'I love being on this show': Louis Walsh on life in the X Factor bubble

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The former altar boy from County Mayo has come a long way. Alice Jones meets Louis Walsh, teeny-pop impresario – and The X Factor's most entertaining judge

Louis Walsh is late. It's a bleak rainy Friday and when I arrive at his sleek hotel in London's Mayfair, he's still in bed. It is 12.20pm. Mind you, he has a good excuse. When he finally creeps downstairs, his grey hair still tufty from the shower, his stripy shirt a little creased, The X Factor's twinkliest, crinkliest judge pretends to shake his head with shame – but really he's bursting with pride. He didn't go to bed until 5am, he chirps, having partied the night away at Mariah Carey's album launch ("ridiculous!") in the West End with his Westlife boys, X Factor choreographer Brian Friedman, Geri Halliwell, billionaire retailer Philip Green and – but who else? – Sinitta. Based in Dublin most of the week, he doesn't go out very much and when he does, he doesn't normally drink but they were launching a new brand of champagne and it was Mariah, so it seemed rude not to. He sips delicately at his latte. His phone – a brick of a thing he calls his office – rings loudly. "The phone's going!" he grabs it off the table. "It's Mariah! Only joking ... "

Louis Walsh, you learn quickly, only stops talking to breathe – and sometimes, when he's really excited, you suspect he might forget to do even that. The gift of the gab hardly covers the waterfall of gossip, jokes, queries and camp asides that tumble out of him. His phone buzzes constantly – "Can I just answer this in case it's somebody important?" Even when he's having his picture taken, he's chatting away – out of the corner of his mouth as if the lens won't pick up on it – asking the photographer about her favourite artist, joking about Susan Boyle and complaining about the anxious producer who keeps calling to check he's on his way to Wembley to record those segments where the judges talk gravely about song choices and journeys and the "huge risks" inherent in a particular Wham! number. "I'm always there on time! I'm always first there!" he squeaks. Who's always late? "Simon. It's called making an entrance." When a middle-aged man shyly approaches the table and asks if Walsh will say hello to his teenage daughter on the phone, he bounds off the sofa and tears it out of his hand. "Yeah, I'll talk to her! Anything for votes ... " before signing an autograph with a big, smiley face.

Walsh is the human face of X Factor and, at 57, the oldest and least slavered-over judge on the panel. Where Cowell is the evil puppet-master ("He runs the world," winks Walsh. "It's his world and we're all lucky to be living on it.") and Dannii Minogue and Cheryl Cole provide the size zero glamour and lacquered tears, Walsh is the vaguely crumpled fall-guy in the wonky bow-tie. "I'm the one Simon will have a go at but I don't mind, that's my job." I think he secretly quite likes the attention. Despite the Saturday night theatrics ("It's not staged! Not at all!"), Walsh plainly adores Cowell. "He's been a big influence in my life, in a very positive way. It's very hard to meet somebody you're actually comfortable with, that really knows you, really understands you. We fall around laughing, holding our stomachs in. I go to Simon's dressing room a lot. I have fun there." So he must find the on-air snipes a bit irritating sometimes? "This is what I'm like. Really. Absolutely. I'm not pretending. I don't worry about it because I'm always going to be happy. I'm a positive person."

It sounds like Walsh is protesting too much but he is fairly indistinguishable from his television persona – puppyish, outspoken and just a little bit silly. While he's sharper than he comes across on X Factor, you'll dig in vain for a deeper, darker side. In fact, if you want to understand what makes Louis Walsh tick, you need look no further than Jedward, the mal-coordinated, tuneless, bequiffed teenage twins who have become this year's X Factor sensation, attracting gaggles of screaming girl fans, plaudits from David Cameron and a stage invasion from electro pop star Calvin Harris (with a pineapple on his head). It was Walsh who first spotted their fun factor. "I said to the producers, 'Who are the two dolls?' You see all these ordinary people – big, small, fat, thin and then these two. Where do you see two kids, looking alike, with the big hair?" Well, everywhere now, Louis. Still, it's tempting to think Walsh recognised in the terrible twosome a kindred spirit. "They're like something from another planet," he says. "They live on planet pop!" He is its other inhabitant.

