WHO wouldn't want to be a pop star? You can drink more, shag more, drug more and generally "be" more than anyone else. You're indulged by a coterie of enablers; funded by a record label that doesn't care what you do as long as you show up and sell; and loved by an audience who, if they don't want to do you, at the very least want to be you. What's not to like?
Put yourself in the shoes of Robbie Williams and imagine yourself as a hyperactive teenager in a West Midlands provincial town who's mad on pop and hip-hop, and not the slightest bit interested in following your parents in running a pub.
So when at 16, a pretty good singer and pretty decent dancer, you're invited to join a boy band being formed to capitalise on the early-'90s explosion of teen pop acts, of course you say yes. And when a combination of insane schedules, opportunity and your insecurities lead to more drink and drugs than a carefully crafted boy band like Take That can handle, you say yes to a solo career.
Take That in 1992: Robbie Williams, Mark Owen, Gary Barlow, Jason Orange and Howard Donald. Photo: Getty Images
Williams, as it happens, kept saying "yes" as more and more people came asking, drawn by catchy pop songs, genuinely moving ballads and eccentric numbers that still catch the Zeitgeist. He sold more singles and albums, and won more awards, than any solo British artist before him, played bigger and bigger shows at home and abroad, culminating in a three-night run to nearly 400,000 people at the fabled Knebworth grounds where Led Zeppelin had played a generation earlier.
He was, he told one interviewer, "rich beyond my wildest dreams". He slept with dozens of famous and not-so-famous women — and was linked to scores more in the tabloids. All this as his lyrics were simultaneously revealing and self-mocking.
"So self-aware, so full of shit," said one song, and "narcissist" was the comeback from those not convinced by the evident truth that few people were as self-lacerating as he was. It's a point he concedes happily today.
"I don't know about an awful lot of stuff. I'm not educated: I left school when I was 16 with no qualifications," Williams says. "The thing that I do know about is my feelings and what I think of the world and what I think of me. I'm as narcissistic as anybody and, like you say, self-lacerating. That's my brand of narcissism: hating myself."
Moving to Los Angeles, where nobody knew or cared that much about him, did slow down his sales, but he was still selling more than most artists do in a career.
"I did [2006's] Rudebox and even though it sold 3 million, people regarded it as a stinker," is his rueful observation.
In the opening song of the newly released Take the Crown, his first album in five years, 38-year-old Williams sings defiantly "they said the magic was leaving me . . . I don't think so". But did he think the magic had left?
"I did the rock'n'roll-pop cliche of getting burnt out," he says. "I'm not the first person that happened to and I'm sure I won't be the last. The entertainment industry and my place in it is a place where you burn brightly for as long as you can.
"[But] I never thought that the magic had left me, what I am capable of doing, if I could obnoxiously call what I do magic. But I did want everything else to just go and leave me alone. I was ill."
We saw the truth of this during his tour of Australia in 2006. His first tours in 2001 and 2003 were great shows, his charisma and some of the best mainstream pop songs of his generation carrying all before them. But in 2006 he looked bored beyond belief: we didn't know he was exhausted and physically and emotionally ill, we just thought he didn't care.
"I wasn't bored but I didn't do myself justice," Williams says now. "And I feel bad about that. I stopped caring because I couldn't physically or mentally care. When people go 'Do you have any regrets?', it's that I didn't do myself justice.
"I got overwhelmed and frightened and broken."
As he sees it, "my eyes were actually bigger than my belly" and the seemingly unstoppable nature of his career led to a desire on the part of everyone involved to do more, to top and keep topping. All of that is hard enough but if you come with the insecurity, that insistent doubt at the back of your mind that you aren't really as good as everyone says you are, hollowing yourself out seems inevitable.
"I think if you are delusional enough to believe, if I was delusional enough to believe [the hype and praise], my job would be a lot easier," he says. "I actually believe the opposite of that, which makes the job kind of frightening and impossible the further it goes."
Oddly enough, his confidence returned when he went back to his youth, the one he'd been in such a hurry to leave, and rejoined Take That. The boy band had returned from nearly two decades away to release the fastest-selling album in Britain and fill Wembley Stadium for a staggering eight nights.
Williams didn't need the money or the adulation. He was about to marry American actor Ayda Field and before long there would be a daughter, Theodora Rose, who was born in September.
But the tour was comfortable and easy; the pressure dissipated among the five of them. And in the middle of the shows he had a solo set "and it was in those 27 minutes by myself, in a stadium, where I got my confidence back and hit the reset button on my body and mind".
On Take the Crown there's hardly any real breaking down of Williams' personality and he's less abusive about himself, even happy. Part of that he attributes to writing with Take That's Gary Barlow, with whom he's had a sometimes combative but now incredibly close relationship.
"We were writing together and we wrote what I would say was a euphoric song about being happy and he said 'this isn't like you at all; you always write miserable songs'," Williams says. "I didn't realise that I did until he pointed it out and I thought, 'yeah, I can't do the misery thing forever'.
"And I wouldn't mean it anyway now, because life's changed. I'm more settled, I believe in the love that my wife's got for me and that's filled me up in many ways. Being a father is already helping and life is brilliant for me now. [Quoting from his song Feel] 'I just want to feel real love in the home that I live in', well, I got it, so obviously the view from here is different."
What has been clear through the serial relationships, and his habit of running from them, is that he has never believed either love professed was meant for him, or even that love deserved to be felt by him.
"It's that Groucho [Marx] thing of 'I wouldn't be a member of a club that would have me as a member', I suppose. That's how it was," he says. "I wrote this song called Heart and I and I realised I was 34 or 35 and I had always thought that getting better would happen in the future and then the future hit me and I was still feeling like shit.
"That was the moment, that very moment that I thought, I'm the only one that can do this.
"But how the f--- do I do it? If I don't do this, I'm going to spend a whole lifetime in misery. It was that moment I knew I had to do it and I just did. It was actually just a change of mind and catching the way you talk to yourself, the way you let the world in. The knock-on effect is positive."
It's why Robbie Williams wants to be a pop star again. But this time on different terms.
Take the Crown is out through Universal.