Watch: Martin Kemp on his devastating brain tumour diagnosis
In 1995, Martin Kemp was living the dream. He’d enjoyed global success with Spandau Ballet, and received critical acclaim for his role in The Kray Twins. Now, he was living in Los Angeles with his family, pursuing an acting career.
Then, while preparing to play an ageing man on sci-fi horror show The Outer Limits, Kemp’s life changed in a second.
“I’m in make-up, and they have to pull this bald cap on my head and little wispy grey hairs,” Kemp told Kate Thornton on podcast White Wine Question Time. “And as they pull [it] on, all I remember is that the whole of the make-up wagon go quiet, and they're looking at the back of my head that's got this lump on it.”
Kemp had already felt the lump, but not been concerned. “It wasn't a soft lump, like you would associate with anything… tumour-wise.”
Alerted by the concerns of the make-up team, he saw a doctor. The “hard” lump, it transpired, was a brain tumour pushing into his skull. “[It] had been there for about 12 years, and it was the size of a grapefruit.”
There was worse to come. As doctors removed the tumour, they found a second one “deep inside” Kemp’s brain.
A tense wait for biopsy results began.
The ordeal was “harder” for Kemp’s family, he told Thornton, than him. “I was off my head on drugs… in the middle of a battle, digging myself out of a hole.” In contrast, his family, “were sitting there every day, waiting for the call that I’ve died”.
Luckily for Kemp and his family, both tumours were benign.
Listen to the full episode to hear Martin Kemp discussing his tumour and EastEnders fame
Today, 61-year-old Kemp considers the discovery of his lump “the luckiest thing that has ever happened to me”. Otherwise, doctors wouldn’t have found the second tumour until it was “too late”.
While they couldn’t remove it, the tumour did respond to radiation treatment. “It’s still there today,” he said, “but it's tight. It's like a pea… and it's dead.”
Kemp’s physical recovery took six months. “If I was wanting to walk left, I would walk right.” His mental recovery took “a good couple of years”. It was clear his Hollywood dream was over. “I couldn't remember things or… people's names,” he said. “I couldn't think straight.”
When an invitation came to audition for Steve Owen in EastEnders, Kemp was cautious.
“Everybody was saying to me, don't touch it,” he revealed. “At that time, no big actors… had gone into EastEnders.” Yet instinct told him to audition. “I knew that it was the only way that I could get myself together.
The audition didn’t go well. “I couldn't even remember my lines because my brain wasn't working,” he told Thornton. “But luckily enough…they gave me a second chance, and… I was there for three and a half years.”
While Kemp’s return to acting was a triumph, it brought new problems as his face became familiar to 20 million EastEnders viewers.
“I had never in all my years in Spandau Ballet… felt fame, like I did in Eastenders,” he told Thornton. Finally he made peace with the situation. “The older I've got… you realise that most people just want to say hi.”
It is now 27 years since his health scare. “The question always is, ‘So do you look at life differently?’” he said. “I’ve got to tell you, you know, after about a year, you’re done – your body wants you to get back into normal life.”
Today Kemp is thoroughly enjoying that “normal” life, touring as a musician again, happily married to Shirlie now for 34 years, and starring on Celebrity Gogglebox with their son Roman.
His new memoir Ticket to the World: My new music memoir behind-the-scenes of Spandau Ballet and the 80s (£22, Harper Collins), reflects on his time in Spandau Ballet, which he described as a schoolboy “fantasy that became a reality.”
Yet after his health scare, Kemp never takes the good times for granted. “It was an experience… I’ve learnt a lot from,” he said. “It makes you realise how fragile life is.”