Nicky Byrne: I met Georgina at age 13 and told my mum 'I've met the girl I'm going to marry'
Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30
He's a popstar turned presenter, a doting father of three and he's just written and recorded a new album… Here, RTÉ's rising star Nicky Byrne tells how he went from Simon Cowell's toy to master of his own destiny
Nicky Byrne arrives to our photoshoot dressed in blue jeans, a crisp white shirt and shades, greeting everyone at the studio warmly and politely. He hasn't given many personal interviews since Westlife went out in a blaze of glory in Croke Park in June 2012, but once we start talking, he chats animatedly for almost two hours.
Fresh from the RTÉ studio where he co-presents a daily radio show on 2fm, he's very genial and charming - and, boy, can he pose for the cameras. If the radio career was ever to fall apart, Nicky could easily pick up work on the modelling front. Not only does the 37-year-old still have his youthful boyband looks, he changes position or expression unprompted with every click of the camera, with each shot looking better than the last.
Everyone ends up laughing when he poses with a stool in a nod to his boyband days (Westlife were famously known as the group who sat on stools until the key change at the end of every song). Nicky poses with the stool - balancing it on his nose at one point - before kicking it away playfully in a gesture that says "boyband, begone". He's up for anything as long as it doesn't mess up his hair, we tease, as he rushes to check his barnet in the mirror a few times.
Earlier that day, he had Louis Walsh on his radio show as a guest, so presumably there are no hard feelings between him and Westlife's former manager?
"Louis is great fun. I was never his favourite and had loads of run-ins with him on a personal level, but we got on great and I was always very honest with him. He mostly contacted Kian about things, so everything came second-hand to the rest of us," Nicky says of the Westlife years.
"I think I was immediately categorised as a 'Dub' to Louis, and I think he thought all of us Dubs were probably a bit cocky, but he came around to me in the end. He has an amazing musical ear and ability to groom groups of lads into superstars - and I think he was the most heartbroken of all when Westlife ended."
It's been three years now since Westlife called it a day, so how does he get on with the rest of the lads from the now-defunct group, namely Kian Egan, Shane Filan and Mark Feehily? Louis put them together with Brian McFadden, after he spotted Nicky and Brian auditioning for a new traditional boyband, Reel. They signed as Westlife with Simon Cowell in 1998, and went on to have an amazing career that spanned 14 years, selling 45 million albums worldwide and having 14 No.1 singles.
"When we were younger, all the decisions were made for us, but as we grew up, we were making more decisions ourselves and arguing and digging our heels in," says Nicky. "We loved each other, but we couldn't seem to gel as a band and the wheels stopped turning. We didn't fall out, but I think Westlife was ending a long time before it actually ended.
"We were a band, but we also owned a company that was doing business on a large scale, so there were certain things we needed to tie up when it was over.
"While we're all still talking - which is great - we don't really stay in contact now. We were bored with each other, and we wanted to get away from the band and one another."
Of course, the first rift in the band came in 2004 when Brian McFadden announced at a press conference that he was leaving. Nicky says he initially thought it was a prank for the MTV show, Punk'd. When it became clear that Brian's exit was no prank, the group were willing to go to extreme lengths to persuade him to stay - as Nicky reveals.
"We tried everything to keep Brian, and even offered to go to counselling as a group to see if it was because of something we were all doing," says Nicky. "He was adamant that he was leaving and as he left the room, some of us cried, but we had to pick ourselves up and move on.
"It was horrible - plus we were probably worried for our own selfish reasons, as we thought this great thing we had going as the biggest pop band in the world was going to be over."
After their tour, Nicky did a four-month acting course in America, fearing the band might end. Then Westlife came back with You Raise Me Up, which was a massive hit and put the band back in the No.1 position they had so often occupied in the charts.
Nicky says that Westlife probably lost a little bit of freshness or originality in their last five years, and that they argued with Simon Cowell over his insistence that the first single from each album was a cover, like Mandy. These songs would sell the album, but some of the band felt trapped between that and credibility. They would go into each meeting determined to argue their case, but would come out having, inexplicably to themselves, agreed to another cover.
