When I told my girlfriends I’d met a new man — eight years after a horrendous divorce — they were of course delighted and peppered me with questions.
Who is he? What does he do? When can we meet him? As a 56-year-old single mum, I was as surprised as them to have fallen for Gavin. He was my polar opposite, the differences between us almost comical.
Gavin has always been a man’s man. An intimidatingly successful 60-year-old record producer who’s sold more than 20 million records, played the main stage at Glastonbury and produced music for superstars such as Robert Plant, Celine Dion and Grace Jones, he was, as a mutual friend laughed, solid testosterone: wild, heavily tattooed, caffeine-addicted and a martial artist to boot. He had ADHD, high blood pressure and a punch bag hanging outside his studio door.
I, meanwhile, have always been resolutely ‘girly’. My world is all about poetry, pale pink poplin sheets, lace and lingerie, and I have a long history of working for fashion magazines.
Antonella Gambotto-Burke shares how she met her boyfriend, Gavin, at 56 – and how she has influenced his life for the better
We first met at his studio, where, as an amateur singer, I’d come to record a song. I was wearing a white cotton sundress and pearls, while he was wearing double denim with multiple earrings, an undercut, skull rings and a baseball cap.
Between takes, I found myself fascinated by his stories of being made to fight multiple men while blindfolded during his karate training, conducting an orchestra naked after a big night out and of his wild touring days with bands such as The Cult.
The last thing I imagined was that such a man could possibly want — or need — me.
Indeed, I had started to believe that my romantic life was at an end. Celibate since my 2014 separation, I’d dated an array of men who, despite mostly being lovely, were never quite right — and some terrifyingly wrong.
Homeschooling my clever daughter, 17, while coping with relentless legal tangles related to my divorce had, I felt, eroded any charms I may once have had. And yet as we worked on my song through the night without a single break, I found myself beginning to fantasise.
While Gavin barely looked at me, preferring to focus on the mixing desk, I started to wonder what he would look like with different clothes and a new hairstyle. Silently, I gave him a virtual makeover: with a sensible lifestyle plan, I mused, he would be so much happier… and, I realised, really very attractive.
Like every other woman, I’d been conditioned to understand such fantasies as wrong. This was the Dark Side: that realm where women modify a man to their tastes, the very opposite of love. But when Gavin kept in touch after our initial meeting, I responded eagerly — and dreamed of what could be, with just a little nudge.
Six weeks later, after talking for up to six hours a night on the phone and social media, Gavin decided, unbidden, to drive down for the London launch of my new book. He wore a royal blue T-shirt that fitted him like sausage casing, baggy-bottomed jeans and the ubiquitous baseball cap.
We kissed for the first time on the way to the station afterwards. I had already fallen for his heart and mind but the kiss took me by surprise, as he really knew what he was doing. Frankly, we fell head over heels for each other.
Which is why I have since felt duty bound to radically overhaul his unhealthy, workaholic lifestyle. To revamp his terrible diet of bread, coffee, curries and sweets; repair his disordered sleep patterns; and make him exercise constructively rather than in violent karate or punch bag sessions. ‘Everything other than your work is chaos,’ I told him. ‘And those caps? They have to go…
Gavin was stunned. ‘Why does it matter?’ he asked. I told him to trust me. As a man accustomed to calling the shots in every area of his life, he initially found this difficult.
There were times he bristled, and long, careful conversations followed. He agreed to trust me for a while — and then, when he started to see the changes, he happily gave me power of attorney over his body. My girlfriends were horrified. When I told them I was approaching this exciting new man in the manner I might a falling-down house, as a doer-upper, they were appalled. One, whose husband has advanced lung disease due to incessant smoking, lectured me about ‘nagging’ instead of ‘accepting’ the one you love ‘as he is’.
I felt like retorting that I’d rather nag and have a man who could breathe without supplementary oxygen, but remained silent out of politeness.
Another, married to an obese, heavy-drinking barrister cried: ‘You’re trying to change him — a recipe for disaster!’ This attitude gave me pause. Why are women so reluctant to insist that their partners respect the relationship by taking care of themselves or dressing in a way they find attractive? Do women not spend years of their lives grooming themselves in order that men find them appealing? Why should the opposite not apply?
Antonella cares so much… she loves at full volume
And how can anyone, in good conscience, watch the person they love self-destruct through toxic habits? Is that love?
I work hard to remain fit and healthy for my daughter — I have sole custody — and have made great efforts to support the men I have loved, so why shouldn’t they do so for me?
Antonella describes Gavin (pictured) as ‘an intimidatingly successful 60-year-old record producer who’s sold more than 20 million records’
As Gavin’s work is less flexible than mine, I do most of the travelling in the relationship and take care of most of the travel arrangements for us both since he hates paperwork.
What some friends interpreted as my ‘interference’ makes Gavin’s life immeasurably easier and he has frequently expressed his gratitude.
When we met, Gavin lived for his work. His studio gave him far greater joy than anything other than his two brilliant adult children.
Women — and the number of his past conquests, I heard from mutual friends, was eye-watering — had never really been a focal point for him and decades of rock and roll excesses in his youth (he’s been a teetotaller for years) had taken their toll.
There was also this: it seemed that no woman, including his two ex-wives, had ever asserted her own desires with him.
Tough, bossy and intellectually brilliant, Gavin is also headstrong. At times, confronting him can feel like wrestling with a minotaur. When I first made suggestions about his lifestyle, he fixed me with the unblinking blue stare he uses to ensure the cooperation of badly behaved heavy metal bands in his studio.
