Westlife's Mark Feehily radiates happiness, describing the past 12 years as 'the most exhilarating experience one could imagine'. In a compellingly candid interview with Jim Gray, he charts his remarkable journey from being a shy schoolboy to becoming a p
M ARK FEEHILY never craved fame, so he is not seduced by it. Yes, he confirms, the Westlife rollercoaster has provided the ‘ most exhilarating experience one could imagine’, and it has given him an amazing lifestyle for which he is extremely grateful. But, at 30 years of age, and having packed more adventure into the last 12 years than he could ever have believed possible, he remains remarkably grounded and unaffected.
“Fame and celebrity and money have never been the motivation for me. Ever. When I first got involved in school musicals it wasn't just so I could skip some classes. It was because I genuinely wanted to be involved. It's exactly the same now. I'm in Westlife because I want to be a singer. The other stuff is the bonus, never the motivation,” he maintains.
Refreshingly candid and free from any sense of self-importance, Mark remains an innately shy person, who has battled hard to find the right balance between the privacy he values so highly and the public persona which is so important to his professional life.
Happiness and contentment has always been important in the Feehily family. The eldest of three children of Oliver and Marie – his brothers, Barry and Colin, still live in Sligo – Mark had an idyllic childhood, growing up with a huge posse of cousins in a rural setting about three miles from Sligo town. The values learned in those formative years have not been contaminated by fame and fortune.
“I value the life I had before I became famous, and I make a conscious effort to retain as much of that as a I can. Fame was never like a drug for me. I didn’t grow up dreaming about being a star. I’ve learned to enjoy it, but I would never be carried away by it,” he says.
As if to prove the point, the highlight for him this year occurred last weekend – not a glitzy, glamourous showbiz party or a mega concert, but his granny Mai Feehily’s 90th birthday party.
“I’m the oldest grandchild and I’ve always been close to my grandparents. Celebrating Nana Mai’s big day in Sligo was something really special for all my family,” he relates.
A mildly talented tin whistle player as a youngster at Calry National School, Mark would never have been considered to be more than an average musical talent – until he suddenly discovered, during a talent show in Summerhill College, that his singing voice set him apart.
“People who never even noticed me before were telling me I had this really soulful voice. I didn’t even know what that meant. But it set something off in me. The next thing I remember was seeing Shane Filan in a school production of Grease, and I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. I hadn’t a clue how to go about it, being on stage was like another planet for me. But I started scanning the local papers for auditions, and that led to Mary McDonagh giving me a lead role in Godspell. It hit a nerve. I was hooked,” Mark recalls, also noting the early influence of his music teacher at Summerhill, Dave McEvoy.
The rest, as they say, is history. Westlife have gone on to conquer the world of pop music and their popularity shows no signs of wilting. It’s a source of pride for Mark that the fan base still encompasses everyone from toddlers to grannies. He has no time for the musical snobbery which often seeks to denigrate their music.
“I remember in the early days being quite upset with a review of one of our concerts in Sweden. But we’ve learned to take that on board. I remember being at a Prince concert and thinking it was definitely the best performance I had ever seen in my life. The next day the papers absolutely panned it. It made me realise not to pay too much attention to music critics,” he confides.
During the course of a wide-ranging chat, he openly talks about how he loves and appreciates the opportunities Westlife has given him, but also about the ‘darker days' in his early Westlife career, when the dawning of adolesence suddenly found him catapulted into a world which often bordered on insanity, when coping with newfound fame and fortune would have been difficult enough without the added personal challenge of coming to terms with his sexuality, and how his natural shyness caused him to wonder on more than one occasion whether this was really the life he wanted.
To the watching world, it seemed that the three Sligo teenagers, Kian Egan, Shane Filan and Mark, barely beyond their Leaving Cert, had somehow unearthed the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, and that was certainly the case. But for Mark Feehily, the rainbow sometimes had a slightly darker hue.
