Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift Has It All: Great Voice, Good Looks and a Juicy Scandal

updated 05/01/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1989 01:00AM

Lucky thing the Fine Young Cannibals—and lead singer Roland Gift-finally hit big. They made it just in time to rescue critics who went overboard about the English trio in 1986, three years before the Cannibals devoured the U.S. with "She Drives Me Crazy," which just hit No. 1 on the pop charts. "Once in every 25,000-or-so record releases, a voice comes along that leaves listeners speechless," trumpeted one reviewer upon hearing the group's self-titled 1986 debut album. "Such a voice belongs to one Roland Gift." Others compared Gift to Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Otis Redding and even Frank Sinatra. All of which has been a bit much for the soft-toned but savvy singer. "I'm flattered," says Gift, 26, "but I don't think I really sound like them. I think people have to have a comparison. You can't think of a brand-new color." Good point. Besides, he says, being known as the Voice "is better than being called the Face."

Ah, yet another embarrassment of Gift's. The poor lad is saddled not only with a voice that tickles ears, he also has a look that turns heads. Gift's dark, exotic visage caught the eye of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, who gave the Cannibals a cameo in Tin Men. Next came director Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears, who bared Gift's bum in the cult success Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Gift will get even more exposure, cinematically speaking, when he appears as one of the lovers of Christine Keeler (PEOPLE, April 24) in Scandal, the much-hyped film based on England's notorious Profumo affair, which opens in the U.S. this Friday (April 28). No doubt critics will once again talk about the Face. "I'm not easily definable," says Gift, reluctantly analyzing his appeal. "I could be Oriental, I could be lots of things. I never feel the need to define my ethnicity."

Gift is deliberately vague about some aspects of his background. He has said that his father is black and that his mother, who is white, is a pottery dealer in Hull, the seaport city where Gift grew up. A reggae fan and would-be actor, Gift quit school at 16, dyed his hair red, gold and green and immersed himself in the burgeoning British punk scene of 10 years ago. "My mother didn't mind," he says. "She just sort of let me go on with it. It was rather fun. Getting dressed up and making your own clothes and your own music was all part of it. You didn't have to be proficient. You just had to have energy." Gift played saxophone in a band called Akrylyz; luckily, he was "so bad that people asked me to sing."

Among Gift's fans were two members of the popular band, the English Beat. When the Beat dissolved in 1983, guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele began writing songs and auditioning singers. Some 400 demo tapes later, they found the perfect Gift. Within a year, the newly formed Cannibals had a European hit with a revamped version of "Suspicious Minds." After Fine Young Cannibals had won over influential critics in the U.S., Cox and Steele took a break to write and produce, and Gift tried acting. "It came easily to me," he says. "So many singers go into acting, and it's embarrassing. But I want to do both. I would like to get the same satisfaction from acting that I get from singing."

Gift, who lives alone in a middle-class London neighborhood, hopes to return to Hull later this year to prepare for a stage production of Romeo and Juliet. Other film projects, he says, are "under development," but a U.S. tour by the Cannibals isn't, at least for the time being. It's not that he thinks he's God's Gift. It's just that "I really don't travel well," says Gift. "It's the flying I don't like. If we go out on tour, I want to go home every night."

—Steve Dougherty, Sue Carswell in New York and Jonathan Cooper in London

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