In-love Gately neatly turns the tables on straight expectations

Just imagine, for one reality-suspending moment, that you're a member of a top boy band; one that's had six No 1 singles in six…

Just imagine, for one reality-suspending moment, that you're a member of a top boy band; one that's had six No 1 singles in six years, and whose greatest-hits album has outsold every other record released in 1999.

In return for success, you've agreed to abide by conditions most men your age would balk at. Not for you the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle most groups consider their just reward. Constantly reminded of your duty as a role model, you have to settle for sneaking the occasional beer in private. Drugs? Not worth the risk. Not with a contract that forbids you to go so much as snowboarding in case you hurt yourself.

Your popularity is based on maintaining the absolute loyalty of little girls. So, despite your group's name sounding like a gay chatline, your image is beefily heterosexual; you've been linked with Baby Spice, one of the Eternal girls and Mandy Smith.

Recently, your fellow band members have all married or settled down, and you want to settle, too. You've found the right person, and are thinking of setting up home. The only fly in the ointment is that your new partner, whom you glowingly call "absolutely perfect for me", is a man.


Which is why Stephen Gately found himself on the front page of the Sun on June 16th last under the headline "Boyzone Stephen: I'm Gay And I'm In Love". It wasn't the way that 23-year-old Gately would have chosen to break the news, but he'd had no choice, once the paper warned him that a former security guard was touting the story around the tabloids.

After agonised discussions with his partner, Eloy, and the rest of Boyzone, Gately gave the Sun an interview, then sat back to await his fate.

"I was really nervous, because I didn't know which way it would go," he says, nearly six months later. "It could have been really bad or really positive. The worst-case scenario was that the public wouldn't support me." He's so soft-spoken that it's easy to miss the import of the words "the public wouldn't support me".

Boy bands live or die by mass public approval, without which the platinum discs they collect like so many sweets would cease. With their millions of sales, Boyzone were at the very top, and Gately's revelation posed a great risk.

He knew that he couldn't count on much press support. Since emerging in 1993 as clones of the then-reigning Take That, the quintet - whose other members are Ronan Keating, Shane Lynch, Keith Duffy and Mikey Graham - have enjoyed particularly lukewarm reviews.

Thus the unusually close relationship between Boyzone and their public. No critics like them, but they don't care. Millions of other people do, and those people aren't slow to tell reviewers where to get off. The merest suggestion that Boyzone might have got where they are because of their looks rather than their musical appeal provokes sheaves of angry denials scrawled on school exercise paper.

Gately needn't have worried. Boyzone fans look after their own, and when Stephen was in trouble they rallied round. "I couldn't believe the reaction. I got millions of e-mails and letters from people in all walks of life - young, old, gay, straight, some from gay people who hadn't come out and didn't know what to do.

"All these letters. I've got boxes of them. When I feel a bit down in the morning, I'll get up and have some toast and coffee and read a couple. That much support for an individual is incredible," he says.

A dozen celebrities who had paved the way out of the closet, or who just wanted to show solidarity, rallied round. "Graham Norton sent a beautiful letter, Elton sent flowers, George Michael rang . . . um . . . even Billy Connolly said, `Who gives a shit?' "

He adds: "There's been no homophobia at all, except the odd slagging from lads on the street, but let them."

Part of the secret of Boyzone's success is that they've always looked like old friends, a gang, even at the start, when they were strangers to each other. But they're the exception in an industry where the distinction between pop and showbiz grows ever more blurred.

The depressingly large number of candidates for every TV-presenter or boy-band job proves that some people really, really want nothing more than to have their name recognised by everyone in the country.

Gately was one of them. Or so he says, though nowhere in his introverted childhood was there a portent of the fierce ambition crucial to pop success. The second-youngest of five from Sheriff Street in Dublin, he was quiet and reflective.

"I was into life and scenery and snowfalls. I would sit wrapped in a duvet, watching the rain. I still like to. It costs nothing to walk around a park or read a book."

The picture he paints, here in the neutral elegance of a Chelsea hotel, doesn't seem so far removed from the adult he became. If Gately has a band persona, it's Sensitive Zone: gentle, vulnerable, prone to blushing.

His sister, Michelle, calls him "a soft child, a lot softer than the rest of us". He has an open face with the compulsory long-lashed blue eyes, the kind of face little girls and their older sisters fell for in their thousands.

One of the two lead singers, along with Keating, he gets the second-largest volume of fan mail.

Although he tried dating girls, he knew by the age of 16 that his feelings lay elsewhere.

"I wasn't quite sure, but there were little telltale signs. I'd think, `That guy is good-looking', or I'd notice someone on TV. It's very difficult for a young person. I didn't really know any gay people as a kid."

He had begun singing and dancing lessons when he was 12 and, around the time he was discovering his sexuality, answered an ad for five boys to form a pop group.

