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July 22, 2012

Nicky & Georgina in LIFE magazine

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Past Life

In their first post-Westlife interview, Nicky Byrne and Georgina Ahern discuss their career and family plans for the future with Liadan Hynes, while Nicky reveals the tension that caused the end of Westlife, the smooth charm of Simon Cowell and sympathy for his father-in-law Bertie Ahern. Photography by Peter Rowen

“Everywhere I’m going, mates, family are going ‘Ah, how’re you enjoying retirement? Are you singing on Tuesday?’”, Nicky Byrne says with a smile. When I met him and his wife Georgina, he is one and a half weeks into retirement, and, so far, he seems unfazed.

“At the moment, I’m not feeling any different,” he says. “We’ve done so many long tours in the past, and it’s always a bit sad when they’re over, but usually you’re back in touch within a couple of weeks. But say the first week and a half, you wouldn’t be in touch with anybody. So doing nothing this time a week after isn’t any different.”

In fact, Georgina, if anything, seems a little bit more shaken than Nicky. “It’s funny,” she says. “I mean, it’s been a long time coming, obviously. Like, they were happy, so it wasn’t a sad thing. The whole tour, everyone was like ‘Oh, it’s so sad’, and I was like ‘It’s not really hitting me, am I really hard?’” she jokes. “And then, as the week got closer, I was, like ‘Ooooh’”, she gasps in mock of fear. “I was really kind of treasuring the moments, and Nick was like ‘Why’re you getting all soppy now? You told me it was grand’”, she exclaims laughing.

Georgina says it’s a little bit scary that Westlife is over, but mainly it just seems right. “It’s funny, it does feel strange. But it’s natural, we’re older, things have to move on. Our boys have to move on. It’s good. It definitely will be different, but we have had months, and days, together. Our life has been very normal. Even though he has lived as a superstar, a pop star, at home, our day-to-day stuff is very normal. That’s not going to change, and so it’s not a frightening feeling. Does that make sense?” she laughs. They may look a bit like the Beckhams – at one point on the shoot, when someone points out similarities, Nicky jokes that he’s available for Adidas campaigns – but they’re decidedly more down to earth.

The Byrne’s marriage is known as one of the strongest in showbiz circles and Nicky obviously still has eyes only for his wife. “She gets me and I get her”, he says. “And that little bond and that little click is there.” They first met when they were both 12, in Business Studies class in first year at school. Nicky still remembers the first time he ever saw G, as he calls her.

“I was sitting there, far wall, over there, second desk down,” he gestures, “and she was at the far wall, over there, first desk up.” He fancied her from the minute she walked into the room. “Just these massive big blue eyes,” he says. “Her hair was real long, down to her bum. She had it in a ponytail. I just thought, ‘Wow! Didn’t know who she was, where she was from, knew nothing about her.’”

Possibly alone out of everyone, Georgina had the ability to quell Nicky’s natural exuberance. “I don’t know if any other lads are like this but I’m always quite outgoing, always up for banter with anybody and everybody”, Nicky says. “But with Georgina, I always felt that obstacle. In any other class, I’d be messing with the lads. Come into the classes that I share with G, it was just, like quiet. It was just like, she’s gonna think I’m an absolute…you know.”

After three years, he got a friend who shared the same bus to “put in a good word”. “Never been more, like, heart pounding,” Nicky says of the nerves while he waited to hear, only to be devastated the next morning when he was told she’d turned him down. Luckily he mentioned it to a mutual friend a year later, she used it out and came back to say, “She’s interested. She said she’ll meet you.” He punches the air, hissing “Yes”, at the memory. The day before Nicky’s 16th birthday, they both attended a house party. “So, sat on the couch, snogged in the corner. That was it,“ he says matter-of-factly. “Never broke up once.”

So the end of Westlife will be Nicky’s first big break-up. The couple agree that it has been coming a while.

The split was a mutual decision, less a result of arguments, or solo glory-hunting that growing ‘been there, done that, what’s next?’ attitude among all ‘the lads’, as Nicky refers to the men he says became his best friends over the years.

When I last met Georgina, her twin sons, Jay and Rocco, now five, were just about to start Montessori. Her ability to travel with Nicky was clearly about to be severely curtailed, and you did wonder weather this would signal the end of Westlife – with Nicky, it’s clear that family comes first.

