Planet Louis goes pop
With the breakup of Westlife, tensions on the X Factor, and the false claims of abuse in a nightclub, Catherine Murphy asks is it the end for Louis Walsh?
Published 20/11/2011 | 06:00
Just as Louis Walsh has a knack for producing successful boy bands, I seem to have a knack for catching him at the wrong moment.
In late September, while researching an article about his former protege Samantha Mumba, I called the pop svengali-cum-TV celebrity to ask him what exactly had gone wrong with her career.
Unknowingly, I had committed the cardinal sin of calling Walsh on his private number while he was holidaying in Miami. Worst of all, I had called before noon. Apparently, every wannabe pop band in the world knows that you never, ever call Louis before noon.
Instead of the likeable, twinkly eyed impresario who appears on 'The X Factor' each week, the Louis Walsh I spoke to was a fractious, exasperated celeb, hurling an introductory expletive down the line at me. But with a media savviness that he's renowned for, he later texted to say he would call on his return to Dublin. And call he did, on the button. Walsh's short tempers are short-lived.
When I call him this time round, there are no expletives or diva act but Walsh is tired. He's just filmed a slot on Alan Carr's chat show and given a post-axing-Frankie-Cocozza press conference with his fellow 'X Factor' judges.
Weeks of tabloid stories -- whether real or spun -- about backstage tensions and falling ratings, coupled with the fact that Walsh's 'Over 25s' category is considered one of the hardest from which to harvest winners, is tiring Walsh.
He even mentions the R word: retirement. Not that I, or anyone in the entertainment industry, buys that notion for a moment.
His career as a UK TV personality is relatively new, and while he says he was never motivated by money or fame, he has -- and clearly enjoys -- both.
"Most of the time, I love doing the show," he says. "But today is not one of those days. Today is one of those days when I think 'I don't want to do this again next year'.
"It always starts out as great fun with the auditions and judges' houses, but at this point it starts to get really serious and all the big egos come out.
"Gary Barlow and Kelly Rowland have massive egos and massive entourages working behind the scenes to make them look normal.
"With me, what you see is what you get. I'm the same personality off camera as I am on camera." Indeed.
Tired or not, Walsh can't resist doing what comes naturally when I tell him I'm writing a profile of him. He simply manages the situation.
"Who are you speaking to in the industry?" he asks. "The only people in the entertainment industry in Ireland that really know me are Caroline Desmond, music promoters Peter Aiken and John Reynolds, and U2 mangager Paul McGuinness, who started out at the same time as me.
"No one else really knows what I do. Ring them... here's Caroline's number." Minutes later, he's on the phone telling Caroline Desmond, his close friend of 32 years and wife of MCD promoter Denis Desmond, to expect a call from me.
"When he's tired, Louis might believe he'll retire," says Desmond, who first befriended him when she worked in Captain America's on Grafton Street in the late 1970s and he went there every day for lunch.
"But after a few weeks holidays in Miami over the New Year, he'll be 'right, what's happening next?' He's too driven and passionate about the music industry to retire, he still has a lot to give."
One music industry executive, who worked with Walsh on the Westlife launch in 1998, agrees. "Louis is always ahead of the pack, you can be sure that he's watching his own moves very carefully at the moment and that he will very quickly jump onto the next thing."
Fast approaching 60, Walsh looks younger. Eye surgery (which according to Caroline Desmond, he's open about) has helped. He describes himself as happy and settled in his life but things have nonetheless been changing around him recently, and not always in a good way.
At the end of September, Wonderland, the girl band that he helped manage with Westlife's Kian Egan, hit the pan when they were dropped by their label, Mercury Music.
Their attempt at a 'Corrs Lite' (what could possibly be lighter than the music of The Corrs?) failed conclusively, thanks to dated Dixie Chicks-style songs and a less than explosively sexy image.
It wasn't Walsh's first girl band failure -- he was also behind long-forgotten Bellefire and although he successfully managed Girls Aloud for two years following their win in 'Popstars: The Rivals', Walsh admits that he doesn't work well with girl bands. He referred to his time managing Girls Aloud as a nightmare, and described the group as needy and high-maintenance.
Next, Westlife announced their split, 13 years, 14 number ones and 44 million record sales later. According to the band, Walsh was more upset than they were about it and ignored them for weeks, "hoping it would go away".
