As Louis Walsh prepares for the final of Ireland’s Got Talent and another Westlife tour, he talks toabout plastic surgery, celebrity spats – and why he won’t be having children, ever.
"I hate f**king kids,” Louis Walsh whispers to me as a mother and four children arrive into our quiet corner of the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge. A few minutes of low-level kid noise later he uses a slightly louder voice to say he wishes they’d shut up. A few minutes after that he snaps “shut up” in a voice that must have carried to their table.
This crankiness is out of character with the rest of our hour-long conversation, so I ask if it’s ok that I include it in the article. He said, “of course, I don’t care.”
You could say he doesn’t need to. Having started out managing a local band in Kiltimagh called Time Machine (“a bad Status Quo” according to himself), Louis went on to bring us Boyzone, Westlife, Jedward, 13 years on X Factor, along with Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor USA, and now as a judge on Ireland’s Got Talent, which reaches its grand final this weekend.
And still the 66-year-old, who could pass for 50, has an appetite for the game. When we wrapped up the interview later on, he started chatting to the woman from the PR agency about his wild-card choices for Ireland’s Got Talent.
He seemed surprised that I didn’t know more about the Ballincollig gymnastics act, Rebel Acro, given they are from Cork, and said “I’ve a great guy from Cork this week” when describing singer Barry Darcy, who got a Golden Buzzer pass to the semi-final from Louis back in March.
He also retains his appetite for an eye-catching put-down of a fellow judge. Earlier in the series, he told Jason Byrne he couldn’t fill Vicar Street and he’s not funny. I say to Louis that’s a fairly harsh thing to say to a working comedian.
“I don’t think he’s funny. It’s my opinion. I don’t think most of the Irish comedians are funny. They don’t make me laugh.”
Who makes you laugh?
“I like insult comics. Joan Rivers, Dame Edna, people like that.”
“No, he goes too far.”
According to one report, Byrne laughed off Louis’s jibe afterwards and said his fellow judge had apologised. I ask Louis if that’s true.
“No!” he replied, as if that would be crazy.
Some older spats seem to go deeper. I ask Louis if he saw a report that Keith Duffy was taken ill with a bug in Thailand, during Boyzone’s farewell World Tour.
“I heard that ya. He was probably listening to Ronan. I’d get sick if I had to listen to him as well.”
That’s one of the nicer things he says about the Boyzone frontman.
He is the most ungrateful person I ever worked with. With Ronan Keating, it’s welcome to the world of Ronan Keating, population one. It’s all about him. Me, me, me.
“He said to me one day, sitting where we are now, ‘I don’t want to be a karaoke artist any more’. I said, ‘but that’s what you are.’”
I mention Keating’s success as a solo artist.
“He didn’t write those songs. I got those songs, I got all the hits he had, every one of them”, says Louis.
While insisting that Boyzone would never have happened without him, he acknowledges that it was delivered with a large slice of luck.
“The Boyzone thing was a fluke. I was sitting around in Lillie’s Bordello, I wasn’t making a lot of money, [the journalist] Fiona Looney was there and Katie Hannon.
“They said why don’t you do a band like Take That, I said I will, Fiona Looney did the story the following day and put my phone number in it. My phone started ringing and I couldn’t back out. I wanted to, but I couldn’t back out.
“150 people rang up, one guy kept ringing back, asking what height do you need to be, he was really keen. That was Stephen Gately.”
People of a certain age in Ireland can never unsee Boyzone’s first appearance on The Late Late Show, complete with Gay Byrne, mock-astonished that the world had come to this, half-dressed Dublin lads gyrating on the telly.
“Everybody laughed. I used to go to The Pod (an iconic nightclub on Harcourt Street), and the guy from The Emotional Fish and the Hothouse Flowers and all the trendy managers around town were there, and they were all laughing at me.”
He certainly showed them, as Boyzone went on to become one of the leading pop acts in the 1990s. I’d say Louis enjoyed showing the trendy managers who was boss.
He insists that the competition between the judges on X Factor was real, and I believe him.
There is even a surreal moment where he insists that he knows more than I do about the secret life of a well-known Irish broadcaster. Eventually he gets me to turn off my voice recorder so he can tell me what he knows, because it would cause a fuss.
I do and he tells me something I already know. I tell him I already know it and he counters that I still don’t know everything that he knows.
I was going to say that would be impossible, but that would probably mean we’d never end up this squabble, because my guess is that Louis likes to have the last word.
Not that he’s remotely unpleasant. I could have stayed talking to him for days — he’s the classic rural Irish person, self-deprecating and bitchy and funny and warm and generous.
More than anything he loves to include you in some gossip. Within two minutes of turning on the voice recorder he was promising to tell me the real juicy stuff once I turned it off at the end.
It didn’t really work out like that — as with the shut-up directed towards the kids at the next table, there were times when I almost felt like reminding him that the recorder was on.
Some bread arrives for Louis, along with a cappuccino. This is his breakfast, at 3pm.
