David Beckham: The ELLE interview

Happy Birthday Becks!

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ELLE UK, July 2012. Image by Doug Inglish.

In celebration of his 40 birthday (yes really, we can't believe it either), revisit David Beckham's exclusive ELLE UK July 2012 interview.

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Made in England

Words: Alice Wignall

Photography: Doug Inglish

When I’m finally done with David – after the flight to LA, and the shoot, and hanging out drinking beer with him in the photographer’s garden; after seeing him again later in the week, at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood; after getting so caught up in the Being With David-ness of it all that when he left I took a picture of his half-finished cranberry juice and considered tweeting it, though in the end I didn’t because, well, it’s a half-full glass of red water, though I did swab it for DNA just in case that whole cloning thing turns out to be real (only kidding, David’s lawyers!); after all of that, I’m standing outside the Chateau feeling a bit unsure about how valet parking actually works, when two girls come up to me. They’re early twenties and – I’m guessing – not LA natives because they have, they tell me, spent the whole of their lunch on the terrace of the Chateau excitedly star-spotting. Which is what everyone does on the terrace of the Chateau, only technically you’re supposed to pretend you don’t.

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‘We just wanted to ask,’ they say, ‘how do you know David?’

I tell them. They exchange a glance.

‘Omigod,’ they breathe. ‘You are so lucky. He is the best.’

‘Whatever I do, I want to be the best,’ David said to me, about half an hour earlier. I think his criteria are slightly tougher than the non-LA native girls, though; how else do you explain a life so full of achievements that just thinking about them all gives you a kind of vertigo? Things at which, at 37, David Beckham is The Best. Football: Manchester United debut 20 years ago at 17, winning the Premier League six times, the FA Cup twice, and the UEFA Champions League. He’s won league titles for Real Madrid (where he moved in 2003) and LA Galaxy (where he now plays, and has done since 2007). He first played for England when he was 21. He became captain four years later. The Queen gave him an OBE for services to football. He’s The Best at being ridiculously famous, among people who care about football and people who don’t. Kids in rainforests know who he is and so do dental assistants in Melbourne and taxi drivers in Mumbai. When you’re around him you can almost feel this planet’s worth of interest pressing down on the room you’re in, like the weight of the ocean. As a result, he’s now become The Best at being a national hero, and we farm him out along with the princes and the occasional sweaty politician when we want to impress foreigners into giving us things like the Olympics, which of course they do, because who can say no to Becks? And of course he’s The Best at being really, really good looking. When you’ve met a famous person, people always say, ‘What do they really look like?’ and you say taller, smaller, weirder, nicer… But David? Look at these pictures. That’s what he looks like. He looks like David Beckham. Yes. That good. And all of this goes to explain why he is the first man in ELLE’s over-a-quarter-of-a century history to get a cover to himself.

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He’s also terrifically good at being nice. At the shoot, which takes place on a blue-sky LA day at the photographer’s house on one of the streets that clamber up the hills above Sunset Boulevard, it’s all anyone can talk about. While he’s having his hair cut at a temporary dressing table in the garden, people stop each other in the kitchen to say, ‘He’s so nice! Isn’t he? So nice’ and, ‘He keeps saying, “Thank you”!’ Even the caterer takes me to one side to tell me how, yeah, nice he is. I won’t say he’s the best at being nice, though, because when I meet him again he’s had a bad morning at training and, though he’s still attentive and polite, being around him feels slightly more uneasy than it did before. I believe him when he tells me that as a child he’d cry if he lost a game. ‘I never do anything half-heartedly. I will continue to work hard and play hard and do everything I can to be successful, whatever I do. I want to be the best. I think it’s a good way to be.’

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Victoria Beckham's March 2013 cover

Which is how a boy from Leytonstone, east London, becomes David Beckham, and it’s useful to know, because if you encountered him in a low-key moment you might wonder. He’s softly spoken, unassuming, laid-back. He says that his life is ‘boring’, which obviously it’s not because the nature of fame is that it’s interesting to hear about what he gets up to, even when it’s how he’s trained his kids to load the dishwasher. But it certainly sounds pretty regular.

‘A typical day?’ he laughs. ‘You don’t want to know. OK, I’ll wake up at quarter to seven in the morning, the baby wakes up at seven, the boys wake up at 7.15. Breakfast is all ready for them. Cooked by me.’

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Me: ‘Do they all get the same?’

Him: ‘Oh, no. They all like different things. My oldest son [Brooklyn, 13] likes these croissants with jam on them.’

Me: ‘Sounds good.’

Him: ‘Sounds great. My middle son, Romeo [9], he loves fruit, he loves mango or pineapple. Cruz [7] loves Nutella on a croissant. And I have any scraps that are left over. I don’t have time to make my own breakfast!’

