Martin Kemp on fame, family and life after two brain tumors

Martin Kemp on fame, family and life after two brain tumors

61-year-old actor, presenter and musician Martin Kemp has been in a hit band, films, reality TV, a hit soap and documentaries. But for him the 80s remain the highlight decade.

And he is now far enough away from the New Romantics band Spandau Ballet to be able to write Ticket to the World: My 80s Story – about the formation of the group, the spats, the hits (To Cut A Long Story Short, True, Gold…), the competition and above all the fun of the era.

His brother Gary, singer-songwriter and lead guitarist for Spandau, hasn’t read the book yet, but Kemp chuckles that he can go ahead and buy one. “He can afford it.”

Despite all the band’s ups and downs, the siblings remain close and in regular contact, he adds. Family comes first.

“For a long time I always felt it was Gary’s band. He wrote the songs, he shaped them into what he wanted. That doesn’t take anything away from my brother because he was absolutely brilliant.”

Kemp, who plays bass guitar, continues, “We all knew what role we had to play, but I always felt that my role was probably smaller than everyone else’s. I always felt like the only reason I was there was to be on the cover of a magazine.

“I’m not sure that’s the most fulfilling thing, even if you’re an 18-year-old boy. But what I didn’t know was that it was an incredible ride and everything I dreamed of.”

Time has helped him see his experiences in the 1980s in a new light, he reflects.

“I read somewhere that every seven years you change every cell in your body, so every seven years you become someone completely different. That puts me about six times away from the kid I was that signed that first record deal. I can look back and see what’s right and wrong about it. Aside from the rush and incredible journey we took, I can see it for what it was.

In Spandau’s heyday, the band was besieged everywhere by screaming fans and pursued by paparazzi.

“We did the shows, fleeing the back of the gig huddled in an ambulance. If you are 18 and 19 years old and thousands of children are banging on the windows, laugh in those moments. It happened to a bunch of school friends.”

Spandau Ballet (Alamy/PA)
Spandau Ballet (Alamy/PA)

He still keeps a few costumes from those exciting days. “One is a classic – it’s made of 12 pieces that to this day I don’t know how to wear.” Other pieces no longer suit him, he says with a laugh.

As with so many bands, there were tensions. Gary’s buck stopped, which wasn’t always well received. Sometimes the brothers got into fights, he adds with a smile.

“Gary and I were like the pressure cooker, the drain valve. When the pressure built up in the band, Gary and I would go out and fight. Our arguments turned into fights at times, but we were brothers, we knew our love transcended the fight and we would get it out of our systems.

“If there were problems in the band I could talk to Gary about it, the other guys couldn’t because it would probably mean the end of the band.”

Spandau broke up in 1990. “The last album was very difficult, the tensions were difficult, we were together for too long. It was one album too many,” Kemp recalls. They reunited in 2009, but lead singer Tony Hadley left her in 2017, and it’s a topic Kemp doesn’t want to talk about today.

It must seem like an eternity away from his life now as we see him with his radio host son Roman celebrity glasses box and Martin & Roman’s weekend best.

Martin Kemp on US tour in the 1980s (Martin Kemp/PA)
Martin Kemp on US tour in the 1980s (Martin Kemp/PA)

While he says the music scene is healthy today, there are aspects that don’t live up to their 80’s predecessors.

“What they don’t have today, what we had then, is a pop culture where kids are trying to shock their parents. Pop culture has become what happens behind a laptop. Thats really sad. We used to go out as kids. Buy there plates of the tribe we belonged to – that was our flag. It doesn’t seem that social to me on the internet, although we call it social networks.

Unlike so much of his contemporary music, Kemp never stumbled into drug addiction and has enjoyed a marriage that has endured.

“We were primarily a drinking band, working-class kids who looked out for each other all the time. The drug of choice for our band was alcohol.”

He married Shirlie Holliman in 1988 after falling in love watching her on Top Of The Pops when she was a backing singer for Wham! He recalls that George Michael, who became one of his closest friends and was Roman’s godfather, was her chaperone on their first date.

Kemp and Holliman married in St. Lucia (Martin Kemp/PA)
Kemp and Holliman married in St. Lucia (Martin Kemp/PA)

Has the couple ever been tempted to get lost when out and about?

“At the time, Shirlie was with Wham! was touring and I was touring with Spandau and we both knew that I would be surrounded by women and Shirlie would be surrounded by men. That was something we both had to grapple with.

“But I was lucky enough to meet Shirlie early. We actually did the same job. What happened for me happened for Shirlie.”

They renewed their vows to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where they were married for the first time.

“We were never a couple to count the years or even mark them,” says Kemp. “Anniversaries come and go, we don’t worry about that. They are not the important things.

After the band broke up, he and Gary found success in the 1990 hit film The Krays. But in 1995 he was diagnosed with two brain tumors after discovering a lump on the back of his head and over the next three years treated to remove them.

In 1998, still not fully recovered, he jumped at the chance to play Steve Owen EastEnderswho was aware that his ongoing health struggle had kept him from work.

“Looking back, I will always appreciate the performance EastEnders because it removed me from the part of my life that was all about a brain tumor. when i joined EastEnders, I had trouble remembering lines. Sometimes when I had to go left, I went right. There were things I kept to myself. My brain was still repairing itself.”

He says his family was deeply affected by his encounter with death.

“Shirley, my mum, dad and brother would be at home every day waiting for a call that I had died. I could feel that in them for years. ‘Cause I was in the thick of it, any drugs could get into me, you’re fighting to get to the other side.”

He says there are no permanent health problems, but he takes care of himself.

“I’m just like everyone else. I go through periods of overeating and dieting – I diet too much and I overeat. I try to go to the gym when I’m not working, which I never seem to be at the moment, but when I stop I get some headroom like that.”

The wider Kemp family has also collaborated at work. In 2019, he and Shirlie recorded an album together with their daughter Harley, and in 2020 they wrote a book about their relationship. The family has kept Kemp grounded, he agrees.

“That’s the most important thing in the end,” he says. “I would happily walk away from a career to keep my family together.”

Ticket to the World: My 80s Story by Martin Kemp is published by HarperCollins. Now available.

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