“I never wanted to be on TV,” says one of Britain and Ireland’s biggest TV stars. “It was never part of the plan. Never, ever. I just wanted to be a manager.”
Louis Walsh and I are sitting alone in a dining-room in Dublin's Intercontinental Hotel where the staff are preparing for breakfast the next morning. They know him here. He's friendly, charming, obsessed with music and casually gossipy.
He wanted to be a music manager, he says, “because I never wanted a real job”.
He grew up the second-oldest of nine in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, where his mother ran the farm and his father was a taxi man who also worked in the local bakery and loved music. "The King and I and My Fair Lady and John McCormack. I can remember them all. I can see the actual albums."
Walsh himself quickly became obsessed. He would buy a 45 record in Castlebar every week and tape the Top 10 off the radio. He was soon managing a three-piece local band called Time Machine. Then he found himself employed in a bar owned by members of the Royal Blues showband. And then he was working for their manager, Tommy Hayden, in Dublin. "I would answer the phone, do the fan mail, go to the dry cleaners with Red Hurley's white suits."
He thinks every manager needs to start with such things. He sketches out more than a decade working for Irish acts such as Linda Martin and showband Chips and trailing around Europe after Johnny Logan carrying his bags and backing tracks.
And then one day in 1993, he went to see Take That. This was Louis Walsh’s Sex Pistols moment, the moment he saw the future. “They were brilliant . . . It wasn’t what I was expecting. I said to two journalists: ‘I’m going to do a band like that.’ And they wrote the story the following day and put my number in and the phone started ringing.”
Some 150 turned up for auditions (nowadays there would be thousands) and before long the nascent Boyzone were goofing around to ridicule on The Late Late Show. "I was so naive then. So naive. I remember all the credible rock managers in Dublin falling around laughing at me . . . but I had the last laugh."
His eyes twinkle and he smiles. “I could tell you the managers . . .”
“Go on,” I say. He changes his mind. “They’re all out of business now.”
It wasn’t easy, he says. He recalls days on the phone rustling up publicity and gigs and convincing people to work with him. “It worked because I was naïve and didn’t know any better. The boys had great personalities and no matter where we went people liked them. They mightn’t have been the best singers.”
Indeed, he once called them “Ronan, Stephen and three Ringo Starrs”.
He laughs when I remind him of this. “But that’s fine. Ringo’s still alive. He’s doing well. He has an OBE or something . . . I say things I shouldn’t say and as I’m saying it I know I shouldn’t say it.”
What’s the life cycle of a boyband?
“They all start out best friends. Then they start making money, they get girlfriends who want careers on the back of the band as well.” He sighs. “When you hear, ‘We want to write our own songs,’ that’s when to get out . . . ‘F**k off, you can’t even write your name, never mind f**king write a hit song.’”
He also had to manage their private lives. Did he worry about Stephen Gately being outed as gay?
"That was Stephen's biggest fear because our biggest market was girls and he was so unsure of himself," he says. "He was such a nice kid to work with . . . Unlike most of the others he was grateful. He would thank me all the time." He sighs. "He went too early . . . I used pretend he had girlfriends. I would invent girlfriends for him every week . . . I put him with Mandy Smith, Ruby Wax and one of the Spice Girls."
Ruby Wax? “Don’t ask! But they were together and I had her on his lap or something and we were laughing about it . . . Any girl I could get to sit with Stephen I’d say was his girlfriend.”
What does he think of this in retrospect? "I just laugh . . . No. It was the right thing to do at the time. It was fine. That was part of the game. George Michael did it. Elton John did it. Everyone did it, who was gay. Things have changed now and people don't care, but then it was different."
Did he do much of that sort of image management? “I did a lot of it.”
What sorts of other things was he covering up? "I was handling all sorts of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Nothing serious. But if you were trying to seal a deal with Pepsi or something you had to be squeaky clean."
