I hear Kathleen Turner before I see her. She has a guttural, slurring voice that is several fathoms below the surface of normal female speech. As I sit waiting for her with my head in a book, this voice rolls up and out across the restaurant like a breaker. We are on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, around the corner from her apartment overlooking the Hudson River, and she has stopped to say hello to some friends on her way to my table. She has her back to me and I am filled with a sudden trepidation as I wait for her to turn. Her voice, as she herself has put it, is more recognisable than she is these days.

It seems a cruel fate to be frozen in the public memory as a lithe, icy-yet-smouldering, husky-voiced sex symbol in your mid-twenties, but that is what the 54-year-old Kathleen Turner has to contend with every day. It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which she was considered cinematic Viagra in her day. She was even offered that draughty Sharon Stone role in Basic Instinct and turned it down on the grounds of it being too tacky. Certainly, it is no exaggeration to describe her as an icon of 1980s cinema, not least because Body Heat, her first film and first box-office hit, was made in 1981 and her last big hit, The War of the Roses, was made in 1989.

In Body Heat she played a cold-hearted femme fatal opposite William Hurt and delivered the unforgettable line, ‘You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.’ She was pretty chilling in her second film as well, The Man With Two Brains, and that was a comedy. A trilogy of rom-coms with Michael Douglas followed – Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile and The War of the Roses – and these made her one of the most bankable female stars in Hollywood.

There was an Oscar nomination for Peggy Sue Got Married and then her turn came as Jessica Rabbit, the cartoon figure she voiced in Who Framed Roger Rabbit – ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.’ But then, in the 1990s, she seemed to disappear off the radar. There were sightings of her looking bloated and raddled; reports of her having become an alcoholic. She didn’t deny them. She thought them preferable to the truth.

She had succumbed to rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling auto-immune disease that affects the tissue in the joints, and the steroids she was taking for it were the cause of her changing appearance and making her look puffy – though the vodka she started drinking to kill the pain didn’t help. As things transpired, she did become an alcoholic and went into rehab in 2002.

But instead of becoming a recluse when she came out, she reinvented herself as a stage actress, an acclaimed one, both on Broadway and in the West End: first as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, then in an award-winning performance as Martha, the acerbic, hard-drinking faculty wife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After that, in 2006, she got a divorce and sat down to write an autobiography. There’s a lot to talk about, then. The woman has lived.

And here I am, sitting at a corner table in the restaurant, waiting for her to turn round. When she finally does, the air tightens. She gives a toss of the head and a smile exposing expensive American teeth – she had them fixed after the studios complained that, because she had spent part of her teenage years in London, she had ‘English teeth’.

When she sits down, I see she is wearing a silky Chinese jacket and no make-up. Her skin is not smooth and she has a low brow, with thick, dusty blonde hair that spills over her shoulders. For a moment, this adds to an impression that her features are somehow too small for her face, then they seem to come into focus and I realise that there always was something snubby about her look. Hers was an enigmatic beauty, neither obvious nor bland – chiselled from wood rather than sculpted from marble. And something about the way light catches her eyes, one hazel, one blue, as she tilts back her head makes her suddenly unmistakable.

‘Friends of mine,’ she growls with a backward look over her shoulder. ‘Like just about everyone around here, they work in the theatre.’ She has lived in the theatre district of New York for most of her adult life, eschewing Hollywood because she didn’t want to raise her daughter there. ‘Your engagement with the world is completely out of whack in LA. I mean, all their body-image problems. Once I had a daughter, there was no way in hell I was going to bring her up out there.’

She is quite unstarry in her habits, she tells me. Takes buses. Potters around the grocery store and the pharmacist. Chats to the garbage men she sees every morning on her way to the gym. They know about her numerous feet and knee operations and are used to seeing her with a cane or on crutches. ‘Yeah, this is my neighbourhood. Lived here for 16 years. Let’s eat. I’m hungry. I’m going to have steak tartare. Haven’t had much meat lately.’

I nearly choke on my drink. Though she didn’t mean it that way, it just sounds so, well?… What about alcohol? I ask. Has she had much of that lately? ‘Just back from a two-week vacation to the wine region of northern California. Rented a convertible. It was so nice not to have a schedule. I have friends in the vineyards there. So, yeah, sometimes I drink wine.

‘I know it is not approved behaviour but, the truth is, I haven’t had an incident for many years now. Hope I never do again. I know it is a serious danger, but I don’t have the pain that I had and don’t have the personal pressures that I had. What can I say? Alcohol is a powerful anaesthetic. It works! It works!’ She gives a raucous laugh then looks serious again. ‘It is so hard to explain to people that kind of chronic, endless pain that you can’t do anything to relieve – can’t sit, stand, lie, anything. It hurts from the inside out. It’s hard to explain what it does to your mind. You will take any escape. I went too far with the drinking but I don’t feel I have the need or the inclination to do that any more.

