Pop manager has seen too much of fame’s darks side to be impressed. But he’s still hungry for the next big thing.
Louis Walsh is sitting in Dublin’s Intercontinental hotel with the sunlight streaming down on his face. He seems different, rested, visibly more relaxed. “I appreciate little things like this,” he says.
He points to his phone: “Do you notice how quiet it is? Before when it would ring, I would literally jump.
“I was on a treadmill. And I didn’t realise. I made a lot of money and I loved it (the business) but it was a lot of time wasted.”
Now, he says: “I realise what life is all about.”
The year of Covid has forced him to reassess his priorities. He knows the life he doesn’t want to return to.
“I don’t want to be on planes. I don’t want to be living in a hotel room. I’ll do anything else. I’ve done enough of it. I never realised until I stopped how much I was in the bubble — going, going, going.”
His 30-year career has been a roller coaster and, as usual, the conversation is peppered with outrageous celebrity anecdotes that will never make it to print. Drug use, overdoses, controlling partners. All household names.
“I sat back and watched all these people I know with all this money and all this fame and they are not really happy. I don’t hear them laughing.”
Walsh has helped make more than a dozen unknowns into millionaires but he says it comes at a cost.
“You have to pay a price to become famous. They lose time. The important years of their life becoming that person that they think they want to be, and then they get there and it’s nothing.”
One star he is willing to talk about on the record is Britney Spears, subject of a New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, that became a talking point. In 2012, Walsh was working with the singer on the US version of The X Factor when alarm bells started to ring.
“I was sitting with Britney for two days and after every few auditions she would go...” He slumps over, neck flopping, in his chair.
“They would literally have to stop the show and take her out because she was on so much medication and other stuff. I felt sorry for her.
“Here she was, the biggest pop star on the planet, and she was just sitting there physically, but she wasn’t there mentally. She had a lot of problems.”
In the aftermath of the documentary, the finger of blame was pointed at her family for pushing her into the maelstrom; the record company for keeping her there; the media for their exhaustive dissection of her private life. Even the fans, who devoured the stories.
Walsh, typically, has no time for political correctness when offering his own view.
“This is what happens. We can’t blame the music industry. They probably wanted to be famous and they get it all and then they are still not happy.
“It isn’t what they thought it was. I think there is an emptiness there with an awful lot of people. They get the trappings but it doesn’t make them happy.”
When it comes to protecting the mental health of pop stars and other celebrities, he says: “I think their families have to do it. The mothers, the fathers the boyfriends, the girlfriends — they have to look after them. It’s not a nice business.”
Asked if Spears should have been receiving help, instead of fronting an entertainment show, he laughs: “She was getting millions of dollars to do it, so why the f**k wouldn’t she sit there?”
The threat of cancel culture hasn’t softened his cough.
“You have to be speak your mind — but you also have to be so careful. Everyone is accused of being racist and ageist and sexist or something.”
Perhaps the reason he has lasted so long in the business is because he never succumbed to the temptations.
“I was never into drugs or drink I don’t even like the smell of alcohol,” he says. And he has no time for anyone who has profited then complains about celebrity culture, saying: “I am bored with it. If you don’t want to get into it, get out of it.”
As far as he is concerned “honesty” is key when protecting acts in this “horrible business”. Speaking his mind “cost me with some of them”, but he says it’s important when you have to push them to succeed.
One example is the day he told his only girl band to drop some pounds if they wanted to get to the top: “With Girls Aloud, at the start I told them they had to lose a bit of weight. I know I said it in so many words. But they did and they looked amazing.”
Why did it matter?
“Because they were competing with the Spice Girls,” he says matter of factly.
Does weight matter more for women in the music business?
“It matters for them because they all want to be the skinny bitch in the middle going out with the footballer,” he says.
Would he get away with it now? “I would tell them in a nice way. You have to be honest.”
For his own part, Walsh himself has experienced the dark side of fame.
In 2011 he was the subject of a false allegation of sexual assault by a tabloid newspaper.
Walsh vehemently defended the claim in court and won €500,000 in damages. His accuser, Leonard Watters, was sent to jail for six months.
The storm raised by the initial story was the lowest point of his career.
“I was very low,” he says. It was a dark time when he had suicidal thoughts.
“I was trying to think ‘what was the quickest way out of this?’ And that would have been the quickest way out. It went through my mind, I’ll be honest with you.”
Later, he returned to The X Factor and spent five more years on the show.
“The last few years weren’t great because ratings weren’t great and everybody was panicking.”
Now he is keen to get back to what he does best: managing chart-topping bands. Though he plans to cut back on business travel, he is gearing up to find a new girl band.
“A sassy Irish group. Young, 15 and up. Because it would take me a year or two to break them,” he says.
I note the his choice of words; it’s as if he is talking about horses.
He laughs. “It does, it takes a year. I will be judging on looks, voice and attitude. But attitude is more important than all the looks in the world. I believe anybody can do anything they want once they’ve got the drive and ambition. But there is a price to pay for it.”
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