Robbie Williams was a reclusive, drug-taking commitment-phobe. Then Ayda Field walked into his life. How did the relationship that should never have worked become one of showbiz’s most rock-solid marriages?
When Robbie Williams first met his American wife-to-be Ayda Field at his house in Los Angeles in 2006, he had just made two commandments to himself. ‘I’d decreed, “Thou will not get married and thou will never have a baby,”’ he says.
Why? After all, Robbie, now 45, was once the most eligible pop star in the world. ‘I don’t mean to boast but people were always falling in love with me,’ he says. ‘I had to finish relationships before they’d even started. As soon as I met someone, she wanted to move in with me. So I didn’t trust anyone. I’d pined for a relationship for years but when I was around 28 I thought, “Actually, I’m having a great time being single and I don’t want this to stop”.’
And what about pledging never to have children? ‘I have a long history of mental illness with depression and agoraphobia, so having children would have been like passing me a human to hold when I was drowning,’ Robbie says. ‘Why on earth would I want that?’
Certainly – for all his wealth and fame – in the mid-noughties Robbie was in a very dark place indeed, taking drugs and having stopped working altogether. ‘I’d secretly retired, I was already dealing with various demons and my record deal completely derailed me,’ he says (in 2002 he signed a four-album contract for a then record-breaking £80 million). ‘I had charlatan syndrome anyway and when I became financially secure, it blew my mind and made me lose my ambition. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.’
‘The energy was weird,’ recalls actress Ayda – now a regular panellist on ITV chat show Loose Women – about the night she arrived for their blind date, arranged through friends. ‘Rob was like a Dickensian pop star holed up in his mansion: the house was dark, it didn’t feel like a home. It was quite sad.’
‘My drug dealer had just left, I’d slept with her and she’d left me a bag of drugs,’ Robbie says of that night. ‘I’m so square, I had no idea about any of that,’ shrugs Ayda, 40.
Initially unsure of each other, they went to a party, where they sat chatting. ‘Suddenly I sensed this electricity. It was like Rob understood the fibre of me,’ Ayda says. ‘I wanted to say, “Did you just feel that?”, but I would have seemed like a freak. Much later, Rob was telling someone about that night and said, “There was this amazing moment on the couch when I fell in love with her.” And I was like, “You felt that too?”’
Yet for the next three years the course of true love didn’t run smoothly, with Robbie treating Ayda very shoddily. ‘I wasn’t mean,’ he protests. ‘Yes, you were, there were all these intermittent dumpings,’ Ayda retorts.
The turning point came one night at LA’s swanky Chateau Marmont hotel, when Robbie was, as he puts it, ‘flirting around tables’.
‘I bumped into Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. I started talking about this person I’d just ended a relationship with and was listing all these things about her brilliance when Cameron said, “I don’t think it’s over”.
‘At that moment the universe spoke to me. I left and went straight to Ayda’s house and committed to her. And now we’ve been together 13 years, married for nine. We’ve got three kids [Teddy, seven, Charlie, five, and Coco, one, who was born by surrogate], I’m monogamous and I’m with the person I want to spend eternity with.’ He turns to Ayda. ‘I love you.’
‘Aw, I love you too,’ she coos – while I feel like the biggest gooseberry in the world.
The couple are curled up together on a sofa in a North London arts centre, after Robbie has had a long day promoting his new album The Christmas Present along with the musical The Boy in the Dress (based on the children’s book by comedian David Walliams) for which Robbie co-wrote the music and lyrics.
With his wealth estimated at £175 million it doesn’t sound as though he needs to work. But the family life that Robbie once rejected has infused him with a new drive. ‘People say, “You have all the money in the world” – actually I don’t,’ Robbie says. ‘I’m very, very well off but I could get through the cash reserves within six months. We have a lifestyle that needs paying for and I like working for it.’
‘The truth is Robbie uses the excuse of becoming a daddy to say he has to provide,’ Ayda says. ‘In fact, he loves working and can’t quite admit it to himself.’
Robbie’s new mojo comes after years of struggling with his uncool image as a former boy band member (he left Take That in 1995, rejoining briefly in 2010). But now he’s ready to embrace the mantle of family entertainer. ‘I went through a pompous moment when I didn’t want to have anything to do with the mainstream stuff I used to enjoy. I thought it was babyish. I wanted to be Oasis and Radiohead,’ he says.
‘Then I was fortunate enough to relinquish those chains and go, “Who am I? What do I like? What do I want to be?” And, actually, who I am is Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Bruce Forsyth, Terry Wogan – that sort of British, professional entertainer who brought so much joy to someone like me, and now I hope to bring it to others.’
