The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Phil Collins

Love him or hate him, Phil Collins is one of the most successful musicians of all time. At the height of his fame in the 1980s, 13 of his singles made the U.S. Top Ten list. Not only has he had an incredibly successful career as a solo artist, but he has also been the lead singer of the prog rock band Genesis ever since the former frontman, Peter Gabriel, stepped down in 1974. Between the two endeavors, he's managed to sell an astounding number of over 200 million records.

With several Grammys, an Academy Award, and many other musical accolades to his name, there does not seem to be much that Collins has not achieved in his career. Yet despite his considerable accomplishments, the pop superstar's life has been far from perfect. From failed marriages to deteriorating health and being the butt of too many jokes, he has certainly had his downs along with the ups. Collins' life is just another prime example of how success does not solve all problems, as many of us would like to believe. 

Greville Collins passed away on Christmas day

Major tragedy struck Phil Collins early as a young adult when he was only 21 years old and was just beginning his professional career as a musician. Near the end of 1972, his father, Greville, became ill without Phil knowing, as he explains in his memoir, "Not Dead Yet." The two had not seen each other for several months, so the singer was looking forward to the family getting together for the holiday and called his dad to make sure he'd be there.

Phil had a pleasant conversation with his father, and everything seemed fine until his brother, Clive, gave him the terrible news that Greville had a heart attack. After receiving treatment at the hospital, he was sent home to the relief of the family. However, Phil then says, "Dad spends a restful night. But the next morning he takes a turn for the worse, and Clive takes him to hospital in nearby Southend, where he has yet another bad turn. It's Christmas Eve. Dad dies on Christmas Day at 8 a.m."

Becoming lead singer may have been more important than family

Phil Collins' devotion to Genesis after becoming the frontman in 1975 meant that he left to go on tour for two years with the band only a couple days after the birth of his first son, Simon. As he states in his memoir, "In theory Genesis could have delayed the start of the album so I could be home for the birth without any panic or emergency dashes back over the North Sea. But this is Genesis, and the show must go on. In hindsight, I could have said, 'F*** Genesis, I'm off to look after my wife.' But we're all expected to give everything to the band."

Collins may have simply accepted that the band came first, but his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, clearly did not agree with the attitude or reasoning of her husband. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Bertorelli said that she not only thought the popularity that came with the transition to lead singer went to his head, but also that Genesis had become the most important thing in his life.

A major reason Bertorelli had that feeling was the way Collins acted around the time their son was born. She explains, "In the end, Simon was born two weeks later than scheduled. I remember feeling under pressure to give birth, because we were holding up the tour. In the end, I had to be induced. I came out of hospital and within a day or two, Phil had left to go on the road."

Controversial divorce with his first wife

After five years of marriage, Andrea Bertorelli and Phil Collins divorced in 1980. The singer was devastated by the split and made his side of the story very public, claiming that she ran off with a decorator, and even controversially set up a paint bucket and brush during his performance of "In the Air Tonight" on "Top of the Pops."

During an interview with Playboy, the meaning behind the song was brought up, to which Collins responded, "People ask me, 'Aren't you embarrassed? You're putting your private life out for all the world to see.' It's like I oughtn't to let people see that I was hurt, that I cry, that I do unmanly things. But I'm not embarrassed by it."

But for 35 years after their divorce, Bertorelli was forced to have her private business spread throughout the world as Collins became increasingly famous. In 2015, she finally went public to tell her side of the story, which included not only how his absence on tours and anger during fights slowly drove them apart, but also the bombshell that they both had cheated on each other. Then a year later, Bertorelli sued him for the statements he made in his autobiography, "Not Dead Yet," because she could no longer take the lies about her as he continued to push what she considered was a false narrative of their life together.

None of his other marriages lasted either

Phil Collins' second marriage to Jill Tavelman ended in 1996, ultimately because he had an affair. Even though the couple tried to work things out afterward, the damage was already done and the two no longer loved each other. The situation was made considerably worse because he was on tour so much in Europe and North America at the time, so he decided to write out how he felt in a detailed letter. He then made the mistake of faxing it to her since it was the most reliable way. However, the media somehow found out about this, and it became a huge scandal that the megastar attempted to divorce his wife through a fax, which hurt more since that was not his intention.