But I’ve always been shovel-blunt when it comes to matters of health. So I explained the potential benefits of my suggestions to his life, mood and productivity and, knowing he’d understand it in business terms, I added that a relationship is something like a company merger, in which the health of both companies determines the success of the enterprise. ‘Why would I pour the capital of my love into a company that had limited prospects?’ I asked.
Antonella believes that women should ‘wait for a man they adore and demand more of him’. Stock image used
Gavin agreed this made sense. We both recognise that at our combined age of 117 we no longer have time to mess around.
He began training at the gym. He began eating small, regular, healthy meals. His energy doubled. Some friends still warned I was making a mistake; others marvelled at the visible changes.
So many women whine about mature men being boring — pipe, slippers, etc — but I would rather die than settle for such a man.
I believe women should wait for a man they adore and demand more of him. That way the relationship has spark and energy, rather than feeling like a cosy waiting room for death.
Soon, Gavin had lost four stone and his blood pressure had dropped by nearly half. Finding an old photo of himself the other day, Gavin said, ‘I don’t even recognise who I was any more. You’ve changed everything. Thank you.’
But the changes aren’t just superficial. While a diagnosis of ADHD has never interfered with his work — if anything, it amplifies its acuity and speed — it caused havoc in his personal life. So I did some research and became concerned that Gavin’s taste for bread, cheese and lollies was worsening his symptoms.
Artificial colours and flavours have been found to trigger hyperactivity and mood shifts. Some studies suggest diet changes can help. One clinic found that a high protein elimination diet led to a reduction in symptoms for 85 per cent of patients with ADHD.
I worried his vegan diet, which tended to be low protein as he wasn’t good at seeking out healthy alternatives to meat, could be affecting him badly. So I suggested he try organic, humanely farmed meats — and give up the coffee habit that was potentially making him jittery and unable to focus.
He didn’t need much persuading. While he’d been vegan for decades and is staunchly devoted to animal welfare, I had noticed him looking longingly at my plate in restaurants and realised that he was hungry for protein. I also banned wheat while cheese was limited to a day a week. He started snacking on almonds, bananas, beef jerky and pumpkin seeds, drinking green smoothies.
Getting Gavin to dress in a way that didn’t make him look like a roadie for Eminem was even easier as he’d loved clothes in his youth. I started by buying clothes for his birthday and Christmas. I’d ping him links to other clothes via social media and often he would immediately buy them.
At times, he has felt overwhelmed by the changes — but admits he was so unhappy in his personal life before that he cannot but love the results.
Antonella’s help overhauled Gavin’s lifestyle and ‘ordered radical clothing adjustments’ – he says he’s never met anyone ‘who cares as much’
Nine months on, the punch bag outside his studio remains, but the tightly-wound, self-destructive, baseball cap-wearing minotaur I first encountered nine months ago has evolved into a madly happy, healthier, infinitely more productive man.
I felt a duty to overhaul his unhealthy, workaholic life
Even his career has gone from strength to strength. Gavin revels in his recording sessions, rather than taking refuge in them. To his shock, in September last year he was announced Producer of the Year at a music awards ceremony. And then his company Magic Garden, based in Wolverhampton, won Studio of the Year.
And yes, I admit I couldn’t help showing off photographs of Gavin to my most critical friend, who became so uncomfortable — clearly jealous that my plan had actually worked — she could barely speak. So does Gavin feel secretly resentful? While he certainly bristles on occasion — there’s only so much correction Britain’s hottest producer can take — the truth is he loves it to the point where he has started using my own tactics on me.
I’ve noticed him making efforts to coax me out of my shell, being so unfailingly honest and thoughtful that my hurt, tentative heart has begun, for the first time since my divorce, to trust again. I needed no changes to my health routine, clothing or diet — but I sorely needed an emotional overhaul.
Gavin, who despite innumerable offers hadn’t been in a band since his early 20s, has even decided to form one with me: Mama featuring Antonella. Laughing as we recently worked late into the night, we recorded Real Girl, our first single and we have an EP out later this year. ‘I’d forgotten how much fun this can be,’ he said.
Later this month, we’re going snowmobiling on a glacier in Iceland then horse riding in Spain. Life now is so much happier for both of us. Had I not had the courage to assert my desires with the man I love, none of it would have been possible.
Finding an old photo of himself Gavin said: ‘I don’t even recognise who I was. You’ve changed absolutely everything.’
When Antonella walked into my studio, she certainly made an impression. She was wearing a massive fake fur hat (so big we now call it The Landmark), gigantic sunglasses, Converse sneakers and a floaty white dress (which, she informed me, was one of 14 identical others she’d bought ‘just in case’). Working not to become distracted by my growing attraction to her, I buried my face in the computer. After the session, we kept in touch and I realised I was falling in love with her.
Like a hurricane going through town, she made no secret of the fact that she thought I was carrying a bit of extra timber and should rethink my life.
She posted me health supplements, ordered radical clothing adjustments (‘The baseball caps have got to go’), and dictated advice for my social media accounts, sometimes at 4am as we stayed up late talking online.
There have been times I feel like a shop mannequin, but I’ve never known anyone who cares as much. Antonella loves at full volume.
She researched my ADHD, my blood pressure, my sleeping issues (I’d got by on three hours a night for decades) and my diet, emailing me instructions designed to extend my life ‘so we can have fun for ever’. As I lost weight, friends started to make comments. I was compared to Benjamin Button. My oldest friend said: ‘Mate, I haven’t seen you look as good as this since your 30s.’
It was such a great feeling. My moods have levelled out, my blood pressure has almost halved, I’ve lost over four stone, I’m sleeping up to eight hours a night, my baseball caps are with the local charity and I’m having more fun than I ever thought was possible outside the studio. I still don’t know what hit me.’
- Follow Antonella and Gavin at mamafeaturingantonella.com