Ironically, he clinched the audition by singing Careless Whisper by George Michael, whose own outing five years later was something of a test case in public acceptance of homosexuality. For a Catholic, Gately was surprisingly untroubled by guilt.

"Never thought of it," he says with a definitive shake of his head. "Never. I've never thought that God would come down and say that I can't do this or that. I went to church and sang at Christmas Mass, but I stopped going because I couldn't sit there bored out of my head for an hour.

"God forgives everything. I read a book called Conversations With God, by Neil Walsh, which explained a lot of things. This is the only life I have, and in a hundred years' time, who'll give a . . ?" he trails off.

A what?

"Shit," he whispers, blushing.

A grown man who turns pink when he swears mildly has either done far more interviews on kiddie TV shows than is good for him, or is unusually sweet and innocent. All the harder, then, to fathom his attraction to the showbiz world he's inhabited since he was 16. Why didn't he follow the route of most musically-inclined boys by joining a rock band and playing to people his own age?

The answer concerns the expectations you grow up with in Boyzone's part of the world, which is better known for producing Eurovision winners than rock bands (U2 excluded). Ideas about hipness that govern the English music scene carry less weight in Ireland, where an inoffensive family act such as the Corrs sells proportionately as many records as Oasis do in England. As the pragmatic Keating told me, "You ultimately go with anything you think will go somewhere. We're not the most talented band and we've never been credible, but we do look for respect."

Gately had already confided in his sister that he was gay ("I always thought you were," was her response), but kept the secret from the rest of Boyzone for the first five months, afraid that spilling the beans "would mean goodbye to any chance of fame".

When he finally told them, he was relieved at their reaction. It says a good deal for the other four band members that Gately's news was met with the assurance that it made no difference.

It was considered expedient to keep the matter within the group, however. No boy band had ever had an openly gay member - though plenty had closeted ones - and it was judged that advertising it would make them less appealing not just to prepubescent fans but to parents who provide pocket money for records.

One of the contradictions of the boy-band business is that it employs a large number of gay men - singers, managers, stylists - to create a product aimed at small girls.

Most bands got their early experience playing gay clubs, whose contribution is so significant that the biggest groups, such as Five, still do Saturday-night personal appearances at the GAY disco in London's Charing Cross Road. Yet the people who buy the records are overwhelmingly female, and it's they who decide a boy band's ultimate fate.

The band's Boyzone's manager, Louis Walsh, was clearly ambivalent. A journalist who interviewed Boyzone three years ago recalls: "He said to me, `Stephen's gay, and we're terrified it'll get out'. I was really surprised, because he knew my tape recorder was going. I don't know why he told me, but I didn't use it."

If Walsh's revelation had appeared at the time, it might have spared Gately three years of concealing his sexuality, ever fearful that the next day would bring the phone call he dreaded. Wary of starting a relationship, he had what he calls "a few romances", but avoided involvement.

"People would have found out," he remembers unhappily. Did he try to submerge his sexuality in work? "You'd think about it every day, but you'd just get on with things. The first couple of years were just mad, anyway. We were constantly working in Japan, Europe, everywhere, and it was hard on all the guys having to leave their partners to go on the road all the time."

It was during this turbulent time that he met Eloy de Jong, singer with a Dutch boy group called Caught In The Act, who are big in Germany. They began to run into each other at the endless calendar of European awards ceremonies and became friends, though it took several years for love to blossom.

In the meantime, Gately was living with the increasing stress of suppressing his true nature. Asked if it was a terrible strain, he sighs resoundingly, reliving it in his mind.

"Sometimes I'd be grouchy and fans would say, `Are you OK, Stephen?' and I'd be thinking, `No, there's a problem, but I can't tell you.' For the first few years it wasn't so much of a problem, but in the last few, when we got bigger and bigger with more and more attention, it got harder."

Did he ever think of getting a cover girlfriend, a decoy, as George Michael apparently did back in the 1980s?

"Well, there were so-called `links' between me and Emma Bunton and one of the girls from Eternal and Mandy Smith. We were just mates, but when you're seen going for a drink with someone, you get seen as a couple. When a story would break with Mandy or Emma, it would certainly take the pressure off for a while."

But as the rest of Boyzone settled down, with Lynch actually marrying one of Eternal, the pressure increased. Gately was by now the odd one out, the seemingly luckless one who just couldn't find the right girl.

He points out, as a matter of pride, that technically he never lied, but instead used the genderneutral terms "person" and "they" when describing the "girl" he supposedly hoped to meet.

"People would ask about my favourite girls and I'd describe a man I fancied - blue eyes, brown hair, whatever. I always said, `the right person', never the `girl'." He sighs again, depressed at the memory. It must have cost him a great deal to put so much effort into being what he wasn't.

"I used to be so paranoid that people would know. I'd be down in the dumps, being in the public eye for six years and always having to explain why I didn't have a girlfriend."