Can he be more specific? "I honestly forget . . . Getting drunk, taking drugs, hanging out with girls they shouldn't be with . . . If they were on the Smash Hits tour, they'd all go back to the hotel, they'd all get drunk, they'd all end up in different rooms, you know?"
He returns to the subject of Stephen Gately. "I covered that up totally and he loved me for it . . . And then the Sun outed him and forced him and he didn't want to do it."
Was Walsh surprised by the reaction?
"I was. He got nothing but positivity. I think people loved him more. He was a real little pop star. He used to cause hysteria with girls that I haven't seen with any of the other guys in any of the bands. I used to see girls fainting. I remember being up at the basketball arena in Tallaght and there were all these ambulances outside. All these kids, they just identified with Stephen Gately. Show me where there was another. He had it."
Walsh started Westlife before Boyzone ended.
“I knew Boyzone was done. You get x amount of years at the top . . . boybands are like buses – there’s always another one coming along. [Then] I jump on the other bus . . . Ronan [Keating] had a solo career and I looked after him for a while. But he wanted to be George Michael and I knew he wasn’t George Michael. He wanted to write his own songs.”
With Westlife he worked with Simon Cowell, whom he first met backstage at Kenny Live when Cowell was managing Robson and Jerome. "I thought he was a very camp Englishman. Everything was 'Yes, darling' and 'No, darling'." At one point Cowell said, "Darling, we'll work together sometime," and Walsh said, "Well, you never took my calls about Boyzone so f**k ye."
I will never forget walking out on a Saturday night with Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne, household names who were opinionated and full of confidence, and I was just this Irish guy. I had no idea what I was getting into
Cowell wanted to break Westlife as much as Walsh did. Walsh brought him the six original band members and Cowell changed three of them. “He wanted me to change four of them. He wanted to change Shane [Filan].” Walsh went away and dyed Filan’s hair and Cowell knew no different. “That’s a true story,” says Walsh.
Were Westlife different to Boyzone? “They were different in that they knew what they were getting into . . . They were less trouble. They were probably less fun. But they knew what they wanted and they had great voices . . . 16 number ones,” he adds.
His first real foray as a TV talent show judge was Popstars: the Rivals in 2002, alongside Geri Halliwell and Pete Waterman from Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Walsh's band, Girls Aloud, won. "[Waterman] has never talked to me since. He hated losing. He told me he was the king of pop. He told me he invented pop music . . . but that was what made him Pete Waterman."
Walsh found himself out of his depth managing Girls Aloud, he says. “They had brilliant pop songs [but] it was harder . . . They all wanted to be Beyoncé. Looking back they probably scared me a little bit. If I’m being totally honest with you, I wasn’t the right guy to do it. I couldn’t talk to them about hair or makeup or dressing or styling . . . I think I told them once that they had to lose weight. They didn’t like that.” He laughs. “And I said [Nadine Coyle] had the best voice and the other girls hated me for it . . . It didn’t work out.”
He chuckles and says, as though it’s hilarious, “They should get back together.”
Does he still talk to his former mentee Cheryl Cole? "I talk to her. She might be coming back to X Factor this year."
Oh yes, Walsh is now most famous for The X Factor. At the start, that show terrified him. "It was scary. I had no confidence. I will never forget walking out on a Saturday night with Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne, household names who were opinionated and full of confidence, and I was just this Irish guy. I had no idea what I was getting into. No idea."
He had a bad start with Sharon, he says, because “I was on a radio show, reviewing records and I said [her daughter Kelly Osbourne’s song] was an absolute disaster, that she shouldn’t be singing, that she was only famous because of her family.”
He laughs. “They took such offence . . . That’s me having an opinion and saying what I think. I can’t stop myself . . . It took a long time but we became really good friends.”
Isn't part of the appeal of X Factor in the bickering? He shakes his head. "I don't like the bickering anymore. I really don't."
But it’s part of it. “It’s part of the panto.”
How much of it is real? “It’s all real . . . I can be up in his dressing-room with Simon and we’re being the best friends in the world, and we walk out and he goes through me, calls me everything.”
