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Malachi Cush talks meeting Prince William and hitting the big time before social media

‘Prince William asked me if I was the guy from the big house on Fame Academy and I said you live in a fairly big house yourself... he just laughed!’

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Malachi Cush

Malachi Cush

Malachi with his wife Claire

Malachi with his wife Claire

Malachi Cush with Eamonn Holmes

Malachi Cush with Eamonn Holmes

Malachi Cush with songwriter Phil Coulter

Malachi Cush with songwriter Phil Coulter

Malachi performing on Fame Academy

Malachi performing on Fame Academy

Malachi Cush

It is 16 years since a young gas fitter from Co Tyrone nervously entered one of TV's first reality singing shows, Fame Academy, and made it all the way to the final five. It was the first time 23-year-old Malachi Cush has stepped outside Northern Ireland and the experience transformed his life beyond his wildest dreams.

Overnight, he went from an being an unknown to a young star mixing with celebrities and even royalty - he once stood side-by-side with Prince William in a nightclub toilet.

He went on to enjoy great musical success and his easy manner and soothing voice were soon picked up by TV and radio where he has proven a natural as a presenter.

Now set to return to our screens next week for a new six-part series on UTV called Back Home, Malachi may be a little bit older and wiser but he is still filled with gratitude for the break he got all those years ago.

Filming over the past six months, he is excited about the new series which will see him take some of Northern Ireland's biggest stars on a trip down memory lane, revisiting significant places from their childhood.

Gloria Hunniford, Eamonn Holmes, Phil Coulter and many more big names all opened up to Malachi in front of the camera in what he says were very personal and candid interviews about their lives growing up here.

Life is busy for the 37-year-old with touring commitments and plans to record a new album.

Married to Claire and still living in his home town of Donaghmore, Malachi says he continues to marvel at the unexpected turn his life took when, unknown to him, his father entered him for the Fame Academy show.

He spent 12 weeks of the 14-week run of the series in the Fame Academy house where he got the chance to hone his skills as a singer, performer and songwriter, something for which he is grateful to this day.

It was before The X Factor and The Voice and also before the days of social media, something he is also grateful for.

"When I got the letter for the audition I thought someone was taking the hand out of me," he says. "It was an amazing experience. I think it was a blessing because it was the first of its kind, before the days of X Factor and also before social media.

"When we were in the house we weren't aware of what perception people had of us, whereas nowadays contestants know everything through social media.

"We were focused on our performances and learning and developing our skills and I still attribute a lot of my skills today to that.

"I would never have called myself a songwriter and that experience gave me confidence to write my own songs.

"I think for new kids coming up who enter a process like that my advice would be that they need to be prepared to work hard and put the effort in."

While he feels that X Factor is more about entertainment than talent, if he were a young person today wanting a big break he says he wouldn't hesitate to audition for it.

"Having lived the life I have, with hindsight I would do Fame Academy again and, if I was a young kid growing up today with some talent and not getting anywhere, the X Factor would appeal to me," he says.

"I think X Factor let too many acts through for the gimmick value and maybe they are not the greatest talent on the night.

"There is no doubt that it has produced big stars like Olly Murs who is an exceptional talent. I met Olly and I know he works really hard.

"It is a cruel world to be in and you have to have a thick skin as there is so many critics now online and contestants are exposed to that."

Like many people in the public eye, Malachi is active on Twitter and has experienced the harsh side of social media.

One troll attack in particular a few years ago shocked him because of the nasty nature of the messages.

He recalls: "I've had pretty nasty stuff put on social media which was completely unwarranted and just because somebody decided to take a swipe at me.

"I am thick-skinned and I didn't labour over it, although it did affect me and I can see how it would affect the confidence of younger people and I really think it is something that needs to be addressed.

"I never responded to it and eventually he got bored and moved on to someone else."

Not one to court controversy, it was surprising that Malachi decided to put his head above the political parapet last year to sign a letter sent "from members of civic society" calling on the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to support nationalists in Northern Ireland.

The unprecedented "urgent appeal" to Mr Varadkar was sent amid concerns that the DUP's deal with the Government at Westminster was a threat to the political process.

Malachi insists he is not political but purely as "a concerned citizen" who is worried about Brexit he felt compelled to add his name to the letter.

"I just feel concerned in general terms about where we are going and I'm also confused about what Brexit means to us as there doesn't seem to be any clarity," he says.

"I think people in general are concerned and when I was asked to sign the letter I just thought that sometimes we tend to say nothing and that is fine, but because of my concerns I felt that I should have a say.

"I think sometimes the concern of people on the ground is underestimated and no one is explaining anything.

"I am one of those people that doesn't understand what Brexit will mean for us and I think there are a lot of people like that, and I suppose I hoped it might help get our politicians working together again and give us a clearer picture."

While we have become used to seeing Malachi on TV, it hasn't been to the detriment of his singing. His music career has run in tandem with broadcasting and he is planning two tours this December, one with Phil Coulter as well as a tour of America in the new year.

He is still writing new songs and working on another album which he hopes to finish by next spring.

Malachi walked away from Fame Academy with a recording contract and his debut album, Malachi, entered the UK Top 20 album chart as well as the Irish album chart, earning a silver disc.

He has recorded another four albums - Celtic Heartbeat, New Day, Timeless Traditions and Songs for the Soul.

A song he wrote himself for his first album, Just Say You Love Me, became an unexpected hit in the Far East, holding the number one spot in Thailand for five weeks.

It made him a star in the country where he toured three times, playing huge venues to sell-out crowds.

It is one of many surreal moments of his career.

"I look back on a lot of these things with a smile on my face and it is still hard to believe what happened," he says.

"There have been a lot of tough days but also a lot of joyous days.

"The Thailand thing came about as a result of a happy accident. Someone from Universal Records from Thailand was at a meeting in London and my single happened to be playing in the background.

"He heard it and decided to try me out in his region and if he hadn't been in that office at that time it wouldn't have happened.

"I did three different tours in Thailand and they only ever wanted to hear material from my first album. Even now online you see clips of people from Thailand singing Just Say You Love Me which always amazes me.

"It was completely surreal at the age of 23 to be doing extensive tours there in venues that were stuffed with fans, it was bizarre."

Another surreal moment was finding himself sharing a urinal and a joke with Prince William.

It was shortly after Fame Academy and he was invited to London Irish Rugby Club to sing the National Anthem at one of their games.

At a private party afterwards in one of London's top nightclubs, the club's chairmen blagged their way into the VIP area.

"I went to the toilet and the next thing Prince William was standing beside me and I didn't know whether to speak to him or not," he says.

"The Fame Academy house had been owned by the Sultan of Dubai and was fairly famous. I was washing my paws and Prince William came over to do the same and said 'Malachi you're the guy from the big house on Fame Academy' and I said back 'you live in a fairly big house yourself' and he just laughed.

"I got to talk to him and Harry was also there. They were great craic. It was a nice moment and I have dined out on that story for years."

Throughout what has been a magical career, Malachi says his family has always ensured he stayed grounded.

This down-to-earth quality is something which struck Malachi most about the big stars he met for his new UTV series.

In the series, Malachi meets each celebrity guest on their arrival back home to Northern Ireland and accompanies them on a journey back in time to their childhood haunts.

"I was born in the Eighties and grew up with the likes of Eamonn Holmes and Gloria Hunniford on TV," he says.

"It was lovely getting to know them better and hear all their stories. There was something about going back in time that grounded them all.

"Seeing Gloria walking those streets again in Portadown and visiting her old school and listening to her talk about the impact it had on her life today was fascinating. No matter what or where they have travelled, none of them have forgotten their roots.

"In the first episode on Tuesday with Phil Coulter, he goes back to the spot in Bundoran where his brother and sister both died in separate drowning tragedies inside 12 months.

"It is the first time he has gone back and it is a very emotional moment.

"It was all very in-depth and very personal and their willingness to be open and honest about their lives.

"For all of them they still put family at the heart of their lives and I think that is something that is unique to us here in Northern Ireland.

"In about every case you are told to keep your feet on the ground; I know I grew up hearing that and all of the stars came across much grounded."

Back Home starts on UTV on Tuesday at 7.30pm

Belfast Telegraph