He’s a music mogul, but Walsh’s latest TV move is a gamble as shows here never managed to find a star
‘Dancing dogs or maybe a dancing nun’ ‘I can’t believe I am getting away with it’
LOUIS Walsh narrowly missed one natural disaster a few weeks ago as he fled his Miami apartment just hours before Hurricane Irma struck. But now that he’s back to terra firma, is the gregarious pop manager about to wade into another storm as he takes the helm of TV3’s show Ireland’s Got Talent?
Louis has long pushed for an Irish version of his pal Simon Cowell’s hit series which brings in millions of viewers in the UK, the US and countries across the world.
And in spite of the fact that other similar formats here never managed to wield a star worthy of the international stage, Walsh is convinced that this time around things will be different.
There is no doubt TV3 will add the requisite sparkle to the production side of things and offer up a slick and streamlined show.
No, the problem is that as a small country, our well of talent has the potential to dry up long before enough contestants are found to make a programme that will keep viewers interested.
After all, the population of our whole country is practically half that of London, and even Britain’s Got Talent features acts from abroad to bolster the numbers.
As a nation we have had a chequered history with talent searches. The All Ireland Talent Show came and went as did the Voice Of Ireland, You’re A Star and Pop Stars.
But Louis believes that this new format can genuinely offer something new and unique to draw talent out of rural Ireland. It does beg the question though — does Ireland really have enough undiscovered talent to make a watchable TV show where contestants can battle it out over six weeks or more? Or is it the case where we will have a few great acts and some others who wouldn’t make it onto the show’s counterpart across the water?
‘I don’t agree,’ Louis says defiantly. ‘I think Ireland has lots of talent. For a small island what we have is real, diverse talent that is unique to us as a nation. We have a lot of incredible people who maybe wouldn’t get a chance to shine anywhere else.’
And Louis is insisting that we can match the Brits with quirky, original and fun acts. ‘On this show I am looking for dancing dogs but also maybe a dancing nun or a singing priest,’ he says. ‘The Priests have sold millions of records so maybe we could find a new one. But we could also get a pop act or a rock act or a choir. We have incredible gospel choirs all over the country and one of them could win.’
And of course, Walsh is also hoping for someone with a few tricks up their sleeves too. ‘Every wedding you go to have a magician now,’ he says. ‘And perhaps the next Dynamo is out there and just hasn’t had the break. Anyone who has that desire in them to entertain and wants to get to the next level can audition and will be taken seriously.’
TV3 has only recently canned Masterchef after one series so there is no guarantee that a polished international format will translate to an Irish audience. But again Walsh dismisses these concerns and is confident in not just the format, but the prize on offer.
‘This is going to work because it is so diverse,’ he says. ‘The other shows in the past maybe weren’t at the right time or maybe didn’t offer the right prize. We are offering €50,000 but more importantly a Christmas special. It is real old school family entertainment brought up to the modern day.’
It’s a big promise but Louis is also certain that viewers will buy into the fun between the judging panel of himself, actress Denise Van Outen, comedian Jason Byrne and Ru Paul’s Drag Race star Michelle Visage.
‘People know Britain’s Got Talent and they know what to expect. What they don’t know is Michelle Visage and Denise Van Outen and Jason Byrne and how we will work together and that will hopefully bring people in too,’ he says.
And although other programmes have tried something similar with various ranges of success, Louis is still confident he can make a prime time entertainment programme that will have viewers flocking to TV3.
‘It’s not that the other talent shows were bad, it is just that this format and line-up is better,’ he says. ‘Plus anyone in Ireland with any talent can go for it. It is not elitist or just for singers and dancers.’
Another carrot on the end of the stick is Walsh himself. The auditions will begin in Drogheda this November and the finals will take place in front of a live audience at the Helix Theatre in DCU in January.
Louis is currently on the look-out for a new act to manage and says he would be open to taking a fledgling Irish act under his wing if they impressed on the show.
‘Personally I would love to find someone new who can sell records. I would love that. Because I am away a lot with X Factor and the groups I can’t be on the ground constantly looking for talent.
‘You get lucky sometimes and sometimes you need a vehicle like IGT to showcase that talent for you. Am I looking to manage one of the acts? Maybe. Ireland is wide open for a new young country singer. We only have Nathan and Daniel and there is room for another one. It is a great platform for someone to get their talent out there.’
Louis also believes people will be more inclined to try their luck in front of a homegrown audience too. ‘People will come to us over BGT because it is local rather than going to the UK and getting swallowed up,’ he says.
‘They might not understand the Crystal Swings or the Nathan Carters in the UK. But here these acts can get an instant fan base and an audience who will get behind them. If I see someone who I think is going to be successful then, absolutely, I would manage them but they have to have something amazing.
‘I want to find an act that could end up in Las Vegas. That’s how big I want to go.’
There is no denying that the judging panel is A list and the one name already impressing viewers is singer Michelle Visage from RuPaul’s show. It is a booking Louis himself is responsible for.
