'We create monsters like One Direction' - Louis Walsh
With 'X Factor' back on TV tomorrow night, Louis Walsh tells Julia Llewellyn Smith why he's glad Cowell took him back after last year's booting off and how Niall Horan and One Direction mistakenly believed their own hype
When Louis Walsh was signed up by his old music industry buddy Simon Cowell to judge the 'X Factor' back in 2004, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
"Simon's mind would be ticking over: 'Who am I going to throw to the vultures tonight?' and it was usually me. I did mind initially because I had the idea that ['X Factor'] was a talent show. But it's not, it's a soap opera meets reality show."
In that soap opera, Walsh played tittering court jester to Cowell's evil overlord: weeping, bickering, wailing: "This is one of the hardest decisions I'm ever going to have to make," as he consigned no-hopers to showbiz oblivion, or "You owned the stage!" to the likes of his favoured acts such as, er, Jedward.
He was the longest-serving judge, missing only one season in 2007 when Cowell decided to make the show "edgier". It didn't work, but last year, hoping to fight dropping ratings, he was booted off again, usurped by British radio DJ Nick Grimshaw and pop star Rita Ora, who joined Cowell and Cheryl Fernandez-Versini on the panel.
"I was sacked and it was fine," admits Mayo man Walsh, who is 64 but looks a good decade younger, thanks to a hair transplant and what he calls the DFE - "Don't F***ing Eat" - diet ("But no Botox, look what it did to Kylie").
But the rejig was a disaster. Average ratings hit an all-time low of 7.85 million, compared with 14.83 million in 2010. So this year, Walsh is back, in a reunion of the show's original unholy trinity comprising him, Cowell and Sharon Osbourne.
Is Walsh smug to be reinstated? "I was smug the first night I sat down to watch the show last year," he grins. "It didn't work. I had a talk with Simon every week and he said: 'I want you back.' He'd have had me back in the middle of the series, if he'd had his way."
Why was it such a failure? "They were trying to make it younger," Walsh says. "It was almost like a Channel 4 show. It was not the show I was on, not family entertainment. Simon tried a few things and it didn't really work and he knew that, he has a gut feeling."
Walsh approved of Ora. "But Grimshaw was thrown in the deep end. He isn't mainstream, he's always hanging out with the fashion pack and it's not that type of show."
Walsh is pleased to see the return of presenter Dermot O'Leary, who was also plonked on the back bench, his place usurped by Caroline Flack and former 'X Factor' runner-up Olly Murs, who then gaffed horribly in announcing a contestant was leaving, before the vote had been made public.
"Caroline's a really good girl, I don't know why people didn't like her. But Olly's a pop singer and pop singing and TV are different things - he was never going to be as good as Dermot. It's been a learning curve - you don't just stand there and read the autocue, as people think."
This season, the three veteran judges will be joined by "gorgeous, wonderful" former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, who judged in 2012 and 2013. She pulled out of 'Cats' on Broadway to take the job, infuriating producer Andrew Lloyd Webber. "I told Nicole she could be dressed as a cat in 20 years. She'll make a lot more money now," Walsh smirks.
This year's judges clearly have a fabulous rapport.
The night before we meet, news-junkie Walsh was up until the early hours, texting Osbourne from his bed about their mutual bête noire, Donald Trump.
"Sharon thinks he's terrible and I can't bear him," he cries, as if the US presidential candidate were a contestant. "He's bulls***, a bluff artist, horrendous!"
They'll do their best to entertain us with their spats and banter, but will there be any talent to entertain them? The sense is that the pool's running dry: last year's winner Louisa Johnson's debut single entered the charts at number nine, the lowest-ever winner's placing. "We have so many good people this year," Walsh says firmly. "A lot of people who want to be serious artists probably don't want to go for a talent show, but it is a great launching pad."
We're sitting in a hotel, near his home in leafy Ballsbridge. In person, Walsh may be pretty much indistinguishable from his daffy on-screen persona, but he's also a power-player, greeted fulsomely during our chat by a dapper gent who "knows his brother".
"There are nine siblings, everyone knows at least one of us," Walsh says with a giggle.
Growing up on a farm in Mayo, Walsh "didn't want to be like the rest of my family" - now all professionals. Instead, he became a gopher for a record company, going on to be an agent for various rock bands and hanging out with Irish legends such as Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy and U2.
It was in the late 90s, however, that he hit the jackpot creating and managing Boyzone (22 million album sales) followed by Westlife (44 million).
He and Cowell are endlessly accused of destroying music, churning out bland McSingers. Walsh shrugs, unperturbed.
"It sells. Simon always knows what will sell."
But some of these manufactured stars show insufficient gratitude to their creator.
"Simon's made so many people millionaires, but not everybody's loyal to him.
"We create monsters in the music business - they only become famous because they've been on the show and we got you those songs. They're lucky f*****s, but some get a sense of entitlement and believe the hype. Too many artists appear to forget where they came from."
Is that what happened to the show's most famous creation, One Direction, who now, Walsh assures me, have split for good?
"Yeah, I would say so. Some of them believed the hype and then everyone around them - publicists, agents, managers - were afraid to tell them because they were making so much money out of them."
The show's first winner, Steve Brookstein, "was a pub singer. Sharon and I said so and were right. He totally played Simon. They all pretend to be 'Yes sir, no sir,' and then as the show goes on and they get bigger you see their egos getting out of control. They all believe their own publicity."
In his element, Walsh catalogues the show's true stars.
"Leona [Lewis] and Olly were very good. JLS and Alexandra Burke were good people." He "adores" Rylan Clark, the effervescent, openly gay contestant who came fifth in 2012 and this season will present spin-off show the 'Xtra Factor'.
"He's going to be brilliant," coos Walsh, who's single and has never discussed his private life.
Shayne Ward, the only winner to be mentored by Walsh in 2005, is now acting in the British soap 'Coronation Street'.
"He's the one that got away. He had everything, I thought he was a bit of a Justin Timberlake and I tried, he had three albums but the label dropped him and there was nothing I could have done.
"It kills me to see people with real talent f*** it up," he continues. "Then you see people with not a lot of talent but a work ethic make it - Katy Perry, Britney, Kylie. JLo cannot sing, but she's still selling out Vegas.
"But ['X Factor' winners] don't realise they're only at the start of their careers. They think: 'Ooh, I've all these Twitter followers, job done'. But it's not about that, it's about where you'll be in two years. Are you prepared to put in the hours?
"You can always spot the professionals. Taylor Swift, she knows what she's doing. Gary Barlow [of Take That, who took over Cowell's judging slot in 2013 and 2014] used to say to me: 'They don't realise it's hard work, it's hard to be Gary Barlow'."
It's not, however, I sense, desperately hard work being Louis Walsh.
"Oh yes, I'm happy with my lot," he cries. Cowell was bonkers ever to have let him go.