When popstars were not allowed to be themselves

Kevin McDaid and Mark Feehily

Aileen C O’Reilly, who went on tour with Boyzone at the height of their fame, remembers a time when being gay popstar was kept under wraps. A fortnight ago, Westlife’s Mark Feehily joyfully announced his engagement to his secret boyfriend of six years and the band’s legions of fans cheered the happy couple on.

For me, reading the news was a bittersweet experience — while I’m absolutely thrilled for Mark and the fact that he was “allowed” to keep his partner out of the media glare for so long before knowing that his announcement on social media would be so rapturously received, I couldn’t help but feel desperately sad for a former much loved Irish boyband star who could only have dreamt of being allowed to be so at ease in his sexuality…

These days, boy bands are no longer the preserve of the clichéd screaming female teenager — they are for everyone — girl bands likewise. Thanks to the impact of the LGBTQ movement, we are reaching a new all-inclusive consciousness and old prejudices are being cast aside as children grow up in a new era wondering what all the fuss was about. So, you’re gay? Bi? Trans? Queer? Cool — whatever… Back in the ’90s when Boyzone and Westlife were formed, they were all “supposed” to be available hetero men and so it remained until one by one they got married — or didn’t.

Back in the ’90s, life for a gay popstar was rather less, well, joyful and every gay popstar in a boy band was keeping his sexuality firmly hidden as he outwardly remained single and available and free to be linked with any female celebrity in the public eye. Like Stephen Gately was with Baby Spice.

During his time in the Celebrity Big Brother house, Boyzone bandmate Shane Lynch spoke candidly about the intolerable position his good friend was placed in thanks to the blinkered attitude which existed towards anything that wasn’t purely hetero at the time.

He revealed:

Obviously, me and the boys always knew Steo was gay. It wasn’t a question because his boyfriends used to come on the road with us.

“I think in the early 1990s when we came to the UK, being in a boyband and being gay, nobody had come out, it was just not the thing to do. It would have been management and stuff, it was all swept under the carpet.

“There was an understanding among celebrities, or whatever you want to call it, but he was meant to be dating Baby Spice and all that.”

Lynch recalled the relentless pressure that Stephen was then put under to reveal his true sexuality.

“What happened was, we were on tour and he got a phone call to say that the press was going to run with a story on him,” he said. “He was distraught. They said to him, ‘Look, you can tell your story, or we’re going to print our story’. It nearly destroyed him. It really nearly destroyed him.”

At the time, I remember press speculation over Stephen’s sexuality was rife — although “speculation” is the wrong word as the dogs and cats in the street knew he was gay — it was a horrific game to see which tabloid was going to do the “outing” first. With all the bloodlust of a public lynching… I was working for a national broadsheet at the time and recoiled from this brutal tabloid sport with absolute disgust.

I wanted nothing to do with it. Stephen was such a lovely guy, funny and welcoming and fiercely protected by the rest of the Boyzone guys (quite rightly so). And here he was, in essence, a puppy about to be savaged in a media dog fight.

And then I got the dreaded call — the story was going to appear in one of the more salacious tabloids the next day and we had to acknowledge it one way or another, so to speak.

Stephen Gately (R) and boyfriend Andy Cowles enter Renards Night Club on May 20,2004 Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by ShowBizIreland/Getty Images)
Stephen Gately (R) and boyfriend Andy Cowles enter Renards Night Club on May 20,2004 Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by ShowBizIreland/Getty Images)

I hated the idea — I just couldn’t in all good conscience write it. I told my editor exactly how I felt and waited for the silence on the line as the deadline loomed ever closer… “Well that’s exactly what you need to say then,” were his final words before the line went dead.

So I did. I wrote it exactly as I saw it then and still see it now — none of my business. Why “out” a man over something he has about as much

control over as his eye colour? Did his sexuality affect his voice or in any way alter the fact that he was a hugely talented, lovely, kind, funny guy? No. It did not.

Why did the media feel it had the right back then to hound princesses through tunnels or drag Stephen’s private life onto the front page with glaring headlines when what he did behind closed doors was his own and nobody else’s business — much less fodder for everyone else’s over-the-garden-fence conversations.

What if photographers were posted outside your home every day waiting to catch you hoovering in the nip with your yellow Marigolds on? How would you feel?

Stephen Gately gave his all on stage, he glowed, had the most beautiful voice and the cheekiest grin, he was the boy next door, and he was also incredibly private about his private life. He drew the line and nobody had any right to cross that.

Even in the current age of social media, not all celebrities want you to be a fly on the wall of their private lives — Ed Sheeran being a case in point.

Thankfully, according to Shane, when Stephen did come out, becoming the first boyband member to do so, he felt a huge sense of relief and received a hugely positive response.

“He couldn’t believe it himself, the weight off his shoulders, the lie had left. It was gone”.

It never should have been there in the first place, Stephen — we were entitled to your amazing talent. Anything else you chose to share with us was up to you — we were privileged to share in it at all, gorgeous boy.

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