Jason Donovan: 'Why did I start taking cocaine? Because I enjoyed it; I guess I was rebelling against the Neighbours image of me'
He sang one of the cheesiest pop hits ever, but what is Jason Donovan really like as a husband? On Valentine's Day and ahead of a run at Belfast's Grand Opera House, where he will star in Million Dollar Quartet, the actor talks to Barry Egan about being brought up by his father, life as a family man and his battle with drug addiction.
Jason Donovan is forever frozen in our collective consciousness as the saintly airhead with the permed mullet in Neighbours - the teen idol goody two-shoes Scott who married Charlene (Kylie Minogue) in the 1980s, when it received the highest ever ratings for the Australian soap.
This inoffensive image was further set in the global imagination when Jason and Kylie duetted on that Stock Aitken Waterman-produced mega-hit Especially For You in 1989.
Nearly three decades later some of us perhaps still think of Jason as that dull dweeb of witless wholesomeness. However, spend an hour with him - as I did recently - and his presence will soon disabuse you of any such notion. He is rather droll, even mercurial, possibly complicated, maybe troubled - but certainly not dull or saintly.
He actually laughed out loud when I mixed up his father, the actor Terence Donovan (who is "very much alive") with the photographer Terence Donovan (who is very much not after taking his own life in 1996 while suffering from depression).
"Don't sweat it!" Jason chuckles. "My father lives very happily and is still swimming. Ironically, I met (the other) Terence Donovan, who lived just down the road from me in London."
Born on June 1, 1968 in Malvern, Melbourne, Jason Donovan is a fascinating man. I suppose he would have to be. His parents split up when he was five; his father, as Jason told The Guardian in 2009, was "one of the first men in Australia to get custody of his child. Why did I end up with him? Who knows? You could ask my parents and they'd probably give you different answers".
In his 2007 autobiography Between The Lines: My Story Uncut, Jason believed that his mother Sue McIntosh's exit from his life at such a tender age had a profound effect on him: "There is no question that her departure left me with emotional scars.
"To say that my mother abandoned me would be too strong," he wrote.
"When she walked out of the family home I realise now that she wasn't walking away from me but from her marriage. However, as a small child there were times when I didn't see it that way; I couldn't understand why she had left... to this day I am none the wiser."
For the record, Miss McIntosh claimed in an interview with Australia's Woman's Day magazine in 2001: "Jason knows the truth; I didn't abandon him. I took him with me when I left our home in Melbourne and I left because it was a horrendous situation. I was a young girl involved with someone who drank and I didn't cope well. For a young girl it was not only shocking but extremely upsetting, but Jason is totally dismissive of my version of the past."
Does Jason have a relationship with his mother?
"Not at the moment, I don't," the 48-year-old Donovan says.
He has three kids of his own - Molly (5), Zac (15) and Jemma (16).
Asked what kind of dad he is, he says: "Hopefully affectionate, hopefully loving. I give them freedom to be what they want to be. I try to guide them where I can and let them be themselves and make their own mistakes.
"I am a dad that probably scares them a little bit because I like to be current. I like to listen to their songs on the radio. I'm not sort of a stiff father. I like to be loose and free, hug them and tell them I love them."
Did he inherit that from his own father?
"I was in a unique position with my dad because my mother wasn't around. I was brought up by my father. We were very close."
I ask him if the way he is with his kids is an overcompensation in a way for his own past with his mother and father.
"No. It's just instinctive. Some psychologists might say different but I don't see it through those eyes. I want to be involved with my kids and I want to spend as much time with them as I can."
What age was he when he realised that his mother wasn't raising him and what was that like for him?
"I didn't know any different."
To grow up without a mother is not unimportant, I say.
"Let's be clear here," he says firmly. "My dad had custody. My mother was still part of my life. But not in the way my dad was. And never has been."
Did it affect his romantic relationships with women, because he didn't have that female influence in his life?
"Again, I haven't really analysed that. Someone might see that. I am with Ange nearly 17 years," he says referring to his English wife Angela Malloch (they married in 2008) and the mother of his children.
"It has certainly made me realise that it is important to find someone who is your best friend and you share the ups and downs with them, and you try to push through the good and bad times together.
"I don't know what was going on in the 1970s. My father was one of the first males to get custody in the state of Victoria."
Jason will star in Million Dollar Quartet at the Grand Opera House in Belfast in April. The highly entertaining show is inspired by the December 4, 1956 sonic summit that saw the rock 'n' roll world - and indeed the world - shift on its axis when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins came together for the first and sadly only time at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, in an iconic session overseen by Sun founder Sam Phillips, played by Donovan.