Interviewing the band shortly after the announcement, Alan Carr joked that with only Jedward remaining on his books, Walsh might have to sell his mansion and judge his 'X Factor' contestants from a caravan on Dale Farm next year.
With 28 number ones under his belt, a conservatively estimated wealth of €17m, earnings of up to €1.9m for each series of EMP 'The X Factor', homes in Dublin, London and Miami and an extensive pop art collection, one could ask what's left for Louis Walsh to prove?
A big part of his success during eight years on the show has been taking runners-up such as G4, JLS and Jedward and making a success of them. Jedward, who will return to Eurovision in 2012, "will be multi-millionaires by next year," he says. "They're now hugely popular in eastern Europe. I have an office full of fan mail from strange places like Russia, Poland and Estonia."
Whether it's because he's powerful or likeable, it's difficult to get anyone to say a bad word about Walsh within Irish entertainment circles. "People don't have anything bad to say about me because I haven't had bad dealings with people, they know I'm open and honest," he says.
Of course, there are the detractors who hate his manufactured pop bands, among them Sinead O'Connor, who has previously said he had "singlehandedly taken the soul out of Irish music and danced a vampire dance upon it".
Ronan Keating, having fired him as his manager during his solo years, claimed Walsh "had tried to ruin him".
The pair made up publicly ahead of Boyzone's reunion, but according to a close friend of Walsh's, there is no love lost between them.
One person did say far more damaging and false things about Walsh earlier this year. Unemployed dance teacher Leonard Watters accused Louis of groping him in the toilet of Krystle nightclub following a Westlife concert at the O2 in April.
Watters later admitted his claims were false and could face a jail term when sentenced next January.
Caroline Desmond, who describes Walsh as having a "naivety and kindness" and who says she and other friends have warned him about being too open and trusting, say the allegations have changed him.
"Those attributes were what made Louis unique in an industry where there are already enough jaded, cynical people," Desmond says. "He was always accessible to people, but that's changed, which is a real shame."
According to 4fm gossip presenter Suzanne Kane, who's a first cousin of Walsh's celebrity pal Chris Moyles and sometimes meets Louis socially in London and Dublin: "It was shocking to see him so vulnerable.
"When we'd meet it would be in Residence or Lillie's in Dublin and perhaps a local pub in Belsize Park in Hampstead when in London.
"Louis is always on it, he's always pushing something or telling you what the next big thing will be. He's very witty, loves a good gossip and often comes out with outrageous, unprintable things but he was devastated by the allegations.
"I went backstage at 'The X Factor' for a chat with him and he had genuine tears in his eyes talking about the case."
Walsh is currently suing a tabloid newspaper over reports surrounding the claims and as a result, won't talk about the case, which is due to be heard next May.
The case has been one of the more bizarre twists in the life of Louis, the kid from Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, who came from a farming background and a family of 10.
Walsh's siblings range in age from their 40s to 50s and have 'real jobs' -- one is a nurse, another a tax man.
While his father passed away a number of years ago, his 84-year-old mother Maureen is still at the helm of the family.
Louis spends Christmas at home with the family in Mayo before flying out to Miami to spend New Year's Eve with friends, but he is notoriously protective of his private life.
He was born in 1952 to Maureen and Frank Walsh. After attending the local primary school, he was sent to St Nathy's boarding school in Roscommon.
An altar boy in his youth, he has said previously that he hated school. Showing no particular academic prowess but a very active interest in music, he moved to Dublin at the age of 19 and landed a job as a runner for Tommy Hayden's showband booking agency.
"I learned a lot about how the business works during that time," he says. "It was a time when you actually had to work hard and that's what I took from it, old-school work ethics. I can't stand people who want instant fame, like Frankie Cocozza, who was in 'X Factor' for all the wrong reasons."
Walsh's parents encouraged hard graft and in turn, hard work is something that he has always expected from his acts.
"Westlife's success is based on the fact that they stuck to the script," says one music executive.
"They understood early on what it was all about, whereas someone like Samantha Mumba didn't seem to stick to the script and stopped taking Louis' advice."
Walsh has said he preferred picking working class kids for his groups, because they "worked harder and were glad of the chance".
