Peter Andre: Putting Away the Six-Pack

With his doe eyes and firm stomach, Peter Andre was a classic teenybop chart success. Now he’s set on R&B cred, and has some impressive backers — but he still cares about the fans. Caroline Sullivan is charmed

WHAT’S THE difference between British pop’s two most famous Greeks, George Michael and Peter Andre? Principally, that the former overcame boy-band beginnings (with Wham!) to become a “serious” artist, for which he is envied by the latter. Right now, no one takes Peter Andre very seriously, except girls like the one outside the London studio of Richard and Judy’s This Morning. Trembling, she has just handed him a gift-wrapped package, then dissolved into piteous sobs.

Andre had just finished regaling Richard and Judy with his new single, ‘Lonely’, an American-style soul ballad taken from his forthcoming album, Time. It’s the first salvo in a campaign to change his image and achieve musical respect. He means business — you can tell by his clothes. He’s wearing stylishly slim beige trousers and a fawn-coloured V-neck jumper that hides his most famous asset, his “six-pack” (his stomach, hewn by 600 sit-ups a day to the look and feel of carved oak). And those oily strands of hair that hung over his pretty face — they’re gone, too. The new do is a short utility cut, straightened to conceal its natural “Afro-like” texture.

Last year, the six-pack, hair and vanilla-flavoured tunes got him three Top 2 singles, including the number ones ‘Flava’ and ‘I Feel You’. They also helped flog three million copies of his debut album, Natural, making it the top-selling independently released album of 1996.

He’s currently the biggest solo teen idol in Britain, where he was born and lived till his Cypriot family emigrated to Australia when he was 10.

Pubescent girls get the vapours over his olive-skinned looks and toned tum-tum, so different from the pallid likes of Boyzone. One 15-year-old waiting at This Morning on this overcast Monday has brought an Andre doll, whose sculpted stomach alarmingly replicates the real thing. “It hasn’t got the new haircut,” Andre’s publicist notes disapprovingly.

Scenes like this, where dozens of girls wait hours for him and burst into tears when he stops to speak to them, have been Andre’s daily lot for the last two years. And he wants out. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the fans — he seems, in fact, more interested in them than most boy acts. He just wants to convince their older brothers and sisters that he’s a credible artist as well as a rippling side of beefcake.

Once he’s in the car and on the way west to an autograph session at Our Price in Reading, he unwraps the package one of the fans had thrust at him. It turns out to be a bottle of Lynx aftershave. Peter, bless him, doesn’t laugh. He passes it to his older brother, Danny, who’s along doing security, and meditatively says, “That’s so nice. This must have cost her about five pounds. I just wonder if she gets anything back. They give so much, buy stuff for you… we ought to give them something when they wait to meet you. Flowers or something”.

As the car crosses Chelsea Bridge he’s still mulling over how to pay back the fans. It seems as good a time as any to ask how he plans to attract the much-desired new, older ones. He admits that he has no one but himself to blame for his himbo image. It happened, he says, like this. In 1990, aged 17, he won a talent contest whose prize was a contract with major Australian label Mushroom. Success came quickly: he had biggest-selling single of 1993, and supported Madonna and Bobby Brown on their Antipodean tours. Even so, he was keener to make it in Britain, perhaps because of the racism he and his family suffered when they settled in Queensland (“We were like aliens to them. Once I was tied to a fence and 10 kids threw rocks at me. I had to tell my brothers I’d fallen off my bike because they’d have gone mad. They were always getting into brawls”).

“I knew I’d have to do whatever it took to break Britain,” he continues in his Oz-via-North London accent. “One night I was watching a Van Damme movie and I thought, ‘He’s a good fighter and he’s got a good physique. Guys like him because he can fight and girls like his body’. I’ve got this asset [points to six-pack area] because I’d spent years working out because I was bullied. So I thought, why not use it? Sex sells. I’ve no regrets at all. It’s no bad thing to have something people can associate with you.”

Yeah, Pete, but it’s not exactly the best route to being taken seriously. George Michael may have successfully buried his Wham! past, but it’s harder to escape one’s own six-pack. He turns his head to give me the full benefit of long-lashed brown eyes, made that bit lashier by This Morning‘s make-up girl. “I realised that to make this transition I had to work with credible people. I’ve got The Fugees, Coolio and Montell Jordan on the new album, and I was so thrilled, because they all asked to work with me.”

If that sounds risibly unlikely, remember that Andre is unknown in America, where Time was recorded. With nothing to live down, and a natural R&B edge to his voice, he apparently had little difficulty attracting heavyweights like The Fugees. Rapper Coolio, it seems, actually believed he was black. “He listened to a tape of me and said, ‘The white kid sang that?’ I’ll never forget it.”

The finished product ought to do well wherever hi-gloss soul-pop is appreciated, which might not be Britain. It’s an American LP in all but name, and he’d be well advised to concentrate his energies there. But he’s determined to start anew here: “If it takes 10 years I’ll do it for 10 years.” His publicist later adds, “He’s one of the most driven artists I’ve ever met.”

Those already scoffing at the idea of Andre believing himself to be as credible as The Fugees will be tickled to learn he wrote many of Time‘s lyrics. “One of my favourites is ‘All Night, All Right’, where I say, ‘At 10 to two, a two is a 10’.” I obviously look bewildered, because he adds, “It takes a while to figure that one out. I like coming up with little mysterious things.”

He really is sweet. Discussing the origin of his surname (shortened from Andrea), I mention the Icelandic custom of changing names with each generation. He cocks his head interestedly. “Are you from Iceland?” New Jersey, actually but it’s an easy mistake to make.

THE CAR is pulling into an underground car park in the middle of the city. A troop of kids at the back entrance screams and he waves, although the windows are blacked out and they can’t see him.

He’s escorted to an office in the Our Price shop and left to change into jeans and a leather jacket. Your reporter wanders downstairs, where 600 kids are waiting, to see what they make of the new image. At the head of the queue Carly Burke, Trudy Williamson and Laura Allen, all 13, insist they’ll always love him no matter what. “It’s his talent. If he doesn’t show his body any more it doesn’t matter.” One of them demands, “Can you get us something he’s touched?” So I head for the dressing room and find some bananas. Andre hasn’t touched them, but he’s left his boots on the floor and I brush each banana against them. The girls are absurdly grateful. When Andre appears moments later, they’re clutching the bananas for dear life as they cry their eyes out. Keen to give something back to the fans, he would probably approve.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 31 October 1997

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