Did it hurt him? "It used to affect me," he says. "He used to call me everything, say I couldn't judge hamsters. That was his shtick then – Mr Nasty – and I would be sitting there thinking, 'how am I going to do this?' I had such low confidence. Now I don't care. But I've been doing it 13, 14 years. It's very daunting to walk out there on a live show with no script. We've to make it up on the spot." He sighs. "And people just want to be on TV now doing anything. Baking, cooking, dancing, Celebrity Big Brother, celebrity everything. I'm bored with it all."
It's a job and I do it. But I don't like it. I don't love the red carpet stuff. I just think it's horrible. Everyone wants to be on that red carpet now doing the same crap. Everyone wants to be famous
He recovers quickly. "But I do think X Factor is better because we've had a lot of hit records and acts."
Does he ever think it’s cruel? “Yes. I do. Occasionally. When someone gets through and they believe it and they’re not going to have any career . . . There are a lot of casualties.”
He talks a little about the general mindset of some participants. “These people think they’re brilliant. They think they deserve it and they think they’re stars.”
Does he not think that some great acts would never make it through the process? "Yes. If Leonard Cohen showed up we'd probably say 'no' because we wouldn't get it that he was a poet and was writing great, great songs. They have to deliver it in three minutes . . . And sometimes they're brilliant in that one song and that's it."
Was he hurt when he was replaced by Nick Grimshaw for the 2011 season? Yes, he says. "Luckily it didn't work because [Simon] hired me back and gave me more money and admitted he made a mistake. Simon's like that. He's very upfront with me . . . So I'm back and I'll probably get another year or two and that's great. You never know in this business."
What has it been like since he became more famous than most of the acts he manages? “I prefer ‘well-known’ to ‘famous’ . . . I didn’t want the attention or the publicity. I just liked being in the game and working with the people. I don’t want to be a celebrity. I never, ever did.”
Why not? “Honestly. I don’t like the culture. It’s fake.” Later, he says: “It’s all bullshit. I think it’s all bullshit.”
Why not stop doing it? “Because it pays me a lot of money. It’s a job and I do it. But I don’t like it. I don’t love the red carpet stuff. I just think it’s horrible. Everyone wants to be on that red carpet now doing the same crap. Everyone wants to be famous.”
Is that not partly because of shows like X Factor?
"Totally. I think I'm responsible for creating a lot of monsters." There's a pause. "Look at all the people from Westlife, Boyzone, Samantha Mumba, Girls Aloud, Jedward. There are so many people I helped become famous."
Are they grateful? “No. Most of them are not grateful at all.”
Why? “I don’t know . . . They think they deserve it. A sense of entitlement – ‘I didn’t need you.’” He looks at me and raises his eyebrows: “They did.”
None of this is said with bitterness. Walsh seems more amused than anything. It's also worth noting an interesting distinction in how Walsh talks about different kinds of music. He buys records all the time. He has, he says, more than 30,000 records. He regularly breaks off to enthuse about his heroes – Elton John, George Michael, The Bee Gees, Lulu, Dusty Springfield. He seems to attribute a certain level of supernatural genius to the acts he loves. In contrast, he attributes likability and graft to the stars he has managed himself.
Given a choice, he says, he will always choose a song he thinks will sell over a song that he actively loves for the acts he manages. And he puts huge emphasis on work ethic. Over the course of our interview he references the following, with appreciative respect: Linda Martin and Chips playing six nights a week; Gary Barlow’s years in northern working men’s clubs; the Beatles playing the clubs of Hamburg; and the way Beyoncé’s father and manager would make Destiny’s Child jog and sing every morning.
“Most of [my acts] couldn’t jog,” he says, “never mind jog and sing.”
‘Pulling the plug’
Not every act he has managed has become successful. “I’ve had lots of bands that didn’t work,” he says. “Wonderland and Bellefire didn’t work. The Carter Twins also didn’t work for me. They didn’t have it. [The record company] say, ‘Okay, we’re paying x amount of money for so long and after that we’re pulling the plug, you’re gone.’”
