Life after boy bands: how Westlife and Boyzone coped when reality hit
Brian McFadden and Keith Duffy on their curious transitions to the real world
Boyzlife: Keith Duffy and Brian McFadden performing in Mumbai this month. Photograph: Aalok Soni/Hindustan Times via Getty
For Brian McFadden it was getting dressed that proved a problem. During the peak of his Westlife fame, when life was a whirlwind of sold-out arenas, endless flights and screaming fans in every time zone, the band had a small army of cooks, cleaners and stylists looking after their every whim, leaving them to focus squarely on their nightly performances. But here McFadden was, in 2004, having just left the group to go solo, staring at his wardrobe and not knowing where to start.
“I was used to someone waking me up in the morning and then some girl coming in to give me an outfit,” he says, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. “Looking back at pictures from that time, where I had to pick my own outfit and do my own hair . . . I have to say I made some very questionable choices. Cream suede shirts and my hair all wrong. I kind of looked like an old lesbian aunt.”
McFadden’s wardrobe malfunction seems to sum up the strange, lonely and frequently ridiculous life of men who were once in boy bands. Because, for all the ego-inflation that comes with topping the charts, trotting the globe and being chased down the street by gangs of Japanese schoolgirls, one day it stops suddenly. And when it does you have to go home to a normal, humdrum existence and work out how to use a tin opener.
Our stylists used to take us to Selfridges and spend £50,000 in a day. It took me a while to realise that I could buy a T-shirt in H&M for a fiver
For Derek Moran of Boyzone’s fellow Irish boy band D-Side, clothes were also a problem – in his case working out how to buy them. “Our stylists used to take us to Selfridges and spend £50,000 in a day, so whenever I had money I’d just go there,” he says. “It took me a while to realise that there were other shops to go to – and that I could buy a T-shirt in H&M for a fiver.”
Moran had moved from Dublin at 16 to live in a shared house in London with the rest of D-Side. He got the full boy-band experience – screaming girls in baggage reclaim, being flown by private jet to perform for princesses. But when the band called it a day they found it hard to adjust to the real world. “We’d be trying to make toast and the fire alarm would be going off. Or there’d be flies all over the salad because nobody told us it needed washing.”
Most boy-band members I speak to have similar stories. Things that most of us take for granted – arriving at an airport with your passport, for example – they had never been told, or had long since forgotten after years of intensive mollycoddling. While most of us are picking up the basic lessons of adulthood, they are stuck in an Australian hotel room telling their 23rd interviewer of the day about their favourite sandwich.
Although comical stories abound, getting over being in a boy band can be psychologically demanding. Not only do you have to process everything you have been through, but you also have to learn a new life in which everyone around you has moved on. There are not that many vacancies at the job centre that ask for the ability to dance in time while wearing a pair of glittery dungarees. And if members expect to live a cushy life for a bit they may be in for a shock.
“I had this vision of hanging out with my kids and seeing my mates,” McFadden says. “But as soon as I got home everyone around me was off to work and the kids were in school. I’d end up begging my mates to go hooky off work so we could play golf. I went from being surrounded by all these people every day and singing in front of thousands to being surrounded by . . . nobody.”
McFadden was certain he wanted to leave Westlife – his six years with the band had been lived at turbo speed – he had bought a house, got married and had kids in that time – and after the gruelling schedules he needed a break. But he found himself missing his bandmates more than he had expected. “It was like the breakup of a marriage or a family,” he says. “That’s how close you become.”
For Keith Duffy of Boyzone moving on was especially hard; he had no desire to quit the band in the first place. “I felt it was the wrong time to take a hiatus [Boyzone took a seven-year break from 2000]. We were at the top of our game, everything we released was topping the charts and we were conquering more countries all the time. To leave it all behind . . . I was very scared.”
Despite spending six years with a world-famous group, Duffy had no confidence in his ability to sing: Ronan Keating and Stephen Gately had covered Boyzone’s lead vocals, and Louis Walsh, their manager, had taken the view that you don’t mess with a winning formula. “A solo career didn’t seem like an option for me,” he says. “I was in a situation where, yes, I was famous, but what was I actually going to do for the rest of my life?”
Settling at home was hard for Duffy. “All the day-to-day things people do – school runs, dinner, football . . . your family has learned to get on and do that without you. Plus, it doesn’t matter how grounded you are: all the adulation you get on the road gives you an ego. That makes it harder to blend back in.”
