GAY TIMES July 2001

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

The lethal drink, drug and fame-fuelled roller coaster that is presently being ridden by Michael Barrymore has claimed many show biz victims in the past. Judy Garland, Paul Gascoigne and George Best are three that spring immediately to mind.

Others have taken the ride and survived, most notably Boy George and Elton John, both of whom managed to put on the brakes and recover before it was too late.

So is Barrymore on the way to becoming a tragic Judy or an heroic Elton? Is he at the end stage or the mid stage of his story?

We will have to wait and see, but worry not – the tabloids will ensure that we have a ring-side seat for every stage in what will either be a miraculous recovery or a tragic finale for the “troubled star” (as he is now invariably described).

Certainly no detail has been spared of the story so far. Courtesy of the News of the World, the Sun and the other red tops, we have followed Barrymore through his various struggles with drink, drugs, fame and homosexuality. His career has been written off repeatedly, and yet he has somehow managed to revive it on each occasion.

But this time it’s different. A young man who had been sexually ravaged in violent and sickening ways by multiple partners was found floating in Barrymore’s swimming pool after a wild party. The police suspect murder. Can even bouncy Barrymore recover from such a scandal, even if he wasn’t directly involved?

There has been enough conjecture about what has caused this once-loved performer to fall into such ruinous disgrace. His unhappy childhood, his struggle with his sexuality, his inability to cope with celebrity, his addictive personality and the kinds of people he has chosen to consort with.

All these things are likely to have played a part, but were any of them the prime motivator in his present degradation?

Was, for instance, his prolonged and messy coming out the trigger that sent him over the edge? After all, while they were married, Cheryl had kept him under a tight rein. His tendency towards impulsiveness, addiction and poor judgment were controlled by her cooler head.

But when the marriage ended, it was downhill all the way. His lack of self-control, his almost maniacal hedonism and his many other problems plunged him into a vortex of cocaine, pills, booze and reckless sex.

For a while it seemed he had found his saviour in Shaun Davis, a young man who cared for him. But he was driven away reportedly by Barrymore’s chaotic, coke-fuelled lifestyle.

Those who stepped in to fill the emotional vacuum were the very people Barrymore should have run a mile from. They were, as one commentator put it, “more concerned about how much white powder he had in his pocket than they were about him.”

His last boyfriend, John Kenny, sold the story of their relationship and what had happened on that fateful night to The News of the World. After that, he revealed to The Sun that he was HIV positive – something he hadn’t told Barrymore until their relationship was over.

So, was homosexuality the cause of Michael Barrymore’s downfall? After all, he wouldn’t be the first gay man to have buckled under the strain of a double life.

Most of the Fleet Street’s self-appointed experts were sure that his sexuality wasn’t to blame.

Carole Malone – a graduate with honours from the Glenda Slagg school of journalism – wrote in The Sunday Mirror: “I am finding it increasingly hard to stomach the endless stream of stories about Barrymore’s pain, his tortured life and his demons…. His career is all but finished and everything that finished it is his fault. So let’s stop all this twaddle about all his problems being down to him being a repressed homosexual in a loveless marriage. Let’s stop portraying him as a tortured soul bereft of any of life’s advantages. Because he had ‘em all – and he blew it.”

Lorraine Kelly in The Sun agreed: “It has nothing to do with him being gay but everything to do with his lack of self-control and self-respect.”

In The Daily Mail, under a picture of Barrymore and the headline “Is this man now beyond the pale?” David Thomas wrote: “Homosexuality is not the source of public disgust. Had the body in the pool been that of a young woman, our horror would have been just as great, perhaps even greater.”

In The Times Nicholas Wapshott said: “To come out as gay was once considered the most damaging revelation for an entertainer. But no more – in Britain at least. The television screen is littered with camp comedians – Julian Clary, Lily Savage and Graham Norton – and, as with Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, the British public does not care a damn about what they are up to in private so long as they make us laugh.”

Naturally there were others who tried to exploit the Barrymore debacle to push forward their own nasty agenda. Simon Heffer, the deeply unpleasant right-wing columnist on The Daily Mail wrote: “It was revolting to read details of the allegations made against Michael Barrymore and his friends, and even more revolting to be told of the physical state of the young man found dead in his swimming pool. When members of our liberal tendency read of this sort of horrible activity, are they still so smug that, thanks to them, such bestiality can now be inflicted on children of 16?”

And so, Barrymore rushes off to another clinic, this time in Arizona, looking for the miracle cure for his problems. You’d think experience would tell him that therapy doesn’t work for his kind of troubles in the same way that a shot of penicillin works for the clap. It actually takes a lot of determination and will power to beat addiction, but first of all it takes a willingness to even want to try.

So, if it wasn’t homosexuality that did for Michael Barrymore, was it his inability to cope with the level of fame and recognition that he has achieved? As Lynda Lee Potter (queen of the Glendas) wrote in the Daily Mail: “He’s complained bitterly about the pressures of success. He may well find the pressures of failure are even harder to bear.”

Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times examined Barrymore’s relationship with his “adoring fans”.

He quotes Michael as saying “It’s very difficult to have a relationship with millions of people. They know me, but I don’t know all of them. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to discover the real me”.

To this, Appleyard retorts: “Let us be clear about this: there is no ‘real self’, no ‘child within’, no ‘real me’, no authentic essence somehow concealed beneath some malign combination of drugs, sex, fame and money. There are only people who live and people who just talk about it. The latter are all sick and quite a lot of them are rich and famous. There is something about the process of suddenly finding themselves known, watched, adored and wealthy that flings certain people into futile paroxysms of psycho-babbling narcissism”.

More likely, says Appleyard, what stars who go off the rail really cannot handle is that they are freed from constraints such as lack of money or serious disapproval. “Barrymore could have all the sex ‘n drugs ‘n easy listening he could handle. Barrymore plunged into that distinctive form of contemporary nihilism which, for some reason, is known as having a good time or, more accurately, ‘getting wrecked’. Why not? There’s nothing else to do, no other reason to live.”

Appleyard then goes on to berate those public figures who have fallen into this trap of imagining that they are not doing these terrible things to themselves, but that somehow things are being done to them, and that their real self has been buried by this false sense of celebrity.

He advises those self-regarding celebrities such as Barrymore to exhibit a little more decorum, to take responsibility for themselves and “seek salvation in the real world not in the fantasy land of therapy and expensive clinics.”

So, are we any nearer to knowing whether it was his gayness, his fame or simply an inability to control his impulses that brought Barrymore low?

It was probably a combination of all three. Many people who wait until later in their lives to start to explore their homosexuality find that, after decades of denial, it isn’t so easy to shrug off the accumulated self-hate. And a young man from a modest background with little education who is suddenly plunged into the world of celebrity and adulation would find it a struggle to keep a handle on reality. But most of all, I think it was his embracing of the now widely-held philosophy that if you want to do it, do it and bugger the consequences.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to look at the way we are living and question the assumption so prevalent on the gay scene that unrestrained hedonism and self-indulgence is a desirable or adequate lifestyle.

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