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Saturday 15 December 2018

Pat Stacey: In praise of Louis Walsh (who's becoming increasingly difficult to hate)

Louis Walsh
Louis Walsh

Pat Stacey

Louis Walsh is increasingly difficult to hate, despite his charges’ crimes against music, and he has even managed to achieve something no manager has done before — he has become more famous than his acts, writes Pat Stacey

I don’t know if I like Louis Walsh. I don’t know if I dislike Louis Walsh. I don’t know, because I don’t know Louis Walsh. Never met the man in my life, so I honestly can’t say what he’s like as a human being.

Plenty of other journalists I know, a few of them friends, do know Louis Walsh and swear by him. On the record, particularly for hacks working the music and entertainment side of the business, he’s the gift that just keeps on giving. If you’re stuck for good copy or a good quote, Walsh is the man to contact.

Off the record, in a more relaxed social situation (although Walsh is apparently not an especially big drinker by the standards of some in show-business and the media), he’s by all accounts, terrifically good company: an entertaining storyteller, full of hilarious yarns and mercilessly honest about the virtues and shortcomings of his fellow celebrities.

This is all second-hand stuff, based on other people’s experiences, of course, so who knows? Spend enough time trawling the internet and you’ll turn up innumerable contrasting stories by people who’ve randomly met such-and-such a famous person and found they’re either a) a thoroughly nice individual, who’s happy to give autographs and pose for selfies, or b) a rude, arrogant, full-of-themselves a**ehole of infinite diameter, who treats Joe Public like something unpleasant they accidentally stepped into on the pavement.

Strangely, there never seems to be an in-between in such situations. Someone is either cartoonishly nice or cartoonishly nasty. This is what results, I guess, when you take the faces you see on television and in the movies at face value.

Part of TV3’s 'super Saturday', Ireland's Got Talent with Louis Walsh, Michelle Visage, Jason Byrne and Denis van Outen Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Part of TV3’s 'super Saturday', Ireland's Got Talent with Louis Walsh, Michelle Visage, Jason Byrne and Denis van Outen Photo: Stephen McCarthy

These things are entirely subjective anyway, and it’s debatable whether one person can truly say what another person is really like unless they’re intimately acquainted with them. It’s not just famous people who have two sides, the private one and the everyday public one; it’s all of us. “What you see is what you get” is rarely the whole truth about anyone.

It’s possible that even Michael Palin (officially The Nicest Man in Television) and Dave Grohl (officially The Nicest Man in Rock) have their off-days when they’d prefer it if nobody recognised them.

One thing is for sure, though: everyone is intimately acquainted with “Louis Walsh”, a public entity distinct from private Louis Walsh.

“Louis Walsh” is the ever-smiling, ever-cheerful, ever-upbeat character who never stops talking. He’s both the brand and — in spite of all the acts the other Louis has managed and promoted over the years and decades — currently the brand’s most visible and marketable product.

X Factor judges Louis Walsh, Simon Cowell, Nicole Scherzinger and Sharon Osbourne (Syco/Thames TV)
X Factor judges Louis Walsh, Simon Cowell, Nicole Scherzinger and Sharon Osbourne (Syco/Thames TV)

He’s the round, amiable face on the telly, and from this weekend, he’ll be displaying his round, amiable telly-face on the long-gestating Ireland’s Got Talent, which has been promised (threatened?) for years and finally materialises on TV3 tomorrow at 7.30pm.

Back in the heyday of The X Factor, wedged between smug Simon Cowell and human foghorn Sharon Osbourne, “Louis Walsh” was cleverly cast in the role of the underdog defending his underdog acts. He could look wounded and puppyish when the need arose, and sometimes melted into tears when he had to send an act home.

Who didn’t side with him when shrieking Sharon threw a glass of water in his face?

Could have been a lot worse, mind you; could have been one of those boxes of her own poo she’s been known to send through the post to people who’ve offended her.

