Rob Mills has carved out a rather successful career in the entertainment industry since appearing on season one of ‘Australian Idol’ back in 2003.
When his initial music career seemed to be promoted around his personal life, Rob took hold and decided to let his talent speak for itself.
Since 2005, he has hosted and/or featured in multiple TV shows and is now a star in the Australian musical theatre scene.
Our #TBT interviewer Brad recently popped on the phone to Rob to discuss his transformation from reality show pin-up to consummate showman, as well as find out some (hopefully) interesting tidbits about his time on ‘Idol’ and his underrated first album, ‘Up All Night’.
Back when ‘Idol’ first began, the local music industry seemed particularly intolerant of manufactured pop packages. Scandal’Us and Scott Cain were both dropped after one album off the back of their ‘Popstars’ success and it seemed unlikely that the identical format of ‘Idol’ would work in its place. Rob tells us that he too wasn’t convinced it would work, but a friend insisted he try out.
“A friend of mine was the one who said, ‘You should definitely audition for this show, it was massive in America’,” Rob tells us. “I think it was the year Kelly Clarkson won it. I had just been singing in pubs before that and I thought it couldn’t hurt.”
Rob, with his cheeky charm and strong voice, was a clear standout and easily made it through to the top 12. And, after some gentle prodding, Rob opened up on some ‘Idol’ gossip from back in the day.
“Because we were the first, I think they were making it up as they went along,” Rob admits. “I know they had a model they used from the US, but I don’t remember ever meeting any US producers.
“I didn’t particularly get along with the singing coach Erana Clark. There’s some gossip! I don’t know if she helped everyone else, but I asked her if she could help me with my technique, or different ways to better my performance, and she just said, ‘What you’re doing is fine.’ I was a bit disheartened there.”
Erana might not have been his biggest fan, but Rob did manage to find out that he was well liked amongst the viewers at home.
“I had a mate who knew someone at the network and he said to me, ‘If you keep going the way you’re going, you’ll probably win this thing. In the first week of the top 12, you were the highest voted person.’ I told him not to tell me about any other weeks,” Rob tells us exclusively.
Alas that run of popularity wasn’t to last, with Rob describing a couple of factors that affected his success on the show.
“I think I chose songs that I thought people would like instead of songs that I really liked. I was more interested in how the show actually worked. I spent a lot of my time talking to the directors, working out how the camera shots were framed and how the producers were working the angle with the storylines. I think that’s where I got a taste or a thirst for how TV was made.”
Rob was eventually eliminated in fifth place. He was disappointed, but not surprised. “I think I knew Guy was going to win it from the first day I met him.” he admits.
Whilst Rob has long retired the top 12 finalists’ single ‘Rise Up’ from his set-list, he has occasionally sung another song synonymous with that first year of ‘Idol’.
“I’ve done ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ a few times, doing a Guy impersonation with mates. I think Guy likes my impersonation of him… it’s pretty good,” he laughs.
Those amongst us who still have their ‘Australian Idol Final 12’ CD might remember Rob’s solo song ‘Dirty Girl’, which even got a solid amount of radio play. He tells us that it even came close to being a single.
“I think Mark Holden managed to get it on the radio, but then the BMG wouldn’t release it because they didn’t want to take away from the winner. That sucked because it was in the charts for a few months on the Hot 30 Countdown.”
Mark wasn’t the only judge who though Rob was ready for chart success. Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson was also firmly on the Melbourne boy’s side.
“I still call him a mate; we catch up a fair bit. He’s always been a proud supporter of me, which is awesome. He said ‘I saw something in you that very first audition and I still think you’ve got it now’. I think he helped get me over the line with BMG.”
Rob was sent to the recording studio in January 2004 to start work on his debut album ‘Up All Night’. And though he admits he didn’t especially like the cover image, he is proud of the album itself.
“I co-wrote seven of the 13 songs on it, which I was pretty happy with,” Rob notes. “I remember seeing Cameron Adams (the entertainment editor from the ‘Herald Sun’) once and he told me, ‘Mate, out of all the ‘Idol’ albums that have come out, yours was the best!’ That’s pretty cool because he’s a pretty harsh critic!”
‘Up All Night’ may be long forgotten, but tracks like ‘Right Here’ and ‘I Confess’ are well worth digging around for. Unfortunately BMG picked a marketing angle that focused on the singer’s reputation rather than his potential.
“The first single ‘Ms. Vanity’ was, I think, obviously a spin-off from my fling with Paris Hilton. It was like, ‘we need a single that reflects that’, and I was like ‘Oh, is that what you think of me? Awesome.’” Rob notes sarcastically.
“They would never say it, but that’s exactly what it was. I didn’t get the treatment for the video clip in advance because I was quite busy at the time. I just got there on the day and they told me what was happening.