I’m just out of bed, TV3 [Virgin Media] took us to The Ivy restaurant after filming and when I came home I stayed up watching Billions on TV.
I ask him if this is fantasy viewing, dreaming of the day when he’ll be really rich.
“No, I wouldn’t want all that money. Money doesn’t make you happy – I know people in the UK with money, they never seem to be happy. They live to work, I work to live. We’re not saving lives, but I love it. It’s a silly kind of a life, but I like it. I still get excited by it.”
He’s still excited by the prospect of taking his second big band, Westlife, on a new world tour. The story of how he kept Shane Filan in the band shows some of his chutzpah.
“Westlife opened doors for me. That was when I met Simon Cowell. He wouldn’t take my phone-calls when I was trying to get a deal for Boyzone, I couldn’t get arrested with them honestly.
“I met Simon, he said, ‘Daaarling, we must do something.’ He’s the campest straight man I’ve ever met. He’s a really good person, he’s self-made. I brought him into the Westbury, he saw I.O.U. from Sligo, six of them, he thought they were shit, he said you are going to have to change four of them.
“I changed three of them— I was never going to change Shane, I liked him, he was the leader of the band, so I dyed his hair for the second audition and Simon never noticed.
“I saw something in Shane, I liked his attitude and I knew his mother, and she had called me, because she’s originally from Kiltimagh, that’s the truth! He has a spark that none of the others had. Still has.”
Is he stressed about the upcoming Westlife tour?
“Not so much this time round, they’re older and wiser, they’ve seen the other bands coming and going, they’re grateful for a second go, and their album is really good.”
Do they appreciate you?
“I hope I’m like the fifth member.”
No ingratitude there so.
“No, you see, they’re from the country, they’re different. Honestly, there is a difference. I think it’s still there. Even the people who come on Ireland’s Got Talent, we had this little guy from Mullingar the other night, he was so nice and unsure of himself, and that makes you like them, it’s called likeability.”
Louis has likeability and then some, it’s actually more obvious when you meet him in person, as long as you’re not under the age of five. He reckons this likeability is the reason that Cowell chose him for the judging gig on X Factor.
“When I walked out with Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne, you know, I could imagine people saying who the f**k is he, who’s that little f**ker? I would have said that. I had no confidence for a few years. I thought Simon chose me because he liked me – I still do.”
He’s gushing in his praise for Cowell.
Simon changed my life. If I hadn’t met him, I’d just be working with Irish bands.
So how does he feel about being dropped from the X Factor judging panel twice (fired or quit, depending on who you ask).
“I had a contract and I got paid my full money for sitting at home last year. And the ratings were really bad. Simon kept me there longer than I ever should have been, you have to change these shows. I was there for 13 years.”
I’m not suggesting that Louis would come back for a third stint if he was asked. But he very, very pointedly refuses to rule it out.
In football, this making yourself available for a move to a bigger club, by refusing to rule it out, is known as a Come and Get Me Plea. I’d say it’s called something similar in the showbiz world.
Louis is never going to be happy just being the big fish in the small pond of Irish TV. At one point he dismisses a well-known figure in the Irish media, saying that he is ‘just local’.
“London is a great city, do I want to live there? No. I think Dublin is the best place in the world, all you need is money. I feel safe here, no one is going to shoot me, like in the States.”
I ask him what he doesn’t like about America.
“The Americans. The 200 million in the middle [of the country] that voted for Donald Trump. Scary. Everyone has a gun.”
He makes an exception for big cities like New York, Chicago and particularly Miami, where he owns a bolt-hole from the Irish winter. He made a point of telling the media he was in Miami recently when Boyzone played their farewell gig in Dublin’s 3Arena.
What did he get up to?
“I went to see Cher. She was brilliant. She’s alive!”
Does he have more friends in showbiz or normal life?
“I have friends in both, a handful really. I don’t have many friends, but I have enough. I’m not one of these people who collects celebrity friends.”
Louis is evasive about his private life. He even asks me not to bring up a family-related matter that is in the public domain, because his brothers and sisters (he’s the eldest of nine) give him a hard time when they see it in the press.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked him if he’d like to have kids.
“No! My Jesus.”
A pet then?
No. I’m enjoying my life. I’m self-sufficient, in charge of my own little world.
I tell him he looks in good shape for someone who is 66. Does he work out or diet?
“I don’t do anything,” he stresses.
“I think if you’re happy inside, that’s important. Jonathan Ross was chatting to me the other night, he said ‘you’ve had everything done’, I said ‘I’ve had my eyes done, that’s it!’ I know I’m lucky I’m still getting away with it. I don’t look after myself, and I have good genes from my mother and father.”
Does he drink alcohol?
“No, not much. And I would never drink Coke or Red Bull.”
We swap a bit of gossip at the end and he signs off by telling me that he’s a big fan of my work.
As I walk towards the door, Louis sits in next to the PR woman and shouts, “We’re going to talk about you now.”
I’d like to think it was all good. But you can never be sure.