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At home with the Lord of the Dance

May 2010

AS I pass the little red Corvette parked in the driveway and hop into a cab, Jim Carrey drives by in a convertible, gurning. Further along Miradero Road two open top mini-buses are parked, with tourists training cameras on the Osbournes’ home.
This is Beverly Hills.
I’ve just had half-an-hour with Michael Flatley by the pool at his mansion to discuss his return to Lord Of The Dance, the show that has made him a worldwide star and muli-millionaire.
A weekend in Los Angeles, staying at a four star hotel in West Hollywood, with meals at trendy local eateries thrown in, certainly makes a change to the 15 minute phone chat we’re usually offered with stars.
Yes, he can afford it. Flatley is by far the wealthiest man I’ve ever met. £350 million they say. He won’t.
He won’t even confirm how much his legs are insured for. I’d read £25 million.
“That’s light,” is all he’ll say, in a rare moment of resistance during the interview. On the whole he’s pleasant, forthcoming, honest. Although there are moments where his self-confidence spills over into arrogance:
“What we do is a niche that I created”... “I’ve been to everybody’s show and I’ve never seen a reaction like we get”... “we’re touching something that they’re not used to getting touched”... “a few flaws makes you more likeable to the average person.”
He’s one of the lads - he loves a beer with his buddies - but he’s also a family man. His wife, Niamh and their three-year-old son, Michael, are inside the house.
Flatley also has homes in Barbados, London, France and Ireland. He considers Castlehyde, his 18th century mansion in Cork, which he’s owned for 15 years, as the family home.
Is that where young Michael will go to school?
“Woah, slow down now, he’s only three,” he says.
“It’s a tough question because my wife and I both agree that he’s going to get the best education in England. It would be my dream to send him to Eton or Harrow, eventually. But then you have this...” he says, gesturing at the sunny surroundings of LA.
“You have the weather and the ease of life here but there are great schools in Ireland. I have so many friends at home, my wife’s family are there and the culture is so much richer. So it’s very difficult for me to answer that right now.”
The house behind us isn’t dissimilar to the pillared, Mediterranean-style mansion we saw in The Osbournes’ TV show. I’m not allowed a nosey around the place but the room where I’m shown to wait for him, which looks like his office, has high ceilings, cream and gold fittings, a massive open fire place, oak furniture and framed art around the walls.
Through a window in to the adjacent lounge I can see a shelf that has an array of books and spirits. Flatley, it turns out, enjoys both in equal measure. He talks of his love of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Dostoevsky. Although, since becoming a husband and father, the boozy nights out are behind him.
The unbuttoned shirt and high-rolled sleeves offer the look of a working man, which is fitting -- Flatley is a workaholic.
“I would say so,” he says.
“I’m one of those guys on the golf course that hits the ball and I’m standing waiting while it lands. I move at a ferocious pace.”
He’s softly spoken and surprisingly very Irish for a man born and bred in Chicago.
“We never met anyone with an American accent until we were nine or ten,” he explains.
“My folks came to the States from Sligo in 1947 but they still have very thick Irish brogues. All their friends were Irish when we were growing up, so we grew up speaking that way.”
It was visits to his grandma back in Ireland that first turned him on to Irish dance. By the age of 17, he was the first non-European to win the All-Ireland World Championship for Irish dance.
It was as the lead dancer in Riverdance, which debuted during the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, that would lead to his worldwide fame. But not with Riverdance. Flatley left a year later following a tussle over artistic control and launched Lord Of The Dance.
Since then, 50 million people in 60 countries have seen the show, a blend of Irish music and tap dance based on Irish folklore stories of good versus evil.
This autumn it returns - with Flatley leading the 40-strong cast on a tour of the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It’s the first time he'll have danced with the show since 1998.
How can he still do a gruelling two-hour performance at the age of 51 (he turns 52 next month)?
“Listen, I’m not as young as I used to be but I have a new slogan: 50 is the new 30. I’ve got my legs back and I’m dying to get out there.”
He has been working out but after dancing since he was a boy has the advantage of, what he calls, muscle memory.
“My body just remembers,” he says.
“But I’m also careful with it. I don’t train four or five hours a day. I never do more than an hour. I’ve got a lot of miles on me and I know how much I can produce over the next few months. I’ll do a slow build heading into that tour to make sure I’m peaking at just the right time.”
The truth is he’s still been dancing. While Lord Of The Dance continued to tour the world without him, he developed and appeared in new shows Celtic Tiger and Feet Of Flames.
“I’ve created many shows but Lord of the Dance has a special place in my heart,” he says.
“I went to see it in Egypt, with one of the new young lads dancing in it and from the very first number I was hooked. By the end of the first half I just couldn’t wait to dance. At the end of the show they got five encores and a 15-minute standing ovation. I was among them, standing up, acting like an idiot, screaming. My wife looked at me and said ‘you’ve got to go back and dance.’”
But first he did that with Feet Of Flames at the end of last year in China and Taiwan.
“We sold out five arenas and three football stadiums,” he boasts.
“It’s very difficult to come down from the buzz of a football stadium on their feet, screaming.”
Aside from his appearance this time, Lord of The Dance 2010 will be familiar to anyone who has seen it before.
“It’s like when you go and see Van Morrison you want to hear Moon Dance. The audience dictates and demands to see their favourite things.
“It’s the same show but with a new look, a new feel, a new excitement and a lot of new little things that people will appreciate without detracting from the original storyline.”
Many of the dancers have been with the show from the start. His wife, who he married in 2006, was with him in the original Riverdance 16 years ago.
He admits that Niamh and Michael have helped him calm down in recent years.
“Three years ago I was on tour chasing all the women, drinking Irish whisky, getting home at 6am. Now at 6am he’s jumping up and down on my stomach and screaming for Thomas The Tank Engine.”
In the evening I’m treated to a meal at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, his favourite Beverly Hills restaurant, and though the wine is flowing free, he doesn’t touch a drop.
“I’m taking him to the park and not bringing the phone with me,” he says of Michael Jnr.
“Every Sunday we go to Malibu in the Corvette and go to the beach. That’s new for me. Normally I never allow myself a day off.”
Flatley says he is “blessed” with his family, health (he has survived both skin cancer and a mystery virus) and success.
“I wake up every morning and thank God. I never dreamed this would happen to me. What we do is not rock ‘n’ roll. It’s dance - who would have thought this could sell out arenas.
“I’m not a rock star. I don’t see myself as a star at all. But I tell you what, it makes you feel really good knowing that many people love what you do.”
Riverdance, the show in which he started and the only rival production to Lord Of The Dance, bid farewell this year. So will he be bowing out the same way?
“Nothing makes me vomit more than ‘this is the farewell...’ I don’t believe in any of that nonsense.”
But he then admits: “It may very well be. I don’t know. I’ve got a few more miles left in me. Fred Astaire danced until he was seventy.”
He adds: “We’re in the joy business and we make people happy. And goddamn it, as long as I am able to do it, I will.”

What: Lord of the Dance
Where: Trent FM Arena
When: Saturday November 6
Tickets: £35/£49.50/£75, 0844 875 8758

On Nottingham
“It’s a great place. Most of the stuff I did there, half of it I can’t talk about and the other half I can’t remember. But most of it had to do with beautiful mini-skirts. I loved the girls there. We had a ball and a fair few pints.”

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