Michael Ball: ‘I hid in my flat for months. I suffered so badly with nerves’

Jane Graham takes a trip down memory lane with Michael Ball, who reveals it was a 'naff' MIss England gig that changed everything

At 16 I left my boarding school under a bit of a cloud. It was just miserable. It was very academic and very strict. If you weren’t doing well academically or in sport, they weren’t keen on you.

I was a bit rebellious. Not a bad kid, but I just didn’t fit anywhere. I didn’t have anything in common with anyone there. You don’t want to be seen as anything different or you get bullied. So I was by no means a shrinking violet; I was the life and soul. You try to be cool, and you learn not to share anything about your true self.

You become very secretive and closed. Which is not  in my nature. Nothing beats coming home from school and having a cuddle from your mum. But I lost that close rapport and that affectionate thing with my parents ’cos I didn’t see them very often. I did get it back eventually but it took a good while.

Once I became an adult I did have a conversation with my parents about my time at boarding school. I have no issues now about anything that happened in my childhood. I’ve confronted it all and talked to my folks about it. And I understand why they did it. They were doing their best. They were both from working-class families, they’d done well and they thought that’s what you did, you sent your kid away to school.

That proved you’d done well and it gave your children a good rounded education. They acknowledge now it was absolutely the wrong fit for me. What I do regret is that secrecy which I developed, I stopped opening up to them. And that’s not good, that can be dangerous. I became quite distant from my dad for a while. It’s lovely that I have such a close relationship with him now that I can say that. I also found out later that they were having their own issues at the time too. They’re no longer together.

When I look back I see there was a key person in my life, a terrifying lady who ran Surrey Youth Theatre. I had no direction in my life. I loved music, I loved going to the theatre and I loved performing. But it never occurred to me I might make a living out of doing those things. Instead I was failing my A-levels and getting into trouble.

She said, “Why don’t you apply to Guildford drama school?”  So I auditioned and I won a scholarship and off I went. Suddenly I had something to aim for, I had a focus and a gameplan.

I remember my first performance, right out of drama school, in the musical Godspell. We were up in a wonderful theatre in Wales. It was the best start to professional performing that anyone could have.

Every night these huge doors would open, people would come sweeping in and I got loads of attention singing these great big songs in this great theatre. And I was getting a pay packet at the end of the week. I just felt at home right away. Music, a live audience, me in control of what I was doing, punters actually paying to see the show. It was such a good feeling. And I still get that.

I’ve tried to analyse why I suffered so badly with nerves for years. Party it was to do with the physical illness [Ball got glandular fever when he was 23 and starring in Les Misérables]. It left me very tired and debilitated, and that starts the demons in your head. Suddenly there’s this little voice in your head saying, you’re going to get this wrong, you’re going to mess this up and let everyone down.

And if, like me, you have this inability to open up to people, you can’t talk to anyone about it, and the demons take over. You feel you have to look strong on the outside even if – and this is how it really was – you feel like you’re dying. I was going potty. Anyone who’s suffered from panic attacks knows how frightening they are. And I was getting them on stage. It came to a point I couldn’t get off the Tube, I was so scared of having an attack. So I had to leave the show and have a complete retreat.

1978

The year Michael turns 16

• Pope John Paul I dies after only 33 days of papacy

• Christopher Reeve stars as Superman

• The Space Invaders video arcade game is released

I hid in my flat for months. But then for some weird reason, my agent phoned and said, “OK, you’ve been offered a slot on the Miss England show.” Of all things. While they’re counting the votes they need someone to sing to the audience. And yes, it’s the naffest, worst gig on earth.  And it’s live, with millions watching. But I thought, if I can get through this, if I can do this without anyone seeing how I feel inside, maybe that could help me. So I did it. And it was a huge turning point.

Because it coincided with Cameron Mackintosh calling me and saying, “Right, you need to get back on the horse. We’re recasting Phantom of the Opera.” And I thought, just do it. After that Aspects of Love came along, and I had a hit with Love Changes Everything [which reached Number Two in the UK singles chart in  1989]. And everything did change.

For years I never confronted what had happened during that time when I wasn’t coping. I didn’t talk about it to a single person. Until years later I was giving an interview and they referred to this seamless transition I’d had from one success to the next and I suddenly thought, I’m going to tell the truth about this. And out it all come.

And you know what? Oddly, the sensitivity and empathy I gained from doing that made me a much better performer. And it made me aware of how fragile people are. If we don’t get help we can just go under.

Read more Letters To My Younger Self here

Cathy [ex-Ready Steady Go! presenter Cathy McGowan] came into my life when I was doing Aspects of Love. She came to interview me. I was just starting to move into a new level of success – Love Changes Everything really projected me into a different realm. There I was on Top of the Pops. When we met we had an instant connection.

She was so wise and kind and strong, a very powerful woman. We were friends while I was doing the show in London, then I moved to Broadway and things blossomed. I think she was always in love with me. And I realised I needed and wanted her in my life. That relationship is my life, it has been for 30 years. She’s given me clarity. She’s a bit older than me. She was once one of the most famous women in the country, lauded by everyone. And she doesn’t give a monkey’s about it. She’d never give an interview about it, she’s not interested in looking back.

I have far ascended beyond every ambition my 16-year-old self ever had. If I really wanted to show off to him I would show him me winning my second Olivier, for Sweeney Todd [in 2013, having previously claimed the prize in 2008 for his role in Hairspray]. No one thought I could make that happen, no one thought it would work.

I’d just turned 50. People thought, maybe your time’s up. So that win was just the perfect moment. And I remember it so clearly; the joy, the disbelief. It was so thrilling. And a lot of that was down to Cath. She said to me, “You can do this, I promise you.” And she was there with me when I won. Of course she was.

Michael Ball’s new album Coming Home To You is out now; He tours the UK from April 20; michaelball.co.uk