Post-Neighbours, Jason starred in Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat, as well as other cheese-tastic musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and The War Of The Worlds. He has also appeared in Strictly Come Dancing and I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! (he came third in both.)
For some people, he says, success is "being famous"; for others success is "being able to walk, or overcoming cancer".
The 1980s were "pretty crazy", Jason says of his international super-stardom. This pretty craziness morphed into something truly that because by the early 1990s Jason had became addicted to cocaine - and was on a reputed three grams of the drug a day.
According to his book, Jason would come off stage in Joseph, get out of his loincloth, take a visit to the lavatory, and "I'd cut myself one hell of a line and snort it all up in one go".
He also wrote that at dinner parties in London - where he moved to in the late 1980s - that cocaine was brought out "like it was Walls Viennetta".
There is also the apocryphal story of Jason, the worse for coke, falling on top of movie star Jack Nicholson at a house party in the city.
So, what drew him to the darkness of cocaine?
"That's a long story. I didn't drink alcohol until I was 30, because I was around my father and actors. I didn't like what alcohol did. So I smoked weed at a young age. That was my drug of choice. Unfortunately, as I got more successful, I went in other areas."
Was he burying his pain?
"You'd have to ask a psychologist. I don't know. Why did I do it? Because I enjoyed it. I could go out, and you know, I felt I was being creative under it. I guess it was a rebellious thing against the image of me," Jason says with brutal honesty of his butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth image borne out of his role as Scott in Neighbours.
"Maybe it is all of those things. Maybe it is the claustrophobia of fame and that whole aspect. I don't know. But if you ask me why I took it (cocaine), it was because I enjoyed it," he says.
His enjoyment of the drug was arguably severely tested when he had a seizure during a soiree at Johnny Depp's Viper Room club in Los Angeles in January, 1995: the occasion being the 21st birthday party for Depp's then-girlfriend, Kate Moss.
When Jason collapsed INXS front man Michael Hutchence reportedly whispered into his ear as an ambulance was called: "Have you got anything on you? It wouldn't be cool if anything was found on you by the medics."
The next memory Jason had was of being carried out of the club by paramedics on a stretcher to LA's Cedars-Sinai Hospital."Cocaine is evil," Jason says, and he has long since been clean of any drugs.
"And it is a choice you make. It is not the right choice. And hopefully with my kids, I educate them to make the best choices possible."
I have to say that I very much enjoyed the company of the complicated Donovan.
He is raw and honest, and doesn't coat his story with the sugary schmaltz of showbiz too much, if at all.
Titling your best-selling book Between The Lines: My Story Uncut bordered on a private joke about cocaine, and certainly wasn't the bland outpourings expected from a major mainstream star.
And he doesn't seem to mind being grilled about his life at home.
What's Jason Donovan like in his private moments?
He replies: "It depends on the environment I'm in and how I'm feeling."
When he's at home with Ange and the kids?
"They would say that I'm stressed, always stressed, that I'm always uptight."
"Because I'm always thinking about what's ahead and what I've got to do."
Is he ever in the now?
"Yeah, I am. When you've got a family and you've got kids and you've got that whole treadmill of maintaining their lives as well as yours - I find that burden quite stressful sometimes," he says.
"I wouldn't change it for the world. My life is incredible. So I can't complain. People would say 'you're very lucky'. And I am very lucky.
"But it still comes with its problems. And I'm not very good at relaxing.
"It's like this year is very busy up until July, August, and then I don't have a lot going on after that. I get quite stressed out about that.
"'What am I going to do? How am I going to fill it?' But part of me that is struggling with that is probably going, 'Enjoy it. You might be flat-out in January. You might be flat-out in December'. But I don't think that way.
"I've always been very driven, ambitious. My dad, being alive at 81, has always been like that," he laughs.
Does his wife balance Jason out?
"My wife is a very intelligent, strong, grounded woman. Does she ground me? She is tolerant of my crap sometimes. I'm not talking on the Richter scale of one to 10! I am quite content in who I am."
Jason adds that growing up in suburban Melbourne - "where it is a little more cultural; it is not as weather dependent as the rest of Australia and lot of the theatre is generated out of Melbourne" - had a deep-rooted influence on him.
"It is a thinking town. I wanted to act. But I had a plan B."
That was his art. Jason describes his style of painting as like Jean-Michel Basquiat, "the New York artist who died of Aids" (in 1988). "It was borne out of that period in the 1990s when I was trying to be creative."
He has just been to see La La Land with his wife in London. "Loved it," he smiles.
"Just beautiful. Made me feel good."
Hopefully Jason Donovan in Million Dollar Quartet will make the audience feel good, too.
- Jason Donovan stars in Million Dollar Quartet at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from April 25-29. For tickets go to www.goh.co.uk or tel: 028 9024 1919