Walsh has always been obsessed with pop music. Growing up on a farm in West Ireland, he'd run to the newsagent's every week for his NME, which he'd devour "from cover to cover". As a teenager, his first love was an Irish show band called The Freshmen ("like Ireland's Beach Boys") whom he trailed, a touch obsessively, from gig to gig. In his 30-year career, kickstarted with Ireland's 1980 Eurovision winner, Johnny Logan, he's managed some of the most successful chart acts of all time. His forte is boy bands, specifically clean-cut Irish balladeers Boyzone and Westlife, who between them have racked up 20 of his 29 No 1 singles. He's not musical ("I can't sing at all"), but he lives and breathes pop – Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Donna Summer, Rolling Stones, Bay City Rollers, Take That ... What would be his three desert island songs? "'Stardust' by Nat King Cole, 'Crazy' by Patsy Cline and, I don't know ... 'Freak' by Radiohead. I like that song, yeah. I mean 'Creep!'" Any Westlife? "Yes! If I didn't know Westlife, I would absolutely buy their records."

Despite, or perhaps because of, his background, Walsh didn't want to mentor the groups on X Factor again this year and grudgingly picked "the best of a bad lot". His other two acts – Kandy Rain ("Well, we've forgotten them already") and Miss Frank ("They never really gelled; three different personalities. That's girl groups for you") – were voted off early because, he says, girls don't vote for girls. Though Walsh successfully managed Girls Aloud for four years until 2006 he admits he doesn't work well with girls. "They're high maintenance. It's easier to manage boy bands. Less hairspray, less make-up, less baggage."

Last year, he steered JLS to second place on X Factor. With two No 1s under their belt and sell-out arenas, the R&B boy band have turned out to be "the real winners", he says. "I gave them heart and soul last year, everything. I worked so hard for them." This year, perhaps his heart isn't quite in it. His "mentoring" is mainly done over the phone from Dublin. Can he even tell John and Edward apart? "Do you know how I know? They always stand the same way round." Just like Ant & Dec. But what if they swapped places – could you tell then? "Honestly? No. But, listen ... "

Jedward crashed out two weeks ago with a Day-Glo "I'm Your Man" and a maudlin "No Matter What". "They totally went out on a high," asserts Walsh. He's not so kind about this week's loser, Lloyd Daniels, whom he laid into in no uncertain terms on Saturday night. "I wasn't being mean, I was being honest. If he can't take criticism at this stage in his career, he'll never be able to take it." He's only 16, Louis. "Well, anyway, he was totally out of his depth."

Now, he says, it's a four-horse race but if he had to call it, Joe would be the "best winner". "I think the show needed Jedward around for one or two more weeks. There was nothing different on Saturday – it was like a talent show. You knew what was going to happen – everyone was going to come out and sing well." You might think that was the point of a singing contest. But reality television is a fickle beast and Walsh is probably right when he predicts Jedward will be this year's real winners, to the tune of millions. It took an enthusiastic text message from Peaches Geldof after their second performance – a hilariously awful PVC-clad take on Britney – to open Walsh's eyes to their potential, a neat vignette which tells you everything you need to know about 21st-century British culture. Can they really, seriously, have a career? "Yes! Absolutely!" Doing what? "Hair endorsements!" he says triumphantly. "Uh, panto, TV, lots of things." And music? "I think they'll make a pop record. Yeah, absolutely. With the right song – and the right producer. We didn't manufacture them, they manufactured themselves."

So, Louis, I reckon I can sing a bit better than, if not John then probably Edward. With a bit of manufacturing, could I be a star? "Well, you need a platform, the right company behind you, the right manager and PR, radio and TV." And talent? "Ambition, drive and work ethic are almost more important. The most successful artists are not necessarily the best singers. Madonna: not the best singer but a real show-woman. Madonna and Robbie [Williams] are two great examples of people who have got great drive and wanted to do it but if you bring them in here and get them to sing a cappella, it's not gonna be great."

Walsh knows exactly what the X factor is – and it has very little to do with vocal cords. "Very few people have star quality. We've had Leona, Alexandra Burke and JLS. Steve Brookstein [the first X Factor winner in 2004 who sank without a trace] was a mistake," he says. And 2005's winner Shayne Ward? "Shayne was not a mistake. He's making an album and he's touring. I still believe in him as an artist." Being his manager, he would say that. Doesn't he feel guilty about the Leons and Steves who are built up only to wind up in a pound shop bargain bin? "No. Because they get one chance. This show is a platform for people who have got talent and if they use it properly, it's just a chance. They're not all going to be stars."

Walsh grew up the second oldest of nine children, in the tiny village of Kiltimagh, County Mayo. "There was a church, lots of pubs and a road – to Dublin", he says. At his strict Catholic boarding school, he was an altar boy but was otherwise far from a star pupil. "I did all the exams and stuff," he says vaguely. "I hated school. Really, really hated it. But I think it got me ready for the outside world." At the first possible opportunity, he took the road to Dublin to work in a show band office where he was the office gopher – making tea, collecting the dry cleaning, answering the phone and posting letters. "I was learning the business and that's all I wanted to do. I started at the bottom. That's what everyone today doesn't realise – everybody that comes on the show. You start at the bottom and you claw your way there."