In 1999, Collins married a third time to Orianne Cevey and had two children together, but her post-natal depression following the second birth led to arguments and disagreements that caused them to grow apart. After their separation in 2006, the divorce was especially hard for Collins' teenage daughter from his previous marriage, Lily, because Orianne had become another mother to her.

In his memoir, Collins summed up how he felt about his failed marriages and said, "I am disappointed that I have been married three times. I'm even more disappointed that I have been divorced three times." He then added, "while three divorces might seem to suggest a casual attitude toward the whole idea of marriage, this couldn't be further from the truth. I'm a romantic who believes, hopes that the union of marriage is something to cherish and last."

It became popular to hate on Phil Collins

Even at the height of his popularity in the mid-80s, Phil Collins admitted in an interview with Playboy that he was hurt by the many negative comments he would get from the media. He said, "I think a lot of critics saw the fans who show up for my concerts, these screaming girls in the audience, and just didn't understand it. I didn't ask for it, but it ends up with me getting all this 'short, slightly bald, overweight, middle-aged pop star' kind of thing. And it does hurt."

As the years passed, the criticism increased and some of it became much harsher, such as critic Julie Burchill supposedly calling him "the ugliest man since George Orwell." Possibly just as harsh, and maybe even more painful, was when David Bowie called his creative low-point in the 80s as his "Phil Collins years," or especially when Paul McCartney referred to him as "little Phil.". Guitarist Noel Gallagher of Oasis even called him out in public for leaving the U.K. to live in Switzerland and labeled him as a tax exile just because he wanted to live with his Swiss-born wife.

Some of the most public ridicule Collins has received has been from the few episodes that he was heavily mocked on "South Park." Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a rough, yet hilarious spoof of the rockstar, but at the same time, they've done that to a lot of celebrities.

An injury on tour caused nerve damage to his hands

In 2000, Phil Collins suffered an aural stroke from an ear infection that made him 50% deaf in one of his ears. The experience did not seem to phase him much, as he learned to live with it and carried on. Yet, unfortunately, the condition would be only a minor preview of the health issues that would come later.

During a Genesis reunion tour in 2007, the singer dislocated vertebrae in his neck. Even after successful surgery, his hands were still not working properly, so the musician was not able to play the drums or piano. In his official statement (released to the UK press at the time), Collins tried to remain optimistic about the situation and said, "Maybe in a year or so it will change, but for now it is impossible for me to play drums or piano. I am not in any 'distressed' state, stuff happens in life."

Phil Collins considered suicide

After a decade of health issues, criticism, and heartbreak, the situation got so bad for Phil Collins that he admitted to Rolling Stone that he thought about suicide at his lowest points. As he says in his memoir, so many depressing things had happened by 2010 that he felt like his life had become empty. The musician could no longer drum, his career transition into Broadway was not working, and his third marriage had ended in divorce.

His depressive state became clear in the interview when he said, "I sometimes think I'm going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story. Phil Collins will just disappear or be murdered in some hotel bedroom, and people will say, 'What happened to Phil?' And the answer will be, 'He got murdered, but, yeah, anyway, let's carry on.' That kind of thing."

Collins then delved further to describe how dark his thoughts had actually gotten and said, "I wouldn't blow my head off. I'd overdose or do something that didn't hurt. But I wouldn't do that to the children. A comedian who committed suicide in the Sixties left a note saying, 'Too many things went wrong too often.' I often think about that."

Declining health caused him to retire

No longer able to play the instruments he loves, and no longer feeling like a part of the music industry like he once did, Phil Collins announced his retirement in 2011. Plus, his contract had ended with Atlantic Records in the U.S., and he had no reason to remain at the label because he had no strong relationships with any of the executives that worked there. Since he was not busy with work anymore, he had much more time to spend with his youngest children. Not only did he pick them up from school every day, but they also stayed with him on weekends and during holidays.