“I was like ‘Oh, so you want this blonde girl to be ‘the girl’? Oh right. Awesome. I see what you’re doing. How much is this video clip costing me? $40,000! Awesome. That’s good. That’s the way I want to go. That’s the direction.’” Rob laughs, tongue firmly placed in cheek. “I was a bit disappointed in what they were doing at the time.”
Whilst ‘Ms. Vanity’ reached the top ten, it seemed to leave a bitter taste in the public’s mouths. Rob’s team tried to change tactics but it was too late.
“In hindsight, we probably should have gone with a song called ‘That’s All You Are’ as the second single. But I love ‘Every Single Day’ for the message and I think it’s a really good song.”
‘Every Single Day’ peaked at No.24 before slipping out of the charts. A third single, the ironically titled ‘Overrated’, received a radio-only release. Then came the news no artist wants to receive.
“BMG were merging with Sony and they said, ‘Your album didn’t go multi-platinum so we’re dropping you. 30,000 albums for a first time recording artist isn’t enough anymore’. I thought that was pretty good for a first time recording artist!”
Rob decided to hide in plain sight, returning to pub gigs and labouring work whilst mulling his career options. A solution suddenly appeared whilst performing a supporting role in ‘Grease : The Arena Spectacular’ in 2005.
“I met all these cool musical theatre guys and I thought they looked like a pretty cool bunch of people!’” he tells us. “It seemed like you just have to sing, and do a bit of acting and a bit of dancing. I thought, ‘I can do the singing, I’m sure I can learn the other stuff.’”
And thus the current leading man of Australian musical theatre was born. We asked Rob how he got past any pre-conceived notions of him as an ‘Idol’ playboy when approaching auditions.
“I think in any job you should work hard. I didn’t go out there going; ‘I need to earn their respect’. I went out there just to do a really good job.
“My brother told me not to read the blogs when I got cast in ‘Wicked’. I don’t think all those people knew how hard I worked with dancing lessons, singing lessons, dance training to get a part. It took me four auditions over four months plus the six months lobbying just to get the producers to let me audition beforehand.”
We asked Rob to compare the music industry with that of the musical theatre scene. “The machine in the music industry is a lot bigger,” he explains. “You can reach more people with a song or an album. With a musical, you’re limited to the audience in the theatre. You have to get the people to get out of their homes, get into their cars, go to a theatre, see the show and there are only 2000 tickets available to see that show that night.
“With music, especially these days with smart phones, you can be anywhere in the world and listening to a brand new song. It’s just a different beast. I really enjoy the theatre industry though. I love them both, but they’re both really hard work.”
Having gone from playing pubs to arenas and everywhere in between, we figured that Rob adjusts his performance to suit the audience. He quickly (but politely) puts us back in our place, saying, “It’s the same gig really. Whether it’s 20 or 20,000, it’s the same. It’s just a performance isn’t it? You’re a storyteller, so just tell the story. I love being on stage, whether it’s a small crowd or a big crowd.”
One thing he doesn’t love so much are the presents he sometimes gets from female admirers.
“I find girls send me teddy bears. Weird! I’m a grown man! But thank you, my nieces enjoy the teddy bears. Flowers I don’t mind. Flowers are quite nice.”
New material may come eventually if Rob ever gets a break from musical theatre (“I’m not good at doing two things at once,” he admits). He tells us that he’d like to go in a funk-rock direction with a folky edge when he gets back into the studio. For now, however, he’s excitedly starting work on a one-man cabaret show.”
“I’ve sort of been writing it the last six months with a mate of mine,” he reveals. “We’re about to do a big workshop on it and spend a few weeks putting it together. I’m hoping to have a few of the people that I’ve met along the way in it, whether it is comedians or musicians or songwriters. Maybe tell a bit of the story or have them sing a song.
“Cabaret is kind of a dirty word for some reason in the industry, which I find odd. It’s just comedy meets storytelling, like stand up, which are things I really love.”
With regards to having a lasting career in the industry, Rob’s advice is simple. “Always say yes. You never know who you’re going to meet. Whether it’s an interview, a job, a gig, holding cables, singing under the stage, holding the camera… the contacts may get you to the next thing.”
Finally we asked him how he feels he’s changed since becoming a bonafide star in the entertainment world.
“I think being grateful helps a lot. I think if you speak to any of my brothers or my close friends they’d be like, ‘just the same guy’. I’m pretty much the same guy. In fact, I am.”
Catch Rob in ‘Grease : The Musical‘, playing at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre from December 06.
Alternatively, check out his website at www.robmills.net.au, follow him on TWITTER or give him a ‘Like’ on FACEBOOK.