IN­NER PEACE

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

Bray People - - FACE TO FACE -

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,

changed ev­ery­thing.

“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.

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