Jonny Wilkes is Stoke's own, and proud of it. The hugely successful West End musical star, singer, writer, presenter and actor is now also a performing arts college founder and a proud dad. The days of him being known first and foremost as Robbie Williams' mate are over.
I haven't stopped smiling since I meet him. I’ve met a few divas in my time, but Jonny Wilkes isn’t one of them. He might know a few, and he’s as talented as the best of them, perhaps more so.
He has blatant star quality oozing from every pore, along with charm, manners, a real personality and a love of home. He can still engage in 'normal bloke' banter with apparent ease, oh, and he's a bit of a looker too. Despite all his West End encores and Hollywood mates — he’s still a downto- earth Stokie — and proud of it.
“Hello duck,” he says, “How are ya?” I love him straightaway. I'm early — but he's already here and ready to start.
I’d quickly Googled him before our interview. Good grief. This guy is only 35- years-old and his Curriculum Vitae must be longer than Sir Bruce Forsyth’s.
Jonny's in town to chat to us about his latest ventures, the pantomime he's going to be in this Christmas, and his love of Stoke-on-Trent. While he's 'Up North' he's staying with his mum in Tean.
"My mum reads Staffordshire Life, you know," he says. His mum is clearly a woman of taste. "My son, Mickey, who's seven, has gone to Blackpool today," he tells me while our photographer sets up.
"It's where I started, you know. Mickey loves it there — he's an expert on fairground rides. I'm doing a show there at The Globe at the end of September. I can't wait to go back."
It's nice to be called 'duck', I told my wife!
Jonathan Wilkes was born in Baddeley Green and then spent most of his childhood in Packmoor, with his mum, dad and older sister, Kay. He says he had an amazing childhood. "We lived on an estate and I had nice friends — I learned more on the streets than I did at school.
“I went to Holden Lane School and loved it. At home I was surrounded by a lot of love, with a big family. Sadly, I lost my dad when he was 58 — far too young. I come home a lot — I have to have my 'fix' of Stoke, you can't beat Stoke.
“OK, we're not a glam city, we are struggling, but we have the biggest hearts. The people here are fab and that's why I come back.
“I live in Royal Wootten Bassett now — in Wiltshire — simply because my wife, Nikki, is from there. When I was working in London or away on tour and we had little Mickey, Nikki wanted to move to be with her family so she had some support, which is understandable. It took me time to adapt, I admit, but I'm settling now.
“I do see the north/south divide! There is a big difference. My wife Nikki notices it — and how everyone up here in Stoke calls her 'duck', which I had to explain to her was just people being nice. The friendliness of this place is second to none. I've seen a lot of changes here and I hope to see more, we need to do something, we need to spruce up Stoke.”
I didn't have the heart to be a footballer
I was sports mad at school and was signed for Port Vale at age seven and then I played for Everton when I was a teenager.
“I didn't concentrate a lot at school — I was known as the class clown — funny that isn't it?! School was more about having a laugh for me and waiting till I could get home and play football. I thought I didn't need to study because I was going to be a footballer.
“But then at 16, I wanted to go out with my mates, chase girls and didn't want to go to training. I lost my heart and confidence in football. I was dropped by Everton because of my attitude, “I wasn't willing to eat, live and breathe football. I work with kids all the time now and I always ask them, 'How much do you want this?' You must work really hard for what you want.
“But I had a back-up plan for after football. I spent six months at Fenton College doing a BTEC in Leisure and Tourism, and ended up working in a travel agency but thought, 'What am I doing?' “Then mum entered me in a talent competition at GMTV — the Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year.
I'd been doing amateur dramatics since I was six, so I always had it in me to be a showoff.
“I used to sing for my mates. I won the Midlands heat and had to go to Malta for the final. Well, I won! The other kids sang things from 'Les Mis' and I sang Tom Jones' 'Kiss'. The next thing I knew I was in Blackpool, at just 18, and at the time it was the entertainment mecca of the world.
“I was given four backing dancers and they called us 'Jonathan and the Space Girls', which I thought was brilliant! I got £250 a week singing 28 songs a night in a pub at the end of the Pleasure Beach.
