Tuesday, 28 May 2024

David Beckham

At a pie and mash shop with the most famous man in the world

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Mr. David Beckham has gone beyond celebrity; such is the astonishing level of his worldwide fame. His superstardom is grounded in sheer talent on the field, no doubt aided by his handsome good looks. As he nears retirement from football at the age of 35, all eyes are set on just what David will do next. About to become a father again for the fourth time with his wife Victoria, this will prove to be a monumental year. Over a wholesome plate of pie and mash, David talks through his plans and revels in a fantastic new look for the next stage of his incredible life.

From Fantastic Man n° 13 — 2011
Photography by ALASDAIR McLELLAN

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It is eight o’clock in the morning when a sleek black Audi pulls up outside F. Cooke’s pie and mash shop on Hoxton Street in East London. Infant children make haste to the primary school on the left of the shop, while a hearse sits outside the funeral parlour to the right with its back door open, book-ending either side of the establishment with ominous reminders of The Beginning and The End.

Cooke’s is a model of beautifully hard-edged, British working-class taste. David Beckham slips out of the vehicle and is escorted without incident behind the temporarily blacked-out windows of the shop, providing ample distraction from any musings on mortality. He cuts an unsurprisingly athletic figure that seems slenderer than you might imagine. Such is his national ubiquity, his face is as strangely familiar as that of someone in my own immediate family.

The one and only time I have been in David’s presence before now was on a photo shoot in the early ’00s. It was during his transitional phase from footballer to symbolically manicured cultural presence. David stepped out of a studio in a bleak industrial estate in Ardwick Green, Manchester, at twilight, and a taxi driver from a notorious Salford firm stopped his car, jumped out, did a clumsy kind of dance towards him, hugged him and repeatedly shouted the words “It’s Becks!”.

In front of the camera he possesses an incredible stillness and curiously unreadable expression. When I ask him later about his technique, he says: “I am just lucky” – meaning lucky to be handsome in the way that stillness affords your best aspect from any angle, I assume.

David seems unusually wistful about being in a pie and mash shop. “The last time I was in this shop was a few years ago with my granddad,” he says. “My nan and granddad used to live just up the road in Seven Sisters. So we’d either go and pick up pie and mash or eat it in. Since I’ve been back in London, I’ve been going regularly to the one that’s close to me, where I live. It’s the simple things in life, more than anything, I enjoy. Being an East End boy, I do miss my pie and mash. I’ve been living out of England for the last eight or nine years. Whenever I can get down there, I get down there.”

David’s family has long been a handy conduit to national and international chatter. When the Beckhams arrived back to spend a few months in England late last year, after over eight years of living first in Madrid and then Los Angeles, it was seen as a cause for patriotic celebration. David and Victoria will have been married twelve years on July 4th, 2011. They have three sons, Brooklyn, aged 11, Romeo, 8, and Cruz, 5. Their marriage has been subject to much rumour. When on January 9th this year they announced that they were expecting a fourth child, the British media posited the news as a valid comfort blanket to be draped over the decrepit state of the national economy and the systematic dismantling of its welfare state.

This strangely coercive narrative has traced the Beckhams throughout their marriage. By accident and some design, they are part of a modern myth that Britain seems genuinely, collectively in thrall to: that fame (and inevitably, money) represents a solution to life’s problems, not just a whole new, different set of problems.

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David Beckham dines at the counter of F. Cooke’s pie and mash shop in East London.

While the tape is switched on, David takes the opportunity to iron out a piece of tabloid tittle-tattle that appears to be bothering him surrounding his wife’s pregnancy. “We read in the paper how sick she’s been and how ill she’s been, which she hasn’t at all. Everything’s going well. It’s exciting to be able to give the boys another little brother or sister. We never specified a number, but right from the start we said that we wanted a big family.”

David grew up in a predominantly female household, the middle child with two sisters, on the East London/Essex borders. “I always wanted a brother,” he says. The dynamic of his own three boys pleases him. “They fight. That’s what boys do. But they love each other and all three are great little boys. I’m really proud of that. It’s what we wanted for them. They’re polite and respectful boys, but they’re proper little characters.”

He insists that they are fully aware of the privilege they have been born into, one with a transatlantic property portfolio and access into an elite world of sophistication and dollars that the young David and Victoria could only have dreamt of. “Obviously they’re aware, but they’re not affected by it, in any way. They’re very grown up, actually. They’ve seen a lot of things in their short lives so far. They’ve been able to travel to different countries and meet different people and do things that I would’ve never had the chance to as a little boy. Life has been a great experience for them so far. And I think that’s what gives them that character that they’ve got.”

