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'I Am Becoming Less Of A Gipsy'

It seems his inhibitions go back a long way. He remembers, as a teenager, traveling on the Tube from his parents' home in Hounslow to Acton Town to visit a prospective girlfriend. "When she answered the door, I said: 'You don't want to go out with me, do you?' She said: 'No.' And I turned around and went home again. I'm fighting that now."

As he contemplates his third marriage, Collins must conclude that the battle is comprehensively won. On a tour in Switzerland four years ago, a beautiful young interpreter was assigned to help him get from gig to gig. He fell for her almost instantly. "Letting her know how I felt was something I would never have done years and years ago," he says. "I would have walked away from it and never known the outcome."

The outcome, as half the world now knows, is that Collins walked away from his failing second marriage instead, and he and Orianne Cevey, 25, are living in pre-nuptial contentment in the hills above Lake Geneva. Orianne works in public relations and is the daughter of a wealthy civil engineer and architect. "I love her deeply," he says. "We are very much in love and very happy."

They hope to marry soon and to have children while Collins is, as he puts it, "young enough to enjoy them". In the meantime, they have settled for the next best bond, a two-month-old Jack Russell terrier. "He's the anchor. The emphasis in my life is changing. I am becoming less of a gipsy. I'm not working so much, because I don't want to leave home.

"I have a little motor boat. I like to water-ski. I've discovered reading again; I just sit out in the sun and read a book. These are things that sound so ordinary to most people, but I've never done them. I'm learning how to relax and enjoy life. I should have done it earlier, but I really believe these things come when they come. I wasn't ready to do this 15 years ago but I don't want to tour for the rest of my life."

Were his ex-wives - Andrea in Vancouver and Jill in Los Angeles - here right now, they would be exchanging very meaningful glances. Collins has been an unreformable workaholic for years and his obsessive dedication to his music, fuelled by gargantuan world tours, helped to undermine both marriages.

Right now, he is not polishing his boat or walking the dog but coming to the end of a hectic month's tour of America and Europe with his Big Band. It's a personal fantasy he has nurtured for years - to recreate the Buddy Rich big band jazz sound with a 20-piece orchestra - and it's costing him about $250,000 a week to do it. Well, he can afford it, can't he?

Despite recently flagging record sales and two expensive divorce settlements, Collins is said to be worth £100 million, though he appears only mildly interested in "the ball-park picture" of his wealth, as glimpsed from his quarterly statements. "I don't really truthfully know," he says. "Just 'an awful lot' is a good enough term for me. I don't need to get specific."

His sudden affinity for Switzerland must make perfect financial sense, but he says he moved there only because he met Orianne. "If she'd lived in Hull, I'd have gone to Hull - or at any rate Helsinki. I was the archetypal Englishman who would never ever think of living anywhere else, especially a country with a foreign language. I'm here for love not money.

"I've got so much money - more than I'll ever need - that it doesn't matter how much tax I pay. I think I've finally come to terms with it. I'm quite happy to sit here and say to a perfect stranger: 'I'm so wealthy, you don't understand.' It could sound obnoxious or arrogant, but I mean it in a comical way."

Collins says that because of his "tremendous guilt" at making a mint out of a job he loves - and would do for nothing - he gives generously to good causes. It appeases his conscience.

Though he says he has no desire to return to England, the exile's refrain keeps breaking through his hymn of praise for his adopted country. "I miss England sometimes. I miss being in Genesis sometimes. I miss sharing an English joke without wondering whether it's going to be funny to the other person. A sense of humor is very important to me, and I have some great friends here but they're . . . Swiss."

To satisfy his need for regular injections of English humor, he has just asked Alan Bennett's agent to send every video of the comic playwright's ïuvre.

Collins's London twang is hardly discernible now. He drops some aitches and keeps others; you never quite know. He talks about "nooze" instead of "news" and uses "I done" instead of "I did".

"Orianne and I get on great," he suddenly affirms. "She loves the old Ealing black and white comedies, School for Scoundrels, The Green Man, The Lady Killers, all that stuff. Can't get enough of it. Blackadder, Fawlty Towers. She doesn't quite understand Monty Python. Some of the old stuff is very silly and she doesn't see why it's funny."

Can it be that Orianne is having an induction course in post-war British humor by her homesick lover?

"I haven't given her Hancock yet."

Collins's affection for the Swiss is colored by the fact that they couldn't have cared less about the public fracas over his break up with Jill in 1994, whereas the British press went wild. So, at a time when "it just seemed that everyone was having a go", here he was in Switzerland, where reporters just melted away if he asked them to leave. "It was a sanctuary, really."

Overnight, Mr. Nice Guy of Rock (a title he hated) became Mr Nasty (not much better). A furious letter he faxed to his wife from America was intercepted by a tabloid newspaper and widely circulated. Collins was headlined as the cad who divorced his wife by fax. He didn't, but he has had to live with the tag ever since.

