Steve Strange: We look back at the life of a riotously entertaining man

I don’t profess to ever having really got to know Steve Strange very well.

I had, however, met him several times over the years and he always proved a warm, funny and riotously entertaining interviewee.

Pop pioneer, shoplifter. legend and liability – the artist formerly known as Steve Harrington from Newbridge experienced every stellar high and rock bottom low during his eventful career.

However, each time we’d spoken recently the topic of his ill-health would crop up, with Steve mentioning some latest visit to the GP or hospital check-up.

Hearing he‘d passed away of a heart attack yesterday while on holiday in Egypt came as no less of a shock, though.

Far more expected was the outpouring of grief on Twitter which greeted the news, with everyone from Boy George to Time Magazine marking his sad passing with touching tributes.

But the best thing I could think to do was resurrect the article I wrote following my rather eventful first meeting with him in an out-of-season South Wales seaside town in 2006.

It may have been nine years ago next month but I still look back on it fondly and will never forget his opening line to me: “Hiya, I seem to have left my wallet at home – do you mind getting me a cheese and ham toastie and a coffee?”

As flamboyant as ever – Steve Strange struts his stuff for Visage’s recent comeback

A howling wind rocks my car on its axle like a whopping right-hand from the man named in nearby graffiti that reads “Tyson lives”.

On Porthcawl sea front, Coney Beach amusement park rusts quietly off-season, patiently biding its time until the summer sun brings back the laughter and bustle of tourists.

It’s an unlikely setting to meet Steve Strange , the Eighties king of the New Romantic glamour boys. His band Visage topped the charts and he ran glitzy club nights that had everyone who was anyone clamouring to get in.

But just a few short years later – after a bruising fall from grace – he’d vanished.

When he did re-emerge on the public radar, the headlines were hardly befitting of a pop idol.

Heroin addict, burn-out and shoplifter – his lowest, most bizarre ebb came when he was arrested for pinching a Teletubby doll from a Bridgend supermarket in 2000.

“The next thing I know I’m in the cells with someone singing Fade To Grey through the door at me.”

Waiting for him in the smart eatery he’s chosen for our interview, I worry about broaching such touchy subjects.

I needn’t have because from the minute he walks in, it’s clear Steve Strange likes to talk – a lot.

In fact, he talks like most people dream, jumping from topic to topic, anecdote to anecdote – so freewheeling and shockingly honest that I wonder if I should even be writing all of it down.

“Well, I did try to go to pay but there was no one at the counter, so I just walked out,” he says of his ‘LaLa incident’.

“The next thing I know I’m in the cells with someone singing Fade To Grey through the door at me and I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go!’

Steve in the iconic promo video for Fade To Grey

At 46 he looks better than I expected, hardly the tabloid train wreck I thought was heading my way.

Tanned and healthy-looking, with jet black dyed hair, he still looks a star despite today’s inconspicuous hoodie and body warmer combo.

The only tell-tale signs of the legacy left by his heavy drug abuse is a slight Ozzy-style slur in his speech and nervy jitteriness that, as he orders a latte from the bar, makes me question if caffeine is necessarily the best option.

“My dad was a storm-trooper!”

Born Steven Harrington in Newbridge, his family moved to Rhyl in North Wales when he was eight, where they made a mint by running a number of seaside cafes.

“Dad was very strict, I’ll never forget having to butter 32 loaves of bread before school everyday or I’d get the strap,” says Steve.

“Let’s just say Dad left the army, but the army never left him,” he says.

I ask if his father was a high ranking soldier.

“He was a storm-trooper!” he laughs back, almost choking on a cheese and ham toastie.

Soon after his parents divorced, Steve went to live with his mother in Newbridge where, at 13 with dyed orange hair and a nose-chain, he had already begun to stand out.

“I’d hitchhike each weekend to Blackpool and Wigan for the northern soul all-nighters,” he says, asking if he can smoke, but already lighting up before I can answer.

“We’d all be necking pills, amphetamines basically, and dancing until morning.”