"We had the biggest arguments and shouting matches, but when you're looking at Simon and the mirror behind him says, 'Yes Simon, you look terrific,' you can't say no," says Nicky. "To me, Simon is like Andy from Toy Story. Westlife were the most popular toys he had, but the next toys kept coming along, like Gareth Gates, Shayne Ward and Leona Lewis.
"We spent the rest of our career hoping he'd pick us up and play with us again, because we loved him and knew how powerful he was. Then One Direction signed to our label. They were the upcoming boxers coming to knock us out, and we didn't have any fight left in us."
When Westlife did go their separate ways, Mark and Shane recorded albums, Kian became a judge on RTÉ's The Voice of Ireland. With an eye on landing a TV presenter's role, in 2012, Nicky took part in Strictly Come Dancing where he finished a respectable ninth out of 14 contestants. At home, he consistently landed presenting roles, from guesting on 2fm to hosting TV gameshow, The Million Euro Challenge.
In March last year, Nicky landed his own vehicle - The Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene. In something of a turbulent time for Irish radio, the figures for the show are an impressive 150,000 listeners.
"I was definitely an underdog," Nicky admits of landing a coveted slot on the radio schedule, "but I came in and learned how to work the desk. I don't do things half-arsed, and I wanted to be successful on radio long term.
"I have never looked back, as who gets to do something they love and have genuine banter with someone as cool and edgy as Jenny? She's there with her dance music and I'm from a pop band but it works.
"Mind you, there's a softer side to Jenny that I can bring out, and she has admitted to me now that she bought a few Westlife CDs over the years! We have an amazing team behind us, but we don't look for drama, as I just want guests to come on to have a laugh with us."
Of course, drama often arrives of its own accord - in Nicky's case with him being hotly tipped for a move to RTÉ Radio 1 in recent weeks before it was confirmed that it would instead be Ryan Tubridy who would permanently take over the morning slot vacated by John Murray.
"I'm sad to see Ryan go, as he's so funny and such a nice guy," says Nicky of the reshuffle. "He said once that I was a great communicator, which was a huge compliment coming from him."
If Nicky seems unperturbed about the prospect of more changes at RTÉ radio, it stems from a happy-go-lucky attitude that has seen him weather several seismic career changes already.
Prior to becoming a singer, Nicky was a professional footballer. In 1995, at age 17, he left sixth year in school to go to Leeds United. Life at Leeds was great initially for the young goalkeeper from Baldoyle - he had signed on for £10,000 sterling and was earning £300 per week, plus all of his rent and expenses were covered.
He was Gary Kelly and Lee Sharpe's boot boy, and within a few weeks, was selected to play in goal for the Leeds United first team in a Premier League game, following goalkeeper Mark Beeney's suspension.
"You have to have a thick skin for football, take the banter and stand up for yourself in the dressing room," Nicky says. "Things go too far and there are even fisticuffs at times, but it's fun too. One Christmas, the youth team had to entertain the first team and the staff, so when it came to my turn, I got up and sang Last Christmas. Suddenly I felt a huge crack on the side of my face, because Andy Cousins had thrown an egg as a joke, but it hit me - hurt me, actually - and I was picking eggshell out of my ear for an hour afterwards. I just smiled along, because that's football."
Despite his very promising start, things ultimately fell apart for him at Leeds, because at 5ft 10in, Nicky was considered too small to be a goalkeeper. He was very athletic and fast, but when another goalie, Paul Robinson, came in and was 6ft 6in, the writing was on the wall.
"I still rate myself as a better goalkeeper than him, but the manager called me in and told me I wasn't tall enough," says Nicky. "They offered me on loan, but I didn't fancy that."
Nicky had a look around and played a few trial matches with other teams, but it was a lonely, disappointing time. He says that he ultimately got fed up and decided to come home in 1997. He signed up to Plunkett College in Whitehall to do his Leaving Cert, and was delighted to get four honours and two passes including an A in geography, as he planned on joining the gardaí. During this time, he played with Shelbourne Football Club, Cobh Ramblers and St. Francis FC, which he enjoyed until he injured his knee.
In 1998, Nicky auditioned for Westlife. Just after the boyband had their first No.1 single, Nicky was accepted into the gardaí - his mum had to write back and tell them he couldn't take it. Throughout these turbulent few years, Nicky says he could count on the support of his then-girlfriend Georgina.
