and fellow Wham! backing singer Pepsi) was the one who first decided the pair should get together

George Michael (pictured with Shirlie, Andrew Ridgeley, and fellow Wham! backing singer Pepsi) was the one who first decided the pair should get together

‘Two weeks later we were at some VIP screening and there she was. I gave her my number, but she didn’t call me for three weeks.’

Over to Shirlie, 57, who’s laughing her head off. ‘It wasn’t because I didn’t want to call. He was this big pop star and I was scared he would be a proper pop star. He was so good-looking.’

WE SAW THE PRIVATE SIDE OF GEORGE 

While Martin and Shirlie have managed to safely negotiate the perils of the pop industry, Shirlie’s lifelong friend George Michael seemed to represent the darker, more troubled side. 

‘The thing about Yog [both Shirlie and Martin refer to him by his childhood nickname] is that there were two sides to him,’ she says, ‘the George the public knew, and Yog, my friend, and I kept that very private.’ 

Martin nods and adds, ‘He was very good at switching between the two.’

To the point, they say, that their children had no idea of the level of George’s fame. ‘They just saw him as Mum and Dad’s mate,’ says Martin. 

‘I remember taking Harley to see him play, I think it was at Earl’s Court. She said, ‘I can’t believe all these people have come to see Yog.’ She was in awe, this guy who just came round to see us was on stage. She’d never seen that before.’

Lifelong friend of the couple, George Michael, seemed to represent a more troubled side and Shirlie said there were two sides to him

Lifelong friend of the couple, George Michael, seemed to represent a more troubled side and Shirlie said there were two sides to him 

 

 

It was George who finally took the number from her and dialled it. ‘I was at his house and he kept saying, ‘Are you going to call him?’ He was a big Spandau fan. He called the number and gave me the phone. 

Martin’s mum answered and I said, ‘Is Martin there, please?’ She asked who it was and I was so embarrassed, she probably had girls phoning all the time for him. Then he came on and said, ‘I’m so pleased you called.’ He sounded really happy I’d phoned. So that was it.’

They arranged to meet at London’s Camden Palace nightspot. Shirlie famously brought a chaperone – none other than George Michael. 

It’s Martin’s turn to laugh. ‘As I was walking down Camden High Street I saw Shirlie standing on the corner and my heart sank because she had brought her mate, and her mate was George Michael. 

‘We spent the evening trying to lose him.’ And it seems George wasn’t thrilled to be playing gooseberry either. ‘He said, ‘I didn’t know you’d be snogging all night,’ says Shirlie.

What a story to tell the grandkids, though. The pair, who married in 1988, both smile. ‘He was just my mate,’ says Shirlie. ‘I didn’t have another friend at the time. Him and me would go clubbing together.’

George remained one of her best friends until his sudden death on Christmas Day 2016. 

He was god-father to their children (Harleymoon, now 30 and a photographer and songwriter, and Roman, 26, a Capital Radio DJ), and they had been due to spend Boxing Day with him.

What’s striking on meeting this couple is how normal they seem, how unshowbizzy. Particularly Shirlie. 

She had her own taste of stardom (when Wham! split she and Pepsi had a few chart hits of their own), but when she and Martin had their first child she deliberately slipped out of the limelight. 

She talks today of the relief of being free of that outwardly glitzy life. ‘I didn’t enjoy it,’ she says candidly. ‘I always loved the music, but the fame, no. I was more than happy to leave that to Martin.’

Martin (pictured with Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley, Gary Kemp, Steve Norman and John Keeble) recalls watching Wham! on Top Of The Pops and not being able to take his eyes off Shirlie

Martin (pictured with Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, Gary Kemp, Steve Norman and John Keeble) recalls watching Wham! on Top Of The Pops and not being able to take his eyes off Shirlie

Although they knew their dad was famous, Harleymoon and Roman didn’t realise until they were teenagers that their mum had been too. ‘I’d never told them about Wham!,’ admits Shirlie. 

‘I was shy of it. At the school gates I never wanted to be recognised for it. I didn’t want people judging me. I dressed down.’

Now Shirlie’s decided it’s time to return to the limelight. She and Martin have made an album, In The Swing Of It. It was a ‘happy accident’, she says. 

 We both had parents who were together their whole lives. I remember our kids being worried when they saw parents of their friends divorcing, but we’ve never considered it

Martin had been asked to record an album, and he’d wanted her to help out on a song that required a female voice. She went into the studio – and blew everyone away. 

‘She was amazing,’ Martin says. ‘The material was old classics, and she sounded like Doris Day. We realised she had to be on them all.’