“I was Blackpool's youngest headliner — with one of the most successful shows there and it was full every night. I lived with 60 dancers in Blackpool and it was wow! I had all my washing and shopping done for me! “I had the time of my life and learned my craft by actually doing the job; I had to learn as I went along. I'd go and watch acts like Cannon and Ball, Bradley Walsh, the Grumbleweeds, Jim Davidson, Frank Carson and just watch and learn. If you went on holiday to Blackpool then, you'd see all those acts, but those good old variety entertainment days have gone.
Blackpool's more stag 'n' hen parties now, which is a shame, but I think light entertainment is making a comeback.
The likes of my mates Ant 'n' Dec are helping that with their shows like 'Saturday Night Takeaway.'
I can't help it if Robbie Williams happens to be my best friend
I was 20, and in my third season at Blackpool, when a chap called Kevin Bishop approached me. He ran the Royal Variety shows for the BBC and he was looking for a young presenter for the BBC Choice channel — now BBC3. He asked me to do it.
“I wanted to move on and so said 'yes' to the move to London. My mate, Rob, said 'Come and live with me in my big mansion'.
“So, off I went to live with Robbie Williams in London and start my first TV job. That's where I met my wife, Nikki — at the BBC. I started to write records as well, and managed to get a record deal with Virgin and got paid very well! “Rob had exploded on the scene at the time — he had 'Angels' out I think — and we were photographed out and about a lot together. 'Who's that?', people would say. 'Oh it's Jonny Wilkes, Robbie's mate'.
“I can't help who my best mate is — and I'm proud to death of him — he's been my best mate all my life.
“Our mums are best mates and we grew up together doing 'am dram'. But then when I released my record, the record company said we needed to get away from the 'Robbie Williams thing'.
“I told them — I can't — I'll always be associated with Robbie in the same way that he'll always be associated with 'Take That'. It's just one of those things.
“That's why we did 'Me and My Shadow' at the Royal Albert Hall together. When I came out on stage and performed with Robbie, people started to say "Ooo, he can sing, he's good, that Jonny', and that's when people started to give me a little bit of respect.
“I didn't like being a pop star with a record album out, though. I'm not cool enough.
Robbie is this 'Robbie Williams Pop Star' on stage and then when he comes off stage he's just Rob again.
“I can't do that transition. I want to make you laugh — I don't want to sing to you. I did a good album and yes, I can sing, but I'm not a pop star. I'm more for the Loose Women audience than a teenage audience.
I sat there in my stocking and suspenders and then my wife walked in....
After my live duo with Robbie, I was offered 'You've Been Framed' and more projects started coming my way.
“I'd already done the musical 'Godspell', and had always wanted to play Frank N Furter in 'The Rocky Horror Show' and was offered the role.
“It's the best part I've ever done in my life. We did it in the West End and then sold out here in Stoke. It's the ultimate character to play.
“I remember doing it for the first time, sat in my dressing room in Bromley, with all the make-up on and in my stockings and suspenders, and my wife came in and said 'I can't look at you'.
“It took me a while to get into the character — well, it's hard walking in five inch heels! Now I know how you women feel! But then I thought 'Hey, I'm a 6'7" transvestite — no one's messing with me!' “I had a great time.
“After that I played Danny in 'Grease', then I did 'Tommy', and then I was asked to audition for 'Guys and Dolls' for the Donmar Warehouse.
“By this stage I thought just turning up would get me the role. They turned me down. I couldn't believe it.
“In the theatrical world, the Donmar is a bit posh, and they like you to be well trained to perform there. I didn't know that. I was arrogant. I didn't prep for the audition. I learned a valuable lesson. I went away and had voice coaching and acting lessons and prepared, and they agreed to see me again and this time gave me the part. I was lucky. You can't take anything for granted in this business.
“Here in Stoke I may be a big fish in a small pond, but London's a big pond, and the competition is fierce.
“After 'Guys and Dolls', which I loved, it was 'The Wedding Singer.' I'd seen that show on Broadway and loved it.
“After that, 'We Will Rock You' was great working with Brian May and Ben Elton.
Then I played Billy Flynn in 'Chicago.' So, I've done alright when it comes to musicals! “To be honest, the only part left that I'd really love to do is Che in Evita — I'm a bit gutted Marti Pellow got that part 'coz I'd be good at that!
