Before Blue, Duncan James was focused on a career in musical theatre. He’s finally returning to his roots with a role in The Rocky Horror Show, he tells Esther McCarthy.
Duncan James realised that things had gone peak boyband as he took to the stage near the backdrop of Rome’s legendary colosseum, looked out at a sea of people, and heard 80,000 Italian fans screaming for Blue.
He and his bandmates were already household names in this part of the world, but they’d never imagined that internationally they would become this big.
“It wasn’t until Elton John came on board to do a song with us that the cherry on the cake was really there. We did a song (Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word) with Elton and it just went to number one in something like 40 different countries around the world,” he says of the memory.
“That was the pinch myself moment and I remember going to Italy, stepping out onto the stage and there was something like 80,000 Italians had come to see us. And I remember just thinking to myself: ‘Wow, this is ridiculous’.”
It was never supposed to be this way.
The young Duncan James dreamed of working his way up the ranks of musical theatre rather than being a part of one of the world’s biggest boybands.
All changed when he spotted an ad in UK arts publication The Stage looking for a singer.
“It was a manager looking to put a band together for a major record label. I sent in my demo tape and a picture and I got asked to be seen.
"Before I knew it we were signed to Virgin Records and we were in the charts competing against Westlife for Christmas number one. It was huge.
“I wanted to go into the West End and become a West-End actor and get a part in the ensemble but it never happened because Blue came along and we had the success overnight with the band. I loved singing, that was my thing, I could sing and I knew I had a good voice.”
For the unassuming James, fame brought joy but challenges too - the overnight success led to big changes for the young band members.
“I can only explain it’s like you’re in a bubble. It’s not real and you are going around all of a sudden with bodyguards and security and you’re being taken from an airport, put into a hotel, waiting for your security to take you to the cars, take you somewhere else and your life becomes really different from how you’ve lived before.
"And it’s very strange. But you’re with your friends so you’re all in it together. You can’t just pop across the road to the shop, you have to wait for people to go with you.
“And it wasn’t until we took a break as a band and we went out on our own that the bubble burst and all of a sudden, you’re back in the real world again.
"And it’s kind of: ‘What the fuck just happened?’ And I think we all needed that break, we all needed to feel that reality, because you get so consumed by everything that’s going on in your life.”
For James, the public profile brought other challenges.
Many gay people find it difficult in initially coming out to family and friends.
When the star revealed he was bisexual at the age of 30, it made national media. (He has since identified as gay.)
“I came out as bisexual first because I was frightened to go the whole hog and I had a little girl that was young and I wanted to protect my daughter’s mother, because not only does it affect me but it also affects my family,” he says of that time.
His daughter’s mum, Claire, told him she knew when he told her of his sexuality.
“I think it was a secret that was really kind of starting to unravel and I tried to keep it a secret and I tried to keep it suppressed for a long time.
"It just got to the point where I started becoming a lot more freer in my actions and I started to open up to a few people. And then of course it’s just a matter of time until it comes out.”
He was afraid of how such personal news would be received.
“Back then you know, we’re talking 11 years ago when I did the story, it wasn’t as accepting as it is now. We’ve come such a long way in 11 years. So I was really frightened, I was really scared, really worried.
"I had a lot of issues about it but I knew that I had to do it because I was becoming unhappy. I was becoming ill.
“Every day I was wondering: ‘Is today going to be the day when I’m gonna be outed or is someone going to say something?’ But actually it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
“My bandmates and all my fans really embraced it beautifully with open arms. And it was not as big as I thought it was going to be. People were like: ‘Well done, you’ve come out, great’. And that was it.
“I was very lucky to to be welcomed into the community as a celebrity who’d come out and I got asked to do lots of work for charities and stuff like that. I found it a bit hard at first — I’m not going to lie, I found it a bit overwhelming.
“But the older I get, I think: ‘If I meet somebody that I want to fall in love with and get married to then why should I have to feel that I need to hide that? Why can’t I be proud?’ And I’m at a point in my life where I am feeling proud and I am feeling open to that next stage in my life.
"I know in Ireland same sex marriage was a huge thing for you guys here. It’s great. And there are still countries in the world that are not as accepting as our countries.
"But I think in time it will get better. And the more we fly that flag for pride in the LGBT plus community I think it will get easier.”
In recent years, the star has enjoyed a highly successful career in musical theatre, playing the legendary Billy Flynn in Chicago and starring in Legally Blonde the Musical.
But he is thrilled to be dusting down his fishnets to play Frank-n-Furter in iconic musical The Rocky Horror Show.
“It’s funny, I scare myself sometimes because I’m sitting in my dressing room and I turn up as me and I’m in my thoughts, doing the makeup and then all of a sudden I look at myself and it’s not me anymore. It’s Frank. It takes about half an hour to get the makeup on. And then about another 20 minutes to get the wig put on.
“It’s weird, as soon as you get it on you just automatically take on a different persona. You’re not you anymore. Even the way you move differently, you feel differently.
"I totally get why drag is becoming so big. Look at Ru Paul, he’s had a career of being a drag queen and Ru when he’s in the girl gear, he’s completely different to how he is when he’s the guy with his glasses on and it’s amazing.
"For me, playing Frank-n-furter has given me a whole different lease of confidence in the character and I love being on that stage playing Frank.
“Blue really helped me. I was very lucky that I had that opportunity in my life to have that chance to do that. And now I’m in one of the most iconic musical theatre roles there is, it was such an honour for me.
"I’ve been embraced by the Rocky Horror fan club and the hardcore fans. They’ve given me their seal of approval with my Frank which is what you really want because if they don’t like you, they tell you.”
The Rocky Horror Show comes to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from July 1-6.