'If Cheryl Cole had returned to X Factor she'd have been star of the shows'
It's the showbiz saga that refuses to go away - the sacking of Cheryl Cole from the US X Factor and her refusal to return to the UK version.
Even as auditions were getting underway in Birmingham yesterday, the repercussions from the public fall-out between Cole and Simon Cowell were still threatening to overshadow the new series and the unveiling of the new-look judging panel.
With Cole now out in the cold, Cowell tied up with his American commitments and Dannii Minogue's recent departure, many fans are considering turning their backs on the show.
It's been claimed that Cowell has taken too big a gamble introducing three new judges for the viewers to get used to - Take That frontman Gary Barlow, former Destiny's Child star Kelly Rowland and relative newcomer Tulisa Contostavlos of urban hip-hop band N-Dubz.
But the show's sole survivor from the original line-up, Louis Walsh - a self-proclaimed 'old pro' - reckons the X Factor can, and will, survive without Cole, Cowell and Minogue.
Lifting the lid on Chezzagate Walsh admits the Girls Aloud star had not been "comfortable" with her new life in the States and had not wanted to "play the phoney LA game".
And he says that, while he was saddened she had refused to accept Cowell's offer of an olive branch and take up her old role on the UK's X Factor, he believes she will eventually 'bounce back' after taking time out to lick her wounds.
"The UK X Factor wanted Cheryl to come back, she should have come back, she's a gorgeous girl and would have been the star of the show," he says.
"I really, really like Cheryl. I sent her a text to see if she's okay. She's back in London and taking time for herself but I hope she's okay. I think she will be fine. She'll bounce back.
"The thing is, the US is a very different planet. I'd never want to work there. I love going there on holidays but I'd never live there. It's such a different world from the UK and Ireland. It's so much nicer to work here: it's friendlier, more honest. LA can be a very phoney place and I don't think Cheryl wanted to play that game."
Following Cole's shock sacking - a fortnight after filming had begun on the US X Factor - it was alleged that the show's bosses weren't happy with the chemistry on the judging panel and that the American audience could not understand her Geordie accent.
Recent newspaper reports have also claimed that Cole had a negative attitude and instead of attempting to raise her profile in the States, preferred to spend time alone in her hotel room.
So why does Walsh think it didn't work out for her?
"It was everything really," he says. "She just wasn't happy there.
"Simon gave her a chance and it was up to her then. He did not want it to work out like this.
"That's the thing with Simon, he gives people chances. He made Westlife, he gave me this wonderful television career.
"I would have loved to see Cheryl coming back to us. I was really hoping she would. But she didn't want to.
"It's a tough old business and you have to be tough to survive.
"I mean look at Gary Barlow. He's had his knocks, his ups and downs. People laughed at him, said Robbie was the star. But Gary is the talent in Take That. He's an inspiration. He persevered and it paid off.
"Cheryl loves her music, her dancing. I think she'll go off and do another solo album. And she still has Girls Aloud. She'll be back."
Walsh concedes he will miss his three former companions but thinks the public will accept the new judging panel.
"Of course I'll miss them all. I still miss Sharon Osbourne," he tells me.
"I'll miss Dannii, more than you'll know, and Simon particularly, I'll miss him the most. I'll have no one to fight with."
I point out that Cowell is already predicting fireworks between the old school Irish pop supremo and trendy young Tulisa.
"Did he say that?" he laughs. "Well, I'll be ready for her. I'm well able to stand my ground.
"Look, I'm an old pro in the business, I've sold millions of records worldwide with my acts, Westlife, Girls Aloud, Samantha Mumba, Jedward.
"And I'm going to have great success with my new girl group, Wonderland. I'm not pretentious, I don't try and pretend to be hip. But I do know what I'm talking about."
With the auditions of the new X Factor series just about to begin after this interview, Walsh says he is looking forward to meeting the new female judges.
"I've known Gary for a long time but I haven't met the girls yet," he says.
"But I think they'll do well. It's a different line-up, a fresh one, but at the end of the day, it's up to us to make it work."
The X Factor auditions and the controversy aside, it's been a hectic week for Walsh, who has been in London preparing for the launch of his latest act Wonderland's debut album.
Walsh manages the band along with Westlife's Kian Egan who is married to one of its members - ex-Hollyoaks star Jodi Albert.
The other four girls in the band are Sharon Condon, Corrina Durran, Leigh Learmont and Kasey Smith, all of whom are Irish.
The girls were chosen from thousands of hopefuls who took part in auditions in Dublin two years ago.
And Walsh reckons the world is now ready for Wonderland.
"These five girls were chosen because they all stood out," he says. "They were all great singers, they all look good and have great personalities.
"We were spoilt for choice at the auditions but we were thrilled with the five we got. They are the real deal. And it's all about the singing - first and foremost, they are a vocal group.
"Their new album Wonderland is amazing and I'd go as far as to say that any track chosen from it could be a hit single. Take That's Mark Owen has written for them too. It's a brilliant debut album.
"They're also a professional bunch and in the time they've been together, have grown really tight. They're all best friends now, they're like a family unit.
"They're probably the female equivalent of Westlife."
Despite the marriage connection, Walsh says there's no favouritism in the band.
"No, they are all treated the same and they all get on great," he says.
"They've already toured with Westlife and Boyzone, so they know what they're doing."
The girls will be back in Belfast this weekend when they support Olly Murs at the Waterfront Hall tomorrow night. Walsh says they love playing the city.
"Belfast has been very good to Westlife and I've a feeling it's going to be good to Wonderland as well," he continued.
"They're enjoying touring with Olly. He's a great worker. He came runner-up to Joe McElderry, so he's had to work even harder. And he's doing very well."
While none of the girls hail from Northern Ireland, Walsh is quick to point out that his favourite artists come from this side of the border.
"I love Van Morrison, he's one of my favourite singers," he says.
"But the best act ever, as far as I'm concerned, were The Freshmen, a showband that came from Northern Ireland.
"Oh my God," he adds enthusiastically.
"I followed them everywhere. They were amazing."
So was he a fan of Herbie Armstrong, Britain's Got Talent's Belfast contender, who auditioned with a Van the Man song?
"He's a pub singer", he replies emphatically. "No, no, he won't win. It will be little Ronan Parke or the young boy Robbie. It's new talent they're looking for."
Walsh has to run off to get ready for the album launch but, as a parting shot, says he hopes X Factor fans will give the new line-up a chance.
"Cheryl and Dannii were new to the X Factor game when they started and people soon fell in love with them," he says.
"I really want the public to stick with the show. Yes, it's going to be different, but you have to give us a chance to see how we get on.
"And like I said, it'll be down to the four of us to make this new line-up work. But I think we can do it."