His late teens and early 20s were fairly rough going, as he waited and waited for a hit record of his own. Finally, he lucked out with Logan – who won the Eurovision Song Contest twice. In the early Nineties, he hit upon the idea of creating an Irish Take That and Boyzone was born. Their first appearance on The Late, Late Show was a disaster – all mistimed dance moves and bad miming. If that had been their X Factor audition would he have put them through? "Absolutely. They have Irish charm. They charmed their way to the top, those boys. What people are saying to me about Jedward, everybody said the same thing about Boyzone. Jimmy Carr once said to me, 'How do you know what little girls like?' I said, 'I don't!' You just take a hunch." It paid off: Boyzone racked up six No 1 singles and four No 1 albums. He went on to manage lead singer Ronan Keating's solo career which was even more successful – his 1999 album selling over 40 million copies. Around the same time, he created Westlife, the biggest-selling boy band of all time. Sinead O'Connor once said he had "single-handedly taken the soul out of Irish music and danced a vampire dance upon it". But you can't argue with the cold, hard facts of 43 million Westlife albums sold. "People look down their noses but they are a success. They sell out arenas and they're very good at what they do."

Hard to imagine, but Walsh is a tough task master. "I like them to work hard. They've got x amount of years to make it in the pop business", he says. "A lot of managers are just yes people with their artists. If they want girls or drinks or drugs, they will accommodate them. I don't believe in that. At all." He publicly fell out with Keating, who said that Walsh "absolutely tried to ruin" him (they are now reconciled). Girls Aloud were a "nightmare" to manage. "But they probably found me difficult. I was living in Dublin and didn't give 100 per cent. They were just thrown together. Five girls!"

There's definitely a steely streak under that twinkly demeanour. Upon discovering one of his Boyzone boys, Stephen Gately was gay, Walsh hushed it up, to the extent of setting the singer up on photo opportunities with sexy female pop stars. "I didn't know he was gay when I first gave him the job in Boyzone. Honestly I didn't," he says. "And then he told me and I thought, 'oh God, problem' because it wasn't cool. Girls kept Boyzone alive. They had to fancy them, right? Even in their minds they had to be available because you were selling them a pop star, somebody they could maybe sleep with. Or go out with." Does he think the industry has changed? "Definitely. Look at George Michael, Will Young, [Westlife's] Mark Feehily. It's acceptable these days. Everybody accepts it. It's like they almost expect it now – 'Which one is gay?' they always say to me." He doesn't sound terribly convincing.

Gately's death, aged 33, in October came as a terrible shock. "He was one of the few people who was absolutely grateful," says Walsh. "A lot of the people that I meet and manage and work with, they think that they're almost due it. He didn't. He was from the rough inner city in Dublin and he was really grateful that he got a chance."

While Boyzone set Walsh on the path to wealth and success, he says that it was meeting Cowell, 12 years ago, that changed his life. He couldn't get him to pick up the phone when he was trying to sell him Boyzone. "I thought he was a very eccentric, slightly camp Englishman, y'know? Very amusing. Theatrical. He said, 'Darling,' smoking away, 'we'll work together some time.' And we just clicked. For what he is and what he has, he's incredibly nice and he's very loyal. He takes getting to know. He's a bit odd – dresses strangely, weird hairdo."

He had no idea that they would end up working so closely. The call came through to appear on the Irish Popstars in 2001 which eventually led to The X Factor five years ago. He never wanted to be on television but now he loves it and wishes he'd started earlier. "Hey, I could be in Dublin, I'd be over the hill now. I wouldn't be as happy. It's given me a whole new life. I've always had enough money but I don't do it for the money."

Having already been sacked, briefly, by Cowell in 2007 – "he wanted to make it younger, edgier" – Walsh knows his position is precarious. "I could be voted out. I could be in the bottom two next year! I don't think you can be over-confident. We're not saving lives. We're in the entertainment business. It's frivolous and it's forgettable but I love it." Though he claims not to be worried about his appearance – "they don't hire me for my looks. They really don't" – he has indulged in a little "maintenance", after his good friend, former judge Sharon Osbourne, showed him her before and after surgery pictures. "But I've never had Botox! Never! No, no, no! Look at Simon! Look at the people I'm on the panel with – they're all groomed and plucked, nipped and tucked! And besides, it works."

