Lead singer of The Feeling and Stonewall’s entertainer of the decade, Dan Gillespie Sells talks to Cary Gee about being raised up within the LGBT+ community, dressing up as a golden girl, and what pride means to him.
No one notices Dan Gillespie Sells as he padlocks his bicycle to a lamppost outside the French House in Soho. Not a flicker of recognition disturbs the features of the many gay men passing Soho’s friendliest pub as he arrives for our lunchtime meeting in the cosy bar upstairs.
The anonymity with which he orders a coffee is in stark contrast to the fervour he generates on stage as frontman of multi-million selling rock band The Feeling, or the adulation he received as he stepped up to collect the gong for Entertainer of the Year at the Stonewall Awards a week earlier. It’s the second time he’s won it. You could forgive him for feeling a little big headed, but Dan is not one to confuse with introspection with self-absorption.
“I’ve no idea what I’ve done to deserve it. I think the Stonewall Awards are more about drawing attention to the LGBT+ community, rather than about the individual. After ten years Stonewall decided to make this their last ever award ceremony. I think that’s the right decision although I’ll miss going every year. I actually won Entertainer of the Decade which is absurd, but lovely!”
Did he know in advance that he had won, or did he have to practice sincerity in the mirror before leaving the house, just in case the award went to someone else?
“I’ve never had the nerve to ask. When I was nominated (and won) in 2007 I was totally unprepared. Exactly the same thing happened this time. The only inkling I had was when one of the organisers showed me to a particular seat at the front. Even then I was sure I wouldn’t win but he told me to ‘think of something to say just in case’.”
In the event, Dan dedicated the award to his mother (disability and LGBT+ rights campaigner Katherine Gillespie Sells) whom he feels really should have won it.
“My mum initially lost custody of me and my brother when she came out as a lesbian. Through our childhood in the 90s, with the back-to-basics policies of a Conservative government and Clause 28, it was the LGBT+ community that helped us through. My two mothers raised us within the gay community. Just “as it takes a village to raise a child, it took a gay village to raise me!”
Although now separated from his biological mother, mum “number two” remains very much a part of Dan’s life. “That’ll never change,” he promises.
Dan himself has never felt the need to come out as such. !”It was always apparent. There are different phases, the phase of knowing that you’re a bit flamboyant – I never fitted very well into the norm of a football-playing school kid. My mother just kind of forced me out at some point! And mum number two would say, “Go on. Just tell us!”
Despite his non-conformist upbringing Dan gives short shrift to any suggestion that nurture overrode nature in determining his sexuality. “My brothers were brought up exactly the same way and they’re straight. I think all the evidence points to sexuality being pre-determined.”
I put it to Dan that if you were to ask a member of the public to name a gay pop star they would probably, depending on their age, name Elton John, Boy George or Sam Smith before Dan Gillespie Sells. Why does he think this is?
“Initially, I thought it was because I was in a rock band, and no one wanted to talk about it, and because I’m not particularly flamboyant. I don’t really know. Back in the day no one ever asked about it. I tried to mention it!”
When writing about a love interest does he use a male or a female pronoun?
“I try not to use either. Not because I’m scared of it but I prefer the idea that love is universal, rather than gender-specific.”
Is this something he has discussed with his (heterosexual male) bandmates? ‘That’s part of it. On a solo album I would definitely sing about ‘him’. But even with a band I could never sing about a girl in a romantic way. It simply wouldn’t sound real.”
Their most recent album, simply called The Feeling, was released in the spring, and promoted through a series of sold-out gigs at London’s cavernous O2 arena, where The Feeling were special guests of rock legends ELO.
“The new album sounds very different to previous records,” says Dan. “We sound ‘rockier’ than we ever have before. We recorded it differently, less editing. Just five good friends, really prepared, well-rehearsed. It represents how we are live, and it sounds great.”
One misconception that Dan is keen to correct is that The Feeling is an irredeemably middle class combo.
“We come from a myriad of different backgrounds. My dad was a mechanic but when you are gay you get taken out of a standardised bracket. You’ve already subverted the norms. My mother would never refer to herself as middle class.”
Katherine Sells Gillespie was awarded an MBE for services to the LGBT+ community, and the disabled and ran the first LGBT+ disability group. How much of an inspiration was she?
“Oh, huge. She was on the frontline in the 80s and 90’s. That’s why I’m a patron of the Albert Kennedy Trust. What they do is really on the frontline. Trying to make a difference.”
Would Dan describe The Feeling as a monarchy or a democracy?
“We’re a democracy in the way we function, but as the songwriter something happens. I don’t know what I’m going to write about until I’ve written it. Sometimes I write about things and then they happen. Sometimes I think I’m making things happen because I’m writing about them. It’s my imagination mixed with real life and it can be terrifying.”
The band met at the famous Brit school, but can’t recall any particularly starry classmates. “We were there too early. But Amy Winehouse did attend my secondary school!”
In 2006 one of Gillespie Sell’s songs was played on UK radio every five minutes, making The Feeling the most played band in the country. Surely this must have been enough to make even this modest performer slightly conceited?
“Luckily, I was in America touring small bars and clubs, starting over, I think that was probably quite healthy.”
