After talking to them for over an hour, I can now tell identical twins John and Edward Grimes apart. John has a slightly deeper voice than Edward and there are also some short-term visual cues. "John's wearing the jacket with the patches," says Edward helpfully when they turn up on my laptop screen.
“And Edward is wearing the tribal leather biker jacket,” says John.
John and Edward first appeared on X-Factor in 2009, at which point their vertically styled hair, dapper suits and exuberant joie-de-vivre was imprinted on the collective consciousness as “Jedward”. They were 17.
Since then, they've had ups and downs in the music charts, scene-stealing appearances on Celebrity Big Brother and two of Ireland's most successful Eurovision bids in years. They recently shaved off their trademark quiffs on the Late Late Show for Daffodil Day, in solidarity with cancer sufferers like their late mother, and it's grown back now into sort of mohawks. They're due to appear as judges in the The Big Deal, a television talent show which debuts on Virgin Media One on September 4th. And they're having a surprising renaissance thanks to their open-hearted social media activism in support of causes like Black Lives Matter and the rights of transgender people.
In person, they’re a lot more thoughtful and mellow than you might expect based on their bouncy television appearances, though their sentences still run into one another as they talk. “We had a different energy to lots of people growing up,” says John. “We were always very much moving like a mystery. Even I didn’t know what I was going to get up to on the days I wanted to go out rollerblading or skating or kicking a ball.”
Were they bullied? "Because you didn't have social media, a lot of people couldn't find entertainment," says Edward. "Picking on people or bullying people was entertainment in school. We went to this private school [King's Hospital in Palmerstown, Co Dublin] and there was a lot of egos floating around. And we didn't come from those backgrounds of other people that had life so easy.… and there was a lot of stuff about status and what your dad does."
“I feel growing up there were a lot of people trying to take the attention off themselves and using you as a scapegoat and putting the attention back on you,” says John. “I remember back in school I had a velvet baby-blue-slash-navy tracksuit and I had people going, ‘Oh, you’re gay.’… People trying to define you from such an early age [when] you’re just going about your business.”
They had their own style from very early on. "Me and John, found a love for buying stuff in charity shops," says Edward. "We'd buy shirts. We'd buy blazers… We'd find ourselves buying Canali suits, all these expensive brands [second hand]. And we kind of made a style for ourselves because we really liked Justin Timberlake. We'd find ourselves wearing like Polo Ralph Lauren, things that we could never afford or have the nerve to ask our mom to buy. And we'd find awesome things." He turns to John and grins. "We still find awesome things. Still, to this day, you need to go with your own gut instinct and be you, beyond people's judgement or opinions because they themselves are too scared to wear a silver jacket.… Nowadays I think things are a lot more accepting… In 2009 when we came on the scene, it probably wasn't the best timing... We were like an astronaut."
Was auditioning for X-Factor an obvious choice for them? “It was weird, because we’d never sung for our family,” says Edward. “The only thing we’d previously done was a singing competition in Wesley and we’d been in the choir in school, which wasn’t the coolest thing.”
'A lot of the things that were said to us [on X Factor] were over the top… I don't think anyone else could have taken them. They wouldn't be acceptable today'
“We weren’t stage school kids,” says John. “We had no experience at all.”
What did they like to do? “We used to do lots of running and we used to find ourselves getting two buses to our running training,” says Edward. “So we were really determined and that kind of gave us that drive, that energy, that feeling before going on stage. It was the same feeling as before a running race.”
So where did their confidence come from? “We didn’t have that much confidence,” says Edward, improbably.
“There’s the bright lights and you’ve had a shower and you feel good about yourself and you’ve got your gold shoes you got in a charity shop,” says John. “It’s not necessarily confidence, just that we had each other and we were singing a song that we liked. And we were kind of naïve.”
“When I’m on stage, the fact that people in the audience believe in you, it kind of bounces back on to you and you just want to inspire them and give them the energy they need,” says Edward. “A lot of times when we haven’t been the happiest we still brought the energy for everyone else. When we meet sick kids in hospital we want to make it a memorable experience for them. We weren’t selfish, saying, ‘I’m not feeling good today so I’m not going to make people happy.’ Because we just realised that it was our job and that’s who we are.”
They’ve been critical of X-Factor in the past. “You show up with good intentions and you realise there’s so many people trying to mould you and lock you in, deciding what your path is going to be, what your narrative is going to be,” says John. “You find yourself a piece in this game of Monopoly.”
