In 2009 Teddy Jamieson spoke to Holly Johnson for The Herald Magazine

AN hour or two before meeting Holly Johnson I hook up with my sister-in-law for a coffee. When I tell her who I'm interviewing, Maggie, a Scottish expat who's something of an expert on London these days, is astonished to hear the former Frankie Goes to Hollywood frontman lives in Parsons Green. In her head Johnson is a tiger-wrestling, watersports-endorsing (and not watersports in the Rebecca Adlington sense) leather boytoy. Parsons Green, by contrast, is a rather staid, quite pretty and suburban stretch of the capital. "I thought he'd live in Berlin, " she says. "When you listen to Relax it's just so . . . debauched."

Still, Parsons Green is where Johnson has lived since 1985 with his partner Wolfgang Kuhle, a vision more domestic than debauched. Indeed, Kuhle is at the top of the stairs when Johnson meets me at the door of the redbricked home. They first met in 1984, so their silver anniversary is looming. Today Johnson looks a little greyer, a little jowlier and a little pudgier than he did in his Frankie heyday, but that's to be expected and, given that he was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1991, celebrated.

Johnson remains the slightly camp Liverpudlian choirboy he always was. He still speaks in that soft, fluting Liverpool accent (where "my" is always pronounced "me"). He shows me into the sitting room and bustles off to make some tea while I take a nosey at his bookcase - the poems of William Blake, the memoirs of Casanova, a book by Marc Almond, Tom Doyle's biography of The Associates' Billy McKenzie, and lots of handsome art books - and his photographs. There are pictures of Johnson with Andy Warhol, and a huge, typically kitsch Pierre et Gilles image of him as an angel. Of course, there are Johnson's paintings, because that's what he does these days. Besides one small, rather beautiful male nude, the walls are covered with large oils full of cartoony sailors that look one part Jean Cocteau and, as he points out himself later, one part Tom of Finland. A choirboy with a dirty mind, then.

This is not the time-passing hobby of a retired pop star. He has always painted, drawn and taken photographs. Indeed, he dropped out of art school in 1983 to be a pop star in the first place. His work has been exhibited at Tate Liverpool and the Royal Academy of Arts, and over the next couple of weeks The Embrace of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, his large painted take on an ancient Egyptian wall painting showing two men kissing, will be displayed as part of the sh[OUT] exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. The theme is gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender lives, and Johnson's painting will appear alongside work by Nan Goldin, David Hockney, the aforementioned Pierre et Gilles and Robert Mapplethorpe. And then there's a small etching of a red, red rose (with gold leaf ) entitled The Flower of Love, which is Johnson's contribution to Inspired, an exhibition at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow that sees contemporary artists respond to the work of Robert Burns. It will be, he suspects, the humblest thing in the exhibition, which includes the work of Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers.

Johnson, an Englishman of Irish stock ("a Paddy who can swim is what they say"), isn't the first artist you'd expect to be inspired by Burns. "I must admit he's not a huge fi gure, " he says, settling down having made three cups of tea (two for himself ). When he was first asked to contribute he came up with a "silly little" poem which went: "Robert Burns, for goodness sake/Can he hold a candle to William Blake?" The answer in Johnson's mind, you suspect, remains no. But as he says, Burns isn't on the English syllabus, so he remains something of an unknown quantity south of the border (Auld Lang Syne aside). Johnson is not much taken with the way Burns has been co-opted by shortbread makers (though as he points out, that's not the poet's fault) or what he calls the "tartan tendency". But then, nationalism isn't really something he's particularly keen on. "I think he's a bit more universal than that, " he says of the bard. "I don't believe in England, Scotland, Wales, really. I think it's divisive and I don't think it does anyone any favours. The sort of people who are perhaps a bit less open-minded about things tend to get precious about national identity and I don't think that helps."

