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I lived for 26 years under the thumb of a jealous husband; EXCLUSIVE: X-FACTOR'S VERITY TELLS ALL.

Byline: JANE RIDLEY

WHEN Verity Keays told millions of X Factor fans about the 26-year marriage that stifled her career, her tears welled up as the bitter memories came flooding back.

Memories of a relationship which shattered her dreams of stardom.

Memories of a husband who often treated her like an infant, banned her from seeing people unless he was present and never once took her to a restaurant.

Simon Keays - a self-styled pop Svengali whose conspicuous lack of success never matched his big ideas - became the dominant force in Verity's life.

Today, in an exclusive interview with the Daily Mirror, the 50-year-old singer, who was emotionally voted off of ITV's talent show last weekend, tells her own astonishing story for the first time.

"My husband acted as if I was a child," she recalls. "I wasn't allowed to interrupt him and he talked down to me in front of people. I felt suffocated.

"It would have been better for both of us if we'd parted when I was in my early 30s - young enough to meet someone new and start a family."

But Verity stuck with it, though Keays ruled out having children. "They weren't on his agenda," she says. "I didn't show him my feelings though and never cried at night when he was in the bed next to me. Instead, I'd cry on my own."

Professionally, Verity - who made ends meet as part of a musical double act with Keays - was twice offered lucrative solo record contracts. But she walked away from fame and fortune because she knew her husband would insist on them continuing as a double act.

It is a sad saga that music mogul and X Factor judge Simon Cowell came to know as he took Verity under his wing until her exit last week.

With a smile, Verity defiantly declares: "I've been through enough hard times not to worry too much about losing out on The X Factor.

"Taking part in the show was one the greatest experiences of my life and I'm more determined than ever to put the past behind me and look to the future."

NO WONDER. Right from the start of their relationship Keays, who is eight years older than Verity, assumed the role of father figure.

He decided when they should wed, where it would be and what they wore. In an act of cruelty, he even refused to allow his bride's heart-broken parents to attend their wedding.

Verity was 19 and still recalls the day with regret. "I'd have loved a white wedding and the dress and photos and everything. But Simon wouldn't have it.

"It was 1974 and we just went to Nottingham Register Office in our jeans," she says. "Simon just said, 'We'll get married because it'll be better if we're married' and that was that."

Verity's father Jim and her mother Kath - who had misgivings about their daughter's choice of husband - were banned from the ceremony.

"I called them to tell them we were going to get married and, of course, they wanted to come. But Simon said no."

Verity knew they would be hurt but felt compelled to go along with Keays. Years later, when as a duo they were ekeing out a living performing in the US, Keays begrudgingly allowed Verity to go to her mother's bedside as she lay seriously ill.

"Mum had diabetes and there were complications," says Verity. "I was torn because I knew Simon didn't want me to go but I'd never have forgiven myself if she'd died before I saw her." Three days after she left, Verity's mother died.

By now, the blonde who had grown up "as timid as a mouse" in Grimbsy was embroiled in her husband's masterplan to conquer America and become a hit double act. It was an impossible dream Keays first came up with when he saw Verity Grimes trying to overcome her shyness by singing in a pub band. She was just 15 and unaware that her fate was being sealed by a stranger in the audience.

Years would be wasted living in Keays's shadow and toiling in anonymity in the US.

Securing a record contract for their act became the Holy Grail but the rejections came thick and fast. "Whenever we performed, it was my voice people admired," recalls Verity, whose nomad-like existence took her from Washington State to LA and then to Nashville.

What should have been Verity's big break came in 1983, when Tamla Motown's top A&R woman, Suzanne De Passe, summoned them. "She'd listened to our tapes and was impressed," recalls Verity. "We couldn't believe it."

But, as they sat in her office, Verity's heart sank. It was clear they only wanted to sign her. "Suzanne turned to me and said: 'This girl has a voice which could sell records.' But the plan was that we did everything together and Simon wouldn't have been comfortable with it. And, because of that, I couldn't be comfortable with it either."

So the couple continued to eke out a living. "I offered to get a 'normal' job but Simon ruled it out," says Verity, who secretly hoped to settle down and start a family.

Four years later, she was offered another solo recording contract, this time by Sony. But just one look at Simon's disappointed face made her refuse it.

"Those opportunities probably wouldn't have arisen if it hadn't been for Simon but, in retrospect, I should have taken them.

"Friends have speculated that he was worried that, if I had success, I might have left him. But I don't know. All I can say is that he loved me too much."

MEANWHILE, they continued to live in their modest motor home with their dog, Sniffy, until 1998. When Sniffy died, Keays finally decided to return to Britain.

But just a year after resettling in Grimsby, the cracks in their marriage became chasms - mainly caused by Keays's quirks.

He had developed an obsession with hygiene which meant that long-suffering Verity had to cook all his meals and make his yoghurt and organic bread.

Meanwhile, she began to tire of not being able to eat out at restaurants, where, Keays said, the food would be germ-laden. He also banned alcohol and regular socialising with her family.

"I wasn't allowed to do what I wanted," she says. "For instance, if I wanted to meet my sisters, he'd come, too.

"We were together 24 hours a day and it felt stifling. I just changed. I don't know whether it was middle-age or the menopause but I didn't want all those pressures on me any more.

"Simon was such a perfectionist but I felt I couldn't be perfect any more. I needed to have a say in my life."

Simon, who has since changed his name to Simeon, wasn't impressed by Verity's new-found independence.

"He said: 'This is how it has always been and how it's going to stay. If you don't like my way of doing things, then you'd better leave.'"

She did - moving into her brother Peter's house, relieved that she'd finally broken free at the age of 46.

"It was probably the worst period of my life but I was determined to get through it," she says. "Despite the loneliness and the despair of going through a divorce, I knew I'd done the right thing. I felt so low about myself, but I knew I'd survive."

Eventually, she rekindled old friendships and was persuaded to start performing again. Later, she rented a flat and began giving singing lessons to local children.

"I'm now moving on," says Verity. "It's hard when you've spent almost 30 years with the same person but I've grown stronger and stronger."

CAPTION(S):

TALENT: Verity performs in the US in 1977; GRUELLING: On stage with husband Simon in Nashville, in 1988; STIFLING: Simon Keays; CONFIDENT: Verity Keays has put her suffocating marriage behind her; NOMAD: With pal Sniffy in 1978
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 5, 2004
Words:1324
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