First the good news: When five of the six members of the Australian rock band INXS arrive at their Calgary hotel after a sold-out concert, a flock of squealing high school girls in prom dresses ditch their dates to ogle the stars. The not so good news, for the INXS men, is that the girls all seem to be squealing the same question: “Where’s Michael?!” At that moment, Michael Hutchence, the band’s leonine lead singer, steps out of a white stretch limo. He is wrapped in a long white bathrobe and a long-legged blond female named Johnnie. As the pair hustles through the lobby and flustered teens gasp and burble in disbelief—”My God! It’s him!”—INXS guitarist Kirk Pengilly maintains an air of dignified calm. “We’ve gotten used to it,” he deadpans. “We’ve learned to hate him.”
Just kidding, right, mate? But a little jealousy would be understandable. Hutchence’s breathy baritone and sinewy stage testosteronics have made the band, together for more than a decade, a stateside sensation. Stars Down Under for years, INXS (for those of you who have been, like, stuck in Borneo or something, it’s pronounced “in excess”) finally went over the top in Yankland this year with their sixth album, Kick, which has sold 10 million copies worldwide and spawned three hit singles: “Need You Tonight,” “Devil Inside” and “New Sensation.” Simultaneously, the accompanying videos have helped make Hutchence, compared by critics to Jim Morrison and “the young Mick Jagger,” the hottest Aussie sexport since Mel Gibson.
When pressed, the 28-year-old singer and lyricist allows that being onstage while an arena of women goes bonkers over his every move isn’t a bad gig. “I enjoy it,” he says. “But it’s a perverse situation that I don’t think is really natural. Just being out there, watching all those people go crazy—it’s kind of humorous really.” His bandmates—Pengilly, 29, bassist Garry Gary Beers, 31, and three Farriss brothers, guitarist Tim, 30, keyboardist Andrew, 29, and drummer Jon, 26—seem content to leave the frenzy driving and interviewing to Hutchence. “He can have the responsibility,” says Pengilly. “We know Michael well enough to trust him.” Sometimes, Hutchence jokes, he wishes his chums would shoulder more of the work. “Really,” he says, “I’ve run out of clever ways to describe how amazing I am.”
The son of an Australian importer, Hutchence grew up in Sydney, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Keyboardist Andrew Farriss became a friend when he saved Michael, then 14, from a schoolyard bully. Two years later Hutchence joined the Farriss Brothers Band, which, according to INXS lore, made its debut the night Elvis died, in 1977. After a couple of years rocking through Sydney surf bars and Perth pubs, phonetic inspiration struck. “Our record company suggested ‘In Excess,’ ” Tim Farriss says. “But without a record out, it seemed people came to shows if your name was really big on your posters. We wanted ours huge, so we shortened it.”
The band released its first LP in 1980 and toured the U.S. for the first time in 1983. “People look at rock stars and believe it all comes like a lottery ticket,” Tim says. “It doesn’t. It’s been a long, hard road for us.” Well, maybe not that hard, allows Hutchence. “Calling it work would be sacrilegious,” he says. “Basically we came to the U.S., played some gigs, people liked us, and so we came back and played some more.” And the legendary perks of rock stardom? “Now we get more than a six-pack backstage,” admits Pengilly. “And the food is hot,” adds Hutchence.
Like uncounted rock stars before him, Hutchence wants to cross over to movies. In his first film, Dogs in Space, a low-budget punk drama, he plays a feral, half-naked junkie who spends most of his time crawling around the floor of a squalid commune. He is pleased with the movie, which was well received in Australia but faded after a mere three weeks in the U.S. Nevertheless Hutchence says, “I’m trying to get involved with a film project for next year. Film is really immediate in a way that’s superior to music. It’s more tangible.”
But music can make you rich enough to live as an intercontinental nomad, a style Hutchence has adopted. He plans eventually to resettle in Australia, but not before living in Paris for a while, and right now he shares an apartment with Jon Farriss in Hong Kong, where he never is. “Michael is a gypsy,” says Tim Farriss, who, like all the other band members, lives in Sydney. “He’s always traveling someplace.”
Which is not conducive to long-term romantic relationships, While Tim Farriss is married with two children, and Pengilly’s girlfriend just had a baby girl (“I show the video of her being born to everyone,” he says), the remaining INXS men are single. Hutchence says that his longest relationship lasted seven years, but his most recent, with actress Virginia Hayes, was over in less than a year. “Basically,” he says, “music destroyed my relationship. You get too good at saying goodbye. You get so good at saying goodbye, you might as well not be together.”
For Hutchence, the alternative can’t be called chastity. “I don’t really get chased by girls,” he says. Well, “maybe leaving or entering a place.” And what sort of women does he meet on the road? “They lose their minds, and by Monday, they’re going ‘Oh my God, why’d I do that?’ ” Really? “I mean,” he says, perhaps a tad defensively, “I’ve met lots of good people. They’re not all bimbos.”
—By Steve Dougherty, with Todd Gold in Calgary