Career selfie: Why local hero Niall Horan is about to face his toughest test
The world's biggest boyband is set to take a 'break' next year to pursue individual careers. But there is no guarantee of solo success for the members of One Direction, whose number include an idolised Mullingar man
Visitors to Mullingar have to look very hard to find any sign that one of the most famous young men on the planet hails from there. There is no billboard at the M4 exit to say that One Direction's Niall Horan grew up here. His image does not appear in the window of the town's most prominent shops. And the one monument commemorating a Westmeath man of song is a statue of the late Joe Dolan, which stands in front of the venerable Market House.
Moneygall, 100km due south on the Offaly-Tipperary border, could hardly do more to tell the world that Barack Obama's Irish ancestor hailed from there, but Mullingar is not yet - it would appear - ready to shout from the rooftops about its 1D connection.
Happily for the groups of young and almost exclusively female One Direction fans who journey to Horan's home town every day of the year, the Greville Arms Hotel has made some effort to celebrate Mullingar's globetrotting pop star. There is a small and tasteful 'shrine' in the lobby just in front of the reception desks: it features a Brit award donated by Niall and other paraphernalia.
The hotel also keeps several books behind the counter in which fans can write a note to Niall. General manager John Cochrane insists that these volumes are presented to his father, Bobby Horan, every Christmas.
On Tuesday, a day after One Direction confirmed that they were taking a "break" next year in order to focus on solo opportunities, several young fans from the US and the UK made it to Mullingar and the latest 'Niall Book' in the Greville Arms was full of florid declarations of love and support for the Irishman even if 1D were to call it a day permanently.
The typical Niall Horan pilgrimage includes an obligatory selfie outside his childhood home and a visit to Tesco where his father works. The Greville Arms is an essential stop on the itinerary too, not least because it featured prominently in the official One Direction movie, This is Us.
"Niall is just a super young fellow," John Cochrane says. "I'd know the family very well and they're just so good with the fans. They'd always have so much time for them. I mean, if Niall's mother was here and a bunch of fans came up to us in reception, I'd go down to her and see if it was okay if I pointed them in her direction and she'd be fine with it. She'd still be talking to them 10 minutes later."
Cochrane is convinced Niall has the talent and the connections to make it as a solo star, but boyband history is littered with big names who struggled to make an impact when they departed their comfort zones.
Take *NSYNC, one of the biggest boybands of the 1990s: one member, Justin Timberlake has gone on to enjoy a glittering career as a pop and film star, but it's been a very different story for the other four members. Timberlake's old bandmate, Joey Fatone, for instance, is now probably best known as the guy who fronts a hair restoration ad campaign in the US.
Louis Walsh, whose contribution to boybands includes the creation of Boyzone and Westlife, went on record during the week to say that he was confident that Horan "would surprise everyone" and be a success as a solo artist. But, as Walsh would probably agree, his track record in predicting glorious careers for ex-boyband members is weak. He was confident that Ronan Keating would be a global superstar when Boyzone dissolved, but Keating's recording career struggled to reach the sales of his old band in his pomp and he has had to diversify: the Dubliner got the most glowing reviews of his life for his performance as the lovestruck busker in the West End production of Once: The Musical.
And Mark Feehily of Westlife was last seen in the comparatively intimate Olympia theatre, Dublin. Some pop observers were bemused by his decision to call himself Markus Feehily. Ex-bandmate Nicky Byrne, meanwhile, is helping to turn 2fm's fortunes around as presenter of its lunchtime programme, but its debatable if he would have settled for such a career in the days when Westlife were scoring one UK number one after another.
Right now, it's hard to imagine Niall as anything other than a globally famous pop star. To give an idea of his extraordinary fame, consider this: his good friend Rory McIlroy, one of the world's best paid sportsmen, has 2.5 million Twitter followers; Horan has 23 million followers. When he tweeted his joy after Westmeath footballers booked their place in the Leinster final by beating neighbours Meath, it was retweeted more than 74,000 times and favourited by over 100,000 people. Surely someone with such an enormous reach won't be found wanting when it comes to going out on his own, not least when one considers that he's not a bad guitarist either? The director of One Direction: This is Us, Morgan Spurlock - who came to prominence thanks to his polemical documentary on the fast-food industry, Super Size Me - is better placed than most to gauge how well the boys will do post-1D.
