The Great Pretender - Interview with Freddie's sister Kashmira (The Mail On Sunday, 26th November 2000)The Great Pretender
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FREDDIE'S SISTER KASHMIRA
THE MAIL ON SUNDAY, 26TH NOVEMBER 2000
Behind the flamboyant stage persona, Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, was a shy and private man. Nine years after his untimely death through Aids, he is to be celebrated by his family and friends in a TV documentary. In her first ever interview, his sister speaks to Lina Das about coping with the loss of a beloved brother.
The kitchen of Kashmira Cooke's Nottinghamshire home was spotless, although warm and lived-in. Kashmira - sister of the late Freddie Mercury - smiles as she remembers. 'He couldn't even boil an egg, so he charmed other people into doing everything for him.' Once, in a previous home, Mercury had surprised Kashmira and her husband, Roger, when he called them up from Los Angeles to hear the couple sounding glum.
'We had the builders in,' explains Roger, 'and they didn't seem to be getting anywhere, and he could tell that Kash was really fed up. He just said, "Have the kitchen on me - replace the lot." Kash said, "Are you sure? It'll cost thousands." And Freddie said, "But darling, I've got millions. Have it!'"
This speaks volumes about Freddie Mercury - his overwhelming generosity, coupled with camp insouciance. 'We don't want to wax lyrical about him,' says Roger, 'but he really was a very kind, warm-hearted person.'
It's nine years since Freddie Mercury, lead singer of rock band Queen, died, aged 45, from Aids-induced bronchial pneumonia. He was mourned the world over as one of the greatest musicians/showmen ever. Queen were renowned for their anthemic rock numbers, with hits such as 'We Will Rock You', 'Another One Bites The Dust', 'Radio Ga Ga', and of course, 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. These were songs to set arms swaying, but could hardly have been called expressive. Mercury himself once commented that, 'My songs are like Bic razors - for fun, for modern consumption. Disposable pop.'
His solo work, though was another matter. Even as Queen were churning out rock classics, Mercury was working on his own projects, some hugely personal. Now, Freddie Mercury: The Solo Collection has been released, bringing together 128 tracks, recorded interviews, a two-hour documentary on Mercury's life, plus a 120 page book about Freddie, man and boy.
And it is to promote the collection, and the lasting influence of her brother, that the fiercely private Kashmira has decided to speak for the first time about her famous sibling. Her thoughts, and those of Mercury's closest friends and family, expressed in the documentary Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, illuminate an intensely private man.
There is much of Freddie in the look of Kashmira - they both inherited the same slight build and olive skin, but she is a world away from the red leotards, ermine capes and black leather trousers in which he cultivated his slightly bonkers persona.
'Both Freddie and I were extremely shy,' she says, 'so when I used to see him on stage, it wasn't like watching the real Freddie. To me, it was watching my brother acting the part.'
And acting it well. When Mercury bestrode the stage, everyone took note, most memorably in the 1985 Live Aid concert, when he and Queen ripped the show from under everyone's noses.
The real Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, on September 5th, 1946, on the island of Zanzibar, off the east coast of Africa. their father, Bomi, worked in the Zanzibar High Court as a cashier, while mother, Jer, doted on her two young children. They came from a privileged Parsee background, and even as a toddler, Farrokh loved the camera, as family pictures show.
At seven, he was sent to St. Peter's - an English-style boarding school, 50 miles from Bombay - where, in his first year, he won a cup as 'Best Achiever'.
'He was six when I was born, so I only had a year of him, yet I was always aware of my proud older brother protecting me.' says Kashmira. 'He didn't always come home for the holidays - sometimes he'd stay with my dad's sister in Bombay, or with my mum's sister, and it was she who got him started on playing the piano and drawing. He was talented in all areas. It made me feel sick, of course. Even now, Mum and Dad have got all his school reports.'
It was also at St Peter's that Farrokh was nicknamed Freddie and started his first band, the Hectics, named after his piano-playing style. 'The Hectics were the first real musical thing he got involved in,' says Kashmira, 'and they all jammed together, with Freddie on the piano. He was very popular and was really into drama. One of my favourite pictures is of him sitting on a bench in sunglasses and looking cool. It was the beginning of his real stardom look.'