Ronan Keating (L) and Louis Walsh pose backstage prior to the band's pre-tour gig, their first show together in 8 years, at G.A.Y. on March 1, 2008
Ronan Keating (L) and Louis Walsh pose backstage prior to the band's pre-tour gig, their first show together in 8 years, at G.A.Y. on March 1, 2008

But on Ireland’s Got Talent, hosted by Lucy Kennedy, “Louis Walsh” is very much the top dog among fellow judges Jason Byrne, Denise Van Outen and Michelle Visage (who neither I nor, I suspect, much of Ireland had heard of before now).

I admit to having a soft spot for “Louis Walsh”, even when he tells some godawful no-hoper any of the following: “You could be the next big thing!”; “You owned the stage!”; “You deserve to be here!”; “I want to see you in the final!”, or “You remind me of [insert name of some big star here]!”

If nothing else, Ireland’s Got Talent has the makings of a great Saturday night drinking game. Whenever, over the coming weeks, “Louis” utters one of the well-worn catchphrases above, you whack back a shot. I guarantee you’ll be in bed by nine o’clock and in rehab by the middle of March.

Standing behind “Louis Walsh” the colourful character, pulling the strings and working the levers, is Louis Walsh the crafty and astute band manager and businessman who, according to one recent account, has built up a net worth of more than €130m.

Talking about his role in The X Factor, he told a newspaper just before Christmas: “I play a game. It takes a very wise man to act the fool. I act stupid, but I’m not as stupid as people think. I’m not stupid at all!”

That could be Donald Trump talking. But if Trump — a fool who pretends, and evidently believes, he’s a wise man — said it, it would be a cue for mockery and derision. Nobody is mocking Walsh. You might not like the impact his acts have had on music, but you can’t help but admire the personal drive and business acumen of a man who went from hustling on the long since extinct Irish showband scene to amassing a huge personal fortune and becoming one of the most recognisable faces in showbusiness.

In much the same way as it’s possible to loathe The X Factor (and I do, deeply and abidingly), while at the same time being amused by Walsh, it’s also possible to hate the fact that his manufactured karaoke acts Boyzone and Westlife dominated the charts for so long, yet at the same time, tip your hat to the skill with which he piloted their careers.

You can sneer at the anodyne pap Walsh peddled; I doubt many would sneer at the balance sheet.

Most of us can name at least a few famous band managers, Brian Epstein being the most famous of all, as well as some infamous ones: Allan Klein, who took over The Beatles’ affairs two years after Epstein’s death and did more ripping off than a Las Vegas stripper; and Sharon Osbourne’s dad, the monstrous Don Arden, a Mafia-connected thug who was a student of the Al Capone school of music management and once hung another manager, Robert Stigwood, out a window by the ankles.

None of them, though, ever became more famous than the acts they managed. Louis Walsh could convincingly argue that the biggest star on his books is now “Louis Walsh”.

Walsh is an expert yarn-spinner, a master kite-flyer, famous for conjuring publicity out of thin air. Who can forget the time he fed the newspapers the story of how Boyzone had narrowly escaped death when their seven-seater plane crash-landed in the Australian wilderness?

“They are lucky to be alive,” he said. “It was very serious by all accounts.”

It didn’t take long for the media, and then the public, to cop on to the fact that Walsh was spinning like a wheel. The story was nonsense, a near-complete fabrication. There had been a minor incident (an engine turbo had failed). Nobody’s life was in danger, but the pilot decided to make a precautionary landing anyway.

If anyone else had pulled a stunt like this, they would have been roasted alive. But this was Louis — and you know what Louis is like! — so the world just rolled its eyes and carried on. No harm done. I mean, it’s not like anybody died.

This is the thing about Walsh: even when he’s peddling the smellies of bullshit, he’s oddly endearing. Nobody took it seriously when he suggested Boyzone’s success made them bigger than The Beatles. I doubt that Walsh, deep down, believed a word he was saying either.

The more outrageous the hype gets, the higher the kite flies and the brighter the mischievous twinkle in Walsh’s eye seems to shine. It’s all part of the big game. He knows it, you know it, he knows you know it, and the world, his wife, their dog and the fleas on the dog’s back know it too.

If there’s a word to sum Walsh up, it’s probably “incorrigible”. When you’re a pop Svengali and a talent-show judge, there are worse things you could be called.


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