Matt Goss was still a teenager when Bros became the biggest band in Britain, topping the charts and becoming the youngest group to sell out Wembley Stadium. He was barely into his 20s when it all came crashing down. Unlike the other boy-band members I speak to, Goss does not seem to acknowledge the absurd elements of his former life – if anything, I worry that he still seems to be seeking affirmation for it. Our scheduled 15-minute phone chat ends up running over the hour mark as he heads down tangents and makes a series of boasts: about how intelligent and well versed in politics he is; how he has a phenomenal relationship with the press; that he is the proud owner of a Caesars Palace Icon award after completing an eight-year residency at the Vegas casino. “I like to be the creator of memories, but also someone who can create new destinations,” he says at one point.
It is a confusing chat, but somewhere within it is a sad story about the difficulty of adjusting to a new life once enormous fame is pulled out from under you. Goss talks about his heartbreak at Bros ending and the bravery it took to head to the United States, where he was virtually unknown. “We were two of the most famous people in the world, and we couldn’t go anywhere without bodyguards,” he says. “But here people didn’t know that. I would have to say: ‘I just played Wembley Stadium and every country in the world!’ ”
Worse than the damage to the ego was getting used to life without bodyguards, which left Goss feeling agoraphobic. “I remember one terrible moment in a shopping mall in America where everything seemed to go in slow motion. It got the better of me. I didn’t know how to navigate a place full of people without someone whisking me away.”
It sounds like a huge adjustment to make, but Goss switches to a contrary story and says that he has never needed to adjust. “Fame doesn’t go away,” he says. “I’ve been recognised every day for 100 per cent of my adult life. I just went to the throat doctor in Beverly Hills and there were 17 paparazzi there. You get used to the sound.”
The mix of bravado and vulnerability makes it hard to get a true picture of what life after Bros was really like for Goss. It is hard not to think he has been deeply affected by the experience. Regardless of that, he has succeeded in carving out a career in the US and recently brought back Bros with his brother, Luke.
They used to teach me how to walk ‘straight’, up and down the aisles of a grocery store. Right from the beginning I couldn’t be who I was
The issues of post-boy-band life sound difficult to deal with – and the scars run deeper for some. Kevin Yee was only 15 when he was recruited from Canada for Quincy Jones’s US boy band Youth Asylum – he had been doing musical theatre work when a call came in looking for “an Asian guy who can sing”. Although he allowed himself to get swept along with the idea, he soon had doubts about the lifestyle – Yee was gay, but still in the closet. In an eye-opening Reddit discussion in 2014 Yee recounted the indignities he faced during his time in the band: the lack of control over each day; how he was left in debt; and alleged attempts by the band’s management to hide his sexuality from fans. (“They used to teach me how to walk ‘straight’, up and down the aisles of a grocery store,” he wrote.) “Right from the beginning I couldn’t be who I was,” he says now.
Youth Asylum did not make it big, and Yee never spoke to the other band members again, moving back to Canada to work in a clothes store. “It was crushing, humiliating. The one time I was recognised, I was sweeping the floor and I thought, This is the lowest of the low.”
Back in his hometown Yee watched as his friends from school went off to college and new jobs, and he thought, I’ve had my chance – now my life is over. Eventually, though, he pushed himself to move back into musical theatre, landing a role in Mamma Mia!. It took a while for Yee to get over his boy-band life, but he seems to be doing well now – a new comedy career is growing steadily. (It includes writing and performing comedy songs that parody the pop music he once purveyed, all created using skills he learned during his time with Youth Asylum.)
All the other boy-band members have moved on and found success, too. Moran got into television presenting and is the face of Channel 5’s kids show Milkshake! – he says growing up on stage was the perfect preparation for presenting, because he learned to be comfortable in front of cameras and picked up some of the more technical aspects of sound and lighting.
Duffy starred as Ciaran McCarthy in Coronation Street and still performs with Boyzone, while McFadden has a solo album out this autumn. The latter pair also tour as part of Boyzlife, a jovial Evening With-style event that involves a mixture of memory-lane hits and old war stories from the perspective of two megastars. The idea of them on stage recounting tales of what they went through on a nightly basis sounds kind of like therapy.
“Absolutely!” says Duffy. “We used to say that every night was like a counselling session.”
And what did the fans make of that?
“The fans?” he says, laughing. “They were the counsellors!” – Guardian