Source: UK Times Magazine; 31.8.2013; http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/magazine/article3853352.ece
“All of us here at Hair Restoration Blackrock were delighted to see Louis Walsh looking so well in the Times Magazine this weekend” – Dr Maurice Collins, HRBR
Louis Walsh on Cowell, The X Factor and fame
Louis Walsh says he plays the fool for the public, and beneath the jokes lies a ‘wise man’. So when William Leith asks the X Factor judge about life beyond the cameras, why can’t he stop talking about Simon Cowell?
Louis Walsh, who is 61 years old; who has had a hair transplant and minor surgery around his eyes; who, in June 2011, was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a man in a loo in a Dublin nightclub; and who has declared that this, the 2013 season of The X Factor, will be his tenth and last, darts into the restaurant of the Kensington Hotel, which is upscale but not grand. “I stay here all the time,” he says. He is super-twinkly. He wears suede shoes and a check shirt. He makes small talk, at which he excels.
“Have a drink. You don’t drink? Must be the only journalist who doesn’t. I do – a bit. Tonight I’ll have a few.” In the background, his entourage gathers.
For some readers, Walsh needs absolutely no introduction. You feel you’ve known him for ever, and you’ll be wondering what his thoughts are about Sharon and Ozzy, about Cheryl, about the fall of Tulisa – and, of course, about Simon. And, of course, Gary. And, of course, Ronan.
For everybody else, Louis Walsh is unique within the music industry. He manufactured, and managed, the boy band Boyzone (22 million album sales), and the boy band Westlife (44 million album sales); he managed the girl band Girls Aloud. He’s a judge on The X Factor, our biggest ever talent show, which is run by Simon Cowell. As a manager, Walsh is immensely shrewd; on TV, he’s quite happy to appear shallow, or even slightly daft. In person, he navigates between the two.
“I’m not the person that’s on the TV at all,” he says. “I’m not really that person. This silly Irishman. I’m not really like that in real life. Simon knows what I’m like. I act the fool. It’s a character.” What’s underneath? “I know I’m being silly. It takes a wise man to act the fool. That’s what I do. I always do that with Simon. Cowell is just… very funny.”
And now, quite suddenly, we’re talking about Simon Cowell. With Walsh, this happens frequently. News has recently broken that Cowell is to have a child with the ex-wife of one of his friends – a not abnormal situation in showbiz. But because it’s Cowell, the sexually indecipherable king of cheesy entertainment, this seems deeply disturbing. “If he walks in the door, I always start laughing,” says Walsh, of Cowell. I tell Walsh I’ve met Cowell’s brother Nicholas, a property developer. “Nicholas is better-looking. I always say that to Simon.”
Walsh changes the subject again. “Listen, I enjoy life,” he tells me. “I enjoy the business. I love doing what I do. I didn’t want to work in a shop, or in a bank, or be a teacher. Or a priest. My mother wanted me to be a priest. That wasn’t for me.” He’s not religious, then? Walsh pauses, and says, “Simon is God. He’s everywhere. Especially at the moment. Ha! Everywhere!” (Today, Cowell is on the front page of several tabloids.)
Walsh continues: “He’s vain. He’s arrogant. He’s ambitious. People think he’s this creepy person on TV with a strange haircut. And a strange face. Strange fashion sense. He’s always styled himself. Doesn’t have a stylist. That’s the way he is. He thinks he’s fabulous, by the way. When he looks in the mirror, he sees James Bond. He actually does.”
A waiter hovers; Walsh orders “the usual”. One of his themes is that, whatever else happens, he and Cowell find their work on The X Factor, and each other, very funny. He often defends Cowell. But then he’ll make a waspish remark. Of Cowell’s high waistband: “That went years ago. I think it was from his disco-dancing days. He loves disco music. I love disco music, too. I’m not a good dancer. But probably better than him.”
Walsh loves, loves pop music. He says: “Who’s your favourite all-time hero?” Paul McCartney, I say. “Has to be John Lennon, not McCartney,” he says. “Has to be Lennon.” But he loves Wings. “I love Linda. Denny Laine was in the band! What did he write?” It’s a pop quiz. I’m stumped. Walsh says, “His one big hit?” I can’t think. “One big hit?” says Walsh again. I give up. “Go Now, by the Moody Blues.”
He loves the old stuff. Loves authenticity. He prefers the old movie stars to the new ones. Loves Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline. Sees new country singers like LeAnn Rimes as “copies of the real deal”. Pretty rich, you might think, coming from him. What, then, I ask him, gives a musician the X factor? “It doesn’t mean that they’re the best singer in the world. If somebody just walks in the room… somebody with ambition. Ambition and hard work is almost as important as talent to me. Elvis had it. Bowie had it. Bowie still has it.”
