Ali Campbell doesn’t act like a superstar. The New Zealand’s Got Talent judge and father of eight has sold more than 70 million records worldwide, and his years in UB40 mean he ranks alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as one of the bestselling musicians in pop history.
But as he relaxes in the bar of the Auckland hotel he calls home while he's filming the popular TVNZ show – ordering a “red, red wine” with only a hint of irony – there's no fuss, no “starry” behaviour, just a lot of laughs.
Ali and his wife Julie are enjoying some all-too-precious moments together as they exclusively share with the Weekly the “fairytale” of their love affair that ultimately lead them down a Las Vegas aisle, to be married by an Elvis Presley impersonator almost 30 years after they first met.
“Our story is a true fairytale,” smiles Ali (53), who has two children with Julie, Louis (12) and Drew (10), and is also dad to Ali Junior (31), Max (25), Kibibi (24), Jack (21), Indica (19) and 18-year-old Kaya. “My whole life has been the real deal rags-to-riches story – it's manufactured, which is quite rare nowadays.”
Julie (47) was just 18 when she first met Ali, the son of a Scottish folk singer, and although she had two children with a former partner, she never married until Ali made her his wife. “I always said I'd only ever marry Ali,” says the vivacious blonde, who also acts as her busy husband’s stylist and PA.
“I always knew it would be him. But things had to happen in their own time – we had stuff we had to do before we got together. If we'd married when I was 18 I reckon we'd have killed each other by now!”
“I was a philanderer,” shrugs Ali good-naturedly, grinning as Julie teases him for the “five billion or so girls he had to see first”. “There were a few girls before Julie, yeah. I think it took me a bit longer to realise we should be together. But things happen for a reason,” – he grabs Julie's hand playfully, singing – “And the reason is us, baby!”
Julie wasn't about to give up on Ali, though. She was so sure he was the man for her that when he did finally realise she was “the one”, she moved from her home in London to Birmingham – just metres down the road from where Ali was living with his kids and his now-ex wife.
“In retrospect it was a bit of a daft thing to do, but while I wanted Julie, I didn't want to leave my kids, so I thought I'd move Julie to me,” says Ali. “It was typical Ali!” laughs Julie affectionately.
Things worked out though, and the couple married six years ago. Like many celebrity couples, Ali and Julie are anything but conventional – so they opted to tie the knot in Las Vegas, in the middle of one of Ali's US tours. “We were going to have this real Hollywood wedding, but my schedule meant we had to cancel, so we ¬flew from Hawaii to Vegas and got married there, with no family, just us,” recalls Ali.
“It was the biggest, naffest wedding you could possibly think of. We drove down the aisle in a pink 1964 Cadillac with dry ice everywhere, to the Elvis hit I Can't Help Falling in Love – which UB40 did a cover of. I didn't choose it, they had no idea who I was! It was very rock and roll.”
“And when we got home the kids weren't speaking to me because we got married without them,” adds Julie. “My dad was so upset he didn't get to walk me down the aisle, because I'm the only girl in a houseful of boys.”
But even though the pair has finally settled down together, much of Ali's life is still spent on the road, with the seasoned musician clocking up gigs in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador in just the past few weeks alone. And, of course, New Zealand.
“I actually spend quite a lot of time here,” says Ali. “When I was asked to be a judge on New Zealand’s Got Talent I was really pleased, because I really wanted to bring the kids here, to spend time with them, go to Waiheke Island, take the train from Christchurch to the West Coast, see the penguins – that kind of thing. And I was really ¬flattered to be asked.”
In fact, Ali is a regular in Aotearoa, with his style of reggae particularly popular with the Maori and Pacific Island communities. “It's so unique here, the people are just brilliant,” he says. “They’re one of the main reasons I reckon New Zealand's Got Talent is better than the British or American versions. All the indigenous acts, the sort of stuff you'd never see outside New Zealand – I honestly love it.
“When I play down in Rotorua there's a chant the Island communities do to my song Maybe Tomorrow that literally makes the ground shake. It's wicked; that kind of thing can only happen in New Zealand.”
The nomadic reggae star is clearly happy with his life: he has a wife he adores, kids who are growing up and making their dad proud and a career that has spanned 35 years – an almost unprecedented length of time. But as with every success story, there's always a downside, and for Ali it’s the fact that he’s rarely able to spend more than a few weeks at home in Christchurch, on England's south coast.
While Julie does her best to accompany her husband on his travels when she can, Ali admits that leaving his children behind while he goes on tour doesn't get any easier. “I ¬find it really hard to leave the kids, yeah, but I've been doing it all my life so I'm used to it,” he says.
The singer’s children have all inherited his musical talent. “They all love music. Drew plays guitar, and they’re all into their own styles. Let's face it, they’re not going to take it from me what music is cool and what isn't – my own dad was a folk musician, and I certainly didn't listen to him about what was cool. He thought Michael Jackson was ridiculous.”
Julie admits that bringing up the kids with their dad away so much is dif¬ficult, but the chatty freelance stylist is nothing if not practical, and she was never under any illusions as to what she was getting herself into. “You have to be a certain type of woman to be able to marry someone like Ali,” she says candidly.
“I have friends who complain if their husbands go away for the weekend – I'm like, ‘Try four months!’ But I travel with him when I can. You have to – if you don't make time to travel together, your marriage is going to suffer. I've seen it so much in show business – each partner tries to have their own life, their own career, and they end up living separate lives. I think we had to learn that ourselves – that's why we'd never have worked as a couple if we'd got together earlier."