Early in the new millennium, Britain was introduced to the musical hero it didn’t know it needed. He made his entrance towards the start of Popstars, the ITV reality series from 2001, dressed in black and with a goatee that deserved a record deal all of its own. “I’m going to sing …Baby One More Time,” announced Darius Campbell Danesh to an unsuspecting universe.
The performance that followed has gone down in TV history. It will live on as a tribute to Campbell Danesh, who has died unexpectedly in the United States at age 41.
The Scottish singer and aspiring mega-star – who changed his name to Darius Campbell in 2010 to reconnect with his Scottish heritage – didn’t put a new spin on Britney Spears. Instead he turned the song inside out and upside down.
Clicking fingers and firing off falsettos, he reimagined …Baby One More Time as a collaboration between Pavarotti, Justin Timberlake and Iggle Piggle from In the Night Garden. It was strange, it was wonderful, it was nightmarish – and it achieved a kind of perfection as it finished with Campbell Danesh grinning and exclaiming “beat that” to judges Nigel Lythgoe, Nicki Chapman and Paul Adam. And, though Campbell Danesh was ejected early in Popstars – Hear’Say were the eventual winners – …Baby One More Time guaranteed his immediate and, to a degree, enduring fame.
Darius was a figure only the early 2000s could produce. Today, social media brims with shameless attention seekers. But there was something singular about Darius’s chutzpah and self-belief. Even on Popstars and Pop Idol, which he entered in 2001 and where he finished third behind Gareth Gates and Will Young, he stood out for his blend of cockiness and homespun charm.
Television in 2000 was also still a communal experience to a degree. Make a prat of yourself on prime-time ITV and there was a decent chance half the country was watching.
He was also larger than life in a way that felt specific to early reality TV. Alongside characters such as “Nasty” Nick Bateman on Big Brother and Simon Cowell on X Factor, he resembled a living cartoon – magnified by his penchant for self-help psychobabble (“there’s a lot of love in the room”).
A decade on, when reality stars were slick and arrived prepackaged with ready-made sob stories, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. Campbell Danesh wasn’t calculating. He wasn’t here to sell us something. He was simply a guy who wanted to be on the telly and was open to being mildly famous. It was post-millennium celebrity in a nutshell. A bit naïve, hugely likeable – and destined to be short-lived.
Campbell Danesh also had a genuine underdog quality. He had real singing talent, topped off with a Peter Andre-style lack of self-awareness. And it was that obliviousness that drew people in and which initially threatened to reduce him to a Britney-mauling footnote and third-banana to Will Young and Gareth Gates.
He initially had enjoyed success as a solo artist, with July 2002 debut single Colourblind debuting at number one. However, when his second LP, Live Twice, crashed and burned, his label couldn’t drop him quickly enough. He had become a punch-line, and the public enjoyed laughing at him as he set off on what looked like a rapid return to obscurity.
Yet if that was the script, Campbell Danesh refused to follow it. Nor was he distracted by the jeering. He shrugged off his disastrous involvement in a 2008 musical adaptation of Gone with the Wind, for which critics whipped out the knives and which shuttered after just eight weeks. “Dreary and unspectacular,” went one write-up. “Darius gives a stilted impersonation of Clark Gable”,
The brickbats failed to put him off his stride. “I got some great reviews,” he would say. “The show was criticised for being too long. And anyone who, like us, was affected by the credit crunch can say that if they put all their hard work into an endeavour, they can hold their heads up with pride.”
If he took the swipes stoically, it was because he’d had lots of practice. People had been jeering at him since childhood. In Glasgow, his Iranian heritage had made Campbell Danesh a target for bullies. “They would call me Saddam,” he said while promoting Gone with the Wind, “which was ironic considering what that man had already done to some members of my family.”
But if happy to shrug aside the criticism that he was a cheesy pop star – or that Gone With the Wind didn’t work as musical theatre – he objected to the idea that he was addicted to LA therapy speech. His zen outlook, he always insisted, owed more to Eastern philosophy than to West Coast self-help hokum.
“It's not an Americanised philosophy,” he said. “I had this mindset long before I went there. If anything it’s an eastern philosophy I've picked up from my parents, and from my maternal grandfather who worked on the docks in Glasgow. All I know for certain is that the quality of your life depends on which head you choose to put on in the morning. I put on the head of an optimistic realist.”
Gone with the Wind’s failure certainly didn’t take the breeze out of his sails. Ten years on from Popstars he was on stage at the O2 in London, starring in Carmen as toreador Escamillo. He was the youngest actor to perform the part in a professional opera, having been cast by opera producer Raymond Gubbay – who saw in Campbell Danesh something the Popstars judges had missed. “He said I seemed very focused. He said when dedication and tenacity meets opportunity you can get great achievement.”
Reality television careers can be measured in 15-minute chunks of micro-celebrity. Yet Campbell Danesh’s accomplishments were impressive. He graced the West End in productions of Guys and Dolls, Chicago, and Funny Girl. He also had a glittering personal life to match, marrying Canadian actress Natasha Henstridge in 2011. The couple tied the knot at a ranch in Santa Barbara, though they would divorce in 2018.
Amid these upheavals, he never stopped looking forward. “I discovered perception and reality; the idea that it’s a business and you are a commodity to your record label,” he said. “Because my fall at the very beginning was so public, it put me in a position where I had to assess who I was and what I wanted and what was important to me.”
He made his home in the final years of his life in America, where he had the freedom to be whomever he wanted. In the UK – and despite his success on stage – Campbell Danesh would be forever synonymous with the early 2000s, Popstars, and that hooting, howling Britney moment.
“It's a bit sad to still be going on about a moment on TV years ago," he would say of that enduring infamy. “If that's the defining moment of a man, then it’s a sorry state of affairs. I moved on from it within 24 hours. Now I'm a stepfather [to Henstridge’s two sons from her first marriage], I've worked in 18 countries, travelled the world and lived many different lives. I’ve grown so much from that figure on Popstars. I recognise the cocky 20-year-old I was then, but there's so much to life more meaningful than one audition.”