Westlife have previously spoken about how tough Walsh was on them in the early days. "He would say stuff like 'your teeth are awful, your hair is bad, you're fat' or 'you were off-key in that song'.
"He'd say 'there are only three Bee Gees you know or only four can fit in a taxi, not five'," a veiled threat at sacking members of the group if they didn't shape up.
Walsh's own big break came in 1980 when he talent spotted Johnny Logan and managed him through his two Eurovision wins.
He also worked with Linda Martin, but industry insiders recall his early days in Dublin as difficult. "He seemed to be one of those guys who would always be struggling as a small-time promoter," one source says.
Walsh hasn't forgotten those times either. "I started at the bottom and clawed my way up. I don't give a f**k about the music snobs in Ireland," he says.
"I worked with rock groups in Dublin and never made any money, never got paid. My job now is to sell pop music, that doesn't mean I go home and listen to Kylie Minogue all night.
"I have a much wider taste in music -- I love Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, lots of stuff, but it's my job to sell pop music and I like doing it."
One acquaintance recalls meeting him years ago leaving HMV on Grafton street with a bag full of pop CDs. "He's a real student of pop, I suppose you could say he's a music nerd. He lives and breathes music, he's self-taught in the industry and he's one of the very lucky few who has made his fortune doing what he loves."
In the early '90s, he had the idea of forming an Irish boyband. A former staff member at PolyGram, which gave Boyzone their first deal, recalls: "Louis used to be a type of ligger/small time promoter and he would call into PolyGram offices every day and get some free CDs.
"On one of these visits he said he was going to put together an Irish version of Take That. He had a tabloid journalist on board to plug the idea and Tony Fenton said he'd mention it on radio.
"So in a fit of madness we gave Louis some money to pay for the recording of 'Working My Way Back to You' and it went from there."
"Six people in PolyGram worked full-time for two years to break Boyzone and we had spent over a million pounds on them before they eventually broke in the UK.
"Boyzone remain the only act ever to be signed to an Irish record company to sell internationally where all the royalties came back to the Dublin office of PolyGram.
His life changed again when he got to know Simon Cowell. "I should have been over the hill in Dublin after Boyzone and Samantha Mumba," says Walsh, "but Simon got me off my ass to get going with Westlife, who he then signed.
"We got to know each other very well, meeting him really did change my life."
According to one Irish entertainment writer, Walsh and Cowell enjoy a much stronger friendship than their previous on-screen bickering implied.
"There's always talk about Louis being axed from the show," he says. "But my understanding is that for as long as X Factor is there, Louis will be there. He's there because he's good at winding up the other judges and putting a spin on everything.
"Simon Cowell has his back and if anything, owes as much to Louis Walsh as Walsh owes him. Cowell had had his own share of failures before signing Westlife, who were a massive financial success for his Syco label."
Walsh currently splits his time between Dublin, London and Miami. He's described by friends as a creature of habit, a man who enjoys the routine of eating lunch in the same restaurants.
When in Dublin, he eats out most days, either in the Merrion Hotel or Expresso cafe near the Dylan hotel.
He shops for food at Donnybrook Fair near his home, and still enjoys grocery shopping in Marks & Spencer on Grafton Street, usually on Saturday evenings.
He drives an e80,000 Maserati but says he has outgrown his toys for big boys stage.
He doesn't drink much or smoke and dislikes the Irish falling-down-drunk trend.
"If there's one thing Louis will get short with people about, it's that falling down drunk thing," says a friend. "He'll have a couple of drinks but he prefers a good chat, a good gossip, sitting up till 4am or 5am talking to people."
"That's what I'm all about," Louis says. "I know everything that's happening. I always want the breaking news. I've matured, I'm happy and settled in my life -- well, apart from that incident earlier this year.
"But in general, I'm happy with me. I still have the properties I had five years ago, they've taken a hit in value but the bricks and mortar are still there.
"I look after myself mentally and physically, not by going to the gym -- I've never been to a gym in my life -- I just look after myself.
"I don't know what's next. I might actually retire or if I find one good act that I'm absolutely certain of, I'd be happy to take that on.
"If I do retire, it will be to Dublin. Even with all the doom and gloom, it's still one of the best places in the world. I'm very pro-Irish when I'm working in the UK because I like Irish people an awful lot. I love what I do and I'm just glad I'm still getting away with it."