I've had to make friends with pain: Excruciating agony is part of daily life for Michael Flatley – but as Lord Of The Dance returns, he tells Jenny Johnston why living the high life in Monaco helps...
By Jenny Johnston For Weekend Magazine
There is a close-up of a gleaming Ferrari on the wall behind Michael Flatley. Of course there is.
He lives in Monaco (when he isn’t living in a mansion in Ireland), and he likes things fast – cars, life, feet. It’s the feet that made him famous, obviously.
They propelled Earth’s very own Lord Of The Dance to global stardom when he created the Irish dancing extravaganza Riverdance nearly 30 years ago.
Driven isn’t the word. In 1989 he entered the Guinness Book Of Records for possessing the fastest feet in the world, tapping 28 times per second.
Michael Flatley, 63, explains that after years of dancing he now lives in agonising pain in Monaco
Michael (pictured centre) during Lord Of the Dance performance in 2001
He later bettered that, managing 35 taps. Today though, at the age of 63, his body is paying the price for the punishment he put it through.
Talking about it, he sounds for all the world like a car mechanic listing everything that’s wrong with his clapped-out old banger. Blimey, the bill is going to be huge.
‘I’ve got a lot of miles on me,’ he admits. ‘I’ve taken a few knocks. There was the cancer [skin cancer in 2003].
'Then that big health scare in 2006 [when he was hit by a mystery virus], but I came back from that, did a few football stadiums in Taiwan, which revved the engines up a bit. Now my spinal column is a problem, especially my neck.
'My C1 is gone. C3, T1 [these are vertebrae for the non-doctors among us]. My sacroiliacs [hip ligaments to you and me].
'I have a torn right calf muscle, two ruptured achilles tendons, my shoulders need shots in them, otherwise I’ll have to have them replaced.’
Should we book him in for a service? Oh, he’s still going...Share
‘I do try to get to the gym but the old legs start to argue back, to the point where it’s almost prohibitive. There’s a whole heap of other stuff, but it doesn’t bother me. Dancers have to make friends with pain.
'If you feel like complaining you have to say, “You chose this. Get on with it.”’ Mind you, living in Monaco for most of the year helps.
‘The older I get, the more my legs need that heat. My old body needs a bit of love and being able to get into the ocean helps.’
His legs (once insured for a reported £25 million) may be aching, but Michael Flatley is back – or his most famous show is.
Hot on the heels of Riverdance, which he had left within a year after a row over royalties, he created Lord Of The Dance, which opened in Dublin in 1996 and then toured the world, playing to 60 million people in 60 countries and becoming one of the most successful dance shows ever (in 1997 alone Michael earned £36 million).
The Lord Of The Dance star says that he has had a number of health problems and that at the moment he struggles with his spinal column, especially his neck
Now he’s put together an anniversary version of the show, in which 40 dancers will deliver 150,000 taps per performance at shows up and down the country over the coming months. Frustratingly for Michael, he’ll be watching from the wings now his dancing days are over.
He emphasises how young and nimble his troupe of dancers are. ‘I was talking to some of the original dream team, the dancers from 1996, and we realised that almost none of the new cast were even born when we did our shows.’
A collection of his old dancing shoes at his palatial Irish home, Castlehyde. Michael spent much of lockdown at Castlehyde, the sprawling mansion in Cork that he bought in 2001
Ouch! Does he envy their nimbleness? ‘Of course, but it’s their turn to shine, and they’re hungry for it, like I was. They’re the best in the world, and there is no feeling in the world like that.
'When the drum starts, it’s visceral. And you have 40 pairs of feet all tapping at exactly the same time. Then flying through the air, with thousands applauding. You can’t beat it.’
His dance troupe, of course, were holed up at home in lockdown, which is particularly cruel in their business. ‘They’ve had two years of their prime stolen.
'But morale is high. We’ve kept them in shape – sometimes via Zoom. Now they’re raring to go. They’re like a slingshot, wound up and ready.’Ruptures, torn muscles ...and my neck is gone
As is Michael. He talks at a rate of knots, with an accent that’s part Chicago, where he was born, and part Irish (his Irish parents Michael, a plumber, and Elizabeth had emigrated to America).
He’s dressed soberly today, which is a shock given that we’re used to seeing him in capes, or with bared torso and headband. Does he still like a bit of flounce, even off the stage?
‘Do you mean do I fly about the kitchen in my leather pants, looking for the coffee machine?’ he retorts, twinkling.
‘No, I don’t stride around Monaco dressed to the nines, but I like to dress up. When I take my wife to Le Louis XV [one of Monaco’s finest restaurants], of course I’ll dress up, out of respect to the venue, respect to her, respect to myself.’
Now he’s put together an anniversary version of the show, in which 40 dancers will deliver 150,000 taps per performance at shows up and down the country over the coming months
He spent much of lockdown at Castlehyde, the sprawling mansion in Cork that he bought in 2001. In 2006 he wed former dancer Niamh O’Brien there; it was his second marriage and produced his son Michael Junior, 14.
He says lockdown was a ‘blessing’ in that it allowed time with his family, ‘which wouldn’t ordinarily be possible when my son is at boarding school and I’m working and travelling. We had bonding time.
'We walked in the forest. It was quite dreamy. There was time for big conversations.’
The Ferrari print on the wall belongs to Michael Junior who, alas, does not dance. ‘I don’t think dance is going to be in his future, but he’s very bright, independent, quite scholastic.
'He’s a flautist, a singer, actor, director. I say to him, “Whatever you want to do, I will support you. I just want you to find your passion.”’God called me and said, “This is your shot, kid
Growing up in a Catholic household Michael’s passion was always Irish dance, and he too was a flautist who performed with Grammy-winning Irish folk band The Chieftains.
