By Rob McGibbon
In boy band law, it is written that after three years at the top of the charts all members will kindly leave the building. Please fold up the bar stools, loosen the pouts and cover up the glistening six packs that will have sadly spread into bloated party kegs.
One will go into rehab, another will attempt an excruciating solo career and the remainder will creep back to their housing estates. Finally they will re-emerge years later with armfuls of writs for their former manager who had secretly hoovered all the royalties up his nose. Somewhere along the way, Westlife mislaid the script, but they didn’t lose the plot. Seven years in, they are still crooning away in black and white slow-mo on MTV and swooning to screaming hordes on sell-out arena tours.
The stats so far are 12 number-one singles and six hit albums with sales of 34m. They have showrooms of cars, several homes each and multiple bank accounts heaving with cash. But it hasn’t been unsmudged lipgloss all the way. Last year the gobby one, Bryan McFadden, reckoned he could do it on his own. He was last seen singing to some kangaroos in Australia. Then two months ago, Mark Feehily announced he is gay. Two of the others, Shane Filan and Nicky Byrne, are happily married (Nicky to Irish PM Bertie Ahern’s daughter, Georgina) and Kian Egan, is in a relationship with a former Hollyoaks actress. For those of you who don’t have posters of the boys on the wall, is all that clear?
Westlife are all Irish and 25, although Nicky laments with all the seriousness of a man past his youth that he is 27. Now they are back with a new single and album. The broadsheet music critics have given up kicking them and the tabloids have despaired of digging up some dirt. Are Westlife the Teflon boys of pop?
Lads, the script says you should be on your way by now. What’s going on?
K: People thought we would be long gone by now, but as long as fans still want us around, we will be here.
S: At the beginning, we thought we would have an amazing few years and then it would all be over, but it’s kept going.
N: There has never been a set plan, except to keep making records and keep going as long as they are selling. And they are, so we are still here.
M: We always read in the papers that we make bubblegum pop and that it is rubbish, but we don’t make music for the media, we make it for the fans and they like it a lot, and that’s all that matters to us.
When is the big split likely to happen?
N: We have read the headline "Westlife To Split Up"
so many times now that we just laugh when we see it.
If it happens, then we will be straight out with it, so no journalist need bother writing that story for a while. Seriously, we’ll just tell everyone and do some amazing farewell concert and be gone.
S: Bono told us that if you have two really bad albums that do not sell, then that’s the time to go.
One is OK, you can get away with that, but if you have two, then you have to admit it’s over.
M: We have not had a disastrous one yet and we will keep going until there are two duds. Then we will have to say, "Thank you very much, goodbye."
When Bryan left, just about everyone thought that was the end. Surely you guys did as well?
N: To be honest, we really had our concerns about how it would work out as a four piece, but we kept it all inside and did not let the public know. It was hard to read all the stuff that said Shane and Mark would go solo, Kian was going into management and that I was going to be a politician.
S: Bryan going was a shock even though we knew he had not been happy for a while. None of us knew his marriage was on the rocks. As soon as he was gone, we had to pull together as a team and get down to work. When we did our first show as a four piece, it was fantastic. We really nailed it and the fans loved it. It was only then that we knew for sure that it was going to be OK.
M: Some of the papers basically said it was all over, but if anything we are a better band as a four piece.
We are closer and there are no secrets, like if someone is wanting to leave or to go solo.
K: As far as the media were concerned, Westlife was finished after the last album, but we think this new album is the best we have done.
And what news of Bryan?
M: We are still really good friends with him and were speaking to him the other day. He has had a really tough time and has been totally hammered by the press.
The best thing for him to do is to go away for a long time and let everything calm down. Maybe then he can still do something good with his career. We honestly wish him all the best.
Most cynics – and there are some among journalists – expect that Westlife will end in litigation with your managers having ripped you off.
S: There’s no way that is going to happen with us and that’s no bullshit. We have done unbelievably well and are secure financially. We’re not stupid and have been careful with our money.
K: We got good advice and our own lawyers at the very beginning, so everyone knew who was getting what.
N: I can’t see us falling out now. We are like brothers and have been through so much together that we are not going to mess it all up. We have got to be four of the luckiest guys in the world and we know that and have a healthy respect for everything that has happened to us. We have always kept our feet on the ground and much of the credit for that goes to our families and friends. They have all been rock solid for us.
Most of you have been in steady relationships throughout the entire time of Westlife. When you look at all the girls going nuts for you, I can’t help thinking that it’s been a bit of a waste.
N: We are not rock ‘n’ roll, we don’t put anything up our nose and we don’t sleep around. I have never had any interest in that side of things. I have been in love with Georgina since the day I saw her when I was a teenager. She’s now my wife and none of this success would have meant half as much without her.
S: The same goes for me with Gillian. She has helped me keep it together and kept me going when things have got tough.
M: I’ve never wanted to be a tart and have lots of one-night stands.
K: Well, I’ve had a good time!
How do you explain the continued success?
