AFTER 20 YEARS IN HIDING AND A WEIRD LOVE AFFAIR, AGNETHA IS.. Bjorn again; EXCLUSIVE.
THERE WAS something strangely familiar about the blonde woman sitting at a table in Stockholm's trendiest club last week.
When the truth dawned on the other guests, an audible whisper could be heard circulating through The Spy Bar. "Agnetha Faltskog is here."
For almost two decades, the former Abba star had lived as a virtual recluse on the remote island of Ekero off the coast of the Swedish capital. She lives alone and still suffers from a number of phobias including a fear of heights, crowds, flying and open spaces, as well as the continued attentions of a serial stalker. In Sweden they call her Garbo II - scarred and haunted by the legacy of fame, she wants only "to be alone".
Nevertheless, the 53-year-old grandmother has just announced she is to release her first album in 17 years - a selection of 1960s covers called My Colouring Book. So keen was she to relaunch her music career that she has paid for the record with her own money - and with her obsessive privacy.
To coincide with the release, Warner Music, the record company distributing the album, sent out a series of photographs. The dowdy, unmade-up woman sometimes seen buying groceries from the village store near her remote home had been replaced by a sultry, stylish, beautiful star.
"The musical impressions from my teens is in my blood," she says. "It has a strong hold on me. I feel deeply for these songs."
Just why the woman who was once almost destroyed by the fame and hysteria which accompanied Abba should want to make a publicity-driven come-back is baffling to those who have witnessed her long battle with personal demons.
But one woman, Brita Ahman, once her closest friend and biographer, has a clear idea of what drives the star's bizarre resurgence.
"She wants to take back control and show that she can still do it," she says. "She's tired of people talking about her as if she is defeated - as if she has run away and been finished off by the man who stalked her.
"It's also very relevant that the album is made up of covers from the 1960s. That was when she was a solo star, making big hits in Sweden but before the pressure of Abba. She is nostalgic for the time before the bad memories.
"But it's an incredible thing for her to be taking this step. She's taking a huge risk."
To millions of fans across the world, Agnetha was pop music's original dancing queen, the strongest voice in Abba and the prettiest face.
Behind the scenes, the daughter of factory worker Ingvar and of Birgit, a shop cashier, born in the small town of Jonkoping in April 1950, was being tormented by the pressures of fame.
"She isn't like the others in Abba," says Brita. "She always hated being famous. She has too many phobias and not enough friends."
While the group dominated the charts throughout the 1970s and sold more than 350million records, she yearned to be an ordinary housewife and mother to the two children she had with Abba's Bjorn Ulvaeus.
She dreaded the arduous touring and on occasions was physically sick before performances. "Nobody who has experienced a shouting, boiling and hysterical crowd can fail to feel fear," she wrote in her autobiography, As I Am.
"There's a very thin line between an ecstatic roar and aggressive screaming. It marks your character and turns into phobias."
In 1981, her ten-year marriage to Bjorn finally collapsed. They had met during a television recording in 1969 and both said it was love at first sight. Publicly, they claimed the divorce was amiable. Privately, Agnetha told friends it was all a front.
When Abba finally split two years later, Agnetha retreated to her secluded mansion and turned her back on showbiz .
She craved silence and for the first ten years neither played, sang nor listened to music. Instead she explored yoga, astrology and alternative medicine.
She took a string of lovers, including ice hockey star Lars Eriksson, fashion designer Dick Haakonsson and detective Thorbjorn Brander who was assigned to her after kidnap threats to her children, Linda and Christian.
IN 1990 she married for a second time to surgeon Tomas Sonnenfeld. They divorced in 1993.
In 1997 came the most disturbing episode in her life - an affair with Gert van der Graaf, an obsessed Dutch fan who was 16 years her junior.
Agnetha met the 37-year-old forklift driver one day when she was out walking.
"She had known about his obsession for years," says Brita Ahman. "Still she got involved with him." When she ended their affair, he began to terrorise her and it reached a point where she was scared to leave her home.
In April 2000, van der Graaf was charged with threatening behaviour, but responded by handing over a letter from Agnetha to a Swedish newspaper.
"The reason I am writing is that I now want to be left alone," she wrote. "I stand by my decision. There is no hope for us together."
The intimacy of the letter raised several eyebrows, but later at van der Graaf's trial Agnetha finally confessed to a full-blown romance.
"His courting of me was very intense... in the end I couldn't resist him," she said.
GERT claimed that the couple had been on holiday together only weeks before Agnetha called in the police.
"I thought we had a perfect relationship," he said. "Of course we argued sometimes, but only over trifles."
The case seriously damaged her image and "Shy Agnetha" became "Poor, strange Agnetha".
Van der Graaf was deported, but reappeared last summer, still declaring his undying love. This week, Swedish police stepped up surveillance on him, fearing that Agnetha's return to the limelight could trigger some response from him.
Having asked everyone - including the Swedish press - to leave her alone, Agnetha retreated to her island again.
"She stopped going out, stopped meeting with people," says Brita. "I tried to drag her out of the house, to the theatre, the opera and galleries, but she always said 'No'. She was - and still is - afraid of crowds."
Only locals at the village store saw Agnetha regularly, her hair scraped back, sunglasses covering her eyes. She never spoke to them.
Then came the recent bombshell - Agnetha was planning a come-back.
Ronnie Olafsson, showbiz editor of Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, says: "After all these years of being alone, why would she want to attract attention towards herself again? We don't even know if she still had a voice.
"She wants to show she can still do it, but she doesn't want the attention which goes with being a celebrity."
Brita believes that Agnetha's psychological make-up is complex.
"She has a deep-seated need for affection," she says. "I think she has enjoyed the Garbo image. She likes being mysterious and she has cultivated that. Now she has tired of the labels and wants to show something of herself.
"But she still hates publicity."
Carl Magnus Palm, who worked with Agnetha on his book, Bright Lights, Dark Shadows - The Real Story of Abba, says: "She's very much her own woman. I think she believes she can draw the line where she wants it. She can still say no to publicity. Even if she is releasing an album, she doesn't feel that she has to open herself up for public consumption.
"She has said herself that there was a period in her life when she didn't want anything to do with music.
"Now she has released this album, but it's not her own music. It's not her lyrics or her voice coming through. She is giving nothing away about herself."
Agnetha herself perhaps gave the biggest clue to her feelings in 1988 in one of her very few interviews.
"I am doing what I always wanted to do," she said. "Writing songs, singing, and recording, and being a little star.
"I like being a little star; being a big star is too much pressure."
FRIEND: Author Brita Ahman; SUPER TROUPERS: Abba's heyday with Bjorn, Agnetha, Anni-Frid and Benny; STALKER: Agnetha with Gert
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Mar 13, 2004|
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