When they turned down his plea to join the group full-time, he went off in a huff to seek his own spotlight, and says he ‘didn’t make a penny’ until he was 35.
He’s been making up for it since though. He seems to have streamlined his property portfolio now, but at one point there were houses all over the world – and a private jet to whisk him between them. He refuses to apologise for his wealth, estimated today at £270 million, insisting that ‘it has all come out of my own legs, and if I can drive a sweet car now then I think I deserve it’.
He gets quite cross that you might think success has dropped into his lap, referencing a young interviewer who once said something that niggled. ‘She said, “What a life! Houses, private jets, and you only have to work for two hours a day.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. She had no idea what you have to do to put on a show like that.’
So he proceeds to tell me, and it sounds masochistic, the hours of training and extreme physical endurance. At his peak, his insurers insisted that he come off stage and plunge his head into a basin of iced water to lower his body temperature.
Later, a huge bath contraption would travel with the show, waiting for Michael to plunge in. ‘We called it The Beast. It brought the temperature down.
‘The dancers now are more aware of that side of things, about diet, pacing. We call them dance-letes, because they train like athletes.
'I didn’t know any of that. I used to call for a double cheeseburger after a performance.’
A collection of his old dancing shoes at his palatial Irish home, Castlehyde Michael has a reputation as the ultimate showbiz ego, a man who pushes himself and everyone else hard, and his industry bust-ups have been as OTT as his shows.
He fell out with Riverdance and was once sued for £10 million by John Reid, Elton John’s ex-manager, who accused him of breaching their contract. They settled out of court, but the accusations he’s a control freak are myriad. Jean Butler, his Riverdance co-star, is said to have once vowed to never work with him again, though she did dance in a TV tribute to him.
Does he think he’s a difficult man? He bristles. ‘I don’t see that. I’ve had the same people working with me for 20 years.
My wife (pictured below left, with Michael) is the one to ask, and my son. I don’t know what you’re reading, but every time I’ve had a falling out it was because I believed I was doing what was right. But that is what you’d expect me to say.’
No regrets then? ‘I regret nothing in life. I feel I treated everybody fairly.’
Michael pictured with wife NiamhAdvertisement
Little wonder he’s in trouble physically. He says that in his prime he had between seven and nine per cent body fat.
‘I have no idea if that is even healthy, but it probably isn’t. We were consuming so many calories though, because we needed so much energy.
'There was a point where I was eating steask for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’
Before he met Niamh he had a reputation as a ladies’ man. His first wife was make-up artist Beata Dziaba, then there was a six-year romance with model Lisa Murphy, which ended abruptly six months before he married Niamh.
There was also an episode in 2003 when he was falsely accused of raping former stripper Tyna Marie Robertson in a Las Vegas hotel room. Ms Robertson not only lost her case but was ordered to pay Michael more than £6 million when he counter-sued for defamation.
When I suggest he’s more alpha male than feminists’ friend he begs to differ, pointing out that his inner circle is made up entirely of women. Women do everything better, he says.
‘I say to my dancers, “Lads, don’t get too cocky because women are smarter than men.” They can see things quicker.’
He even – glory be! – suggests God is a woman. He talks much of God-given talent, but at one point corrects, ‘God, he gave me...’ to, ‘I mean, she gave me...’ So God is a woman, Michael?
‘I’d best not get into this,’ he says, having second thoughts about wading into the gender debate. He’s happy to talk about God though, and He even comes into the finances too, it seems.
‘God can take everything away overnight,’ he says. ‘So if you’re attached to money, you’re going to be in trouble because all of that is superfluous stuff.
'I know it’s necessary, but the real things are my wife and my son and my friends.’
Yet money was the driving force when he started, he admits. ‘When I was young, working as a labourer, I put in ferocious hours.
'Nobody put in the same hours as me. I wanted to get a nice car, drive it downtown in Chicago and impress the girls.’
Does he remember having money for the first time? Oh yes, and we’re back to the cars again. ‘I’ll never forget it.
'I bought a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray with 600 horsepower. Every time I started it up, all the windows in the neighbourhood would shake.
'It was heaven. Heaven! Then the car went to pay the rent, but I kept going, work, work, work.
'And then one day God called me and said, “OK, this is your shot, kid. Get up, get ready.”’
Interestingly, his mother (‘who was a typical Irish mother’) didn’t want him to be a dancer. ‘She’d call me every week and say, “Michael, will you give up that aul’ dancing.”’
She wanted him to be an actor. ‘On the night I retired in 2016 I was barely back in the dressing room and she was on the phone sayi ng, “You can do that film now.”
'She didn’t see the end of the year, but a promise is a promise.’
Michael (pictured center) in New York November 2010. He says lockdown was a ‘blessing’ in that it allowed time with his family
And so in 2018 he wrote, produced, directed and starred in spy film Blackbird, playing a retired secret agent, complete with a tap-dance routine that saw him shoot knives out of his shoes.
A curious change of direction (and not one that made the Oscars shortlist), but one he seems very proud of. Perhaps his mother was the key to his drive too.
I ask if she thought he could do no wrong, which is the pre-dominant trait of the Irish mother. He shakes his head.
‘Oh, I loved her and she loved me, but she was tough, very tough. Sometimes I wonder if I ever lived up to her expectations.’
Maybe he never will, but now there’s a new generation to put through their paces, at speed. ‘I’m living vicariously through them,’ he admits.
His sacroiliacs will thank him for it, too.
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