Johnson, of course, knows all about closedmindedness. A couple of days before making the journey south to meet him I picked up a copy of his now out-of-print autobiography A Bone in My Flute (Johnson family slang for a male erection), intending to have a quick fick through it. Instead I spent most of the day rereading it. The book is, for the most part, a rivetingly honest, powerful, at times graphic account of his life up until the early nineties. It is at its best describing his childhood and teenage years as a gay boy in a homophobic city. You come away with the notion that, apart from his sister Claire, he was pretty alienated from his mother, father and two brothers almost from the word go. "Well, even my sister . . . I still felt apart from her, " he says when I suggest as much. "But I think that's the whole gay thing, you know. When you're young and male and show interest in feminine things like your sister's comics, you know, anything that's not football - which is the great religion - it puts you outside immediately. So I felt separate, almost as if I was a foundling and they'd adopted me. Not that I hated them or anything. But I felt slightly different. I felt an otherness." He says he knew he was gay at a very young age. "Probably seven, eight. You have a sense of it, although you don't even know what the word is, or what it means."

It was not something likely to go down well with his father Eric, a former merchant seaman. In the book he writes about making the mistake of asking for a Babycham one Christmas when he was young: "That's a f-ing tart's drink! No f-ing son of mine's gonna have a f-ing Babycham!"

Johnson now describes Eric as strict, but "not evil or anything like that". "He wasn't unintelligent, but he had a very male, northern way of looking at things, " he says. "A typical sort of lad who went to sea at 14, which they did in those days in Liverpool, and mad about football and going for a pint. And it was as difficult for him to have me as a son as it was for me to have him as a father. We didn't make it easy for each other particularly."

Going by his descriptions, Johnson family life was all noise and aggro, a kind of working-class opera. His parents' was a mixed marriage, his dad Protestant, his mum Catholic. "The Catholic side of the family didn't come to the wedding because it was in a Protestant church, " says Johnson. Against such a conventional, conservative background, it's no wonder Johnson stood out. And there was a cost to that. At school he and his mate Honey Heath (not his real name, Johnson sweetly feels he has to tell me) were constantly targeted. "Gobbed on every day as you go up and down the stairs, " he recalls. "Petrified to go out into the playground. We tried to hide in the classrooms during the break, and of course prefects always found us and turfed us out. And sometimes there'd be a gang of 20 boys around us, verbally abusing us and kicking us."

If anything, he thinks his friend had the worst of it. "He was taller and more effete and I think he got the worst of it, although it did me no favours being his mate." And yet despite this treatment both of them coloured their hair more rather than less. "We were determined NOT TO BE LIKE THEM, " wrote Johnson in his autobiography. There's a bravery in that, I suggest. "Well, either brave or stupid. One of the two, " he says. "It was kind of a this-is-me attitude. But I wasn't alone, in a sense. There were lots of other [gay] people living not very far away, though I didn't know them. Just up the road there was Marc Almond, a bit older than me in Southport. And over in Port Sunlight there would be Peter Burns. But you feel very isolated. And you have strange hormonal things when you're a teenager, when you sort of rail against the world." The upshot was that he went to school less and less often. "So that homophobic abuse robbed me of my education, in a sense."

Of course Johnson's otherness wasn't simply down to his sexuality. He got his first guitar at the age of 13, and within a year he was sending tapes to record companies. "One minute I'd want to be Andy Warhol, the next minute I'd want to be David Bowie." Eventually he began to find fellow travellers. "I met a set of people like Pete Burns, " he recalls. "They were the hairdressers, if you know what I mean. I suppose I met the hairdressers first because in the seventies being a hairdresser was the only thing you could do if you were a gay man, almost. Unless you wanted to completely submerge your personality, which many people did, or work in a fashion emporium or something like that. Then, later on, when I was 16, 17, 18, there was the nightclub Eric's, which was a kind of university of life on its own . That was a whole different thing, and slightly homophobic, but it was a very interesting period where I joined my first band and I met different people like Ian McCulloch and Bill Drummond and Ian Broudie." In short, Liverpool's nascent pop aristocracy - the future members of Echo and the Bunnymen, the KLF and the Lightning Seeds. Then there were the wannabe actors such as Margi Clarke and Alexandra Pigg, soon to be stars of Letter from Brezhnev. Johnson, dressing loudly, speaking softly, shuttled between the two new worlds he had discovered. "I would go from the gays and the hairdressers to Eric's and back again, " he says.

