As he unveils his biggest exhibition yet, the ‘transvestite potter’ seems set to join the art world’s big beasts. But will his ladylike alter ego and childhood teddy bear be joining him?

Being an accommodating man, Grayson Perry has asked if we – that is, the photographer and me – would like him as Claire or as himself. Actually, it was someone from his gallery who asked on his behalf, but still, it is an intriguing distinction, one that I will try to unravel here. He is far from consistent on the subject.

For now, though, it would be as well to remind ourselves, as if we could forget, that not only is 51-year-old Perry a “conceptual artist who works as a craftsman” (his definition) but he is also a transvestite, and that when he dresses as a woman it tends to be as one who wouldn’t look out of place in a pantomime. Indeed, when he won the Turner Prize for his ceramics in 2003, he was wearing a Little Bo Peep outfit. “It’s about time a transvestite potter won this prize,” he quipped.

His pointed sense of humour is one of his defining characteristics, and it runs through his work like the seam of gilt he put in one of his vases to make it obvious it had been broken and repaired (because that was what the ancient Orientals used to do, making a feature of the repair).

We have opted for “as himself” today, which means he is wearing red trousers, pumps and a linen jacket, and his unribboned blond curls reach down to his collar. He has poured himself a coffee, peeled a banana and taken a single bite from it, but the rest of it remains in his hand, which is poised on his knee as if he were an Edwardian posing for a tableau vivant.

We are meeting in the director’s dining room at the British Museum where, from this week until mid February, there will be a major exhibition of his work. And when you approach the columned entrance of the museum and see a long banner announcing it, you do realise what a big name, literally and figuratively, Grayson Perry has become.

Must put a spring in his step when he sees that, I say. “First time I have seen it, actually. But yeah, the big banner outside the British Museum feels pretty good. Oooh!” He talks quickly and fluently in a resonant voice, and though you wouldn’t necessarily work out straight away that he was born and raised in Essex, there are still some traces of the county in his accent.

His exhibition is called Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and it features his own work alongside objects he has selected from the eight million on display here. The “unknown” in the title seems to be, well, rather knowing on his part, because he himself is far from anonymous as an artist and craftsman.

In the past he’s described Claire as an “alter ego”. Is that still the case?

“I might have done in the past, in my naive pre-therapy days, before I became fully merged. There’s no part of my personality I hive off any more. I’m fully integrated. It’s not an alter ego, it’s a fetish. It’s just me in a frock.”

I ask whether, when he first started cross-dressing in public, the thrill was in passing himself off as a woman. “I never got into dressing as a woman to deceive anyone, so I thought why not embrace it openly? I wanted to say ‘I am Grayson in a dress, deal with it’. There are some trannies who are happy to blend in. If you’re a bank manager, you probably won’t be able to express your transvestism in the same way as an artist can.”

His attitude seems to be that he acknowledges there is something inherently funny about wanting to dress up as a member of the opposite sex, so you may as well be in on the joke and take it further, in his case with baby doll dresses and bonnets. Ritualised humiliation seems to be part of the appeal, too. Can he imagine reaching an age when he will no longer feel the inclination to dress up? “I don’t know. I’ve met trannies who were in their nineties and they said their libidos went years ago. There is a psychological element to it as well as a sexual one, you see.”

Although he has said that his love of pottery may be connected to having to wear a tight rubber smock during his first pottery lesson at school – he became excited by the sensation, broadly speaking – he seems to regard his transvestism as coincidental to his art. But has it, in fact, helped his career? “It hasn’t hurt. It’s a part of me; therefore it must have contributed to my success. In the crowded cultural landscape, it doesn’t hurt to be known for something different.”

He may now deny that Claire is an alter ego, but when he puts a dress on, does he find himself stepping into a character, a public persona that is different to his private one? “I never really use the name any more. I kind of regret it because it came out of me being in a transvestite society when I was younger and they insisted on a fem name for anonymity. If I started in my forties, I would have said ‘call me Grayson’.”

If he were dressed as Claire today, would there be no difference? “I might sit nicer!” He gives an unexpectedly raucous laugh that makes me jump. “Wouldn’t be so casual! I do sit and walk a little more ladylike when I’m dressed up. It’s appropriate to the look.” He says he’s learnt to avoid the places where his appearance might lead to trouble. But can he handle himself? “Never had a fight.” I ask this because his stepfather was an amateur wrestler. Was he a violent man? “He could be very frightening. That sort of person would be someone I would avoid. I still have a reaction to machismo.”