In his age of fatherhood, David has noticed the line of his athletic gift being passed down. “The way all three of them kick a ball is exactly the same way that I kick a ball. That must be in the genes.” He says they are all showing aptitude for football. “Whether they go into it or not? Who knows?”

David credits his manager, the entertainment impresario Simon Fuller, for his meeting Victoria in 1997, who was then in the Spice Girls. “The most important thing that Simon did was to introduce me to my wife, and I will always be thankful to him for that. He is my friend, my business partner and he’s been very supportive over the years.”

50-year-old Fuller began his career in music publishing in the UK, and first made his mark in the 1980s with 19 Management, a company he named after the number-one single ‘19’ by Paul Hardcastle, a discovery of Fuller’s. It was 19 Management that propelled the Spice Girls to success. Fuller is a season-ticket holder at Manchester United, the club where David first made his mark, so it was an obvious step for him to move into sports management and to bring its athletes closer to the world of celebrity. Fuller now runs XIX Entertainment, an international management company, but his most public roles are as executive producer of the reality TV show American Idol, which he created, and as the closest advisor in all aspects of the Beckham’s professional life.

It has been Fuller’s guiding hand that has since steered both of their careers to someplace entirely new. When used in advertising, David’s face is one that can sell product – and hard. In 15 years of fame, it is something of which he has taken full advantage. As David reaches retirement age from football, he looks likely to continue to do the same into middle age.

Over the course of his career, professional sport has become inseparable from big business. In his first season of playing for LA Galaxy, in 2008, David earned $16.5 million. He is synonymous with the modern sportsman’s appetite for personal sponsorships and endorsements, including those for Adidas, Police sunglasses, Gillette and Emporio Armani underwear.

The string of fragrances attributed to David is vast: Instinct for Him; Intense Instinct for Him; Intimately for Him; Intimately Yours for Him; Signature for Him and Signature Story for Him. These are fragrances that sell at a highly commercial level and make no claims to be of notable quality. But David has balanced such mass-market business by playing with his presumed image. Pivotal was a cover shoot in autumn 2000 for Arena Homme +, for which the photographer Steven Klein turned a military-looking David into a stark, fantastic figure with distinctly gay overtones. On the cover, he wore only white boxer shorts and a leather cuff, his hair shorn to a mohawk buzz cut with a big diamond stud in his ear. He was 25 at the time and had only been tattooed with the name of his first son, Brooklyn, and a large crucified figure, both on his back. Without all the other tattoos that now feel so familiar, he looks particularly naked in Klein’s images; posed crouching on a bed, or slumped on some dirty motel-room couch.

“I’ve done a lot of shoots that are on the edge over the years,” he says now, “that real extreme imagery. And over the years it’s worked. Obviously I’m older now. I don’t think it would be quite right to be doing the blood-dripping-down-the-face shot now.” David is referring to a shoot for ‘The Face’ magazine in 2001. What looked like blood was apparently soy sauce. “At 35 years old, that’s probably something that I wouldn’t want to do.” Then to qualify: “I’m not bothered about getting older. I’m not bothered about being 35.”

After we meet, rumours begin to spread that there are two new business ventures in the pipeline to add to David’s portfolio. The first is that he will soon launch his own underwear franchise. In 2007, when David appeared in the advertising for Emporio Armani’s underwear, British department store Selfridges reported a 150% sales increase and a roadblock for a personal appearance by him. If his own line of underwear indeed launches, he would be the first international sportsman to put his name to such an intimacy since ’80s tennis ace, Björn Borg. There is no reason to suggest that David Beckham’s underwear, if handled correctly, will not rival the scale of Calvin Klein’s.

The second is speculation on a chain of pie and mash shops, a joint venture hinted at with the alpha British chef and friend of the family, Gordon Ramsay, which surely explains his familial eulogy to Cooke’s earlier. Newspaper stories even went so far as to say they had registered the name PM (Pie and Mash) Restaurant with the Intellectual Property Office in the UK. And indeed, on the Intellectual Property Office website, the name is registered with Gordon Ramsay Holdings listed as the proprietor. The initials DBGR follow it – David Beckham Gordon Ramsay, perhaps? There is little in the public life of David Beckham that occurs without precise motive.

The bulletproof training David received in his early footballing days has served both him and his wife well in the years that they have courted, shielded themselves against and batted back the criticisms levelled against them in their position as the quintessence of modern British fame. If they are seen as a physical manifestation of the notion that celebrity represents a solution, they implicitly understand the problematic axis that this might shift on. Herein lies something of their purpose and effect; in this brand-new fame model, in order to be loved, a side order of antipathy might well be dished up. So be it.