It’s astonishing that no one had thought of it before. ‘It never occurred to us. Martin hadn’t ever been that keen on singing until he did Chicago last year, but he has a great voice,’ says Shirlie. 

‘I’d always loved these old songs. I’ve got a lot of vibrato in my voice, but in the 80s I was told to lose that. No one wanted it.’

She was nervous about returning to the music business, though. ‘I didn’t want to look stupid,’ she admits. ‘So we sang to our daughter, who will always tell us exactly what she thinks, and she said, ‘Oh my God, you have to do this!’ We do sound good together, but it was a shock to us.’

A mix of old classics such as Fly Me To The Moon alongside new songs written specifically for them, the album is a joy. Martin jokes that George Michael would have been miffed he hadn’t thought of it.

The couple, pictured together in 1985, said shared values have been key to the longevity of their relationship

The couple, pictured together in 1985, said shared values have been key to the longevity of their relationship

So how have they managed to stay together so long? A 35-year relationship is pretty much unheard of in the pop industry. 

‘Shirlie is the funniest person I know,’ says Martin. ‘She’s fun, she’s grounded and she’s my best friend.’ Shirlie thinks it has to do with shared values. ‘We both had parents who were together their whole lives. I remember our kids being worried when they saw parents of their friends divorcing, but we’ve never considered it.’

From the outside, their marriage might look slightly unbalanced. He’s the heart-throb; she’s the home-maker. 

She rolls her eyes at the way everyone swoons in his presence. ‘It’s always been like that. I remember my mum meeting him for the first time. She said, ‘Oh, Shirl, he’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. He’s like Elvis.’ He looked so much like a pop star that I thought he would be like a pop star, and I didn’t want that. Then I discovered he was the kindest man I’d ever met.’

Shirlie joked about how Martin even looked movie-star perfect when he was on what she worried might be his deathbed. Pictured, the couple at a premiere in October 1998

Shirlie joked about how Martin even looked movie-star perfect when he was on what she worried might be his deathbed. Pictured, the couple at a premiere in October 1998

She jokes about how Martin even looked movie-star perfect when he was on what she worried might be his deathbed.

He suffered two brain tumours in the 90s, and she thought she was going to be left a widow. ‘I’ve got photos from then, and he’s there, skin glowing, looking great, and I’m looking terrible. Even my friends say, ‘Gosh, Shirl, you were looking bad.’

For nearly five years they had to deal with the terror of not knowing if Martin was going to pull through or suffer permanent brain damage. 

‘It was so close,’ says Martin. ‘A flip of the coin, really, as to whether I would make it. It was an incredibly hard time, worse for Shirlie really. I can see how it would tear people apart, but with us it just gave us this bond.’

I remember my mum meeting him for the first time. She said, ‘Oh, Shirl, he’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. He’s like Elvis’

They lost all four of their parents within about three years, which was harrowing, but they had each other. ‘I was particularly close to my mum and losing her knocked me for six,’ Shirlie says. ‘I needed Martin more than ever then.’

There have been other bereavements, including George. Fiercely loyal, Shirlie’s careful what she says about George, but there’s no doubting they were close. 

‘Put it this way, as you get older you don’t see people as much but you know if you need them they’ll be there, and he was.’ She doesn’t want to comment on reports that she was one of the beneficiaries of George’s will. ‘I won’t go into that,’ she says firmly.

What both of them are willing to talk about is fame, and why it’s so hard to handle. ‘I wouldn’t encourage anyone to try to become famous,’ says Shirlie. 

‘It strips people of their soul. It’s why I wanted to be at home. You’re just a product and the more money you’re making, the more people’s energy changes around you.’

The loved-up couple strike a pose at the Pride of Britain Awards in London last month

The loved-up couple strike a pose at the Pride of Britain Awards in London last month

Martin has stayed the course, and seems grounded. ‘You’ve got to remember I’ve been doing it since I was 17,’ he says. ‘For the first ten years I was starstruck. I played the part. Thirty years on, you see it for what it is. Fame is just a ticket to get work.’

Working with Shirlie sounds as if it’s been a blast – quite the eye-opener for someone whose recording career has gone hand in hand with acrimony. 

In 1999, Spandau Ballet ended up in a legal battle after singer Tony Hadley and bandmates Steve Norman and John Keeble launched an unsuccessful case against Martin’s brother Gary for a share of his songwriting royalties. 

Two years ago Hadley said he wouldn’t perform with the band again. ‘Egos! I’ve known a few,’ Martin says. ‘I’ve been to the ends of the Earth with egos.’

So after this new departure, is the door still open for another Spandau reunion? ‘For me it will always be open. For other people, well, you will have to ask them.’ 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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