What do his family make of his career? His siblings are accountants, guards, nurses, people with “normal jobs”, he says. “[To them] I was just in Dublin doing something in music.”
His mother, with whom he was very close, now has Alzheimer’s. “She’s in okay health,” he says. “Not great but she’s okay.”
It was the scariest thing in my life. I blocked it out of my mind because people think, 'Oh there's no smoke without fire.' Luckily there was no fire
For her, Walsh appearing on The Late Late Show was much more significant than The X Factor. "If you're on The Late Late Show, that's the biggest thing."
Did he ever want family or children of his own? “No, no, no, no,” he says. “I don’t want kids. Honestly, I just don’t want them. No adopting. And I don’t want dogs in the house either. No, I don’t, honestly. I’m happy in my life.”
He glances at a newsfeed on one of his phones and changes the subject. "God, the Kerry Babies, " he says, shaking his head.
Why has he two phones? He explains that he's had them since he brought the Sun to court in 2011. He was afraid his phone was being tapped. The Sun had written a story about a now completely debunked allegation of sexual assault made against him. The accuser was eventually convicted for making a false accusation and Walsh successfully sued the paper for €500,000 in damages. This event comes up twice in our conversation and they're the only two times when his face falls, he stops smiling and looks momentarily haggard.
"That was the worst time of my life," he says. "Luckily, everything was untrue . . . It was the scariest thing in my life. I blocked it out of my mind because people think, 'Oh there's no smoke without fire.' Luckily there was no fire. But it was scary, scary, scary that someone in an Irish newspaper would try and ruin my life . . . Everyone said don't go up against Murdoch – you should just let them win. [I pursued it] because [lawyer] Paul Tweed let me. He knew he could win the case."
He talks about lying in bed at night worrying about the allegation. “I hate talking about it. It brings back bad memories. Really bad stuff. I was so scared. And I was so set up. And I can never let it go with the people involved . . . I can’t forgive them, ever. I was naive and open and so trusting.”
He's learned a horrible lesson, he says. He's still pretty accessible, by all accounts, but he's warier. He's in Dublin a lot and you might find him in Marks & Spencer or Brown Thomas or Tower Records stocking up his massive record collection. "Everywhere I go I do selfies with people."
How many selfies a day? “10 or 20.”
He thinks selfie culture is “awful” but also sees it as part of the deal. “You have to be nice to everybody. Even if you’re having a bad day you have to be nice . . . They expect you to be nice. I’ve seen [celebrities] be horrible to people and I think, ‘But that’s your job! You have to be nice!’”
Who are his friends? “Just ordinary people. Ordinary people nobody knows. People who are nothing to do with music.”
And famous people? “Simon and Sharon would be friends.”
He steers clear of social media, he says. "I'm not on Facebook, I'm not on Twitter, I'm not on . . . what's the other thing?"
"Instagram, " calls his PR woman.
“Thank you. I don’t look at any of those. I don’t want to know. Life’s too short and I’d prefer to look at something on TV.”
He binge-watches television, he says. He was up all night watching Narcos on Netflix and he watches Anderson Cooper on CNN every night. He's pretty busy. He says there will hopefully be a Westlife comeback at some point, The X Factor will be back later in the year, and he stars in the new Ireland's Got Talent on TV3, alongside Denise van Outen, Lucy Kennedy, Jason Byrne and Michelle Visage. It starts on Saturday night.
And then we spend a surprising 15 minutes talking about vintage country music: Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline ("my hero"), Tammy Wynette, Bobbie Gentry, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones. "You like country? You've changed my mind about you!" he says, disconcertingly, at the end.
We walk to the door where he chats warmly to the doorman. “This man really wants to meet Mel B,” he says to me.
“I do,” says the man bashfully.
Then he shakes my hand. “Bye,” he says. “Keep it country!”
- Ireland's Got Talent starts on TV3 on Saturday February 3rd.