The NS Interview: Annie Lennox

“I’m not going to use my sexuality to define me”

What do you think of yourself as first, an advocate or a musician?
I have different hats; I'm a mother, I'm a woman, I'm a human being, I'm an artist and hopefully I'm an advocate. All of those plates are things I spin all the time.

Will you always make music?
I only want to make music because I have a passion for it. The momentum of success that we had as the Eurythmics was so powerful that
I couldn't get off the bus for a decade. I got to my thirties and suddenly felt that I didn't have a life - it was just about travelling and touring and making albums. Money is a good thing and it's obviously useful, but to work only for money or fame would never interest me.

Is there a positive side to fame?
It certainly has something of value if you are famous for doing good work or creating great art. Fame for fame's sake is toxic - some people want that, with no boundaries. It's unhealthy.

What was the significance of your androgynous style?
It was about being in a partnership, in a duo with a man. In a way, it was saying: we are equals and I'm not going to use my sexuality to define me. I'm going to be as good as a man. I'm even going to make you wonder what I am.

Would that work nowadays?
That was then. I thought that things could progress, but nobody is thinking along those lines any more. Sex sells. It sells cars, shampoos, everything. The message to young women is: "You look a certain way and that's powerful." Well, it's not, actually.

Are you troubled by mass culture being so sexualised?
There's no problem for me with sexuality itself. We're all sexual creatures. But it troubles me when hardcore misogyny is used in such a generic and accepted way. Playing into that - the game of "the whore" - might make women some money, but it is not truly empowering.

Do we still need feminism?
Feminism is a word that I identify with. The term has become synonymous with vitriolic man-hating but it needs to come back to a place where both men and women can embrace it. It is particularly important for women in developing countries.

Have you ever experienced sexism?
In ways, of course - it's part of society; it could just be a patronising comment - but compared to the disparity that I've seen in the developing world, my experience of sexism is minuscule.

Is charity the best way to help the developing world?
Charity is necessary - as is aid - but I agree with the argument that we should be teaching people to help themselves. However, it should be a human right for a mother to have access to life-saving treatment. We can get Coca-Cola spread across the world; why not vital drugs?

What do you think of the coalition government?
When I was a kid, grown-ups identified themselves with a party and it was very cut and dried. Nowadays to say you're left- or right-wing - no onereally knows what that means any more. In a way, the coalition represents where we're at. We're in the middle of nowhere: a bit right-wing, a bit left-wing, a bit in the middle.

Is there a plan?
You make a plan because you have to. I recognised that I wanted to be a singer-songwriter back in the 1970s, but a lot of it is timing, fluke, determination. If I were to write down my life as a game of snakes and ladders, I would be going up the ladders and down the snakes all the time. That's kind of how it seems to work.

Is religion a part of your life?
I've nothing against anybody who has a faith, but I look at organised religion and I'm appalled by what I see, the hypocrisy and the double standards. The universe is an extraordinary place, but bigotry comes in and spoils it.

Is there anything you'd rather forget?
One wants to forget bad experiences, disappointments, but you have to deal with your own unfinished business - it's almost like you have to spin it into gold. You have to look really hard at your bitterness, your destructive tendencies and your knee-jerk reactions, and say: "How do I take responsibility for myself?"

Do you vote?
For many years I didn't. I thought: I don't believe in this political system, so not voting is valid. Then I voted Labour in 1997. But I was disgusted and hugely disillusioned by the invasion of Iraq. If I'm going to vote, I want to believe 100 per cent in who I'm voting for. So I'm back to not voting.

Are we all doomed?
Well, we're all going to die. The sooner we accept that life is temporary, the easier we can be about our living.

Defining Moments

1954 Born on Christmas Day in Aberdeen
1980 Forms Eurythmics with Dave Stewart
1990 Leaves Eurythmics to concentrate on family and work for Shelter
1992 Releases her debut solo album, Diva. It goes to number one in the UK
2007 Becomes Oxfam global ambassador
2010 Is appointed Unesco's goodwill ambassador on Aids
2011 Sets up Equals, a network of charities, to mark 100th International Women's Day

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools