Louis Walsh: 'I don't want to be slagging people off any more. I have to suffer the consequences. I take my work very seriously'
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, Louis Walsh talks to Barry Egan about death — his own, his father’s and Stephen Gately’s — plus Bono, Elton, Simon Cowell, Westlife and his next career move
What makes Louis Walsh cry? "Funerals. I hate going to funerals. I cry." He has similar tear-stained memories of three years at St Nathy's boarding school in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon as a teenager.
"I hated St Nathy's. I didn't fit in. I hated it so much. I wasn't very studious. I wasn't sporty. I remember going asleep in the dormitory bed at night missing my mother's food, my mother's good food," recalls Louis.
"The food in St Nathy's was horrible, like prison. St Nathy's was like prison, like an institution. It was depressing. It was go to bed, pray, study. I hated the place. There was no fun.
"Every time now I drive by on that road, I go, 'Oh My God'."
Louis says that when he was in bed in St Nathy's, his family home in Kiltimagh, 20 miles away in Mayo, seemed like on the other side of the world.
"We didn't have a lot of money at home but we always had fun in our house. There was never fun in boarding school. Our house was always full of people and noise and music... neighbours coming in. It was an open house."
Why did Louis's parents send him to boarding school? "Because I was the second eldest child of nine kids," says Louis, who has a big sister, Evelyn. "I think my mother thought I might become a priest. I don't know! I think that was somewhere in the back of her mind."
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Is Louis religious? "Not really, no," he says over a fancy lunch in the InterContinental hotel in Dublin. "I have never had a religious experience. I was an altar boy and all that stuff. Religion was hammered into us when we were young."
For three hours - at lunch and then in his car on the way to an appointment in town - he talks relentlessly and passionately about music, about how much he loves Westlife ("they are one of the great pop bands, I love working with them"), and how much he misses Stephen Gately of Boyzone, who died tragically of pulmonary oedema in 2009.
"He was one of the nicest guys I ever met or ever worked with. Such a gentleman, such a talent. I still can't believe he is no longer with us. It was one of the biggest shocks of my life. He was so young (33)."
Louis's father Frank died at the age of 69. "It was a terrible time, but we knew it was coming because he had been sick for years. He loved music - the Strauss waltzes, My Fair Lady, (tenor) John McCormack. I can still see the records in the record player at home," Louis reminisces.
"My dad also loved Jim Reeves. I hated Jim Reeves, but my father's taste in music brought me to listening to pop music on Radio Luxembourg and (DJ) Larry Gogan, Top Of The Pops, the showbands. I went to see the Freshmen (the showband) and that definitely changed my life."
Louis adds that he inherited "old-fashioned Irish values" from parents Frank and Maureen. "Basically, 'If you want to do something, go out and do it'."
He just did Celebrity X Factor on ITV. Last year he finished up on X Factor after 13 years on the biggest pop show on television. "I will always do something on TV in London," he says.
Ten years ago, Louis brought me out for lunch in town; then, after I mentioned that my mother was a big fan of X Factor (and him), he drove us up to the family home in Dublin to see her and offer her tickets to the show in London.
When my mother told him that she would rather watch it on the telly in her front room, Louis got all my sisters VIP tickets instead and brought them backstage to meet Simon Cowell etc.
That is a side to Louis that people rarely hear about. People think of him as the acid-tongued pop mogul on the telly, the light-hearted king of pop forever ready with a bitchy joke. But he has a good heart, as well as a sometimes hidden serious side.
"I don't want to be slagging people off any more. I have to suffer the consequences. I have a serious side. I take my work very seriously. I am not frivolous." (Author William Leith described Louis as "super-twinkly." He isn't really.) "I care about the charts and sales and the bands. I love music."
He skips merrily onto the subject of Elton John. "He is amazing. I love the fact that he doesn't claim to be perfect." You can say the same about Louis Walsh. "Elton can have a good day and a bad day. He is human."
What is a bad day for Louis? "A bad day for me is hearing bad news about somebody. I nearly always have good days. I'm nearly always in good form. But I do have bad days, yeah."
Born August 5, 1952, Michael Louis Vincent Walsh was "the X Factor's very own Dorothy Parker" (as Simon Hattenstone wrote in the Guardian in 2012).
Asked a few years ago about his art collection, he answered: "Hirst, Hockney, Herring. That's just the Hs." The Ws includes Warhol.
Another time, Louis was asked who would play him in the film of his life. "Colin Farrell," he replied. "He auditioned for me for Boyzone and I said no. He couldn't sing."
"Mary Lou McDonald would be a good country singer," he told me in 2015. "She dresses like a country singer. She would be like the new Susan McCann or Philomena Begley, definitely."
He once described Boyzone as "Ronan, Stephen and three Ringo Starrs." The newly diplomatic, more mature Louis Walsh doesn't say things like that anymore, of course.
Louis doesn't submit to psychoanalysis willingly, or at all. He was once asked, have you ever said 'I love you' and not meant it? "Every day," he answered, "even to myself."
Intriguingly, the song he wants played at his funeral, he once said, is Crazy by Patsy Cline. The Irish King of Pop is not an easy one to work out. Asked what age he is - I already know the answer, but I want to hear him say something Dorothy Parker-esque all the same - Louis answers: "I'm somewhere between 21 and death. I'm 67. I feel about 37. I act young. I'm young on the inside."
How does he maintain that inner state?
"I think it is because I like life. I just got out of bed and here am I having lunch at the InterContinental with you. I was watching The Irishman on Netflix until three o'clock in the morning.
"I thought it was brilliant. I thought the fact that the main character was Irish - Sheeran and all that - was interesting."
The Irishman is really about friendship. Is that a big thing for Louis?
"It is hard to find real friends in this business. I probably have a handful of close friends," he says referring to Caroline Downey ("She's a genius, a great woman"), Sharon Osbourne ("I love Sharon") and Cowell - Louis was at the latter's recent Thanksgiving dinner at his house in London.
"I have never seen Simon so motivated as he is now. He is going to bed early," he says of his X Factor boss. "He gets up early. He is really healthy."
What about Louis's own health?
"I never go to the doctor. Never, no. I don't want to know."
Why doesn't he have check-ups? "Because I'm like James Brown! I feel good! I feel good!" he sings. "It's all to do with positive mental attitude. I think that is a lot to do with it. Life is good."
Being 67, does Louis think about mortality? He lets out a roar of laughter. "Oh yeah, but I don't want to go yet. I want to hang in as long as I can! I don't want to be like Frank (Robert de Niro's character) in The Irishman, who is old and leaving the door open in the nursing home. I don't want that. I want quality of life. I want to enjoy life," says the multi-millionaire who is off to spend Christmas and two months thereafter in his other home in Miami.
Isn't Florida where they say everyone goes to die?
"That's Florida, not Miami!" he says looking at me daggers. "Darling, Miami is cool! I love it there," gushes the man who has sold millions upon millions of records (Boyzone, 25 million album sales; Westlife 50 million album sales) and concert tickets with the acts he has managed - these also include Samantha Mumba, Ronan Keating, Girls Aloud, Shayne Ward, Jedward and Hometown.
"I love Westlife, the best band I ever managed. They sold out two Croke Parks last year. The new DVD (The Twenty Tour - Live From Croke Park) shows the magic of those shows to 160,000 fans. They have just sold out Wembley Stadium. Very few Irish acts have even played Wembley Stadium let alone sold it out."
Louis is as famous as Westlife, I say to him. "I am not famous. I am well-known. Everyone knows who I am. But I am not famous - like Elton or Rod or Bono."
Louis met the U2 singer recently in Angelina's Restaurant on Percy Place, Dublin. "He is a rock star but he remembers every single thing that happened to him 30, 40 years ago."
Like Bono, Louis keeps the flame lit by "loving" what he does. "And I always want to love and enjoy it. And if I wasn't enjoying it, I wouldn't want to do it."
I ask Louis what else he would do.
"I can only do music. I would like to find somebody new next year, somebody different in Ireland."
As Louis did with Westlife, once upon a time, albeit courtesy of Shane Filan's mother May, who somehow got hold of his number and rang him.
"She knew my mother," Louis says of his beloved Maureen. "May was from Kiltimagh originally and was living in Sligo. Anyway, she rang me and said how good her son and the group were, and for some reason I believed her - every mother says their son is brilliant. I believed May Filan. And I met them and there was something about them. They were rough around the edges. They had culchie haircuts."
What's a culchie haircut?
"A Sligo haircut," explains Louis (who in the 1970s was described by New Spotlight magazine as "lithe and wiry with a crop of copper curls skimming his forehead, casual in corded jacket and elephant flares.")
"They weren't groomed. But they had a great camaraderie because they were working together in Sligo. They weren't just thrown together. They were friends. Then I got rid of three of them," Louis says, adding that he then met Nicky Byrne and Brian McFadden (who was to leave the band in 2004) at auditions in Dublin in the late 1990s. "They just stood out from the crowd. I put them in and it worked."
And like their famous song suggests, Westlife and Louis have been flying without wings ever since. "I've never been happier or as content with life," he says later in his car as he drives me into town.
His mother is 88 years of age. Would he like to live to that age?
"Yes! If I'm healthy! I don't go to the gym." But he does go to the top of the pops.
Westlife play Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork on August 28 and 29, 2020, with special guest Emeli Sande
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, Louis Walsh talks to Barry Egan about death - his own, his father's and Stephen Gately's - plus Bono, Elton, Simon Cowell, Westlife and his next career move