“You find yourself in contracts with people who own your likeness, your image and your name,” says Edward. “A lot of the things that were said to us [on X Factor] were over the top… I don’t think anyone else could have taken them. They wouldn’t be acceptable today.”
How do you feel about Simon Cowell now? "I think he's a very opinionated person who's never had a music lesson in his life and he's never been on stage," says John. "And I think about us – we're judges on our new show – but we're there with good intentions, we want the best for the people on the stage and how they can progress. We're not trying to make money off this person or thinking how we can exploit this to the max or lock someone in or make gains off somebody."
Of Louis Walsh, Edward says: "Louis, when he was our manager, we only met him a handful of times in our life and he'd always come out with the same things. I kind of feel with everyone who worked with us in the earlier days, they never thought we were going to keep going."
What’s their take on fame now, after over a decade experiencing it? “Kids are made to feel that you have to be famous or you have to be a singer but if you become a nurse you’re just as much a success,” says Edward. “And I know we’re singers on a pedestal, but it shouldn’t be that way. In any other career, 10 years into your career at our point we’d be like CEOs. Fame comes like an injection. It’s gone very fast.”
What’s it like being famous? “On stage you’re obviously able to be as big and loud as you want to be,” says John. “But in your everyday life, you’re very introverted. You’ve got to go around wearing a hoodie, being low key and the opposite of who you want to be.”
'Everyone wanted to interview us, but we just felt it wasn't our time. A lot of black artists, it was their time to say what they felt. It wasn't our place'
"I remember it would be suffocating to go into a shopping centre knowing that if one person spotted you it would be this endless trail of dominoes and it would be 'Jedward, Jedward, Jedward,'" says Edward. "People know our voices before they see us sometimes. We're not Justin Bieber or Michael Jackson but it seems like there's that hysteria when people meet us. It's almost like a sighting of a UFO or something. People are like, 'It's them!' And they almost don't believe it."
“A lot of people are very welcoming, and sweet and nice but it’s very strange sometimes,” says John.
They have a place in LA, though they love living in Ireland and love being back here. "The thing about LA is we can live it up and live it down and we can make music a lot easier and not every single person knows you," says John.
“We ran the LA Marathon as well because it’s nice to be in a public space and not have people go, ‘Oh, there’s Jedward running the marathon’,” says Edward
A lot of newspapers made a big deal of the fact Jedward were quarantining with the actress and star of American Pie, Tara Reid. They've been close friends since appearing on Celebrity Big Brother together in 2011. "She kind of lives in the same building," says Edward. "She's a few floors up from us."
“I feel like she took us under her wing and brought us places that we wouldn’t have necessarily ever been,” says John. “Like we’d find ourselves in Santa Fe on Roberto Cavalli’s yacht.”
Living partly in LA has led to other things. Last June, they tweeted videos and pictures of themselves participating in a Black Lives Matter protest with one of them astride a moving car holding a Black Lives Matter sign. It went viral.
"We never wanted it to be such a moment," says Edward. "We were just doing what everyone else was doing, turning up showing their support. Everyone wanted to interview us, but we just felt it wasn't our time. A lot of black artists, it was their time to say what they felt. It wasn't our place. We were just allies showing our support... And we were all just like everyone else in that protest. We weren't 'Jedward at a protest'." He turns to John. "It was crazy like…. We live near Hollywood Boulevard. On the same day, everyone was posting black squares on Instagram. I was like 'John, what is this going to do for anyone? We need to get out there'… And we were out there for four or five hours…. and I got this really bad sunburn. I posted, 'Put your sunscreen on kids!'"
Did they hold back on their opinions in the past? “We would say things in interviews but it just wouldn’t be put in the interview,” says John. “We’ve always been ourselves and chatted and communicated with people [but people] make up their own reality of what was what.”
“We’re going to be 30 so we’re not these teen popstars,” says Edward. “Sometimes with record labels and management you’d be very closely watched. ‘Delete that.’ ‘Don’t say this.’”
Because they think that a lot of journalists end up writing pieces about them that say more about their own preconceptions than anything else, they’re usually wary of print interviews. They think their social conscience shouldn’t really be a surprise due to the close relationship they’ve fostered with their fans. “Over the years, we have found ourselves being the support network for so many young people,” says Edward. “I’ve called people after they’ve tried to commit suicide, in hospital. I’ve almost become a therapist to so many people reaching out to us on social media… Every issue in the book has been reached out to us. The fact is these people find a light in us that they don’t find in their families or their communities.”
