Everyone knew I was gay, says Barry Manilow
Crooner says he never talked about it before because 'I like my privacy, not because I didn’t want people to know'
“What do you want me to do? Go on a cruise?”
Barry Manilow is discussing his new residency in Las Vegas and simultaneously dismissing the idea of retirement. “The well has not run dry,” he tells me. “I’m still active, I still have the same energy I have always had.” He laughs: “I know I am 105 years old [in fact, he’s about to turn 75]. But look, I don’t have a pot belly. I still have my hair. I look decent enough.”
As it happens, four weeks after our meeting, Manilow is forced to cancel the opening dates of his residency owing to a bout of bronchitis. But a subsequent statement assured fans it wasn’t serious and the singer will return to the stage tomorrow.
When we talk, Manilow is sharp and edgy, not the smoothie that his famous ballads like Mandy, Could it be Magic and Can't Smile Without You might lead you to expect. He puts this down to his upbringing. “Once you're a New Yorker, you’re always a New Yorker. I walk fast, I talk fast, I think fast. It’s because you spend your life fighting for a seat on the subway,” he says.
Today, Manilow lives on a 26-hectare estate in Palm Springs, California, with his husband and manager, Garry Kief, a place that he says offers peace away from “the hurricane of my career”. But you sense a sort of wistfulness for his home city. He grew up poor, raised by Russian immigrant grandparents and his mother, whose main concern was “putting food on the table”.
“I come from nothing,” he says plainly.
Manilow may be the consummate performer but his off-duty self is decidedly free of theatrics. “Williamsburg, where I grew up, it was the worst area to live in. When I started work and tried to get a taxi home they wouldn’t go there because it was too dangerous.”
Manilow’s current UK show, They Write the Songs, is, in some ways, a love letter to New York. Each week, he plays music from Broadway’s forgotten musicals, which he grew up listening to on the radio – long-neglected works such as Out of this World by Cole Porter, and Coco, a musical based on the life of Coco Chanel, starring Katharine Hepburn.
“She’s one of my favourite singers. She sounds like a combination of a vacuum cleaner and a garbage disposal unit, but once you get used to the sound of her voice she is fantastic.”
Manilow speaks lyrically about the composers he loves – Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and Cole Porter – and has declared that “the art of great songwriting is dead”.
What does he think of the current state of Broadway?
“Show after show I come away disappointed,” he says. “Apart from Hamilton, when I was flying high on the edge of my pants by the end. That’s so smart and moving, everything a Broadway musical should be.”
I wonder if his disappointment stems from the proliferation of jukebox musicals (Donna Summer is the latest subject) that clog up the theatres around Times Square. “I’ve got no problem with them,” he says. “It’s just a different style of writing, that’s all, and when they do it right, like Jersey Boys or the Carole King musical [Beautiful], they are great.”
Is the world ready for a Barry Manilow musical?
“There has been talk about that forever. But I don’t know how they would do it because I am so connected to the songs that if other people began to sing them I don’t think they would work.
“Carole King is not a performer/singer, so her songs hold up by themselves. But if someone got up there and tried to sing Mandy, I think the audience would miss me.”
Mandy is the song that means the most to Manilow. It’s also the song that, in 1975, made Manilow famous. Previously, he’d had some success as a jingle writer for brands such as Band Aid, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Vicks, and as a performer, before becoming Bette Midler’s pianist.
There is an irony, of course, about the fact that Manilow was launched on to the turntables of a zillion mooning housewives. He came out publicly in 2017 (although the US tabloid the National Enquirer revealed his marriage to Kief in 2015).
Were his adoring female fans angry?
“Look, everyone knew I was gay,” he says. (One wag on Twitter exclaimed: “Who next? Liberace?”) “Garry and I have been together for 40 years, which is a pretty good run. I never talked about it because I like my privacy, not because I didn’t want people to know. I’m pretty sure my fans did. But, listen, I have my privacy and you can’t come in unless I invite you. People don’t even know the names of my dogs.
“When the National Enquirer announced that Garry and I had got married, I said ‘Oh fuck’, but you know, we are both very proud. So we gave an interview to People magazine and I felt that if my fans loved me the way I thought they did, then they would be happy. And that is exactly what happened.”
I detect a sense of relief that he can now be open about it. But he worries about gay rights, particularly in his home country.
“There are a lot of people going through hell because they know they are gay and their family won’t accept it. It’s awful and I do hope that I could help somebody [by coming out]. It would be wonderful if I could.
“Being gay is not as acceptable as we like to think. We have a vice-president who would like to stop gay marriage and would like to think we weren’t even allowed to be around.”
He pauses. “It is very ugly being in the world right now.”
Manilow says his world is okay. He’s been in therapy, and feels all the better for it. “Therapy was so helpful for me. People from England sneer at it because they think it’s for crazy people, but it would help because we all have the same problems. But, you know, it’s best to find yourself a therapist and get your feelings out.”
Manilow’s observation that Brits sneer at the thought of sitting on the psychiatrist’s couch is not a combative comment. He has a deep affection for the emotionally repressed little country and, indeed, returns in September for an arena tour. He says that his Blenheim Palace concert in 1983 was the best night of his life.
Met by a sea of lighters when he performed One Voice, he momentarily stopped, overwhelmed and a little emotional.
“I didn’t expect anyone to show up,” he tells me. “But then I never expect anyone to show up. I ask my stage manager if anyone is out there and I still feel surprised when I walk on to the stage.”
I don’t think this is false modesty. Like many successful artists, Manilow suggests a chink of vulnerability that conflicts with the chutzpah of his professional persona. So who is the real Barry Manilow?
“I am just a blow-up version of me on stage. I used to get nervous but I don’t anymore. I get excited because I feel that it’s going to be a party every night.”
Manilow says this with the faintly ironic tone that I now realise is his natural manner. But, come September, you know there will be thousands of people around the UK showing up with lighters to pay their regards to America’s eternal showman. The cruise, for now, can wait.
– © The Daily Telegraph