Eric's was, he says, difficult to deal with. At the time he was fairly shy and surrounded by mouthy egos. Still, he shaved his hair off and joined Drummond and Broudie in cult postpunk combo Big in Japan, though he'd rather have been just playing his acoustic guitar. After Big in Japan split in 1978 he recorded a couple of solo singles, but to get noticed in the early eighties you had to be in a band. "So really, Frankie Goes to Hollywood was my exercise in forming a band, " Johnson recalls. "I'd seen Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes and I'd seen how all that worked. I was a fan of Echo and the Bunnymen. I thought they were a great band, but it wasn't the sort of band I wanted. I wanted . . . Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I wanted a band that had a kind of controversial, polymorphously perverse effect on things." (There's your debauched-in-Berlin notion summed up right there. ) "I didn't want to be a dour shoegazer in a raincoat, " he continues. "I wanted to be a bit more glittering than that."

In that he succeeded. It's maybe easy, at a distance of a quarter-century, to forget how absolutely, overwhelmingly HUGE (with at least three exclamation marks) Frankie were back then. Only the second band in pop history to have three number ones with their first three singles (the first being fellow Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers), at a time when reaching number one was still an achievement. Their fi rst single, Relax, was banished from the Radio 1 airwaves, which of course made it all the more popular. The follow-up, Two Tribes, was number one for nine weeks in a row (with Relax heading back up the charts to number two at the same time). The band appeared in a Hollywood movie, Brian De Palma's Body Double. Inspired by the designer Katharine Hamnett, Frankie Say T-shirts were everywhere. The band were, for a pop moment, a phenomenon. Johnson called it right on Welcome to the Pleasuredome, the title track of the band's 1984 debut album (a double, of course), when he wrote the line: "Here comes a supernova."

Ridiculous is how he describes that period now. "It wasn't as great as it looks, " he explains. "It was intense and we were worked very hard in a very short period of time. It was very, very different to what I'd seen with Echo and the Bunnymen, which was like a soft glimmer over many years. This really was a supernova, an exploding sort of plastic inevitable. And it had to explode and disintegrate."

Which it did. The band were always a mix of unstable ingredients. A rhythm section of laddish Scousers fronted by Johnson and sidekick Paul Rutherford, both unapologetically gay. And this at a time when being overtly gay in pop was the exception rather than the rule. True, there was Boy George - telling everyone he'd rather have a cup of tea than sex - and Jimmy Somerville in Bronski Beat, but Frankie were, as Johnson points out, much, much bigger than Bronski Beat ever were. Johnson and Rutherford were the biggest gay stars in the country, George Michael still being in the closet at this point. That's an exposed position to be in. What was the fallout? "You'd get the odd person, the building-site set who'd shout something or someone painting houses up the road and you'd walk past and they'd say, 'Oh hello darling, '" he says. "But that was easy to cope with after Liverpool in the seventies, I can tell you. I did once see Boy George walking down the King's Road and someone did it to him and I was very impressed. He grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and pinned them against the wall and said, 'What did you say?' Because he's a big lad, Boy George."

Anyway, by the time of Frankie's second album, Liverpool, in 1986, the glitter had been washed away. Johnson found himself singing on a rock record, which had never been the plan: he was alienated from his band mates and they were threatening to bring in Pete Wylie to be Frankie's new singer. It was also becoming clear that they had signed a fundamentally unfair contract with Trevor Horn's record label ZTT. The label, too, seemed keen to take all the credit for the group's success. "The media spin on it was very much, they're just fi ve idiots from Liverpool. It's got to be someone else who is wholly responsible, '" Johnson recalls. "And of course, the record company didn't do anything to dispel that." Perhaps inevitably, it ended up in court, with Johnson arguing successfully that the contract with ZTT constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade.

Johnson can now look back on his Frankie days with a little less anger "I think it was a great event, " he says. "It was all very visually appealing and I like the way it crashed and burned. It was archetypal." Better than carrying on to diminishing returns, I suggest. "And ending up doing working men's clubs and slogging your guts out." He's not in touch with any of the other band members.