‘Then I take the younger two [boys] to school – we chop and change but whoever I don’t drop off in the morning I pick up in the afternoon – and then I go straight from school to training. I train. Have lunch at training. Come back, have a little bit more lunch sometimes – well, I have been working hard, I need it [laughs] – then straight to pick up the kids from school. So it is kind of boring. But it’s the kind of stuff that most people do.’

You know, famous people just love to talk about how normal they are. And it’s sweet because then we can all roll our eyes and be like, ‘Yeah, right, you really are just like us.’ Beckham certainly has a formidable team around him to manage his career and endorsements; he’s the global Olympic ambassador for Samsung and he works with Adidas and Sainsbury’s, too. He’s obviously not doing it all on his own from a three-year-old PC in his garage. But I’ve heard this man describe his kids’ after-school activities – ‘Cruz has taekwondo three times a week. Brooklyn has football practice Tuesday to Thursday and sometimes on a Monday and the other two also have football training on Tuesday and on Thursday… See, ‰ even you look worn out, just listening to it’ – and this is not a man with a fleet of nannies and a weekly catch-up meeting with his children. It’s the little details that suggest the Beckham universe isn’t really so very far from our own: the fact his two youngest boys share a bedroom (when I’m guessing there’s probably space in the house for them each to have their own room. Or their own wing); the fact that he recently dropped his phone down the loo and has spent a week trying that thing where you put it in a jar of rice to dry it out. So far, it’s still not working.

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Over the years a lot of people have attributed the Beckhams’ world-conquering rise to fame as the work of Victoria – that its pursuit is what binds the couple together. But David says that’s not true – ‘I never thought about the money, the fame. It never interested me, and it doesn’t interest me now. None of that has ever excited me’ – and so I think, instead, it’s their work ethic that makes them perfect for each other. The heat of his desire to work, work and work some more comes off him like a furnace. And of Victoria he says, ‘She works harder than most people I’ve ever met. She’s had amazing success. But she’s worked hard for it.’

They’ve been together for so long now – 15 years – that it would be hard for us to imagine one without the other, let alone for them to do so; it’s clear they are utterly welded together. (When he’s telling me they talk every day, even when in different countries, a member of his team, overhearing, snorts, ‘You talk to her every five minutes!’ ‘Yeah, yeah, I do,’ says David, looking bashful.)

When I put it to him that they could just, maybe, stop working (they have an estimated combined fortune of £190m, I think they’d be fine) he looks baffled. ‘It would be easy to do that, of course,’ he says, looking like ‘easy’ would be the last thing it would be. ‘It would be easy for me to retire or for Victoria to sit at home and be a wife and mum, but we’re still young. There’s no reason we shouldn’t continue…’. But there’s no big over-arching scheme. He says he doesn’t have a plan. He wants to play football, he’d like to be in the Team GB football squad for the Olympics, and he doesn’t look much beyond that. He works because working is what you do when you’re a Beckham.

For Victoria, the work has paid off spectacularly in recent years, her fashion line going from what was expected to be a barely plausible vanity project to an instant critical and commercial success. ‘I’m so proud,’ he says. ‘When you prove people wrong it’s really satisfying and I think she’s done that. To go from a Spice Girl, a pop star in the biggest girl band in the world, to a respected fashion designer, that’s a hell of a step. Even I know that’s a hard thing to do. She’s done unbelievably well.’

He stayed away from her shows until February this year, when he attended the a/w 2012 presentation in New York. ‘I think it was always important for Victoria to do her own thing. She doesn’t run on a field with me and I don’t want to get in the way of her. But I was honoured to be there this time because there was a lot of pressure this particular season, just because she’d been having the baby and people were saying, “Maybe this season it won’t be so good…”. But it was unbelievable.’

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Me: ‘What do you think of the fashion world?’

Him: ‘I’m really surprised by how short the shows are. All the work that goes into them and it’s done in minutes. [Pause.] But it was the best five minutes I’ve had in a long time.’

Me: ‘Did you have to learn “fashion” things to say?’

Him: ‘I was sat next to a few fashion people [that would be Anna Wintour] and I felt like I had to keep my mouth shut. But I knew certain things. I knew, “Great lines and great shapes.” And, “There were a couple of great colour pops.” [Laughs]. So, you know, I knew certain things.’

Me: ‘You are so adorable I can’t stand it.’ [Oh, no, wait. I only said that in my head.]

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Since they move in such different worlds, do they talk to each other about work? ‘Yeah. She comes home and shows me what she’s been doing all day and what exciting dresses and shoes and bags she’s got coming through. And then I say something boring, like, “I got kicked today.” But we listen to each other. We try to go out at least once a week, just the two of us, a quiet dinner somewhere. It’s not about wearing a nice dress or a nice suit. It’s just going out and chatting and having some time together.’

I think, honestly, he’s just in awe of her. He refers frequently to how – despite her work commitments – the family always comes first. ‘She’s a great mum. Everything revolves around the children, as busy as she is, and that’s what I love her for. Well, there are many other things that I love her for, but being an amazing mother is a very sexy quality and an adorable quality.’