By 15, Steve had blagged his way into the world of music promotion, booking bands like Generation X and The Stranglers to play in local clubs which would always fill with “freaks from the Valleys”.

Steve Strange (far right) posing with friends showing off their punk rock fashion in 1976

But it was watching the Sex Pistols perform at the Stowaway club in Newport that changed things forever.

“I became friends with (Pistols bassist) Glen Matlock and he said that Malcolm (McLaren, the band’s manager) would like me in his office.”

So, 12 months later, Steve found himself sleeping on friends’ sofas around London and working – “without any recognition and no pay” – for the legendary curly-haired punk impresario.

But when Johnny Rotten and the boys turned the air waves blue during that now notorious episode of the Bill Grundy television show, the Anarchy In The UK tour got axed and Steve found himself at a loose end.

He ended up working as a Saturday boy at Sex, the boutique where designer Vivienne Westwood sold her outrageous clothes, from where Steve admitted to liberating the occasional outfit for himself.

“Mick Jagger said to me, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ and I was like, ‘Er, yes – but you still can’t come in.”

“A few items made their way out of the shop unnoticed, yes,” he laughs. “But one night she turned up at a gig and caught me wearing a particular tartan bondage suit from the shop and sacked me.”

Growing disillusioned with punk – “There was a nasty skinhead element moving in, I started fearing for my life” – he instead opened up a series of nightspots with business partner Rusty Egan.

They became some of the most influential clubs of the day, like Blitz in Covent Garden, Billy’s in Soho and Camden Palace in hip and happening North London.

He had Boy George as his cloak room attendant, Marilyn as his ‘cigarette girl’ and clubland at his feet.

Steve Strange (left) pictured with Boy George at London’s Limelight nightclub
October 1986

“It was very decadent,” says Steve, smiling in a ‘and that’s not the half of it’ way.

David Bowie had to be sneaked in through the back door, but they had to turn away a pie-eyed Mick Jagger.

“We were packed out and it would have been breaking fire regulations,” says Steve.

“Mick said to me, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ and I was like, ‘Er, yes!’”

In 1978 he formed Visage and went on to enjoy global chart success with their synth-heavy Euro sound. One single Fade To Grey hit the top spot in an astonishing 21 countries.

A crazy schedule saw him in three or four different countries in the space of 24 hours, with cocaine being readily available wherever he went.

Then, while modelling for Jean Paul Gaultier in 1985 he was given heroin at an after-show party and it fast became a crutch for the troubled star.

Fashion trendsetter

“Taking it took my problems away and soon I couldn’t function without it,” he recalls.

“I’d be spending a grand a week on it when I should have been worrying how to keep the roof over my head.”

But in 1986 he left London for Ibiza to host parties for big name celebs and managed to clean up his act.

Then came a series of events that would leave Strange reeling.

Firstly, a tabloid wrongly accused him of supplying drugs to his long-term friend Paula Yates, which the paper eventually published an apology for.

“The only person I ruined through drugs was myself,” he snorts.

Next came the death of Yates’ beau, INXS star Michael Hutchence in a Sydney hotel bedroom and, the very next day, fire ripped through Steve’s flat in East London’s plush Bow Quarter.

“I lost everything and had nowhere to go – I just spiralled out of control and started taking heroin again,” he says.

He returned to Wales suffering a “mini-nervous breakdown”, rattling from all the prescription medication he was taking.

Without his family’s help in kicking his habit, Steve says he would have gone insane. He even accompanied his sister Tanya on her rounds as an Avon lady to beat the boredom that could have tempted him back to taking drugs.

Steve Strange, pictured in 2010 with sister Tanya Harrington.© WALES NEWS SERVICE

Since the successful publication of his warts-and-all autobiography, Blitzed, in 2002, he has made regular TV appearances and preformed on a number of successful 80s revival tours, as well as counselling others suffering with addiction.

“All I want to do now is find love and settle down,” Steve says.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the old times but my life’s not sad, I don’t want any violins playing for me.

“I still get to play and travel around the world and my mum and sister are just five minutes away,” he smiles.

“I can do what I want to do and I’m just happy to have that choice.”

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