Speaking of the peak of his career with Manchester United, David tells me, “The thing that you have to understand is that at that time we loved being hated.” He and his teammates implicitly understood that the level of success they were operating at would come with its own caveat: a mix of public antipathy, possible jealousy and even rage towards their achievements. They had been trained for this moment. In order to accept the worship, they had to also relish the vitriol.

“That was one of the reasons that we were so successful,” he says. “We weren’t liked much and we just did not care. We knew that we were the best team around and we understood that success would only make people, not necessarily jealous but… We were well aware of the feelings towards Man United. It was something that we thrived off.”

Alongside five other significant signings to the Manchester United youth squad, David changed the shape and texture of British football when he arrived at the club in 1992. The other five were local lads from the surrounding Manchester area: Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the brothers Gary and Phil Neville. It was only David that had to learn the Mancunian way, an oppositional mix of absolute self-confidence and absolute self-deprecation. “I was an East End boy to them, a cockney,” he says. “We had that label of being a bit flash. I wasn’t like that really, but the Northern lads thought I was.”

The record that reminds David most of his arrival in Manchester is the debut album by The Stone Roses. “I loved them,” he says now. “The confidence of them. The pure arrogance of the sound. I loved the music and the swagger. I can’t separate that record from Manchester. It sounds like Manchester. Oasis had it later, but the one that I always loved was The Stone Roses.” I wonder aloud, given the almost biblical significance of David and his wife, if the song that attracted him to the Roses’ record was its closing, boldly Messianic eight-minute epic, I Am the Resurrection. “Oh no,” he says. “The song was always I Wanna Be Adored.”

And so it came to pass.

“All I can say is that those ten years were so special, I mean without a shadow of a doubt the most special time in my career. The ten-year run of success that we had was just incredible,” he says of his time at Manchester United.

Two crucial male role models appeared in his life at that time. The first was Sir Alex Ferguson, the ruthlessly effective club manager that trained him towards heroism. “Sir Alex Ferguson was the reason that I signed with Manchester United in the first place. When you have the interest that I had in the club and then in the manager… This wasn’t just towards me, though it did feel like it was personal. It’s what he does with all the young kids that go up there. He makes you feel special.”

The other key figure was the huge figurative and physical presence of the almost mythically poetic French football star, Eric Cantona. The effect of Cantona on his charges was once compared by a sportswriter to the influence that Michael exerted over Kylie Minogue, allowing these young men to do things with football that even they themselves could not envision as being possible. “You just cannot overestimate the influence of a man like that on us,” says David.

To the six young players, he was godfather and inspiration. “When you have a man like that to look up to, it changes everything. It helps that you see them work so hard in training, but there was the advice, the helping you out, too. Obviously Eric wasn’t the most talkative of men. But when he said something, you listened. You sat up and you made sure that every word went in. He’s such a great human being. Obviously he’s one of the best players that I’ve ever played with, but to watch him and work with him, day in and day out, this is the best work experience that you can ever have.” Cantona’s humble starring turn in independent British film director Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric delighted David when he saw it. “It’s funny and brilliant. He’s an amazing man.”

In 1999, the young Manchester United squad heralded by David turned a footballing trick that had not been seen before in British football and will likely be never seen again. They won the treble, scooping the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League. It was the most successful season in the club’s history. They had a run of games from Boxing Day 1998 until May 1999, in which they remained undefeated. “It wasn’t what we did,” notes David. “It was the way that we did it. I don’t think that will ever be bettered.”

One might expect an emotional slump after the taste of so sweet a victory. Not under Sir Alex. “He made us all feel invincible. You’re celebrating one day, and then the next morning you’re straight back to thinking how you can better it and achieve more. We just wanted to be as successful the season after. That was our mentality: that nothing could get in the way of more success. This is all about Sir Alex Ferguson. If you’ve got someone on your back 24/7, wanting to make you more successful and letting you know that, yeah, you’ve had success, but you need to get more – we had that every single day, and that was what kept us striving towards every possible win.”

David says that he has not seen his young sporting alumni for some time now. He cannot remember the last time that Butt, Scholes, the Nevilles, Giggs and he were all in the same room together. The practicalities of his life away from England, the demands of his growing family and the simple day-to-day business of being a brand mean that casual male companionship of this sort is not necessarily a regular option.

“We’re all busy. It would be difficult to make it happen.”

Would it work if it did?

“Without a doubt. We’d be straight back to what it was. It’d be exactly the same as it was on the pitch or in the changing room in 1992, when we were 17 years old. No question about it. That bond is there forever. Something happened to us all in Manchester.”