His biological father was a “manly man” too, an engineer who rode motorbikes. “Motorbikes aren’t manly,” he says. “Look at mine.” True, his is pink and turquoise. “If a bloke has to prove his machismo with a motorbike, then he isn’t very macho.” The motorbike and his father, with whom he has little contact, are integral to understanding his new work. They are linked by Alan Measles, his childhood teddy bear, who features heavily in the new exhibition. Perry recently toured Bavaria on his motorbike accompanied by Alan Measles, who sat in a specially constructed shrine on the back. It was, the artist said, a mission of reconciliation with their old enemies, the Germans. In his solitary and unhappy childhood, you see, Perry imagined Alan as a heroic member of the French resistance.

He was also an unbeaten racing driver, and a fighter pilot. He has now taken on the role of a “personal God” and “the embodiment of everything that is good about masculinity”. In the exhibition catalogue, Perry describes Alan as “the benign dictator of my fantasy worlds. He was my prime candidate for deification and I set about making works that celebrated his heroism.”

Presumably, by giving a teddy bear all these manly characteristics, his intention was to mock them? “No, in my childhood, Alan was a transference mechanism to help me survive emotionally. I needed a reassuring male figure, so I constructed it.” But why not project on to an Action Man? “Well, I’m sure there are kids who have done it with an Action Man, but for me it happened to be my teddy bear. I never wanted to be in someone else’s imagination. Teddies are universal. They don’t have distinctive characteristics. That’s why he’s like a god.”

People project on to God what they would like Him to be. Alan struggles with the whole business of religion. There is a piece in the show called Hold Your Beliefs Lightly in which Alan says to the world’s religions: “Calm down, dear, it’s only a belief system.’’ What Alan Measles is most, as Perry discovered when he had therapy, is a surrogate father. He is also his male psyche. Indeed, on one of Perry’s vases there is a scene in which Claire is marrying Alan. “Many problems in society come from an imbalance in the way these two sides of our personality are dealt with,” he has written.

Perry’s wife Philippa is a psychotherapist and they have a 19-year-old daughter, Florence. He denies that he gets free sessions, although “We talk about therapy all the time… there are still a lot of people who are suspicious about it because people see it as a fluffy, middle-class indulgence. I think it will become more popular in the future because it is a b——-free zone. Therapists tell it like it is. They peel back layers.” In conversation, he often seems to refer to emotions. And as much as anything, his new exhibition seems to be an exploration of public emotion.

The Unknown Craftsman is, of course, a reference to the Unknown Soldier who became the focus for national grief after the First World War. “I found it very moving reading up about the Unknown Soldier,” he says, “because public displays of emotion intrigue me. I found the Diana funeral moving in a way a lot of middle-class commentators dismissed. Yucky working-class people being vulgar and emotional.” Would he say he’s now part of the art establishment? “No. There is an art elite which meets in Venice and it is partly a class thing because they prefer intellectual difficulty to emotional. They sneer at anything accessible because they think accessibility means dumb.”

Perry has broad appeal and I think it’s because people find him accessible, engaging and witty. “I’m sure there are people in the art world who struggle to like me because they have an academic, insular version of art. Difficult art is collected by galleries rather than individual patrons and it’s a kind of closed system. The public aren’t paying for it and their attention isn’t sought. The elites don’t realise they are a little village.” Is there rivalry between the big beasts, by which I mean him, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George and the Chapman brothers?

“I’m the littlest of the big beasts. They make miles more money than me. Wish I had their money. I don’t do enough work and don’t have a big team of assistants. This exhibition is two years’ work for me. They make the kind of work that they are happy to see expanded and out of their control.” Me-ow! Is there rivalry, though? “I’m glad to meet any of them. We have things that we like and we don’t like about each other’s work. It would be weird if we didn’t. We’re not treading on each other’s toes.” He adds that his ambition is “to make art that is happy and accessible and decorative. The idea that art has to be difficult and solemn is not very English. And I’m very English.”

It is telling that he refers disparagingly to “the middle classes” as if they are not his tribe, when clearly they now are. He listens to Radio 4 all day when he’s working in his studio, for goodness sake. But, for all this, there is something endearingly, and perhaps surprisingly, unpretentious about Perry. The interview done, and the banana now eaten, we wander over to where the exhibition is being constructed. He hasn’t made an appointment to visit the site and the security guard is not convinced he is who he says he is. How much easier it would have been if he had come as Claire.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.