‘You know, RA is a very bad disease. Very difficult. You have a permanent low-level fluey feeling, a constant temperature and nausea.’ She raises her arms in the air, clenches her fists and shakes them. ‘You think, “Get the f— outta my body!”‘

She still feels angry about her disease, clearly. ‘My first feeling was relief that it had a name, because I thought I was dying from something nameless. Having a name for it gave me a point of attack. Honestly?…’ She sighs. ‘I was 37 years old when I was diagnosed and I thought, why should I expect to be incapacitated? It wasn’t as if I had done a stupid stunt that broke my neck – though, boy, I came close to that.

‘I suppose I felt a sense of helplessness. The day I was told, I went from the hospital to kindergarten for a meeting with my daughter’s teacher and looked at these little chairs and started crying because I knew there was no way I would be able to get into that chair. Anger certainly came along after that. Anger is never far from my sense of self. A core of anger has sustained me through many things. I become more articulate in an argument. I’m scary. When I go quiet, run!’

In her autobiography, Send Yourself Roses, she writes that she wants to apologise to anyone she was unpleasant to when she was drinking. In what ways unpleasant? ‘I’ve seen it in other families but not mine at all. We were never discourteous. Never have a tone of voice that was harsh. Then to hear it coming from my own mouth. It was like I was possessed. It was terrible. I was ashamed and shocked. Didn’t know I had it in me. Wrong!’

Her decision not to reveal the truth about her illness was one she took with her agent as well as her husband. The logic was that, in Hollywood at least, it is more acceptable for you to drink or do drugs than to be ill. Contracts are more likely to waive insurance for drink and drug addiction, than for serious illness. There was a precedent for this, after all. Michael J. Fox hid his Parkinson’s disease for years so that he could keep working.

Her illness, she says, sapped not only her strength but also her confidence. ‘And then there was the personal side, too,’ she says as her steak tartare arrives. ‘The sexual relationship is not pleasurable because it hurts to be touched. My husband was wonderfully patient and supportive, but I missed the sex. I missed it as being a part of me, part of my identity. I enjoy sex. I enjoy the hell out of it!’

How are things in that respect at the moment? ‘Boring. Not easy. It’s not so easy. I think many men are put off by, well, by me.’I suppose the name comes with some baggage. ‘Maybe. Maybe they don’t want to be part of this, have this responsibility, being photographed and appearing in public and having your life scrutinised. Maybe they are right to choose not to.’

There are scratches on the backs of her hands. ‘My cats have been at me,’ she says when she notices me noticing them. She lives alone these days, after being married for 22 years to Jay Weiss, a wealthy New York property developer. Their marriage had survived years of scrutiny, so what, I ask, was the reason for their split in the end? ‘I don’t think there is a simple explanation. I don’t think there ever is. I think we became too difficult for each other because our lives were going different ways. He wanted to be part of the public world less and less. He was tired of the publicity, and the travel, and being, as he would call it, “Mr Turner”.’

She reckons she and her husband are still great friends – just happier apart. At first she felt relieved to be on her own. ‘The peace of my own place, you know. I started painting rooms all these colours that he would have minded, one green, one terracotta… Then I started to grieve because I realised, “Nobody knows where I am right now.” Always, for 20-some years, Jay knew where I was.’

On the other hand, she felt she was ‘coming to a place where I was opening up more and I didn’t want my life to get smaller. My daily, child-rearing duties were over. Well, one hopes. At the moment I have my doubts.’ She laughs again, a room-filling laugh. Her daughter, Rachel, is a 20-year-old university student. ‘She’s a terrific kid but I am kind of hoping she will leave home soon.’

Her lowest moment came, she says, when she found herself crying in the bathroom, unable to squeeze moisturiser out of a bottle because she could no longer grip anything with her hands. Rachel was four at the time and said, ‘I can do that for you, Mommy.’

At one point, her daughter even had to feed her because she couldn’t hold a spoon. ‘You never want to look helpless in front of your child. It was hard not being able to play with her. She would say, “Come on, Mom, run!”, and years later, after many operations and much medication, Rachel and I were going somewhere and I ran with her across a road and she said, “Mom, you ran!” I suppose I never expected to again, having been told I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, you know. Instinctively, I would count the steps to the bus stop, just to brace myself for having to walk a distance.’

