It's a whole new story for pop idol's Gareth Gates
Due to play Belfast with boyband supergroup 5th Story, former talent show star Gareth Gates tells Andrew Johnston how he's loving life on the comeback trail
But no such easy option for resurgent popster Gareth Gates, who, despite his well-publicised speech impediment, has spent the morning preparing ahead of our chat. "With this interview, I've had to warm up for it, and I've had to have a coach help me through it," Gareth explains. "I've got all sorts of things going on in life right now, so my speech has taken a knock because of that. I haven't had a chance to work on it as much I should do.
"Speech and having a stammer is obviously a big part of my life," adds the singer, who between musical activities, has trained as a speech therapist with the McGuire Programme, including instructing several times in Ireland. "It's always great to get over there," Gareth says. "There are lots of Irish people that have stammers, so I like to help them as much as I can."
It's hard to believe it's been 12 years since the then cherubic Yorkshire lad won the nation's hearts by coming runner-up to Will Young in the first series of Pop Idol.
Since then he's got married to – and divorced from – dancer Suzanne Mole, with whom he has a daughter, Missy (5).
Now, he's back on our screens, courtesy of ITV's The Big Reunion, the show that is to faded pop stars what Quentin Tarantino movies are to washed-up, cult actors.
The first series, in 2013, rejuvenated the careers of 1990s and early 2000s outfits 5ive, 911, Atomic Kitten, B*Witched, Honeyz, Liberty X and Blue, thrusting them back into the spotlight and onto an arena tour, which saw the acts perform to nearly a quarter of a million fans.
This year's instalment focused on boy bands, with the returning 5ive and Blue joined by A1, Damage, 3T, 911 and the specially-formed 5th Story, featuring Gareth himself. Initially, the solo star was reluctant to sign up to be part of a 'supergroup', alongside Another Level's Dane Bowers, erstwhile Coronation Street actor Adam Rickitt, solo singer Kavana and Kenzie, of Blazin' Squad.
"At first, I was sceptical," admits Bradford-born Gareth. "Sharing the stage, while singing my songs, was a bit of a daunting prospect. But I met the lads and we hit it off straight away, and we have so much fun now on stage and off stage. I'm not closing the door on my solo career, but with 5th Story, if the public demand is there, then I'll continue to work with the band. If not, we'll all go our separate ways again."
As well as The Big Reunion, Gareth took part in the last series of Dancing on Ice and the accompanying tour, six years after his previous appearance on the show. So, is ice skating just like riding a bike? "I was a bit rusty at first," he laughs, "but I eventually got back to grips with it. It's hard because you have to get that strength and timing back, but I'm enjoying it much more this time round, and to be asked to be involved in the last ever Dancing on Ice and the final tour is a real honour."
It doesn't get much bigger than appearing in two primetime shows at the same time, followed by touring the nation's arenas – twice. How does it feel to be back in the mainstream? "It's great," Gareth says without hesitation. "It's really nice to be back in arenas and performing to huge crowds. Being involved in one ITV show is enough, but being involved in two has just been crazy. I've been way too busy!"
And he's very much looking forward to playing Belfast's Odyssey Arena with 5th Story on November 1, a far cry from his most recent appearance in the city, when he played a solo, acoustic gig at the Kremlin bar. "It was ram-packed and the audience were great," remembers Gareth fondly.
"I really love it in Belfast. I always stay in the most bombed hotel, the Europa!"
Still, even if his recent solo career hasn't set the charts alight, Gareth has kept busy since the heady days of the early 2000s. He has performed in musical theatre, has written with 1970s stalwart Judie Tzuke and has opened three performing arts academies in Bradford, Milton Keynes and Leeds. "I've been fortunate," says Gareth. "I haven't stopped working for the past 12 years."
And despite having expanded his career, Gareth doesn't mind if people continue to associate him mainly with hits like his cover of the Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody, which topped the chart and went double platinum in the UK in 2002.
"Absolutely not," he insists. "I had so much success back then – five number ones, sold five million albums – so that's opened up the doors for me to do whatever I want now, and I'm really enjoying it. At all of my gigs – be it acoustic or club gigs, or theatre gigs – I always perform my old hits anyway. That's what my fans are there to see."
On The Big Reunion and in interviews, the vocalist has been open about the ups and downs of fame, which for him have included such tabloid-friendly shenanigans as briefly dating Katie Price, aka Jordan. Having been a well-known figure for more than a decade, Gareth can now reflect on the positive and the negative sides of fame.
"The best aspect is that my job is my dream," Gareth considers. "I'm singing and performing, and I'm doing it for a living. That's a really good part of it. There are great perks of the job, as well. For instance, I've had a special Nando's card for a while, where I just get free Nando's, which is brilliant!
"The downside, of course, is the intrusion of your private life, and not really being able to go anywhere without being spotted. Pop Idol was such a huge thing at the time, and it was the first of its kind. I don't think there has been a final since that has gripped the nation like that final between me and Will did.
"But you do get used to being recognised. It's about accepting that it's part of the job. If you want to be a successful recording artist, then that goes hand-in-hand with it, I guess."
And with the arena tour looming and a 'best of' release and a possible 5th Story album to come, Gareth's profile looks set to soar again. A lot of critics can be dismissive of the reality pop world, but the likes of Pop Idol, The X Factor and The Voice shouldn't be disrespected, reckons Gareth.
"There are those that have been on the likes of X Factor that haven't been as fortunate as I have," he concedes, "but the show is still creating huge stars. For instance, it was only two years ago that One Direction were found. They were put together by Simon [Cowell], and now they're the biggest band in the world. Clearly, something is still working."
Gareth Gates and 5th Story play the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, on Saturday, November 1, as part of The Big Reunion Boy Band Tour. Visit www.odysseyarena.com