Me: ‘What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done for her?’

Him: ‘Probably when we renewed our wedding vows. It was a whole surprise, Victoria knew nothing about it. I had it all organised. I told her we were going out for lunch and I packed her bag, I had a dress ready for her to change into on the plane.’

Me: ‘You picked the dress?’

Him: ‘I picked the dress. I picked everything.’

Me: ‘What was the dress?’

Him: ‘It was just a simple white Dolce & Gabbana dress, I think. This is going back a few years [in 2008], when I was playing in Spain. So then we renewed our vows, flew on to Paris and had a night in Paris.’

Tell me he’s not the perfect man.

Watch: David Beckham on The Jonathan Ross Show

OK, so now can we talk about Harper? I love her. I love her little pudgy cheeks! In fact, like in some kind of nightmare, I hear myself saying those exact words to her father. While doing a kind of chipmunk-cheek mime. But, fortunately, he loves them too! (We have so much in common.) ‘She’s a chunky little thing,’ he says. ‘It’s great. I love to bite her legs, or shoulders. It’s how a baby should be. She’s so beautiful.

‘There’s no more love for a daughter than there is for a son, but it’s just different. When they [boys] are kids you can roll them around and they fall to the sides and they pick themselves up and they’re fine. Whereas Harper, now, she hits herself just slightly and she cries. I still think, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe this, I’ve got a girl.” And to see the boys with her, it’s incredible. When they walk into the room her little face lights up.’

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Me: ‘She’s going to be well protected, with three brothers.’

Him: ‘Three brothers and a dad.’

Me: ‘Won’t be any nasty young men hanging around her.’

Him: ‘Nooo, there will not. Have you seen that movie, Tangled?’

Me: ‘No.’ [It’s a recent kids’ film, an animated retelling of Rapunzel.]

Him: ‘Watch that, then you’ll get it. I’m going to build a tower and she won’t be allowed to come down.’

Me: ‘Until she’s, like, 47?’

Him: ‘Yeah! Or… maybe 50.’

Let’s just think about what an absurd level of fame you have when your nearly-year-old daughter is already a global fashion icon. Some people are joking when they say her little grey knits are their fashion inspiration but some aren’t (Google ‘Harper Beckham fashion’ for proof) and it’s slightly weird.

What’s weirder is that David Beckham, whose fame is built on an image that’s been carefully managed – with, I can say after seeing him at the shoot, lots of hands-on involvement from him – hates having to think about himself. He’s articulate (which, I know, is not popular opinion, but there it is. Oh, and also, the voice – which everyone asked me about, by the way – is fine. Fine! Manly. Not a squeak) yet when I ask him to describe himself he can barely get a word out. ‘Oh, God… How would I sum myself up? I don’t know, I prefer other people to do that. Erm… a little bit shy. I don’t know what to say. I hate describing myself.’

It gets worse (for him).

Me: ‘How do you feel about being a sex symbol?’

Him: [Long pause in which he looks so mortified I want to die] ‘I, er, I dunno… I don’t see myself as that. It’s kind of a weird… yeah, when people mention that… I don’t see myself like that at all.’

Me (because I’m a terrible person): ‘You must be aware of it?’

Him: ‘Yeah, I’m aware… You know, that I attract that attention. But I never think about it in any kind of… I dunno. I dunno.’

Me: ‘Am I making you feel embarrassed?’

Him: [Unable to meet my eye] ‘Yeah, you are a little bit.’

But have you seen the ad for the H&M David Beckham Bodywear (or, in other words, pants) range? (If not, I suggest you YouTube it as a matter of urgency, because it’s smoking hot.) H&M came on board with the line quite a long way down the road; as I understand it, the creative direction came entirely from the Beckhams. So here is a video of David in his pants, intentionally looking like sex on (great) legs; and here’s David in front of me pulling his beanie over his ears and looking like he’d welcome a nice big earthquake in the Los Angeles area right now, because at least then there’d be an outside chance the ground might swallow him up, just because I’ve suggested he might be a sex symbol. I don’t understand! Similarly, when he refers to his, or Victoria’s, ‘fame’ he does it like that; he puts audible quotation marks around it. Like somehow it might be in dispute? I think we can all agree that horse has bolted, been on lots of magazine covers, and hung out with Tom Cruise.

It only begins to make a certain kind of sense if you take him at his word that it’s not about his money or fame but about his relentless drive to do more. So he looks hot in an H&M ad, not because he wants us to think of him as sexy but because it’s important to him. Because him looking sexy – which he knows he can do, obviously – is a way of making people want to buy the bodywear, which makes it a phenomenal success, which means that that’s another thing he’s achieved and now on to the next.

He loves his family; he loves playing football. And he loves to work. It’s just that for him, the work is being David Beckham. And at that, he really is The Best.

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