“And I'd love to do Mickey in Blood Brothers but Willy Russell won't cast anyone over six feet tall for that role — maybe I'll have to try and persuade him.
“I love the role. It's partly why my little lad is called Mickey, though more to do with the fact that I'm a massive 'Rocky' fan and his trainer in the film was called Mickey.
Teaching the next generation of performers — the Wilkes Academies
Now it's about educating people — teaching them not to make the mistakes I made.
“I want to bring back discipline to the theatre. Nowadays, kids come in and they think they know it all, but that's society now.
“They see Britain's Got Talent and the X Factor and they all want their five minutes of fame — instant fame which is fine — I'm not criticising those programmes.
“But, if you want longevity in this business, you learn from the basics, and when you get that first job it doesn't mean you've made it, it means you work from there.
“The Wilkes Academy idea came from when I did 'Stoke's Top Talent' with The Sentinel. My wife was very passionate about it too and we had talented people of all ages coming forward — young and old — and I thought wow! This city is so full of talent! The final is always amazing — it's better than BGT.
“It brings the community together. We've had to miss this year for a number of unavoidable reasons but it's back next year.
“The 'Stoke's Top Talent' project gave my wife Nikki the idea of doing something more to help nurture all this young talent and, as a result, we've been running the Wilkes Academy in Stoke for four years now, for under 16s.
“It's gone from strength-to-strength and our students have gone on to prestigious stage schools all over the UK.
“But we wanted to build on what we've achieved and open a full-time three year BTEC Performing Arts course for the over 16s.
“We've just opened — this is our first term — with 57 students starting our course right now. We've got five brand new studios in Swindon and I've got 12 talented youngsters from Stoke within the first intake of students.
Robbie and Ant n Dec are Patrons
My job is to make sure we have the best faculty of teachers, which we do have.
We've also got the best patrons, like Robbie Williams, Ant n Dec, Arlene Phillips, Mike Dixon, and West End stars like Louise Dearman and Paul Roberts.
“We're going to give our students the best possible training and then help them get into the world of entertainment. That's my next three year project — to set up my own management company to filter our successful students into the industry.
“I have all the contacts and know-how to help them do that. I've spent the last year working on this project — that's why I haven't done a musical this year — it's a huge responsibility, and I've put 100 per cent into it.
“Nikki is the driving force behind the academy — she's running it — and without her it would not have happened.
The students love Nikki because she has such passion.
Stoke people are MY people
I'm coming back for panto again this year — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For me it's brilliant because I'm home. I'm in Stoke “I have my Nikki with me — she’s choreographed the show for eight years — then I have my mum and sister who are here, and Mickey has all his cousins here.
“So I'm with family, doing a job I love. I'm very lucky, The Regent Theatre is my second home; “I've done over 600 performances on that stage, and I'm not going to stop till I've done over 2,000! You've asked me if I'm a family man and you've hit the nail on the head. Yes, I am a family man.
“And you know what? I get quite passionate about the fact that it costs so much money to take a family to the theatre these days.
“By the time you've got your tickets, your popcorn and sweets and the wavy wandy things, it ain't cheap. So, I am never going to walk on stage and give anything less than 100 per cent for the audience. I'm going to make sure that we do a brilliant pantomime.
“For some families, this is their treat after working hard all year. Stoke-on- Trent people are MY people — and when the cast and I walk onto that stage, we will deliver our best for Stoke-on-Trent.
Oh, yes we will.” Jonny is coming home for Christmas and panto — you can see him again this year at the Regent Theatre, Stoke-n-Trent, in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' as the charming 'Muddles'. He's joined by comedy favourite, Christian Patterson, who'll be returning alongside Jonny, as 'Herman the Henchman.'
There's an organisation called www.its-behind-you.com and they judge UK pantomimes. Stoke won best panto in the whole country last year. We worked hard to make it great.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent Tuesday, December 3 2013 to Sunday, January 5, 2014. Tickets are available from www.atgtickets.com or by calling their Box Office on 0844 8717649.
Photography by MARTIN ELLIOTT.