Collins certainly enjoyed seeing his family more often, but there was still a great amount of sadness from the situation he was in. When he explained to FHM magazine why he was calling it quits, he said, "I look at the MTV Music Awards and I think: 'I can't be in the same business as this.' I don't really belong to that world and I don't think anyone's going to miss me. I'm much happier just to write myself out of the script entirely. I'll go on a mysterious biking holiday and never return. That would be a great way to end the story, wouldn't it?" (via the Telegraph).

Severe battle with alcoholism later in life

After his retirement, Phil Collins began to drink heavily as a way to pass the time. At first, he did not drink all the time because he was still seeing his sons, Nicholas and Matthew, as much as possible. But when his ex-wife, Orianne Cevey, decided to move to the U.S. with her new husband and take the kids with her in May 2012, Collins turned to drink even more often because he had less to do and was very sad that his children were moving so far away.

When reflecting on that horrible time, he said in his memoir, "It took me till the age of fifty-five to become an alcoholic. I got through the heady sixties, the trippy seventies, the imperial eighties, the emotional nineties. I was retired, content, and then I fell. Because suddenly, I had too much time on my hands. The huge hole, the void, left by my kids being taken away from me, again, I had to fill somehow. And I filled it with booze. And it nearly killed me. I'm one of the lucky ones."

Collins considered himself lucky because he nearly died from acute pancreatitis caused by his heavy drinking. Fortunately, he was able to get the medical help he needed in time and the whole horrid event convinced him to stop drinking.

Underwent major back surgery and broke his foot

Resilient as ever, Phil Collins came out of retirement in 2015 even though he was still plagued with health issues. The reinvigorated rockstar was in a much better state of mind since he had moved to Miami and was significantly closer to his sons. But when he woke up one morning, he wasn't able to move his foot. Collins sought out medical attention once more, as he told Rolling Stone, "I had an MRI and my back and hips were just shot. The doctor had to go in there, work on the sciatic nerve and take my back apart and unscramble the mess."

Around the same time, Collins also broke a bone in his foot, so he needed a walking stick to get around. Though regardless of his new health struggles, he also added in his interview that, "No matter what happens, I can go out there, play piano and sing. I'm just in a very happy place right now."  

Health has continued to deteriorate

Even though his admirable perseverance has continued after coming out of retirement, Phil Collins' health problems have persisted and he has often had to sit during performances. In 2017, the singer fell in his hotel room and hit his head on a chair, leaving a terrible gash near his eye. After receiving stitches at the hospital, he recuperated without any other issues. However, the accident forced him to cancel some shows. 

Then in 2019, audience members were alarmed when he fell again during a performance after sitting down on a chair too hard and causing it to fall over. But according to The Charlotte Observer, the rockstar got right back up with some assistance from nearby roadies and continued the show. Plus, the singer continued to move around stage without any concerns, so he finally had some good luck healthwise as he was left completely unscathed after the incident. 

Legal battles with Orianne Cevey

Health issues aside, it looked like Phil Collins' love life was improving after he got back together with his third wife, Orianne Cevey, in 2015. However, she not only left him again to marry someone else, but also still stayed in her ex-husband's mansion with her new husband. Four months of legal battles followed until he finally got the squatting couple to move out of his $40 million home

During the conflict, Cevey controversially sold some of Collins' music awards and gold discs, after which his son, Simon, felt compelled to speak out. In an interview with the Daily Mail, he said, "I really feel for my Dad. It's just a low thing to do. I don't understand why [Orianne] would do that. Some things are priceless and should not be sold — tokens of your life achievements are certainly one of them."

For even further reason to believe the entire fight really boils down to money, Cevey then sued Collins because she claimed that he owed her half of what the mansion is worth after selling it because the home belonged to both of them. The disagreements are still ongoing, but hopefully, the former couple will be able to work things out in a considerably less bitter fashion.