By the time Freddie was 16, and with Zanzibar moving towards independence, the Bulsaras decided to leave the island. 'My dad had a British passport,' says Kashmira, 'so it seemed the obvious choice to come to England. When we arrived in Feltham, I was struck by how conspicuous we were. Freddie was very fastidious about his appearance. Whereas he looked neat and tidy, and his hair swept back, everyone else wore their hair long and looked scruffy. I used to walk behind him because I didn't want people to think I was with him. But he changed his appearance very quickly. Another favourite picture is of him with his hair worn longer, because it's the Freddie I remember most. He always used to take hours in front of the mirror, looking after his locks. He'd go out a lot, too, and stay out all night. My mum and he used to argue about it constantly. And she was always going on at him to make sure he got a degree, but he was determined to do what he wanted. There was quite a lot of door-slamming, but when Freddie made it, Mum was very proud.
'I only really got to know him during this period. He would help me with my homework, and I'd pose for him when he was doing his sketches (he studied graphic illustration at Ealing Art College).'
At Ealing, Mercury acquired a reputation for flamboyance, once cutting up his mother's tablecloths to make a flowing shirt, and by the time he moved to London in the late Sixties, his extravagant taste in clothes suited him perfectly to his job, running a clothes stall in Kensington Market with a young man called Brian May.
May was a member of a group called Smile, and after seeing them perform, and heckling them loudly for their lack of stage presence, Mercury was invited to join the band, which was promptly renamed - pun intended - Queen. It was then that he became Freddie Mercury (Mercury was his ruling planet) and, says May, 'changing his name helped him assume a different skin'.
'Freddie had real ambitions for the band,' says Kashmira. 'He had this complete determination to succeed.'
It was in 1975, having achieved some minor fame, that Queen brought out a six-minute record - an adventurous fusion of heavy metal and opera - that obliterated all competition in the charts. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' became the year's biggest-selling single, and even today is consistently voted the best pop song ever recorded.
With 'Bohemian Rhapsody' came fame and wealth beyond even Farrokh Bulsara's imaginings. 'The one moment his fame truly dawned on me,' says Roger, 'was when he was performing at Earls Court in 1977. When he came on stage, the crowd just went crazy. I looked at them all and I thought, "This is his life from now on.'"
And what a life. Tales of his after-show parties are the stuff of legend, with Mercury deploying strippers, dwarfs and topless waitresses to entertain his guests. 'But we never went to those parties,' laughs Roger, 'only to family gatherings. Freddie kept his life strictly in compartments, and they rarely overlapped. We used to celebrate our kids' birthdays at Freddie's. He'd always have a massive cake or Easter egg for them. He never had any kids of his own so I guess he liked the novelty, but I think he would have liked to have seen our children grow up.'
Would Mercury have been a good dad? Kashmira and Roger laugh. 'No, I don't think so at all,' says Kashmira. 'He was very good at spoiling you, but not so good when it came to laying-down the law.'
Super-rich as he became, Mercury attracted a lot of hangers-on, but he also attracted a coterie of close friends and lovers. Probably the closest was Mary Austin, a former boutique worker whom he met when starting out with Queen, and who received the bulk of Mercury's money after he died.
'Underneath everything,' says Kashmira, 'Freddie was very shy, and she was as well. It was a good match.'
'She was,' says Mick Rock, a photographer close to Mercury, simply, 'the love of his life'.
They spent six years together, and although Mercury once said, 'To me it was a marriage', Austin sensed something amiss, before Mercury told her he was gay.
She took it well. 'I could see that he felt uncomfortable about something,' she says, 'so it was a relief to hear it. I liked the fact that he was honest with me. I don't think he thought I'd be supportive, but I couldn't deny Freddie the right to be at one with himself.'
Mercury remained coy about his sexuality, but did admit that he was 'extremely promiscuous'. Eventually, though, he tired of that, and when he met Jim Hutton, a softly-spoken Irish hairdresser, he put his excesses behind him. 'I stopped all that,' as he put it, 'and started growing tulips.'
Sadly, however, the tulips came far too late. Mercury who once said he 'lived for sex', was, in the end, to die indirectly because of it.
The Cookes' clearly remember the day they learned that he was HIV-positive. 'It was August 18, 1990', says Roger precisely. 'We were sitting in his bedroom having coffee, when he said suddenly, "What you have to understand, my dear Kash, is that what I have is terminal. I'm going to die." We saw these marks on his ankles and knew he was ill. After that, we talked no more about it.'
Ever the professional, Mercury continued to show a brave public face, posing for his final portrait in May 1991. In it, he is wearing his favourite waistcoat, painted with pictures of his six cats.
Freddie Mercury died on November 24, 1991, with his parents at his bedside.
Despite her acute sense of loss, Kashmira still feels, somehow, that he is around her. 'I feel he's still here in some ways because his music is still here. He was my brother, but a megastar too. Simply speaking, I don't know what it was like to have an ordinary brother because my own brother was so extraordinary.'