When Zayn Malik left to embark on a solo career back in April, Spurlock predicted that it wouldn't be long before the band split. "He [Zayn] is the most talented guy in that group," he said at the time. "He's an incredible singer. All of them are talented singers, that's why they were all put together, but to make the decision to leave and go off on your own and chase a solo career in the midst of being as famous as you are, as successful as you are - you can't fault someone for that."
Spurlock's film, while ostensibly a cheery look inside the world's biggest boyband, succeeded in showing just how many demands are imposed on them every day. The notion of burn-out for those barely out of their teens tends to attract sneers, but the film showed how the constant treadmill of concerts, recording studios, media engagements and travel can be very difficult to tolerate.
In addition, there is no shortage of videos on YouTube which demonstrate the sort of daily battles Horan and friends face with paparazzi. But with personal wealth estimated at $35m (€30m) apiece, sympathy is often on the short side, not least when one considers that the young Irishman can retreat to his Hertfordshire mansion whenever the pressure gets too much.
It was all so different in the summer of 2010 when 16-year-old Niall attended the Irish auditions of The X Factor. In his early teens he had shown a gift for singing and playing the guitar and like many of his peers, he dreamed of being a pop star. He grew up in an environment where some of the biggest pop acts were created on TV shows like The X Factor and You're a Star, and his father talks of the days when a 12-year-old Niall would sign his 'autograph' on every scrap of paper he could find.
The judges, led by his eventual manager Simon Cowell, saw something in the young Irishman and united him with four other hopefuls, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne and Harry Styles. The quintet impressed but failed to win, finishing third behind Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson.
While Cardle and Ferguson largely toil in the chart's margins today, One Direction's ascent was nothing short of meteoric. Unlike Westlife, and Take That before them, 1D were embraced in the US - and right from the off. Their schedule has been relentless. Their forthcoming album - set for a March release, and to be followed by the aforementioned break - will be their fifth in five years. Each of the past four albums has been accompanied by a world tour. When Malik quit in April, he said he wanted to live "like a normal 22-year-old".
Olga Aughey, a journalist with Mullingar newspaper The Westmeath Examiner, has followed Horan's career with interest. "It was a great local story when he appeared on The X Factor and there was a lot of local pride when One Direction played Croke Park last year, and yet I think some of the older people here don't realise just how big a deal he is."
Despite being regarded by fans as approachable, there's disappointment in The Westmeath Examiner that he hasn't given them an interview. "Even the odd line here of there would be nice," Aughey says, "but then you wouldn't see him in Mullingar that much now. It was very different with Joe Dolan - you'd see him on the street all the time."
A local businessman, who does not wish to be named, is disappointed that the town has been so slow to cash in on his fame.
"He's a great marketeer for the town, and has really put the place on the map. Now that his band look as though they're breaking up, maybe it'll be too late to capitalise on all that?"
Solo stars or lone flops?
Irrespective of their success, only a small portion of boyband stars have made it as solo stars.
Those who made it:
George Michael swapped Wham! for a more enduring and rewarding career, and he eventually got to make music on his terms too.
Justin Timberlake became one of the world's best selling pop stars after *NSYNC split, and he's got an impressive movie career too.
Mark Wahlberg used to be known as 'Marky Mark' when he briefly joined brother Donnie in New Kids on the Block, and now he's regarded as one of Hollywood's most bankable actors.
And those who didn't:
Lee Ryan enjoyed success in one of Britain's biggest boybands of the 2000s, but couldn't replicate that as a solo performer. The band's comeback album flopped too.
Joey Fatone was the heartthrob in *NSYNC, but his star waned quickly afterwards and he's now best known for advertising hair restoration products.
Bryan McFadden changed the 'y' to 'i' in his name, but it didn't bring the ex-Westlife man chart success.