“ There were definitely a few dark days early on. Remember, I was barely 19 years old. I was shy by nature, I didn't actually like people looking at me. I didn't like all the attention. And yes, there were times when I would be so nervous before a television show or a performance, that I wondered is this really for me. Am I cut out for this? “But that was balanced by this indescribable rush of adrenalin I'd get from performing. There was just a magnificent buzz about being up there on stage and people responding to what we were doing. I loved every minute of that side of things.” But an even tougher challenge for the teenager, by
All I know is that coming out, for me, was the best thing I have ever done. It changed my life, allowed me to be happy with who I was
then a famous pop star and a reluctant ‘pin-up' boy, was the dawning of the realisation that he was gay. He is quite happy to elaborate.
“ The fact that the explosion Westlife coincided almost exactly with the period in my life when I was beginning to question my sexuality made the whole thing that much more difficult to deal with.
“In one way, being in the band was good, because it was a distraction. We were on the road every day, flying all over the world, doing all the shows and so on, that I was able to put the question of my sexuality to the back of my mind. It was something I knew I would have to deal with, but I could say to myself not today, too busy today.
“So I put it in a box and locked it away and got on with life. But I was often unhappy, because I suppose I knew I wasn't being true to myself. The idea out there at the time was that all these young girls loved us and all of that, and that made it even more crazy.
“I remember all those teeny magazine interviews where we'd be asked questions about our favourite type of girls and our first kiss and all of that. Smash Hits never ask about your favourite type of boy! So, while everything seemed to be like a dream come true, for me it was all a bit unreal.”
Meeting his partner, Kevin McDaid, who was then in a boyband himself and could, therefore, empathise with the sort of unreal existence Mark was experiencing,
“The thing that finally set me free was falling in love with Kevin. It's like the penny dropped. I suddenly realised I didn't care who knows about this. This is me. This is who I am. I knew that those who loved me, my parents, family, friends, the lads in the band, would still be there and would be supportive,” he recalls.
Although not wanting in any way to become a gay icon or a one-man advice bureau, Mark is conscious that because he is in the public eye, people experiencing their own difficulties with sexuality might look to him as a role model.
“I have no problem with that. But, really, all I can say to people is to be honest with themselves. Bottling it or trying to hide it away is not the right thing to do. In fact, it can be dangerous.
“All I know is that coming out, for me, was the best thing I have ever done. It changed my life, allowed me to be happy with who I was. I believe everybody should feel free to express who they are as a person. It’s not about sex, but about being honest with yourself and others, and being happy. Most important, it’s about love and everyone has the right to fall in love and have a soul mate without questioning it,” he says.
As to the future, he points out that Westlife schedules are carefully
There were definitely a few dark days early on. Remember, I was barely 19 years old. I was shy by nature, I didn’t like all the attention
planned to allow each member individual freedom. An instinctively creative person, Mark would like to use this time to develop his interests in art, photography and songwriting. Indeed, Westlife’s latest single, ‘I Will Reach You’, which was written by Mark, is gaining extensive radio play and a very positive reaction. And he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a West End musical if the opportunity ever arose. But he stresses that Westlife commitments come first.
“From day one, we always said if we were to succeed then Westlife would have to be above everything else, and we’ve never deviated from that. Our ambition initially would have been just to have a CD in Sligo. We got that and we set our sights on a single in Ireland, then the UK and so on.
“We’ve never got too far ahead of ourselves. But always we knew we had to work at it, and we will continue to do that. I honestly believe Westlife will last as long as we want it and as long as we’re committed to the work that goes with it. We have much greater control over our own destiny now. I don’t see us packing in any time soon,” he pledges.
As we part company, a mother somewhat sheepishly approaches with two gobsmacked young children, barely able to believe the Westlife star from their bedroom posters is standing in front of them. Mark greets them as if they were long-lost cousins. Happiness shared.
FROM TOP: Mark Feehily with his proud parents, Marie and Oliver, during the early Westlife years; Mark celebrating his third birthday; Mark with fellow Westlife members Shane Filan, Nicky Byrne and Kian Egan outside the famous RAK studios in London during the recording of the ‘Gravity’ album; LEFT: Mark with long-term partner Kevin McDaid.