Did he ever play up to gay men at gigs? "No!" he says, offended. "I'd play to whoever was in the front row - grannies, mums, guys. I'm not majorly confident offstage, but on-stage I go mad. I love being up there. It's what I do best.

"God knows what I would've done if I hadn't joined a band, because a lot of people I used to know are on drugs and things. I know how lucky I am."

Yet he spent offstage time consumed by worry. It seems extraordinary that, on the cusp of the 21st century, his life should have been defined by the need to conceal something so simple.

That Boy George writes a weekly column for the Express newspaper proves that traditional social groupings can live with homosexuality, albeit only because homophobia is no longer socially acceptable.

It's 14 years since Rock Hudson felt compelled to lie about his AIDS until just a few weeks before his death, and every member of the Boyzone generation born since then knows someone who's gay.

Refusing to go public has become a matter of personal choice rather than professional necessity, at least in the music industry. For example, Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant claims that he remained closeted only because he hadn't got around to telling his parents.

George Michael's decision finally to come clean, however involuntarily, sent sales of his best-of CD soaring. In the meantime, Gately and Eloy became an item, moved in together in Amsterdam and exchanged gold commitment rings.

It's his first major relationship and he is in love, going misty at the mention of Eloy's name. "He's six-foot-three, brown eyes, brown hair, 26 and very kind," he says, with teenage delight. "We've been going out for 15 months and he's absolutely perfect for me. My family loves him."

As we speak, Eloy is upstairs in their hotel room, which in itself represents a new freedom. In the past, they travelled and stayed separately to avoid photographers. They would still be doing it now if the Sun hadn't forced his hand.

"When Caroline [Boyzone's publicist] rang to say there'd be a story, we knew we had a choice. We decided we wouldn't let some bollocks sell a story, so we did it ourselves. The story breaks and I couldn't believe it - little me from Sheriff Street on the cover of four papers.

"There's earthquakes in the world and bad things everywhere, and instead they put me on the cover. But people love to read about famous people." He raises an eyebrow.

The tabloids handled the affair with unusual sympathy, even setting up phone helplines for the fans. Apparently, there were more calls than when Take That split up.

"It marked a new era in the Sun's treatment of the subject," says Rav Singh, of the paper's Bizarre showbiz column, who broke the story in the first place. "We'll be equally decent about other pop stars coming out in the future.

"It's the caring Sun. It's the millennium, after all."

The teen press was also unswervingly positive. Smash Hits put him on the cover, the first time the best-selling magazine had done so with an openly gay man.

Its editor, John McKie, says: "Times have changed. It's the first time a `sitting' teen idol has ever come out. I'm not sure we could have done it 15 years ago, but the kids have been overwhelmingly supportive. It's actually brought them closer to him, now they've seen how hard it was for him. It's brought out their maternal instinct."

What about the ones who wanted to marry him? "They still do."

At present, Gately is in the middle of a crammed rehearsal schedule ("I've got to spend the next four hours dancing and I've got a kidney infection") in preparation for the band's current sell-out tour. After that, Boyzone will be taking an eight-month break.

While they deny hints of a split - "We make more money together than we do alone," says Lynch - there's an undeniable whiff of trial separation. Years of enforced togetherness, even for a group as close as Boyzone, has implanted the words "solo career" in their minds. And if they achieve individual success, will they want to resume the yoke of Boyzone?

They've survived twice as long as the average boy band can expect to, and the idea of quitting while they're on top must be appealing. Keating has already had a No 1 single, When You Say Nothing At All, and is managing Westlife.

Fellow band member Mikey Graham is making a record and also venturing into management. Lynch has followed former Wham! star Andrew Ridgeley into the rich-boy hobby of motor-racing on a semi-professional basis, for Ford.

As for Gately, he'll be using the time to release his first solo album, aptly titled A New Beginning, and a cover version of the Art Garfunkel hit, Bright Eyes. There will be no radical departure from the Boyzone sound, but he promises "a few surprises", though hopefully nothing embarrassing, such as a foray into speed-garage. A duet with Eloy is a possibility ("not a love song, something poppy").

Somewhere down the line, he'd like to have kids: "If there was a way open to adopt, I'd do it. I'd love to give a kid an opportunity." He doesn't plan to become a gay campaigner, believing that simply being out is enough of a message.

Will his experience pave the way for a new teenworld, in which it's as OK to be gay as it is to wear preposterous Tommy Hilfiger pantalettes? Now that most boy bands include a black member, perhaps it will become stylish to have openly gay ones, too.

As Gately has discovered, little girls remain as adoring as ever - the more so, even, if they perceive someone as vulnerable. Not everyone is convinced that it would always work out so well.

That, at least, was the opinion of one top female manager, herself a lesbian, who mused: "I respect him for it, but if I were managing a boy band I'm not sure I'd advise them to come out."

It could be a while yet before gay kids have another role model to stand alongside Stephen Gately.