The result is that he’s now flinging himself into all sorts of projects he might previously have considered beneath him, such as voicing Kevin the Carrot who sang a version of Robbie’s mega-hit ‘Let Me Entertain You’ in the festive Aldi advert. Did he really need to do that? ‘It helps sell albums,’ he says. ‘Also, the kids love that carrot,’ Ayda laughs.
In future, he’d like to work with Ayda again, ‘Whether it’s a podcast, a TV show or a film, I don’t know, but we want to be side by side always.’ In 2018 the couple were both judges on The X Factor, but earlier this year they announced they wouldn’t be returning to the show, and they were hurt when veteran X Factor judge Louis Walsh recently sniped at them in an interview saying, ‘You don’t bring your wife to work.’
‘What was gutting about that was Louis had been incredibly flattering and gushing to me in private,’ says Ayda. ‘He’s two-faced and incredibly feeble,’ Robbie adds.
‘It was sexist too,’ Ayda continues. ‘I mean, “Bring your wife to work” – how dare you? Every part of me wanted to shout back bitchy and rude things.’ Instead, the couple responded with a funny Instagram video where Ayda begged Robbie to take her to work.
Despite their glitzy lifestyle, what’s most striking about Robbie and Ayda is how down-to-earth they are, chuckling over funny things their children have said, peppering me with questions about how much freedom I allow my teenagers (they’re slightly shocked when I say they walk home alone from school). ‘We’re total helicopter parents,’ Ayda admits.
They share the same values and the same – slightly dark – sense of humour. In fact, the only notable difference between Robbie and Ayda seems to be in their attitude to money, which she loves spending and he hates. ‘I’m from Stoke-on-Trent,’ he explains. ‘I don’t do vulgar displays of wealth.’
‘Robbie blows out the scented candles as soon as I leave the room,’ Ayda sighs.
Despite his fortune, it’s taken Robbie more than a decade to allow himself to splash out on a Rolls-Royce – and even then, he only rented one. ‘He wouldn’t go so far as to buy it,’ says Ayda. ‘But what made us laugh was, on that same day, Kylie Jenner bought herself one.’
‘No existential crisis for Kylie,’ Robbie says. ‘She was just like, “I love the car, I’ll have it.” I couldn’t do that, too much guilt.’ He says that when Ayda was recently decorating their Wiltshire house, the only luxury he demanded was a Toto toilet.
A what? ‘A Japanese toilet that does funny things to your bum – it has a warm seat, it’s so delightful,’ Ayda explains.
‘I go upstairs especially to use it,’ Robbie says. Why don’t they go crazy and install one downstairs? ‘Nah, we’re all right,’ he laughs.
Day to day, when they’re not working, Robbie likes to perfect his golf swing. ‘And I’m enjoying being in the country with my babies,’ Ayda says. The children are home-schooled, so they can accompany Robbie when he’s touring. Won’t that make them a bit, well, odd? ‘Oh no, every day they do activities with other kids, like tennis and music,’ Ayda says. ‘We’re terrified of raising maladjusted brats,’ Robbie says. ‘We have a revulsion towards ill-mannered people.’
‘I don’t think the kids will be home-schooled for ever,’ adds Ayda. ‘I can’t see them doing it when they’re teenagers and missing out on the school experience at that age – but as it stands today, we love being together as a unit.’
Their children undoubtedly have extraordinary experiences. Teddy’s vocals feature on the track ‘Home’ on The Christmas Present. ‘It’s just normal for her,’ Robbie beams proudly. Last year she was a bridesmaid at Princess Eugenie’s wedding to wine merchant Jack Brooksbank. ‘She wasn’t daunted at all, but it was a pretty big deal for me,’ Ayda says. ‘I was thinking, “I hope I remember the words to ‘God Save The Queen’ because she’s sitting right in front of me.”’
‘It was an incredible event,’ says Robbie. ‘But primarily it was about our friends Jack and Euge getting married. They’re like our little brother and sister, part of our family.’
The wedding gave them a welcome boost at a time of great sorrow. ‘Just days before, my cat had been killed and my mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease,’ says Ayda, turning to her mother Gwen, 69, who lives with the family and has been sitting silently beside her. ‘So we were in a bit of a grief haze, just crying, and to be able to turn our attention to Jack and Euge was a real blessing, I don’t know how else we would have got out of that sadness.’
How does Robbie feel about his mother-in-law moving in? ‘I insisted upon it,’ Robbie says. ‘He teases me,’ Gwen chips in. ‘Today, he asked “How’s your Parkinson’s?” and when I told him, “It’s good”, he said, “Well, go and get the lead for my computer, then.”’
‘That’s our language of love,’ Ayda says, ‘making each other laugh.’
Robbie’s album The Christmas Present is out now on Columbia Records
Main images shot at the Infinity Suite at The Langham Hotel, London