"I did the Michael Parkinson show a few months ago and we were talking and laughing and suddenly it got on to the subject of The Fax." He gulps and runs a hand over his head. "Look! I've mentioned it. When people continue to ask about that stuff, I should say it's over. But I find myself talking about it. My God, it's four years ago. I would just like it to be forgotten."

Domestically, he's been lucky. Jill and Orianne have found a way of getting on and Lily, his nine-year-old daughter by Jill, often comes to visit. "It's hard for Jill. Not only does she feel, but because I'm a public personality, she has to read everything in the newspapers. Orianne, too, has inherited a difficult situation. With three kids and two ex-wives, life is never dull, I can tell you, and suddenly she has to deal with this neeeoow, neeeoow [he makes signs in the air like planes in a dog-fight].

"It could have been war and it says a lot for them that Jill and Orianne can communicate. When we are in LA, they get rid of me sometimes so they can talk. I don't deserve any of the credit."

He has thought hard about what the Genesis years did to his personal life and, given a third chance, he wants to prove that he can be a better father. "I love being a dad; I love my kids. I just haven't done it very well. What I mean is, I wish I could have been there for all those important moments."

Joely, his 25-year-old daughter, is an award-winning actress in Canada and Simon, 23, is a songwriter and drummer. "He's a fantastic musician. We go through ups and downs because he's doing the same job as I am; but he's very gifted."

Collins helps his children financially, "because they are both in unpredictable businesses", but they will not come into the bulk of their trust until they have established themselves. "It's such an obvious thing that I can't believe people do anything else. It just encourages all the wrong things."

We meet in the Theatre Metropole, Lausanne, where he is rehearsing for the new tour. Nineteen other instrumentalists are playing with him, but most of the time he seems oblivious. His moon face is raised to the ceiling with the beatific expression of a desert nomad feeling the first drops of rain. "It's another language, like nothing I've done before."

In America, audiences couldn't at first accept that Collins wasn't going to sing, so he had to come to the front of the stage to explain his new passion for the big band sound.

"I only became a singer because Peter Gabriel left Genesis and we couldn't find anybody else," he says, dismissing a spectacular solo career with a shrug. "You start singing, then you start writing songs and suddenly you're making records. You look back three or four years later and you think: why am I here? I should be over there. I'm a drummer."

In the Eighties, Phil Collins's music was so popular that radio stations in America advertised, as a joke, guaranteed Collins-free weekends. But demand for his last two records Dance into the Light and Both Sides, fell off. "Ten million sales worldwide is not shabby but compared with the precedents set by others . . . well, I'm constantly thinking maybe no one's interested any more."

He says he's philosophical. "I have had a wonderful time. If everybody has 15 minutes of fame, I've had two or three hours of it and I'm still doing things that are artistically credible. I've never got on stage and wiggled me bum like Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger. So I think I have a longer credibility lifespan," he argues.

Nevertheless, Collins prepares to meet his sell-by date. "There'll come a time when one side of my life starts fading out and another comes into focus." But he has always wanted to be liked and seizes on signs that he is still popular. He does a tour such as this one, tickets sell like hot cakes and he is persuaded that people are interested.

His on-off belief in himself is illustrated by his attitude to writing his autobiography. On the one hand, he's embarrassed by the whole idea. "My life's not important enough to take up all that time and paper. And is it right, especially if I'm still working? I haven't done everything I want to do yet. Am I going to outdate myself? There's only room for one autobiography - unless you're Peter O'Toole."

At home, there was always a feeling among the men in his family that their opinions didn't count for much. "What you were saying wasn't really interesting enough to take up time, so you'd speak it quickly to get it over and avoid boring anybody."

And yet, there's a worm of ambition gnawing away inside, pestering him to go on "making little notes" about his life and turning down the corners of the pages of books when he comes across a useful thought. He remembers the frisson of reading a master stonemason's explanation of how he carved a stone flower. "He said: 'All you do is take off the bits you don't want and leave the bits you do.' It really touched me, that. I don't know why."

Like the stonemason, he's always chipping away at the bits of himself he doesn't want and leaving the bits he does. Take tidiness: he says he's trying desperately to rid himself of the habit. "I'm much better than I was. I love it when I can walk away from a sink full of dishes, when I can walk away with the cushions ruffled on the sofa and a bunch of books and stuff on the coffee table. I'm very proud of myself for doing that."

In fact, Collins is singularly lacking in the attributes and certainties of a wealthy man. For the time being, he is renting Jackie Stewart's house with a view over Lake Geneva (he cannot buy until he has lived in Switzerland for five years), describing it as "very pretty but not huge". He doesn't travel with an entourage and has no servants or security men. His front gate says "private" but anybody could walk in. He's not a flash spender. "If something's too expensive, it's too expensive. But I'll go wild occasionally."

His idea of "wild" is buying a suit he didn't really need. "Just a blue Armani suit. I didn't have a blue suit, so that's my justification. I don't splash out. But I sometimes ask myself: what am I saving it for?

"For my kids, of course."

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