Yes, I say. But how would Bowie have done on The X Factor? Wouldn’t he have been too spiky, too peculiar?’ “Too that way? Well, I like that way. I don’t go for middle-of-the-road music. My iPod is full of Broken English by Marianne Faithfull;Transformer by Lou Reed. People like that.’
Walsh grew up in County Mayo, in the West of Ireland. He was the second of nine children; his father had a few dairy cattle, worked in a baker’s shop, and drove a taxi. Home was a four-bedroom stone farmhouse. “I wasn’t interested in school or football,” he says. “Or the priesthood!” He was sent to St Nathy’s College, a boarding school. “I hated it,” he says. “I hated it so much. I hated the whole thing. I hated everything about it.
But I think it was good for me in that it got me ready for the big bad world.” Walsh says he was miserable. “Inside, yes. But not on the outside. It was costing a lot of money. I had to pretend it was good. I was going through the motions. But I hated school.” He says he wasn’t bullied. But “the priests were very strict”. Just strict, he says. Nothing worse. He wasn’t expelled, but they asked him to leave after three years.
At school, he’d been obsessed with pop music. After he left, he went to stay with his older sister, Evelyn, who lived in Dublin. “And then I got a job!” He was a gofer for a show band, the Royal Blues. “Just answering the phones, doing the fan mail, doing the dry-cleaning. That’s how I learned the business.” He also worked for “people you wouldn’t have heard of. But they were big in Ireland. Red Hurley. Joe Dolan. But I was watching and learning. I just wanted to be in the game and away from real life.”
Pop music, says Walsh, “is a great escape”. At the moment, he’s auditioning for a new boy band. Looking for talent. He needs five boys. One thousand have applied; he and his people have got it down to 20. “I’m nervous about that. I did Boyzone. And Westlife. Both of them were very successful. But I want to do a new boy band.” The trick with boy bands, he says, is to get a good balance: “If girls don’t like one, they’ll like another.” He’s auditioning boys, he says, “because I want all the young girls”. He means the fans. Young female fans are more obsessive about boy bands than young guys are about girl bands. “Boys, they don’t care. They’d like to shag them, but they don’t really care. They don’t stay outside hotel rooms.”
Of Boyzone’s Ronan Keating, one of the first boys successfully to audition for him back in 1993, he says: “I have nothing to do with him. Don’t even know where he is.” Was Keating a great talent? “Not at all,” scoffs Walsh. “Not at all. He thinks he’s great. He’s a little manufactured pop star who actually believed his own publicity. I used to write the publicity; he was believing it. But the others were not. Stephen was so humble and grateful. But Ronan thought he was George Michael. He didn’t write his own songs. I picked all his songs. I picked every single hit he had. He said he didn’t want to be a karaoke artist. Well, that’s what he is.”
Stephen Gately, he says, “was the most popular”. He “was the pretty one the little girls liked”. When he died of heart failure in 2009, the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir wrote, “Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one.” Moir implied that Gately, who was gay, led a “dangerous lifestyle”. Walsh says, “I think that was her opinion and, you know, in a way, she’s entitled to her opinion. I think she’s a good journalist. I’ve met her since, and I like her.” For Walsh, Gately’s death was “unbelievable. One of the biggest shocks of my life. But, you know… You just enjoy your life. I think that’s what it taught me. Just enjoy your life.”
I wonder about his sexuality. I ask him to tell me if he’s straight or gay. “I can’t,” he says. “Don’t go there. I can’t. I think your private life is your private life.” It emerges that I am straight. “Really? Are you really straight? I thought you might be gay! I thought you might be.” Of himself: “Don’t go there! I’m happy. Happy as Larry!”
I mention Kevin Spacey, who said he didn’t want to tell me if he is gay or straight, because to be mysterious, as an actor, is to have an advantage. Louis loves this: “Walking his dog at four in the morning!”
And: “I watched House of Cards. He’s great. Love him, love him, love him.”
He loves lots of people. Tulisa: “She smokes. She drinks. There’s nothing fake about her. Apart from her tan.” He thinks she’ll survive her recent drug-related tabloid scandal. Dannii Minogue, another former X Factor judge, is “very, very sexy”. He likes Gary Barlow, too: “He had a career that got really big, and then he went down, because he became really fat. Yeah, really fat. But he’s a talent. He is a survivor. He’s a great guy.”
