The Second Coming of Robbie Williams: Riding a Wave of Gossip, the British Hunk and Former Boy Band Idol Surfs Back into America. (the Music Issue) (Cover Story)

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At a time when the public wants--in fact, demands--its pop stars in tidy, clearly defined boxes, Robbie Williams is a wild card who aggressively rejects categorization. Rather, he revels in confounding his audience and the media, cultivating a persona rife with contradictions. In his music he frequently darts between playing an embittered, chronically depressed young man and a cocksure celebrity who bluntly admits in songs like the new "Monsoon" that he makes music simply "to make money and get laid."

It is when the England-bred Williams, 29, steps out from behind his songs that he becomes particularly fascinating--and, as his queer fans know, perfectly happy to play the gay card. Rising from the ranks of the 1990s boy-band army as a member of Take That (long considered the prototype for Backstreet Boys), Williams has built a solo career that has rendered him one of the biggest stars in the world--the United States excluded, with the exception of some video play and the minor hit "Millennium" from his aptly titled U.S. solo debut album, The Ego Has Landed, in 1999. In Europe, meanwhile, Williams has rarely left the pages of the tabloids, which glory in casting him as an alcoholic, womanizing party boy whose alleged amours include former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and supermodel Pamela Hanson.

But that's not where the dirt-slinging stops. Reports of trysts with women often give way to rumors of closeted gay affairs with men such as his childhood friend Jonathan Wilkes. Instead of squashing such gossip, Williams has delighted in watching reporters race to report stories of his queer canoodling, often baiting them with comments that intentionally provoke the question "Is he really gay?" "It's interesting to see how people will get all ruffled up about it," he says. "When you get to the whole idea of 'Is he or isn't he?' I have to say that I think there's a gay man in everybody."

Such comments have endeared Williams to gay males in the States, who have been his primary U.S. audience to date. All that is now set to change since the April 1 U.S. release of Escapology, the first album in a new recording megadeal with EMI/Virgin Records designed to break him at last into the stateside pop mainstream and already a smash throughout Europe, as it hit stores there in November. (In October, Williams signed an EMI contract reportedly worth 80 million [pounds sterling], though neither EMI nor Williams has confirmed that figure.) On the eve of the album's U.S. debut, the rapid-tongued Williams was in his spacious new Los Angeles home, pondering the effects of antidepressants, the pressure to "straighten" his image, and his fascination with World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler the Rock.

How do you feel about the fact that your following in the States so far is primarily gay?

Is it? Well, cool. That's fine with me.

Why do you think gay men are so attracted to you?

I hadn't really thought about it, quite honestly. I suppose I'll choose to think that it's more than me bum that they're after. I'd like to believe that they're connecting to whatever emotions or ideas come across in my songs. But then again, it's probably me bum.

Does that ever inhibit you? Or does it make you do it more?

I'm a needy, greedy man. I want to be loved by everyone, damn it! Kidding aside, why wouldn't I enjoy the fact that all kinds of people--including gay men--are interested in me and what I do?

You've been occasionally painted by the media as a womanizer. There have been some who have speculated that it's a smoke screen for being gay.

[Laughs] I think that's funny. I mean, really, who cares? I know what's going on in my life. That's what matters. [The speculation] is absurd, actually. If I shagged as many women, men, and farm animals as people claim in the media, I'd be in the hospital. But it's fine--speculate as much as you want, I say.

Well, in that case, then let's take this further. …