Martin Kemp’s successful pop and acting career was nearly derailed in the 1990s when he discovered he had not one, but two brain tumours.
If it hadn’t been for best friend George Michael and wife Shirlie, he says he may not be around now.
“When it was time to approach the second one that was hiding itself and growing at this super vast rate that I had to have taken out, [George] phoned round the whole of the world looking for someone to sort it out,” he told White Wine Question Time host, Kate Thornton.
Martin revealed he first discovered a lump while working on the TV show, The Outer Limits, in Canada.
“I was playing this old professor,” he told Kate Thornton. “They were pulling on a bald cap to make me look like 200 years old and as they pulled it on, this lump on my head... it just was so pronounced. It looked like Ayres Rock or something sticking out the top.
“They sent me home straight away and within hours, basically, they had me on the operating table for eight hours cutting the whole thing away.”
A lucky find?
While operating on Martin, they discovered a second tumour that was sitting at the top of his spine. He said: “I look at it as if it was the luckiest thing that has ever happened to me in my life because it could quite easily, at the spin of a coin, have been cancer, but it wasn't. It was a benign tumour that was cut out.”
Having already recuperated from the first operation, which involved having to learn to walk again, Martin was told the only option to remove his second tumour was to have another major operation – with possible major repercussions.
“The doctor was saying ‘We can't do anything about this one in the middle, this second one,’” said Martin. “He says, ‘We’re going to have to cut through the middle of the brain, open it up. You're going to lose the use of your legs; you might lose your eyes…’. It was a disaster. It was a car crash. And he said, ‘But we're going to have to get it out to save your life.’”
While Martin was willing to go through with the possible life-changing operation, Shirlie was determined to find another way.
“Shirlie's going ‘Nope, we're not doing that, we're going to find someone else,’” Martin explained. “I'm going ‘Shirlie, shush! He knows what he's talking about. I’ll just go and get it done’ and Shirlie stopped him from doing that and took it on herself. And her and George [Michael] found someone.”
Shirlie revealed she just couldn’t accept this option and was determined to find something much more non-invasive.
“I said to George, ‘I just can't accept this’. And he says, ‘I know’,” she told Kate. “Within a week or so [George] said actually he had found a Professor Black in America and he suggests that this is what we're going to try.
“We're all ready to sell our house – everything – whatever we had to do to get over to America and have treatment. I didn't care. And then [the doctor] said, ‘The good thing is we can do this at Bart's Hospital’, which was just where we lived in London, around the corner from us.
“Sometimes you have to push, because I was angry.”
A helping hand
This wasn’t the first time George Michael played an important part in the couple’s life. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Wham! front man, the pair may never have got together.
Martin said after giving Shirlie his phone number, it took her three weeks to get in touch, which she revealed was all down to nerves.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “George was really excited about it, because George was quite a big Spandau fan at the time. He kept asking ‘When are you going to call him?’
“We were at George's house and his sister had a phone in her bedroom and he grabbed me by the hand and he goes, ‘Right, I've got the number, come on. I'm going to dial it!’ I was going, ‘No, no, no!’.
“He picked up the phone, he dialled it and he handed it to me. My heart was in my throat. Then Martin's mum answered it and I thought, I’m sure he gets girls calling him all time, she's going to say no he's not here.”
“When Martin picked up he was like, ‘I’m so pleased you called me’... George was looking at me and his head was nodding. I was shaking afterwards!”
George’s involvement with their budding romance didn’t stop there. He also accompanied them on their first date at Camden Palace.
“As I get towards Shirlie,” recalled Martin, “I see her standing on the pavement outside and Shirlie had brought a wingman, which is not what you want right on your first date: George Michael!”
It seems George wasn’t that impressed either.
“He was really annoyed with me that I was snogging too much,” recalled Shirlie. “He was like, ‘Oh my God, you didn't even come up for air! I just stood there and felt such an idiot’.”