When John Lydon presented a gong at the recent British Comedy Awards, he did so in his own inimitable style. Not content with bringing a list of nominations onto the podium, he also brought up a bag filled with copies of his latest DVD, John Lydon’s Megabugs, and a Union Jack sock with a tooth inside it.
The 49-year-old former Sex Pistol is adept at creating a stir. “I’m both famous and infamous. I think that makes me a well-rounded personality,” he says, while sitting in a suite at The Savoy hotel in London, which he refers to as “The Saveloy”. “I enjoy attention, but I don’t crave it. I enjoy being liked, but I like being disliked, too. I see the value in both.”
Being a member of one of the most controversial
bands of all time – the Sex Pistols famously swore on a live television interview with Bill Grundy – certainly prepared John for mixed receptions from audiences. However, in spite of his persona, he admits he gets stage fright at every gig, including TV appearances. “I don’t have a callous disregard for anything. Even talking today, I have to build myself up emotionally in my head for it. I’ve always been a nervy person. I’m a deep, deep worrier. I can spend 15 hours a night in bed, but I won’t sleep for more than four. My personality is the end result of all that worry.”
For a person with such anxieties, being a contestant on the third series of I’m a Celebrity… was a brave move. “It’s a big risk to go on a thing like that and put yourself under 24-hour surveillance, because you could look a mug,” says Britain’s best-known punk, whose stage name was Johnny Rotten. “But I thought – if you don’t like me by now, you never will.”
The producers had invited John onto a previous series, but he had declined. In fact, he hadn’t actually watched the show before agreeing to take part. “I wouldn’t even look at the showreels they sent me,” he says. “But I’d just finished one lot of work and had nothing to do. My friends said to me, ‘You’re getting paid to go camping – what’s wrong with that?’”
The jungle challenge also enabled him to give a “whacking great chunk” of his fee to charity. “It was just a really great way to put a bit of serious dosh behind some good causes.” But although John appreciated the experience, he says he “wouldn’t have nothing to do with it ever again”.
Nor did he watch the most recent series. “It seems so formatted now. But perhaps it was before, and I just didn’t know. I would have liked to have seen a lot more camaraderie on it. I think the competition element ruined it. By winning, are you eliminating nine people as being less than yourself?”
In characteristic rebellious style, John walked out of the camp, which he called “Butlins with insects”, five days before the final. “I suspect – and I’m not being arrogant – that I’d win outright,” he said. He was also angry with producers who had refused to tell him whether his German-born wife Nora, who he lives with in California, had arrived in Australia.
After leaving the jungle, John was inundated with TV offers, most of which he rejected. “When you sign up, they say, ‘If you sign this contract with us, you’re guaranteed so much work.’ But I pick my own work – and I work in my own space and time.”
The projects he did accept were a two-part series for Channel Five on great white sharks and gorillas, and a Discovery Channel series, John Lydon’s Megabugs, which has since been made into a DVD.
For the show, John went in search of dangerous mini-beasts such as scorpions, bees and 30-year-old tarantulas. Was he wary of getting close to them? “I’m not an idiot,” he says. “I don’t take unnecessary risks and I study my subjects so I know what the risks are. I just love looking at living things. There aren’t enough animals left to run free anymore. And that’s our world, that’s our children’s future. I’m a wild thing and I want to stay wild, and I want that for them.”
John met his wife Nora when they were introduced by her daughter Arianna, who was singing in the punk group The Slits. They moved to America when the Sex Pistols singer felt hounded out of Britain by the “endless police raids”. The couple now live in a two-bedroom house they bought 18 years ago, which once belonged to Hollywood actress Mae West. “It’s not a palace,” says John about the property, which is in the Los Angeles suburb of Marina del Ray. “It’s what she called her beach house.”
The property also has another claim to fame. When California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger first moved to America from Austria, he worked as a bricklayer and built a wall around the property. Years later, Arnold brought his wife Maria Shriver to the house to show off his handiwork. “They wanted to come in and see the house,” says John. “I wouldn’t let them. We’re not impressed with things like that.”
John and Nora, who is 13 years older than him, have been together for 25 years – impressive by show- business standards. “We went into it honestly and didn’t make commitments light-heartedly,” he explains. “In show business, there are a lot of temporary marriages based on nothing but publicity campaigns. Don’t these fools learn?”