Does he ever allow himself to act like a celebrity? ‘No. But one thing that people never admit is that we live in a world where people get ignored, all the time .You walk into a shop or a bar, and you’re ignored. It’s awful. The one nice thing about doing a bit of telly is that you’re not ignored. There’s something comforting about that.”
One thing that definitely didn’t go ignored was a recent social media posting of a picture of Dan and his boyfriend posing butt-naked on a beach. Whose idea was that? Dan laughs, blushes, and blames his boyfriend.
Are there days when he just can’t be bothered to be a pop star?
“I’ve never been very good at doing nothing. Although if I’m really hungover, when I’ve really damaged myself I might have a duvet day. For my birthday this year (his 37th) I had a party at home and everyone dressed as the Golden Girls, in grey wigs and clip-on earrings! We got absolutely smashed on cheesecake. The next day I couldn’t do anything.”
In case you’re wondering Dan dressed as Dorothy, in competition with Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who is married to bandmate Richard Jones, and recently gave birth to her fourth child. In fact, the paternity leave taken by two of the band is partly the reason for The Feeling’s lengthy hiatus.
Is having kids something that Dan would ever consider? “Maybe. I wouldn’t rule it out.”
And marriage? “I’m very happy for people who want to get married. I didn’t really believe in marriage when I was younger, but marriage has changed, it’s become something much more representative of love than it used to be. Equal marriage has improved marriage. It hasn’t improved us.”
Does he not feel that gay marriage has as much to do with turning gays into Conservatives as it does to do with genuine equality? “That’s happening all the time. It’s not terribly pleasant. Look at the Conservatives’ voting record. I grew up with a Conservative government and it was disgusting. A lot of those people are still there and I still find them disgusting. I don’t care whether they’ve changed their minds. I still hold them responsible for generations of misery. For creating depression, anxiety and stress among a whole generation who were essentially treated as second-class citizens. I find the whole idea of Conservatism so un-modern. The idea that greed is good.”
Does he feel that being an out gay pop star is a political act in itself? “Not so much for me, because I’ve never been in. What is political is someone who lives a gay life but refuses to talk about it when asked. I would rather that person stayed in the closet, where they can do less harm. People like that bring shame to being gay. It’s damaging. Imagine how a gay kid in school feels when his gay teacher refuses to talk about it. That kid will see shame right there in front of him.”
When Dan finds the time he plans to take part in Stonewall’s school outreach programme. “I’m just afraid no one will know who I am!”
Not that Dan feels a particular responsibility as a gay celebrity. “I feel an obligation as a human being to be honest about who I am. To be true to myself.”
As well as writing a solo album Dan has kept busy working on a raft of collaborations with other musicians. Yet there is one artist he would like to work above all others.
“Dolly Parton. She has a pure, recognisable, amazing voice. The ultimate pop voice. She’s also an astonishing writer and I think I’d learn a lot.
But first, there’s the small matter of finishing a musical. “I received a commission from the Crucible theatre (in Sheffield). I was with Russell Tovey at an anti-pope rally, and Russell introduced me to a writer. Tom McCree. A really funny guy. I told him I’d always wanted to write a musical and so we began working together. Michael Ball, an adorable man, came to listen to what we were doing, and has been really helpful. He knows the business inside out.”
Is there a part for Michael? “There’s always a part for Michael, though I’m not sure he’ll say yes!”
What about Tovey. “I’m not sure Russell is a singy dancey kind of guy. But he’s been on Broadway so who knows?”
Scheduled for later this year, the musical is called Everyone’s Talking about Jamie and is inspired by a BBC documentary about a 16-year-old boy who wants to wear a dress to his school prom.
“It’s more about gender identity than sexuality. I love doing it, especially after writing the new Feeling album. There’s only so many things worth writing about: loneliness, heartache, anger and joy. It’s exhausting always trying to come at them from a different angle. But for three days a week I now get to write as a middle-aged woman talking about her son. The musical has made writing for The Feeling a whole lot easier. Whenever you empathise with someone else, a character, you learn something new about yourself.”
But first there is Pride to look forward to. The Feeling played Manchester Pride a couple of years ago. “It was wonderful, I’d be glad to do it again,” he says.
“My first Pride was back in the 80s when I was a small child. My two mothers would take my older brother and me every year, along with our uncle who was of the earliest out gay councillors. For me Pride was a family event that gave us a real sense of community. Even at an early age I knew our family was different by the standards of ‘normal’ society but Pride gave us a sense of belonging.”
I suggest that Pride has changed beyond recognition since Dan’s first family days out.
“Yes, Pride has changed. Maybe because our experiences as LGBT+ individuals are so varied these days. I think Pride can mean different things to different people depending on their own stories. I believe Pride’s survival depends on us coming to terms with this fact. It’s complex. Understanding and respecting the diversity within our community is a good start.”
Doesn’t someone as socially aware as Dan miss the politically pugnacious Pride of yesteryear?
“The politics has really taken a back seat in recent years and that’s understandable. Our fight against the establishment is nothing like the mammoth task we faced in the 80s. However there is still a war against bigotry to be won here and around the world.
“Maybe that’s what we need to remember in order to come together, in order to be heard, in order to celebrate. When LGBT+ friends of mine complain that Pride doesn’t represent them I say, “Why don’t you go then, and represent yourself? Every flavour is welcome. That’s the point of Pride!”