“To people watching in, ‘There’s John and Edward just doing their thing, not a care in the world’ when every day we have people outside our house, people for years communicating with us [from] a dark place,” says John.
“And you see the transformation of this person who was cutting their wrists now dyeing their hair and finding a new version of themselves,” says Edward. “Sometimes I feel like people think we’re just making music on stage, but we have been this massive thing for a lot of people.”
Their supposedly newfound politics, they say, is just a natural extension of wanting people to be free to be their truest selves. In this context their vocal support for the rights of transgender people, for example, doesn’t seem such a big step. “We have had fans who have transitioned,” says Edward. “People in our fandom … We’re not experts but we like to reach out and go, ‘Okay, we’re here for you. We’re open for this conversation.’”
“Even growing up in school we were accepting of anybody who was obviously different, or who wanted to go about life in a different way and were just being themselves when other people had a problem with it,” says John. “If someone was trans or if they were gay, we were always very accepting and open to hearing their story and where they were coming from. Maybe publicly we never got to air it as much.”
What’s their day-to-day life like in Dublin? They laugh. “Getting the Dart, getting buses, we live such a chill normal thing,” says Edward.
“My everyday life is that I’m always writing lyrics, poetry, trying ideas,” says John.
They have slightly different roles in the Jedward operation. Edward keeps his eye on the business side, he says. John works out things on his guitar and focuses more on the musical vision. Their next album, they plan to be more stripped down, acoustic and raw and they’re even considering a pop-punk side project. They don’t think anyone has noticed how much they’ve developed.
“Our last album [Voice of a Rebel] was 22 tracks and we made that album completely ourselves,” says Edward. “I feel if people come to our concerts now it’s not going to be all about the music, it’s going to be about what we stand for and what we represent. It’s almost like a community of people have come together.”
“I’d love to do radio or have a TV show where we actually sit down and have an in-depth conversation like we’re doing now,” says John, “actually find people’s perspective.”
Will they still work together as Jedward in 10 or 20 years? They laugh. “100 per cent,” says Edward. “We’ve invested too much in Jedward.”
Do they still live together? They laugh again. “I think maybe in the 30s and 40s we’ll find two different lives,” says Edward. “You’ll have another house and maybe split the finances. Right now it’s all an accumulation of one goal.”
Do they have space for relationships? “This year I’ve been going on dates here and there,” says John.
“No dates, John, the pandemic was happening,” says Edward.
“I meant recently!” says John. (They’re stringent about the pandemic protocols).
“It’s hard to go on dates because a lot of people have these preconceptions,” says Edward.
'You have these moments where it really catches you and you feel this drowning of emotion like walls closing in on you'
There was a recent news story about how they were going to help a close friend have a baby. That’s true, they say, but it’s not imminent. It’s something that might happen in the future. “She has frozen her eggs,” says Edward.
“I don’t mind helping a friend to conceive a child, but I myself obviously want to have my own children and get married,” says John.
“It’s weird for me and John, because we’re 30 this year, but everyone still sees us as early 20s and they kind of treat us in a way that they wouldn’t treat another 30-year-old,” says Edward.
And they've been through a lot. Their mother, Susanna Condron, who managed them and encouraged them through everything, died of cancer in 2019. "It's a horrible situation to have gone through," says Edward. "I remember, our mom came to LA with us and we were walking and she found herself so out of breath… But we didn't know what was wrong in the early stages."
“It was very hard,” says John. “Even last night I was thinking, ‘Wow, my mom’s gone.’ You have these moments where it really catches you and you feel this drowning of emotion like walls closing in on you.”
“Our mom sacrificed a lot to get us to where we are,” says Edward. “She got us to school, to private school. She worked really hard. She was a teacher and a lot of her students meet us and they call her Miss Condron and it’s crazy to think that she impacted so many people that she taught.” He pauses. “You feel so lost sometimes.”
She influenced them hugely, but they think they influenced her too, later in life. “The fact that we were Jedward and we were expressing ourselves and going against the grain, even looking at my mom, her style and how she carried herself,” says John. “She was finding herself more as we found ourselves.”
As the interview comes to an end they worry about rambling on. “I feel like when you write a song you can really focus on what you want to say,” says John.
“We appreciate you interviewing us,” says Edward.
“Where’s your local?” says John. “Where would we spot you?”
“We’ll look for the beard,” says Edward. They imagine a scenario in which we bump into each other. John laughs and turns to Edward: “He’ll probably think he’s getting mugged.”