The judges on the next season of The X Factor are Walsh, Barlow, Nicole Scherzinger, Sharon Osbourne. The moment I say the word “Sharon”, Walsh is off. Sharon is “feisty, very feisty. She’s had a lot of work done, but it really suits her. She looks fantastic. She looks better now than she did.”
Walsh tells me about the area under his own eyes. “I went to Sharon’s doctor in Los Angeles, if you want to know. They just take all your bags. They just take all the fluid from under your eyes. They were black and blue for ten days. But I went out the following day, shopping. I just wore dark glasses.”
Sharon, he says, “is incredibly loyal. She’s the only person to keep in touch with me, of all the judges, ever. I am in touch with her all the time. Apart from Simon, she’s the most loyal.”
And here we are again, talking about Simon. “He’s unusual,” says Walsh. “He’s very daft. He’s interesting. He’s not your normal kind of… He’s slightly wacky and funny. He’s just different. I don’t think he’s overly clever. I think he enjoys life.”
He’s not gay, I say. “Not at all,” says Walsh. “He’s like you. He’s theatrical. He’s like you. It’s… an English thing. English people have this.” And: “He should be a Sir. Why isn’t he a Sir? He would be a great Sir. And he would love it!
“I’m not the norm,” he says. “I do what I like.” For Walsh, a typical day starts rather late, because he stays up late at night, talking to people in different parts of the world, about bands, music, songs. “Always thinking about it. Always. Producers, songwriters, agents. Always things to do.” When he wakes, he watches rolling news channels such as Sky and CNN. We find ourselves having a brief conversation about a killer python.
“He was a pet. He escaped.”
Walsh lives in a big townhouse in Dublin; he also has two apartments – one on the Irish Sea and one in South Beach, Miami. His taste, he says, is “modern contemporary”. Like a Malmaison hotel, I say. “Nicer!”
He has art. “I’ve a good few Hockneys.” He also has work by Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol. I mention Warhol’s screen prints of Chairman Mao. “I have one of them,” says Walsh. “I have the purple one.”
When he goes out in Dublin, people don’t give him the star treatment. “They don’t care.” For a while, he owned a vintage Rolls-Royce he bought from Elton John, which was “too much for Dublin”. He bought it for £75,000, and sold it for less. Now he drives a Maserati “and a Wrangler Jeep. I just like being ordinary.”
“The usual” arrives. It’s a breaded escalope of chicken. Walsh says he lives alone “most of the time”. In his house, he says, people come and go. He has a vast collection of records and CDs – so many that he keeps them in storage, in a warehouse somewhere. He also collects magazines and reads lots of books, almost all about music. He’s very knowledgeable about music.
If I mention an artist, even someone quite obscure, he will tell you stuff about them. Anita Ward, I say. “Ring My Bell.” Tina Charles? “I Love to Love (But My Baby Loves to Dance).” Maxine Nightingale? “Right Back Where We Started From.” When I say “Donna Summer”, he’s in heaven. Just the name gives him a ripple of delight. But he doesn’t go to nightclubs any more.
That’s because on June 20, 2011, Leonard Watters, a fantasist, accused Walsh of indecently assaulting him in a Dublin nightclub. Watters was later jailed for six months. “It was total lies,” says Walsh. “It’s the worst thing ever in my life. My greatest nightmare. I thought my life was over.” He sued The Sun newspaper for running the story and won around £403,500. But for a while, he couldn’t sleep properly; he looked grey and sallow. “All you have is your name,” he tells me.
These days, he’s looking much better. There’s the hair. He didn’t think he was going bald. But Simon noticed. (Simon’s had work done, but not on his hair.) “‘Darling, you’re losing your hair,’ he said. I said, ‘Darling, I’m not.’” But he was, a bit. Walsh had the hair procedure at Hair Restoration Blackrock, in Dublin, by Dr Maurice Collins. A strip of skin, roughly half an inch wide and four inches long, is cut from the back of your head, which is then stitched back up. Then hair is harvested from the now surplus strip, and replanted higher on your scalp. “It grows over six months,” says Walsh. He lets me peer at his scalp; the work is impressive. “It’s called maintenance,” he says.
The key to his success, he says, is his ability to convey his enthusiasm about music. He gives me a sales pitch: “I’ve got this amazing thing. It’s going to sell millions of records. Dah de dah de dah. They buy into your enthusiasm.”
He keeps enthusing – about music, about Simon, about The X Factor. “It’s not just a singing contest. It’s everything! It’s voyeurism! It’s a talent show! It’s a reality show! It’s a soap opera!” If this really is his last X Factor, I shall miss him.
This article was publish in the UK Times Magazine 31.8.2013. To read the full article with all the images click here.