You became men.

“Basically, yes.”

I don’t quite know why this should come as such a surprise when he says it, but nonetheless it does. David does not like shopping. “Not really, no. I’m not a huge shopper. I’d sooner go to one shop that sells everything than traipse around from shop to shop. I’m not one of those types of people. I’m into Ralph Lauren at the moment. I love Lanvin, obviously. But I’d rather go to Dover Street Market and buy everything in one go. I was there about eight months ago, and that was the last time I really shopped.”

Perhaps, as his footballing career nears its end, the commercial recompense of personal branding is no longer enough for him. Perhaps despite the plans for an underwear line and whatever fashion-business ingeniousness might naturally follow from that, riches and fame were not just the paths he was eyeing.

Last year, David accompanied the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the nation’s second in line to the throne, Prince William, to bid on England hosting the next available World Cups in 2018 and 2022. The three men travelled to Zürich, Switzerland and presented their elaborate and passionate bid to the delegates of FIFA, the international football governing body. For David, it looked like a new ascension to a more statesmanlike middle age, a role in which he felt – and looked – surprisingly comfortable. His personal presentation was a move away from the visual clues he has dropped through culture, into the vocal.

“You were surprised I could do it?” he says, looking thoughtful. “Yeah. I mean, come on, it was something that I didn’t expect either. To be able to slot into that thing and to enjoy it as much as I did? I did. I liked being an ambassador for the country. It surprised me how much I liked it.”

Here, David tasted failure. What was said to him beforehand – a certified promise of votes by key delegates – was not borne out by the result.

“I was disappointed with the end of that story, but the hard work that the Prime Minister did and the hard work that Prince William did was really incredible. It sounds weird to be saying it, but I thank them both. Having the power that we had for that bid, we should’ve got a better result.”

In the event, the next two football World Cups will take place in Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). “I think they’ll both host great World Cups. The disappointment and frustration weren’t about that. It was the fact that people were saying things to our future King and our Prime Minister and then those things changed at the ballot.” (It has since been reported that both David and Victoria will attend the wedding of that future King, Prince William, in London this spring.)

FANTASTIC MAN - Pen in hand, DAVID is wearing a very nice oversized-check short-sleeved shirt by DRIES VAN NOTEN.

A few weeks later, I ask David to clarify the rumours that have emerged over his future plans. On the pie and mash shops, he is non-committal and beautifully evasive: “There are no plans to launch any restaurants,” he says. “At the moment, that is just another one of those newspaper stories that aren’t true. However, you never know what might happen in the future, maybe one day.” Perhaps that’s another interview, for another day, with another set of photographs delivering another, more direct message.

On his underwear line, he is affirmative. “Yes, it’s certainly something I’m looking at in the future. I enjoyed working on the Armani line and it’s something that was successful, so it made sense to look at doing my own line.” He can’t say when yet, however. “I will be in a position to talk about this further later this year; watch this space.” When asked if this is likely to metamorphose into a fashion line, he reverts to circumspection: “No, not at this stage, but I would never rule out anything.”

Given the success of Victoria’s fashion line, both commercially and also with previously sceptical critics, it seems wise to keep these particular business interests separate. Victoria has managed to find a place in womenswear that feels authentic to her design ambitions. For David, launching underwear is one matter. Finding a place for him within menswear would clearly take time and patience. At the moment, he says there isn’t a plan to launch a men’s line alongside his wife’s womenswear. “No, there isn’t. Victoria is an incredible designer and works so hard at what she does, but her focus at the moment is womenswear. I’m very proud of what she has achieved.”

I ask how David would describe himself as a brand. “I don’t see myself as a brand,” he says. “My ambition has always been to be the best at what I do for a living, which is first and foremost being a footballer. I also want to be the best father as possible to my children.”

The lesson he learnt at Manchester United is once again invaluable. As a father, as a face intertwined with high commerce, as a celebrity and as a statesman, the trick he learnt early is to take the loathing alongside the loving.

“I have three boys and I want them to be proud of me,” he says. “They’ll have another brother or sister soon. Being an ambassador for your country? That’s a nice thing to give down to my boys. It’s a huge thing for them to be able to say about their daddy. I want them to be proud of me for all the right reasons.”


Hair by Alain Pichon at Streeters. Make-up by Miranda Joyce at Streeters. Manicure by Sophy Robson at Streeters. Photographic assistance by Gareth Powell, Simon Bremner and Hazel Gaskin. Styling assistance by Melissa Thompson and Philip Smith. Production by Rosco Brady at Rosco Production.