Watch: Martin Kemp on falling in love with wife Shirlie at first sight
They have one of most envied marriages in British pop. Two children, a beautiful home, and a supportive partnership that nurtures both their careers.
Yet the love match between Martin Kemp and his wife of 34 years, Shirlie, nearly didn’t happen – for the unlikeliest of reasons.
“First time I saw her was… on Top of the Pops,” Kemp told Kate Thornton on Yahoo UK's podcast White Wine Question Time. “And I absolutely fell in love with her through the TV screen – immediately.”
Shirlie was singing backing vocals for Wham!, as one half of pop duo Pepsi & Shirlie. Kemp tried to find a way to meet her. “I don't know if it was love or it was infatuation,” he said, “but it was something that I could not stop thinking about.”
Listen to the full episode to hear Martin Kemp talking about love, social awkwardness and his career
A few weeks later, Kemp saw her “across the room” at a party. “And obviously, your heart… flutters a little bit, and I go over and I give her my number, but I get really strange reaction,” he said. “It wasn't what I wanted.”
Later, the New Romantic star discovered his future wife thought he was “wearing too much make-up”.
Luckily, Wham!’s George Michael persuaded Shirlie to go on a date with Kemp – only to tag along himself. “We couldn't get rid of him,” Kemp laughed, recalling how the pair tried to escape to have a kiss. “Even on the fire escape.”
Later, Michael would become godfather to the couple’s children, musician Harley Moon, and TV and radio presenter Roman.
It might be surprising that global star Kemp, now 61, ever suffered from social awkwardness. However, his childhood, he revealed to Thornton, was tainted by debilitating shyness.
“I didn’t speak till I was about three years old…I was the shyest little boy,” he said. “I'd be walking home holding my mum's hand from school – if I saw one of my mates across the road, I would burst into sweat, you know, and hide behind my mum’s buttocks.”
Kemp, who grew up in Islington, described his childhood as “really poor”. He and his older brother Gary would play “on bomb sites that were left over [from the war], that the council hadn't cleaned up.”
Life changed when drama teacher Anna Sher opened a club across the road. Gary joined first, and Kemp followed. “My mum put me there not to become an actor, but to get rid of my shyness, for me to open up,” he said. “I was like a piece of blotting paper – I was ready to soak up anybody's input into me.”
Kemp credits Sher with helping him overcome his shyness. “She was big on being polite… on looking people in the eye when you speak to them,” he revealed. “I think most of those rules that she gave me then I use today.”
His training with Sher led to child actor roles in 1970s TV shows, such as Dixon of Dock Green. The experience was a revelation for Kemp. “It made me realise jobs were out there that people were loving doing.”
But Kemp’s shyness faded, as he embraced the flamboyant New Romantic movement of the 1980s, – an experience documented in his new memoir, Ticket to the World: My new music memoir behind-the-scenes of Spandau Ballet and the 80s (£22, Harper Collins). “It was about feeling as special as you could… you wanted to be the centre of attraction.”
When Gary started the band Spandau Ballet, he didn’t plan on including his young brother, but Kemp had other ideas. “I had to go to my mum to tell him to put me in the band,” he said. “She had a word with Gary!”
The band went on to sell 25 million albums.
Four decades later, Kemp is still touring as a musician. He and Shirlie, 60, have released an album of Christmas songs. They recently bought an old house, and share updates of the renovations with 100,000-plus Instagram followers, alongside sneak peaks into their happy home life.
‘I’m a big believer in that you only get three or four openings in your life that can change your world,” Kemp told Thornton.
With Shirlie, he picked right.