Girls and booze may be the rock star dream, but they nearly cost Take That’s Mark Owen his career, peace of mind and family, hears Ed Power
The perpetually boyish, sad-eyed one from Take That, Mark Owen was the last pop star on the planet you'd have put down as a love rat. But in 2010 he confessed to a string of extracurricular liaisons that would have made Tiger Woods blush. In a tear streaked, tabloid-mediated tell-all, he admitted to cheating on girlfriend — now wife — Emma Ferguson with somewhere in the region of 10 (10!) women, including, it soon emerged, a long-term flame he initially met on the platform at Preston train station.
For those who cared, the shock waves were of tsunami proportions. On stage and off, Owen had always appeared fragile as a daisy, as enthusiastically naive as a week-old puppy. He was the first Take That member to have a shot at recording an artistically ambitious solo album, 1996's folky, psychedelic, not terrible Green Man.
When the solo stuff failed to pan out, he triumphed in Celebrity Big Brother, largely on account of his innate decent sod-ness. He just didn't seem like that sort of celeb.
“I don’t know how many girls there were in all. Maybe 10,” he said at the time. “I have been living with the guilt. It has always been there — you carry it around with you. It held me back in my relationship with Emma. I wouldn’t have done any of this if I had my time again. I am halfway through my life now and this, in a way, is a lesson. You’ve got to learn and that’s what I am going to do.”
Three years on, the scandal, having failed to derail Take That's comeback, has died down. Clearly, though, it is still on Owen's mind — or at least on the minds of the people overseeing his media dealings.
Shortly before our chinwag — to promote Owen's entirely agreeable new record The Art of Doing Nothing — we receive a terse email informing us that personal questions “will not be entertained”.
Your heart sinks. Is this going to be one of those conversations where you have to go all Paxman on the interviewee in order to get them to cough up something interesting?
Owen, thank goodness, is a delight. Speaking in a Manchester accent so pronounced you could stand a spoon in it, he acknowledges mistakes were made in his personal life and insists he has became a reformed man since starting work on the Art of Doing Nothing.
He has kicked his ruinous boozing (arguably too late — years of excess have robbed him of his cherubic glow and accentuated the careworn aspect that always haunted his looks) and patched matters up with Emma, with whom he has three kids. He doesn't sing about his love turmoil on the new record — not because he does not consider it fertile territory but because he is ashamed of what he did.
“It's not the stuff I want to write about,” he says, crisply yet without irritation. “I'm not proud of it. It's not as if I'm going to go and write about my ‘shit' now. It's not a facet of my life that I take pride in. I think maybe I've asked some questions about myself and life.
“Maybe there is some . . . well, I think it's in [the new album] yes.”
He reached a point where he realised he was in danger of throwing it all away. “I've turned 40, stopped the drinking. I've went to rehab. “I have had personal problems with my family that I had to work through . . . You realise things as you get to a certain point in life.
“I'm blessed with three amazing children and a wonderful wife (pictured with Mark right). They are so, so important to me. I want to look after them and give them a good start in life. I want to look after my lady and try to be a good dad and husband.”
There were some dark days following Take That's 1996 split. Owen could sing and, as Green Man proved, was a decent writer. However, unless your name contained the words ‘Robbie' and ‘Williams', through the late 1990s and early 2000s the career prospects of a Take That alum were not bright. As flop LP followed flop LP, Owen made the ultimate plea for attention by appearing in the 2002 season of Celebrity Big Brother. This, more than his tumultuous love life, seems to be the real sore topic.
“I forget I even did it,” he says.
“Until someone reminds me. And I think ‘oh shit, I did that a long time ago'. It is all part of the journey I guess. Most of the time I don't even think about it.”
Owen enjoyed making the Art of Doing Nothing, even if he is uncertain whether it's any good or not. When Day & Night tells him it's a extremely enjoyable pop record, he doesn't know what to do with the compliment.
Despite selling 50 million records with Take That and having a creative hand in many of their biggest hits — to say nothing of being a sex symbol of 20 years’ standing — he is quite unsure of himself.
“I don't think I'm the most confident,” he says. “I can't explain why but I'm not. I'm talking about life in general, not just with the band. I'm not the best sales person of myself.” In Take That, he can get away with being the shy one, he says. It's a little harder when his name is up in lights.
“In the group, we've got people like Gaz (Gary Barlow). He is a confident person and he brings that with him.
“If I do something, I am hoping everyone will like it rather than believing they will.”
If Take That can be regarded as the original 1990s boyband, Boyzone were surely their greatest rivals. Did Owen and company feel any sense of competition with the Dubliners who, it may be argued, posed the biggest threat to their pop hegemony?
“I didn't view them as competitors,” he says. “We met them several times. They were always nice. They were a big act and and did well. “Ultimately, their success didn't intrude too much. We were busy with what we were doing.” The record company person wants us to wrap the interview. Of course, it would be remiss to speak to a member of Take That and not canvas an opinion on their heirs apparent One Direction. When he sees Harry, Niall etc bestriding the world, is Owen swept back to his early days of hairless, open-shirted fame?
“I watch them travelling around and it definitely brings memories of the fun we had. “For me, it was a fantastic couple of years. At the time it was a blur. In the middle of the excitement, you don't see it. We've met One Direction. They seem like nice lads.
“Hopefully, they will have a fantastic time. I hope they look after one another. In this business, that's the most important thing.”
The Art of Doing Nothing is released today, see review page 17. Mark plays Olympia on June 19