For a while in the late eighties Johnson was a successful solo artist. He'd never stopped drawing and taking photographs, especially while on tour , and when he got a 100% mortgage on his Parsons Green home in 1987 he realised he could buy some oil paints and start painting in a cupboard in the basement. By the early nineties he had more time to paint, too. The solo career rather withered away. By then of course, there were other concerns that were front and centre.

The first time Holly Johnson says he saw the word Aids written down was in London in 1983 or 1984, on a night out at the gay club Heaven. "There was a sign up saying: 'This is a special night celebrating the life of Patrick Cowley, ' referring to a San Francisco-based producer. He produced some of Sylvester's hits." At the time the word didn't really register with him. "I didn't know what they were talking about particularly. Before that they were calling it a number of other things. In the press, of course, it was 'gay cancer'."

Johnson had been, he says, a fairly shy teenager sexually, "and because of the unconventional look I had, I suppose it scared people slightly and put them off a bit. So I wasn't greatly in demand as a teenager. I had friends who were much more promiscuous and sexually available But, of course, for that reason they were the ones who died first."

Those deaths began in the mid-eighties. Between 1985 and 1989 he lost quite a few friends. As he says, a positive HIV diagnosis back then was effectively a death sentence. Then in 1989 he began to get an inkling that his own health might be compromised. He didn't get tested, though, "because they had nothing to offer you really in the way of medication.

And once you'd been tested it changed your whole legal standing in terms of having a mortgage or being able to travel to certain countries." So he did nothing for another two years, until he had lost a lot of weight and felt seriously unwell. His diagnosis came three weeks before the death of Freddie Mercury, so he knew exactly how the news would play in the media. He was in fact told he had Karposi's sarcoma, "the very stigmatising purple blotches that appeared on people who had a very depleted immune system. What it is, actually, is a cancer of the blood vessels."

I have read he was diagnosed HIV-positive one week and then told he had Aids a week later. Is that what happened? He thinks for a moment. He was told he was positive and then, at another hospital, that his CD4 count (the CD4 being the cell targeted by HIV) was below 200 (normally it is at least 400) and that he had Karposi's, an "Aids-defining" illness. And, yes, he thinks, that happened in the same week.

How do you deal with the fact you have been told, effectively, that you are going to die prematurely? In the past Johnson has admitted he sunk into a black funk of depression. "I had a bit of a nervous breakdown, " he told one interviewer. Hardly a surprise. "It was very, very black, " he says now. "That's all I can say. It was a very black, black couple of years and not that you are able to blank it out or anything, but I don't really want to go there."

He spent two years writing his autobiography. "My book was my last will and testament, " he says. "I didn't expect to be around for publication at all. And I didn't feel like singing." So instead he worked away at his artworks and hung on. Hung on long enough for the advent of combination therapies in 1996 that changed the whole outlook for the HIV-positive community. "I had taken several drugs in between, some of which had made me incredibly ill, " he recalls. "One gave me chronic pancreatitis, which was agony for years and actually made me more ill than HIV. I wouldn't have minded if I was an alcoholic, but I've never been much of a drinker. But then suddenly my health started to improve with this new class of antiretrovirals. I'm a combination therapy success story."

Johnson's illness actually had one positive side-effect. "Towards the end of his life I got to know my dad, " he says. "Strangely, what brought us together was ill health. My ill health and his ill health. We had this common ground and a way to talk to each other. " The afternoon in Parsons Green is getting on. We talk more generally. We talk a little about his home city He fears the modernisation of Liverpool city centre that was part of last year's European Capital of Culture celebrations didn't extend far enough. He tells me he still toys with the idea of singing again. He talks me through some of his paintings, then says he doesn't know if the world is a better place now than it was when he was a child. The world keeps turning and sometimes the turns it takes are not for the better. "There's half of me hoping for the best and half of me thinking, 'We're all going to hell in a handcart, so what's the point of buying that low-energy bulb?' But you do buy the low-energy bulb anyway."

He's an optimist, then. "I think that's how I've survived, " he says. An optimist, a painter and a survivor. Holly Johnson lives in Parsons Green and in hope. It's not such a bad place .