It seems fitting to meet Rob Idol beside the Virgin Megastore in the BurJuman shopping mall, where Robbie Williams' latest album stands out on a shelf. Idol is a Robbie Williams tribute act, and he will be performing in the mall tonight, tomorrow evening and on Saturday as part of the Dubai Shopping Festival. It's a funny life, studying and impersonating the mannerisms of someone who, in many cases, you may never come across. Idol has never met Williams, although he has seen him live, at one of his mammoth Knebworth gigs in 2003. "I was just starting out with the act ... and it blew me away. Live, I don't think you can beat him. I don't know what it is, he's just a guy and he doesn't do anything special. Mind-blowing."
But is it true that he has performed more times as Robbie than the megastar has himself? "Yeah," says Idol. "I've worked out that I do at least 200 shows a year, and I've been doing it for six years now." The bulk of his work takes place during the summer months in Majorca, where he's based, and he comes to the UK for Christmas parties in November and December. Weddings, birthdays, corporate parties, hen parties, even singing Angels to a terminally ill cancer patient - he's done the lot and performed across the world.
But how does one become a tribute act? Is it a matter of simply being told you look a bit like someone and then examining past videos on YouTube? For Idol, the process started out when he left his Nottingham home for London aged 16. "I always wanted to be a singer. I was trying to be in a boy band, but you're chasing a dream. I was three years in London trying to be famous, and for what? Unless you really make it you never make any money."
It was during later travels around Australia that the tribute idea dawned on him. "I was backpacking and I did a karaoke competition. The only song they had that I knew was a Robbie Williams song. I just was Robbie." Having won the competition, he started researching tribute acts on the internet. "I didn't have a clue. I'd never watched a tribute show in my life and I didn't know anything about them, but I thought: 'You could do all right doing that.'" An agent soon followed, and Idol quickly set about doing his Robbie Williams homework and listening to his back catalogue.
Now he can perform any Williams track, including his swing music and a Take That medley. From time to time, Idol has even performed with a Take That tribute band. And if not exactly a doppleganger, he does look vaguely similar, with spiky dark hair, a similar accent ("He's from Stoke, I'm from Nottingham") and a couple of replica tattoos that read "Mother I Love You" down both forearms. "Though his go the other way," says Idol.
Despite being happy to perform the star's songs onstage, he would never pretend to actually be Williams, as other tribute acts do. "That's something you have to decide when you start out," says Idol. "I don't believe in it; obviously people know you're not them. I'm just a guy singing his songs and hope that people will appreciate it." Boredom, Idol says, creeps up on him by the end of a long summer run in Spain, where he performs up to seven times a week. But luckily, Williams' newest album, Reality Killed the Video Star, has meant fresh material to add to his song sheet.
"Angels is always fun because everybody knows it and that's what everyone's waiting to hear," he adds. "For a lot of people, it means something emotionally to them from weddings or funerals, and everyone's done it at a karaoke. It never gets boring." What about the future, though? Robbie has only recently come out of a three-year creative slump, during which time he lived in LA and reportedly became obsessed with UFOs. Doesn't that worry Idol?
"It's always in the back of your mind. You're thinking how long's it going to last. But I'm 26 and Robbie's 35. He just had his birthday last week ..." Idol stops suddenly. "I shouldn't know that, should I?" he laughs guiltily. "But I think he's going to be a Rod Stewart and keep making albums. I really do." As proof of this, he points out the Outstanding Contribution Award that Williams was awarded this week at the Brit Awards, putting him on the same pedestal as the likes of Paul McCartney, David Bowie and U2.
"He's so established now. He'll always be in the public eye. "He'll never know who I am, but my life is all about him," Idol adds as an afterthought. "I like the guy." Rob Idol will be performing as Robbie Williams at the BurJuman shopping mall tonight, tomorrow and on Saturday at 7pm, 8pm and 9pm. For more information, see www.robidol.com