Sting

Sting: He Should Give Celebrity Lessons

I had to think a little about what today's column should be.

After all, tonight is Kol Nidre, the holiest night of the year in the Jewish religion. For 24 hours we atone for our sins.

Michael Jackson's case, Britney's wedding, Cat Stevens's expulsion, anything to do with Paris Hilton — all of it seemed a little superficial. And of course, Madonna and Kabbalah are sort of an affront on such an occasion.

Not every celebrity is crazy or nuts or so self-absorbed that his life is invitation for ridicule.

Take Sting, for example. I had the opportunity about a month ago to visit him one afternoon at his villa near Florence in the Tuscany region of Italy.

It sounds glamorous and I won't lie, it was. But some 25 years into a real career as a singer, composer, writer, activist and sex symbol, Sting should give lessons to members of the new generation of bold-faced names. He's the real thing.

"How many are you?" Sting's assistant asks me by phone the day before our appointment. I tell her four adults and two children, but not everyone has to come.

A few minutes later she calls back. "Sting says bring everyone." Everyone?

Sting is not Hugh Hefner lounging around in silk pajamas, entertaining models, partying into the wee hours. On a hot, sunny Italian morning he greets us in a T-shirt and mini-shorts. His blond hair is impossibly long and thick, his physique is impossibly taut and lanky.

There is no logical explanation for this, but to be a rock star it seems you will appear to never have aged past 30. At a couple of months shy of 53, Sting — with sharp steel blue eyes — seems at least a decade younger than his visiting friends and contemporaries.

I am sorry to say that Sting's talented and beautiful wife, Trudie Styler, was not at home on the day we drove through the high gates to their magnificent compound. She was in London on business. (Sting was meeting her later in the week for a short, romantic Mediterranean cruise.)

But four of Sting's six children were on hand: Kate, his eldest daughter from his first marriage; Mickey and Coco, his daughters with Trudie; and nine-year-old precocious Giacomo, for whom a Russian chess grand master is often employed because the kid is so good.

All of the kids have guests: boyfriends for the girls, playmates for Giacomo. The kids are sun-kissed and tawny, with quick laughs and dancing eyes. One thing's clear: There will be no "Daddy Dearest" books 20 years from now.

Sting has personal guests present: a married couple, schoolteachers whom he's known since he also taught school in Newcastle, England, a quarter of a century ago; and a garrulous crisis-meister from the UK currently handling several clients who were getting a bad time in the British tabloids.

There is no crisis where we are, except when the teachers are asked about their friend's long-ago profession.

"He wasn't very good," they concede, and Sting laughs. He agrees.

Villa Sting — dubbed Palagio by its previous owners — is not a humble abode, but on the other hand, it's as low-key a deal as you might expect for a former instructor turned global rock star.

The main house is large and rambling, filled with books and paintings and heavy dark wood furniture. Right away you know a lot of people are living there, and that they hardly ever leave.

When we'd called earlier to see what we could bring from town, Theresa, Sting's assistant, replied: "Newspapers." During holidays at the house, Sting — who does not go on the Internet, thanks — rarely ventures outside the walls.

"The last time we really went into Florence was to show Dustin Hoffman and his family around," Theresa said. "Otherwise, there's no reason to leave."

Buffet lunch, picnic-style, was served at a long narrow table under a shady arbor. Twenty or more hungry mouths pulled up chairs.

Our friend's 10-year-old daughter, Anna, a fan of Queen and the Beatles, drew the coveted seat right across from Sting. He was extremely amused when she fired a bunch of questions at him like a journalist in training: "What's it like to be a character on 'The Simpsons'? Why do they call you 'Sting'?" And, more importantly: "You were on Conan O'Brien? What's he like?"

"What's he like?" Sting repeats, bemused. He answers each one like a pro, without flinching.

The talk at lunch is politics, of course, with a little Michael Jackson gossip thrown in. ("You mean you don't have life-sized mannequins in your bedroom, Sting? I thought all rock stars did.") With Sting, there is always the rain forest.

"The election isn't just about Iraq," he offers, "it's also about the environment."

This launches a dozen new mini-debates. He's just seen "Fahrenheit 9/11" and wants to talk about it. Around the table each new person introduces himself, with dad beaming as his daughters chat about their latest adventures.

(Older sons Joe, 27, and Jake, 19, it was explained, were off on their own summer escapades. Sting is particularly proud of Joe, who's making a name for himself with a hot rock group called Fiction Plane, signed to Geffen Records.)

After lunch there is a tour of the premises. Of course, there is a special place for yoga, with mats set up in a beautiful chapel housed in a separate nearby building. The chapel boasts frescoes commissioned by Sting and Trudie, but the owner promises they're all to be changed soon.

"We liked the artist and told him to do whatever he wanted," Sting explains, pointing to the faux Botticelli renderings. "But I think we're going to do more."

The couple knows their art, as it turns out. He reveals to one of our friends, a Renaissance art maven: They have a real Lorenzo di Credi back in England.

The compound also contains a working farm and wine-producing vineyard.

"When we first saw the place, the wine we were served was wonderful," Sting recalls. "Later, when we couldn't get it that way ourselves, we asked what was wrong. The manager said, 'It's because the wine you were served didn't come from here!'" He laughs and shakes his head. "We're working on it."

Sting is ready for a swim. The women in our group are happy to stay, since the rock star is shining like a golden god in the sun.

But come on: The walled city of Siena awaits. You can't stay in Valhalla forever. It's time to go back to Earth.

Soon Sting will have to descend there as well: A new leg of his "Sacred Love" tour with Annie Lennox resumes tonight, Sept. 24, in Las Vegas and doesn't end until Dec. 9 in Copenhagen, with not one but two nights at the Hollywood Bowl (September 28 and 29).

One look around at this idyll, and you wonder why he does it.

"It's my job," he says without flinching. He's got a family to support, after all.