The rivalry with Cowell is clearly friendly but Walsh has less time for his female counterparts on the show. "They're too busy getting ready. It's like a fashion show: who's going to have the best shoes, the best dress ... " That said, Dannii has "upped her game 100 per cent this year. She's looking better and she works hard. Nobody gives her enough credit. She's as good as Kylie, she just doesn't have the machine behind her." Cheryl, on the other hand, is "the new Kylie". They didn't get on when he was managing Girls Aloud. "I don't think she liked me then. I think she probably likes me now. I go to her dressing room for a cup of tea – that's a good sign." And what about those spats with host Dermot O'Leary? "Dermot is a very safe, Saturday night presenter. Sometimes he tries to be a bit edgy but he's not. He's just nice, safe Dermot. He's Radio 2, not Radio 1." Meow!

Every Monday, after the show, Walsh flies back to Dublin. "First stop: Marks & Sparks!" His life there is "ordinary" – getting up at midday and working until midnight, his phone clamped permanently to his ear. It must be quite a nice version of an ordinary life, I say, thinking of all those Westlife albums. "I've got a nice house, nice car. But I'm a part-time celebrity." A little later, it emerges that he has an enviable art collection – too many Warhols and Bacons to hang so they're stacked up on the floor and along the corridors of his house. "I like Pop Art," he says evasively. Happy to gossip about his fabulous celebrity pals – Sharon Osbourne ("Love her to bits!"), Jackie Collins ("You know when you just click with somebody?") and Paul O'Grady (after we finish talking, he's straight on the phone to offer his condolences about the chat show host's dead dog, Buster) – he's private about his real friends. "I've got a small circle – not that many friends. But I've loads of acquaintances." In his spare time, he consumes box-sets of American dramas (currently Damages) and stays up all night watching the news channels. He only reads magazines – fashion, interiors and his guilty pleasure, Heat. "But my life revolves around music, to be quite honest with you."

This year, as every year, he'll spend Christmas with his mother (his father died 13 years ago) and siblings in Ireland and will jet off to his holiday home in Miami for January. "I'm kind of the black sheep of the family. I just do my own thing." Apart from one who lives in New York, his six brothers and two sisters all live in Ireland. "Nurse, policeman, accountant, you know ... Real jobs, real people", he looks bored. "I would hate to be doing that. I would hate to be doing anything else, if I'm really honest. It's escapism." From what? "Normal, everyday, boring life. I don't like the real world out there," he gestures dismissively at the rainy street. "I can't do the real world."

It's much more fun on planet pop, after all. And it keeps him young. He has no plans to retire – and even when he does, "I don't see a rocking chair." He leans forward, eyes glinting. "Hey, the clock's ticking but I don't care. I've had a great time. I'd love a few more years doing this. I love doing this show. I love working with Westlife. I'm doing Boyzone. I could do a few more bands. And that's my life. It may look silly and plastic to people, but honestly I would never want for anything else."

Walsh's verdict: The X Factor's final four

Olly Murs

I thought Olly was going to win. He was in my secret ballot: we do it every year, writing a name down in an envelope of who we think is going to win. But this year I've got it wrong. I like the fact that he's a very natural performer – there's nothing fake about him. He's the boy next door who absolutely loves music. He's a bit Gary Barlow, a bit Will Young and even a bit Robbie Williams. He does all those silly dances but that's him – it's not put on. He's very likeable, very down to earth. He ticks all the boxes and he's a great performer but I don't think he's going to win.

Stacey Solomon

Obviously the only girl left and she totally deserves to be there. She's great but there's some little thing missing for me. And I'm kind of over the silly stuff – I've found that just a little bit annoying, even though that's what she really is like. The Jedward boys told me she was the most genuine person in the house. So she's really nice but I just don't think she's as good as Leona or Alexandra. And I think Olly and Joe are ahead of her.

Joe McElderry

Joe's going to win. He started off like a little West End star, a bit Gareth Gates. But his vocal has got incredibly good. Day by day, we're watching him grow and like Simon said, he's turned into a man in the last week. His Elton John performances stole the show. Everyone in the house would vote for Joe, from mammy and daddy to the kids. And because he's from the North he'll get a massive northern vote. He's also an incredibly nice guy. He's the one I know most of the four and he doesn't even think he's that good. He's not in it to be famous, he just loves singing. In the studio he'd record incredibly well. He's the one to beat. In fact, he's gonna walk it.

Danyl Johnson

He did the best first audition we saw. Brilliant. No matter what you throw at him, he'll take it on. Vocally, he's prepared to take risks and he's not afraid to move around. But I don't think he's gonna win: he'll be second or third. I don't like him as a person, but as a performer he's great. He's got this bad vibe – he came in a bit sure of himself. Unlike everybody else, he's been around the block, singing in karaoke competitions around London and he's picked up a lot of habits from that. He has confidence but it's all front: I don't think deep inside he's that confident. Any other year he could have been a potential winner but this year, he's got a lot of competition and Joe and Olly are more likeable.

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