Interview: Will Young – pop star turned activist, on animal testing and more

Interview: Will Young – pop star turned activist, on animal testing and more

By Sally Churchward. Image: Michael Warley. 

Handcuffing himself to a puppy farm was not the first time Will Young had taken direct action about something he felt strongly about. 

Previously he tied himself to a tree in protest against the building of the Newbury bypass.

A long-time activist, Will has been passionate about politics, democracy and protest since his teens – he studied politics at A-level and university. 

Talking to him as he speaks fervently about his campaign and parliamentary petition to ban animal experiments on dogs, segueing into his thoughts on Suella Braverman – ‘a pantomime baddie’ – plans to leave the country if the Tories are re-elected and the abuse transgender people are facing, it’s easy to forget that he’s best known as a singer and, more recently, an Olivier Award nominated actor, who has been a household name since he won the inaugural Pop Idol in 2002, rather than as an activist.

For Will, however, it comes naturally.

I’ve always been interested in the workings of democracy, the workings of society, socio-political issues,” he says. 

“I don’t see why it has to stop just because I do a job where I’m well known.

“It probably does stop me getting certain jobs but it doesn’t stop me getting acting jobs, it doesn’t stop my music. It probably stops me getting certain things, but I’d rather be true to myself and I think that’s how you have a more fulfilled, happy life anyway. 

“I’d say people like Joanna Lumley, Chris Packham and Joe Lycett are just brilliant people who are so good at their jobs, but they’re unafraid.

“I think that’s the key to activism, you have to be unafraid and you have to be informed.”

And Will certainly is informed. He first learnt about the MBR Acres puppy breeding facility in Cambridgeshire around two years ago and quickly educated himself about this and other animal experiments, which he was shocked and horrified to find are still legal, before going on to campaign against them, specifically trying to get a ban on experiments on dogs. 

“The campaign is very much focusing on informing the public about the widespread nature of animal testing. Small monkeys are still tested on, I think it would probably shock a lot of people to hear that, and that dogs are tested on,” he says.

He also wants to draw people’s attention to non-animal research options, such as those pioneered by Animal Free Research, formerly known as the Dr Hadwen Trust, which, he says, offer a more humane and more effective alternative.

“The science has been around for quite a long time, but it’s now growing at about 700 percent a year as a business, and is much better in terms of efficiently, effectively and in a non cruel way – finding cures to illnesses. The failure rate of testing on animals is 92 percent, which is huge.

“The parliamentary petition which has been launched is asking for an immediate ban on testing on dogs, which are up to 2K beagles a year in this country,” he continues.

Will’s petition has gained more than 25,000 signatures since its launch last month. Will’s initial target is to collect 100,000 signatures so that it will be considered for debate in Parliament but he has more ambitious plans, and hopes for it to achieve a million names. 

His love of animals is obvious. He talks with emotion and a sense of shocked horror about conditions animals are kept in in puppy farms.

The loving owner of three dogs himself – American pitbull mixes Iris and Domino and border terrier Esme, who makes her presence known during our interview. Will was clearly distressed when he learnt not only that puppy farms exist, but about what goes on within their walls.

Will with his dog Domino.

“We have a government that has not done anything about this issue,” he continues. 

“The petition is allowing people to know that this still goes on. I wasn’t aware of it and was quite shocked that animals, and particularly dogs, are still tested on in this country. 

“People can very quickly feel helpless and hopeless but you don’t have to be. You can sign the petition and get in touch with your MP, and we can get a ban on testing with dogs, which would be fantastic.”

 When Will found out about the puppy farm in Cambridgeshire it didn’t take him long to join the Camp Beagle protest and handcuff himself to the facility in a bid to raise awareness about it.

“I’m a big fan of peaceful action,” he says

“We live in a democracy. I’m a big fan of our right to protest.” 

The right to protest has, of course, been eroded recently by the Public Order Act 2023 – also known as the anti-protest bill which  gave police greater powers to prevent protest tactics deemed “disruptive”.

Like many, Will has found himself looking on in horror at the words and deeds of the Conservative government and says he will leave the country if they are re-elected.

“I mean oh my god, with a home secretary like that and a prime minister who’s just letting someone run amok and also talking about natural relationships, you know the true nature of being a man and a woman and you’ve got other tory MPs at conference talking about the true partnership is man and woman, and then you’ve got a pantomime baddie who is sort of drunk on power in the Home Office – I mean it’s just terrifying.”

Will, who hosted a panel on animal experiments at the recent Labour Party conference, expands on his thoughts on Suella Braverman.

“Clearly something’s gone wrong there and I don’t think she’s fit to hold office, I mean that’s just obvious,” he says with conviction. 

By Michael Wharley.

“Saying about homeless people, that it’s a lifestyle choice, saying she’s going to ban charities giving out tents. I think the woman needs to be psychologically evaluated. I mean that seriously, as someone who has had mental illness myself.”

Will comments on her “lashing out at various groups,” adding: “I’ve never really seen anything like it. I wasn’t around for Enoch Powell.”

One of the groups that Will notes that Conservative MPs, supporters and others are lashing out at is the transgender community. 

“It’s a clear, well trodden path that people will follow, that those in power will twist the narrative of those who have very little power and of those who don’t have a voice,” he says.

“I think one of the most shocking things about trans rights is it’s being picked up under this government as a huge talking point, whereas as an issue, I don’t know what percentage of people are trans in this country (ed – 0;55% in England), so it’s just another classic technique to use prejudice and use a minority group to spread fear and to push your agenda. 

“It’s terrifying to watch really.

“It’s all about spreading fear.

“So there’s something about the trans issue being used to spread fear, and those doing it are not thinking about these people who are living their lives –  their safety can be compromised by this kind of rhetoric.

“It’s become very inflammatory because people are making it so. It never was inflammatory.”

Issues such as the participation of transgender people in elite women’s sport – which has become a hot topic, predominantly amongst those who have no involvement in elite women’s sport – are, Will says, completely blown out of proportion for the sake of spreading hatred and fear.

“That’s not even the main event – the sporting side of it is just one area, the same as changing rooms. What they do is they pick up on something like that and make it the main issue. 

“The main issue is people who feel they’ve been born in the wrong body and want to do something about it. Who are we to stop that and how’s that going to affect my life?

“Certain people might say ‘well you’re a man so you can say that,’ but really they’re picking on such tiny things, they’re picking on the minutiae of an issue and making it the main event and it’s very sad to watch.”

Time is called on the interview by Will’s dogs – he has to take them to the vet. It seems appropriate that the agenda should be set by his four-legged friends, given his love for dogs has motivated his transition into animal rights activist over recent years.

There’s just time to reflect on the petition again and give a final push to encourage people to support it.

“I think it’s pretty obvious really,” he concludes. 

“To me, if you’re a dog lover or you have a pet, it’s really a no brainer to sign the petition, to support and share it and to tell people and inform them that this is what’s happening to these dogs and it’s of really little to no purpose.

“It’s been overlooked for too long and it needs to change.” 

You can sign Will Young’s petition here:

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