They first met in first year at Pobailscoil Neasáin, and Nicky told his mum Yvonne that he had met the girl he was going to marry. "I was only 13, but I liked Georgina the moment I saw her," he says. "She was a really classy girl with big blue eyes and was so friendly and polite. I could chat away to other girls, but I just froze around her."
The following year, Nicky pointed Georgina out to his mum on Budget Day, when she was shown on TV standing beside her father Bertie Ahern, who was then minister for finance. The couple got together on Nicky's 16th birthday. They married in 2003 and now have three children, twins Rocco and Jay, eight, and daughter Gia, almost two.
As a world-famous popstar Nicky received adulation from female fans across the globe, but he says his relationship with Georgina has always been rock solid. Trust was never an issue anyway, he explains, because they kept closely in contact and she and the boys joined him on the tours where possible.
"Georgina has been brilliant and really supportive and we're very happily married," he says. "When Westlife ended, I was probably under her feet a bit too much at home, but now it's great because I go out to a fun job every day and still get to pick up the kids from school."
The twins play loads of sports and guitar. When they were six, they made their TV debut on the UTV show, Big Star's Little Star. While he and Georgina - who has spoken of her own reluctance to be in the limelight in the past - don't generally put their children in the public eye, Nicky says it was to benefit Holles Street Hospital, which did so much for the twins when they were born prematurely.
"They're best friends, although they fight like Noel and Liam Gallagher at times," Nicky jokes. "They love Gia and are so good to her. Gia is gorgeous and very advanced, and is a little daddy's girl, which melts my heart."
Speaking of daddy's girls, Nicky was present when Georgina's dad rose to become Taoiseach, and while he has been heavily criticised for aspects of his leadership, Nicky says he really admires his father-in-law on both personal and political levels. So does he feel sorry for Bertie?
"Of course I feel sorry for him, because he gave his life to Ireland," he says. "He was there through a world banking collapse and Ireland was hit hard, but he wasn't there when the big decision was made to bail out the banks.
"Bertie is the most patriotic man and was married to that job, which probably brought about the downfall of his own marriage. His constituency was the most important thing in the world to him, and of course he made mistakes, but I made mistakes in Westlife and I'm sure Enda Kenny has made a hell of a lot of mistakes - we all do. He admits himself that he made mistakes, but he doesn't look for sympathy.
"All political careers end in tears and politicians lose their jobs, but then when they pass away, everyone says, 'Didn't he do this and that and wasn't he great?' And really, can you show me one prime minister or leader around the world who hasn't made some sort of mistake?"
One of the hardest things that Nicky has had to cope with was the passing of his own dad, Nikki, aged 60, from a sudden heart attack in November 2009, which also devastated his mum Yvonne and siblings Gillian and Adam. Nikki was a maintenance manager, and had a residency with his band, Nikki and the Studz, at the Racecourse Inn in Baldoyle.
Father and son also went out as a karaoke band prior to Westlife, which gave Nicky the confidence to perform in front of people. "He was such a cool dad," says Nicky, "and all my mates actually preferred him to me. He had the biggest, brightest smile and I always thought I would have loads more time with him. My dad was always in a suit presenting on stage, so when I did the TV show, the neighbours were texting me saying, 'You're your dad with hair.' I can see in my smile and mannerisms that I'm turning into him, but that's not a bad thing!"
Nicky is not done with singing either - as well as exploring prospects for TV work with RTÉ and some UK production companies, he also has an as-yet-unnamed solo album ready to go in the new year. He admits that the album - which he has co-written the songs with three other songwriters - will come as a surprise to some people, who don't really know what he sounds like because he didn't sing lead in Westlife.
"The real fans know what I sound like, but the songs were tailored around Shane and Mark, so now I'm singing what suits me," he says. "I describe my album as the cheekiness and banter in me put down into songs."
The Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene is on 2fm weekdays at 11 am
Photographs: Mark Nixon, marknixon.com
Styling: Jeff Thompson at Brown Thomas.
All clothing available from Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin 2. (01) 605 6666, brownthomas.com