‘I actually got Michelle Visage for the show,’ he says. ‘I went to see her in RuPaul’s Drag Race in the Olympia Theatre – I met her and I clicked with her instantly. She reminds me of Sharon Osbourne. She has a great work ethic and she is funny and she loves Ireland for some reason so she is perfect.
‘She will bring great balance to myself and Denise and of course Jason is brilliantly witty. Lucy Kennedy who is presenting is very warm and nice and even though we haven’t met together yet, I think we all bring elements that complement each other.’
We will have to wait four months before we get a glimpse of the new talent offering but for now Louis is on our TV sets every Saturday and Sunday evening until Christmas, with the X Factor back on screen. There is no doubting that the ratings of seven million viewers are a far cry from the halcyon days of 14 million back in 2010.
But Louis says the show is back to its best and that people are again talking about it as opposed to the last couple of years.
‘I think X Factor is back really strong,’ he says. ‘People are talking about it again. I noticed that at the Ploughing Championships. I am getting a great response wherever I go and I think that has to do with going back to its old format. The gimmicks are kind of gone and it is all about the talent. The panel is settled and we all get on.
‘And then of course we have these two great Irish brothers, the Prices from Blessington, and they are brilliant. They are waiting to be signed up and they can travel. They have a sound that could work in America. What I like about them is that even though they are so young they are into it and are very innocent but hard-working.’
And that old magic between Louis and Sharon is also back on screen again.
‘I feel like with Sharon I have a friend for life, I really do,’ he says. ‘We talk all the time, at least once a week. Nicole not so much because she is all around the world. I have always said this is the best and most honest panel we have ever had, because we have been around and we know what is going to work and what won’t. We don’t suffer fools any more.’
Having just wrapped on the audition stages of the X Factor, Louis boarded the debut direct flight with Aer Lingus from Dublin to Miami, looking forward to two weeks of sun and relaxation at his apartment just off Ocean Drive on South Beach.
However, the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irma saw him evacuated from his building in a scene that was akin to a Hollywood disaster movie.
‘I was in Miami when the storm hit and honestly you had to be there to believe it,’ he says. ‘It was so scary. We were all told to evacuate the
building and all the roads were full so you couldn’t get anywhere or to Orlando airport. ‘I was so lucky that Aer Lingus had just launched a direct flight and they got me on the last one leaving,’ he says. ‘But had that not been the case I would have been trapped. Every TV channel was covering the storm and we were being told that Miami was going to get a direct hit.
‘Because it is such a low place everyone was terrified and there were queues for gas and the supermarkets were sold out. It was like something from a disaster movie, I was genuinely scared. Luckily I got back and now it seems like a bad dream.’
With X Factor’s live shows on the horizon, Louis is enjoying his time on the show. And even if it does all end tomorrow, he will still be grateful for all the fun he has had.
‘Simon can change things at a whim but we are signed up again for next year so I feel secure,’ he says. ‘If that was to be the end of it then yes, that’s ok too because I have had an unbelievable run. I can’t believe I am still doing it to be honest.’
One of the contradictions that follows Walsh around is that even though he prefers to sit in the background and let his acts take centre stage, Louis is genuinely more famous than any of them. This celebrity is something he does not encourage but it is also something he has learned to live with. And he cannot understand why anyone would want to be famous for fame’s sake, without the pay cheque attached.
‘I am not famous, I am well known’, he says. ‘I agree that there is a thin line but it makes a difference. I am lucky to be a small part on a big show and I know that — and that keeps you grounded. In Ireland it is parochial when it comes to TV work. You have people who just want to be local celebrities and they will work for free to get there which is wrong, because you are taking a paying job away from someone who relies on that to pay bills or a mortgage.
‘It is showbusiness. I do it because I get paid and I know that might sound cold but this is my job. I have a value on what I do and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I am not in the fame game; I never was and never would be.’
And he insists that, like or loathe Louis, what you see is what you get off screen too. ‘I am the same off screen as I am on it,’ he says. ‘I think people are surprised that I am quite as nutty off camera but it means I am not fake. There are too many fakes on TV and they are all being nice to the camera and the audience but as soon as they are off the set the mask slips and they aren’t nice. I see it a lot.’
At 65 years young, Louis has hit statutory retirement age but he says that he has no interest in slowing down. If anything, Louis thinks being employed keeps him young so he is very much in favour of the pushing the age for the state pension to 70.
‘I love working but I am doing something I love,’ he says. ‘I am still with Shane Filan and that is booming at the minute, especially in Asia and he has a sold out tour in Ireland and England. I might find someone new this year to manage — maybe from X Factor or IGT, but they have to be good.
‘I think they should raise the retirement age to 70, I have a good few years to go yet but I think that is a great idea.
‘Look, I’m not Vincent Browne or Gaybo, I don’t want to work forever but I just do what I do, it happens to be on TV and if they let me do that for another ten years, then amazing. But work keeps me young and I still can’t believe I am getting away with it.’
X Factor: Louis with fellow judges on the show Celebrity whirlwind: Louis Walsh