Turner is pretty good on the self-analysis, describing herself as ‘funny, smart, irreverent, silly, stubborn and demanding’. Her self-awareness even extends to admitting that her self-awareness is probably down to her having had the same therapist, a woman, for the past quarter of a century. ‘It’s preventive really. She’s a sounding board. My shrink has told me I have unresolved issues.’

Such as? ‘My father dying when he did. I was 17. A great time of transition in my life.’ Her father, a US diplomat, died suddenly of coronary thrombosis while on a posting to London. He was mowing the lawn at the time and she reckons he died angry with her, because they had had an argument. Her father hadn’t been keen on her becoming an actress, considering it one up from street-walking. ‘His death left me with an inherent insecurity that I would fight to hide. I would see others as being as flawed as I see myself. It’s one reason I wouldn’t be 20 again. Who needs to be hag-ridden like that? I wasn’t a happy 20-year-old.’

Really? She wouldn’t want to be 20 again? Everyone wants to be 20 again. ‘Not me. I’m so much better now, at my job, at caring and relating to be people, so much less self-involved. I’m a better person now. I was inexperienced, then. I wouldn’t deliberately damage someone, but I couldn’t see what could be done to protect someone either.’

The actress lost her virginity at 19 and found the experience ‘disappointing’ – but sex got better, and by the time she had returned to America and graduated with a degree in drama from the University of Maryland she was very comfortable about her sexuality, particularly her power over men. Famously, she once said: ‘You know how it is when you know you are really sexy? On nights when I feel great about myself, if I walk into a room and a man doesn’t look at me, he’s either dead or gay.’

Our waitress arrives, an actress in between jobs. That was what Turner was doing when she was cast in Body Heat, and she went back to waitressing while waiting for the film to be released. ‘For all I knew, it was going to be a flop and I needed to carry on paying the rent. But then, suddenly, Bill [Hurt] and I were hot.

‘Men were pursuing me all over the place. I went to a dinner party and Jack Nicholson was there and afterwards, when I got home, Jack was ringing saying: “How could you do that to me? You were my date.” I said, “I was your date? No one told me.” It was very odd but there was all this?… I didn’t know the rules, having not grown up in LA, thank God?… I felt hounded and hunted by men there. I thought after Body Heat I would never marry. Because who would want to take that on? When Jay said I was the woman for him, I said, “Are you crazy?”‘

Sitting in the Manhattan restaurant enjoying her meat she seems animated to the point of hyperactivity. She widens her eyes, tosses back her head, cackles manically. She even slips into Dick van Dyke English from time to time, for my benefit, and uses oddly old-fashioned phrases such as ‘Oh my stars and garters’ and ‘Heavens to Betsy’.

At one point I excuse myself and forget to turn my tape-recorder off only to find, when I later listen to it, that she hums to herself when alone. Actually, she does seem self-possessed and she is quite a one for bigging herself up, talking about her ‘range’ and how her films were ‘ground-breaking’ and how her ‘agent tells me offers to direct are pouring in’. Her relentless self-affirmation seems to mask vulnerability, though, as well as a certain sadness.

This autumn, she plans to return to the London stage in the new Edward Albee play, Me, Myself and I. She plays the mother. ‘I said to Edward, “It’s mother roles for me from now on.”‘ The playwright is a big fan of hers, having told her she looked like his idea of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: ‘Strong and somewhat plain, and unpretentious, as though she had really lived.’

It’s not a bad description of Kathleen Turner either. She does, after all, do a nice line in self-parody, having played on her reputation as a gay icon by taking the part of Chandler’s transsexual father in Friends – ‘A woman playing a man playing a woman,’ she recalls with her deep and wheezy laugh that sounds like the last drop being squeezed from a tube of suntan lotion. Her memoirs reveal her to be unprecious about Hollywood, too.

Burt Reynolds was ‘just nasty’, Steve Martin was ‘quite stiff and unfunny, when he wasn’t being funny on film.’ And Nicolas Cage she dismissed as a ‘self-involved egotist’, though she was obliged to apologise to him after he successfully sued her earlier this year for falsely characterising him as a drink-driver who once stole a chihuahua. So there is exaggeration there, as well as blunt honesty.

She reckons she is getting blunter with each passing year. As to her appearance, she says that it makes no sense for people to compare her to how she looked 25 years ago. ‘These people who do that didn’t stop growing or changing, so why would I look the same?’ She is quite right of course, but there does seem something almost wilful about the way she now checks her watch, takes out her lipstick and applies it unselfconsciously before popping it back in her handbag – I get the feeling she hadn’t worn make-up deliberately.

Anyway, she has another appointment downtown and, before she leaves, she slips her sunglasses on indoors, a little touch of Hollywood in New York.


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.