K: We stick to what we do best – good, solid pop songs with great vocals – and don’t try and be something we’re not. No matter what you say, we have done some great songs. But I don’t think Westlife has ever been a totally typical all-dancing boy band, with bare torsos and stuff. And we’re not the type of band that has stories in the tabloids every day, so maybe that keeps it a bit fresh.
M: Even after all this time, nobody really knows us as individuals and I think that has actually helped. Very few people know our first names, let alone our second names. They sort of know our faces and that we are from Westlife. It helps people from getting bored.
S: It’s pretty good because when I ring up and order flowers for my wife and I give them the credit card details, they haven’t got a clue who Shane Filan is, so I know they’re not going to keep my number! The paparazzi don’t bother us either, so we can live normally and get the best of both worlds.
N: When we started, we did not want one person to be seen as the front man, like Ronan Keating in Boyzone. With them, it was always Ronan and the band and that caused a few problems. With Westlife, it is all of us and it keeps it equal and happy.
You have played the normal game and kept girls secret. Has your press always been controlled?
S: I kept Gillian secret in the early days for her sake because it was very important she had a normal life.
She was at college for four years without anyone knowing she was going out with me. I picked her up the day she finished her exams and that was the first anyone knew of it.
K: The fans don’t want to see you with your girlfriend all the time, so it is only fair to keep them in the background. We have moved on from all that and it’s not a problem. The fans are cool about it.
N: I have always been upfront about Georgina. Our press is controlled to a degree, but we are always upfront and there’s no dirt anyway.
M: Well, I’ve just come out in The Sun and you can’t be any more honest than that!
I presume that was just a publicity stunt to get you on the front page and you will deny it all once the album has sold out? I am joking.
M: I have dealt with it in my own way for years, like anyone in the same situation, and it just seemed the right time to talk about it. I was fine about people knowing. I am in a happy relationship and if me talking about it helps someone else who is dealing with their sexuality, then I am happy about that, too. I have had some very supportive letters from fans since the story, so it was the right thing to do.Was there any pressure on you to do the story, like another paper threatening to write it without your approval?
M: No, it was my decision. I have not been aware of anyone trying to do the story over the years. I don’t think people knew, but if they had thought about it, they would probably have guessed. It has been a bit awkward in interviews in the past when they have been asking about girls, but I always tried not to lie.
I felt uncomfortable because I had all that stuff going on in my head, so it is better that the truth is out there.
N: A while back, the papers might have been on a mission to out someone, but things are different these days. If someone is gay, it’s like, so what. We have known about Mark for two years and we were cool about him doing the story. As a band, we have never played on the fact that we appeal to young girls. Our music is made to appeal to everybody, young and old, girls and guys.
A fair few showbiz stories are total flyers to keep some hype going. Can you think of an example involving yourselves.
N: Our manager Louis Walsh has been pretty bad at making stuff up in the past, especially when we needed press in the beginning. He looked after Boyzone before us and they had all kinds of things happen to them that weren’t true. I am not sure if this was down to Louis or not, but there was a story in one of the Irish tabloids that we had gone on safari and got out of the jeep for a better look.
At that point some of us were attacked by lions, but Kian came to the rescue and got us back into the jeep. There was a mock up picture in the paper of this big lion and its claws all over us. It was "Westlife defy death" or something. The truth is that we were in Africa and we were due to go on safari, but we got so drunk in the bar the night before that we didn’t make it. When you hear what could have happened, it’s probably just as well!
WESTLIFE’S NEWS SCHEDULE
The Sun and the Mirror always seem to be in the cars when we are travelling around, so we dip into those mainly. Back in Ireland, it is always the Evening Herald and you can sometimes get that from the big newsagents in London.
We take a look at Bizarre and the 3am girls and see what parties we have been missing and who is getting up to what. But we are pretty good at spotting what may not be true now because we have been on the inside for a while. Years ago we believed everything about celebrities, but not these days.
S: I love cars and always buy Classic Car magazine.
K: I’m into Men’s Health and fitness magazines.
N: I like football magazines.
M: I am having a house built at the moment, so I am into the interior design magazines.
The World Service and Radio 4 for news and Radio 3 for classical music… Of course we bloody don’t! When we are in London it’s either Heart or Magic.
Westlife’s FANTASY FLYERS
What would be the Fantasy Headline of the story you would most like to read?
It would have to be "Cure Found For Cancer".
What would be the Fantasy Headline involving yourselves?
"Westlife Announce Amazing New Record Deal" – that would be the front page of The Sun in 2035. Or "Westlife Win Loads of Grammys"
What would be the headline you all most dread?
"Westlife Split Up". That would be terrible – but then again it won’t be so bad because we’ve read it so many times!
Who would you most like to interview and what question would you ask that they had to answer truthfully?
Bono. We should probably ask him why he has always been so supportive of us. He is such a cool guy and he’s pretty busy, so it’s always been amazing to have his support.
What would you like the headline to be on your obituary?
Fuck off, Rob, we’re too young to think about dying!
Copyright Rob McGibbon 2005. All Rights Reserved