Fueled by a certain amount of musical talent and seemingly limitless amounts of self-belief, Darius Campbell Danesh – or Darius as he was styled back in 2001 – used his podium finish in the first and most celebrated series of Pop Idol as a launch pad for a career in pop music, West End stage musicals and even opera.
Born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and an Iranian father, Campbell Danesh made an immediate impression at the televised auditions for Popstars in 2001 with his theatrical reinterpretation of Britney Spears’s Baby One More Time, a performance of vocal gymnastics and arm waving that made Bohemian Rhapsody seem like a simple advertising jingle.
Popstars was devised as a talent contest to find members to make up a new pop group and judge Paul Adam said: “He has talent but I am not sure if he is the right sort of person to fit into a five-piece band,” while fellow judge Nigel Lythgoe described the performance as “a complete show-off that doesn’t work”.
Campbell Danesh did not make it to the final stages of Popstars – which ended up with the formation of the group Hear’Say. But he fared much better on Pop Idol not long afterwards, making the final three. It was perhaps his misfortune – or perhaps even to his benefit – that he found himself in the mix with Gareth Gates and Will Young.
The series caught the imagination of the viewing and voting public and was hotly contested throughout between Gates and Young, with Campbell Danesh always just a little behind. He secured third place, leaving Gates and Young to battle it out in the final, which drew an audience of more than 13 million, with Young coming out on top.
All three enjoyed pop success on the back of their appearances on the show. In other years Campbell Danesh might have won. But then, other years did not capture the audience’s imagination in quite the same way. Although he won neither Popstars nor Pop Idol, Campbell Denesh made a huge impact with his singing, his sense of drama, the ponytail and the little goatee and moustache that had an echo of Mephistopheles about them.
He turned down a lucrative deal with producer Simon Cowell , because he wanted to record his own material. “I could have done a cover of Gareth’s cover of Robson and Jerome’s cover of the Righteous Brothers,” he said, in reference to the classic song Unchained Melody, which all three acts recorded. “That doesn’t inspire me.”
Campbell Danesh went to No 1 with the single Colourblind, which he had been working on before Popstars and Pop Idol. While his theatrics on the television shows had prompted some derision, the mid-tempo song surprised and impressed at least some of his detractors.
He had five Top Ten hits between 2002 and 2005, when his career took him in other directions with lead roles in the hit stage musicals Chicago, Funny Girl and Guys and Dolls, which brought him back to Edinburgh with appearances at the Playhouse, the opera Carmen and stage musical adaptations of Gone With the Wind and From Here to Eternity.
The eldest of three sons of gastroenterologist Booth Danesh and Avril nee Campbell, a GP, Navid Darius Danesh-Zad was born in 1980 in Glasgow, attended Bearsden Primary and Glasgow Academy, was involved in musical theatre and opera from a very early age, persuaded his parents to buy him a guitar when he was nine and performed in a juvenile role in a Scottish Opera production of Carmen.
He studied English Literature and Philosophy at Edinburgh University and he was not long into his twenties when he got his big break on Pop Idol and chart success with Colourblind and the album Dive In. He wrote all 12 of the album’s songs and it was a major hit.
In 2003, just two years after appearing on Pop Idol, he brought out an autobiography entitled Sink or Swim: My Story.
He styled himself variously as Darius, Darius Danesh and latterly Darius Campbell. “When I travel the world, I feel so deeply Scottish,” he said, although on another occasion he revealed he had been the target of racist abuse at school when other pupils called him Saddam.
“When people know me as Darius Danesh, it doesn't reflect that I am Scottish. People say it's not a very Scottish name. But Darius Campbell reflects that I am Scottish.”
He returned to TV talent shows in 2010 when eight singers, including Bernie Nolan and Jimmy Osmond, competed in the ITV show Popstar to Operastar, with Campbell Denesh coming out on top and going on to appear in the male lead role in Bizet’s Carmen at the O2 Arena in London.
He broke his neck and narrowly escaped death when he was a passenger in a car crash in 2010, and fell into a coma with meningitis in 2017 after drinking water from the Thames while promoting water filters.
Splitting his time between Europe and America, he married Hollywood actress Natasha Henstridge, star of the film Species. They wed in 2011, but he admitted it was always a turbulent relationship and they divorced in 2018. Campbell Denesh did not have children.
Michael Cragg wrote in The Guardian: “Such was his impact on the nascent TV talent show genre, that all subsequent spin-offs tried to find their own Darius Campbell Danesh. Someone who was faintly ridiculous, disarmingly good-looking, with just a pinch of enough self-awareness to make it work.”
Lucie Cave, editor-in-chief of Heat magazine, agreed. “He really got the joke and always had a wry smile whenever he answered questions about being a serious musician,” she said on Instagram after news broke that he had been found dead in an apartment in Minnesota with no suspicious circumstances, but no immediately obvious cause.
If you would like to submit an obituary (800-1000 words preferred, with jpeg image), or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
Subscribe at www.scotsman.com/subscriptions