“It’s different when you have a baby,” Georgina says. “You can bring them to a hotel, you can have loads of toys. But now they need friends, they need to play football. It actually made me realise, on this tour, that we couldn’t – I couldn’t – do what we’ve been doing any more. Because it wouldn’t be fair on them. A rainy day in a city; there’s only so much you can do.”

She and the boys joined this tour for the first week or two – they love the tour bus and the socialising at gigs, she says – but after one hotel arrival at three in the morning too many, she realised it wasn’t going to wok, and went home, deciding instead to visit Nicky at weekends.

It’s a time of chance for all their family. The boys will start school in September and Georgina herself has just started working as a columnist for a new website – www.her.ie – writing a healthy-living column, full of tips and anecdotes from her own life.

“I’m not going to be trying to even pretend that I know everything,” she says. “It’s just common sense, and why I like things and why I’m trying them, and a girl’s perspective. I often get worried, because I’m sure people in the industry will think, ‘What’s she doing? What does she know?’ But it’s just common sense. My point of view, my hobbies, speaking out loud. It’s nice to have something.”

It’s important to her, though, that her schedule allows for the boys to be her main priority. “I still would like to kind of treasure it,” Georgina says. “But it’s good for me to gain a bit more experience and confidence in something. Where I’m going to go I don’t know, but things will hopefully naturally build up.”

The pressure may be on now to see what each member of Westlife does next, but Nicky seems completely at ease with this new phase of his life. “Personally, for me”, he says, “I always knew I’d do something when the band ended. I’m not worried. Everybody started to feel a bit like, ‘We’re getting older, this is getting harder.’ We actually started to doubt ourselves. Were the songs as good as they used to be? Were we enjoying it as much as we used to? And the answers to those questions were, no and no.”

With age comes confidence, and he paints a picture of a group of adults beginning to buck slightly against their management, despite how glowingly he speaks of Simon and Louis.

“When we started off, we were kids. It was ‘Jump, ‘How high?’,“ Nicky says. And although the band began to have their own opinions as they matured, they still felt that they had little say in the decision-making. “Louis and Simon would always say, ‘Well, I hear you, lads, but I still believe this is the way’. And even though the majority of us might have said, privately, ‘I still believe we are right’, we would go with what they felt.”

In March 2011, in an effort to quell their mounting dissatisfaction, Westlife moved from Simon Cowell’s label Syco, to RCA. “We felt things weren’t great, so maybe if we shifted over to another label within Sony, things would change,” Nicky says. We still felt there were cracks there, and we were trying to constantly fill them.”

One problem was the X Factor approach adopted by the record company. Choose one single and “promote the arse out of it”, as Nicky puts it. The routine went: break for Christmas, tour from around February, break for the summer, record an album in August, pick one single, and promote it solidly until Christmas. It worked well in terms of spending time with the family, however. “In the later years, they had it so sussed,” Georgina says, rather delightedly. “They were only in the UK from September to December – it wasn’t like they were travelling the world.”

Creatively though, it got a little uninspiring. “Over the last few years the record company started to pull the second single from us,” Nicky says. “At the 11th hour, Simon Cowell or somebody would go ‘Actually, we’re worried about this song, we don’t think it’s going to do well.’ That added to our own individual feeling of ‘what’s going on here, where are we actually going?’”

Although Louis, whom Nicky describes as a close personal friend, was always the more hands-on when it came to managing Westlife, Simon Cowell had been there from the beginning, at their first audition in 1998.

Nicky can’t say enough about Simon. “He’s the most suave businessman you’ll ever meet,“ he says. “You walk out of the room, and you just think that they must have put something in the air conditioning, because you went in there saying ‘No, no, no, no, no’ and you came out of there going ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’. He would have made the best politician in the world. He nevre raises his voice. Everyone has their say. We’d be all sitting there facing him. He’d be listening, nodding. And then he’d light a cigarette, and say ‘Guys, I just don’t want us to fall into the trap of…’ and then he starts to gradually undo everything you’ve said,” Nicky smiles, mining the action of unpicking stitches.

“While Shane might be talking, he’d look at me, or one of the other boys, and he’d give you a little wink. And you’re thinking ‘What, what’s the wink about?’ You know? And what it was, he made you feel special.”

The band had nearly split before, after the disappointing Rat Pack tribute album. “The first five, six and seven years of the band were the most exciting. You were constantly breaking records. All of the dreams were coming true. We lost the excitement about year seven or eight. I think we were probably contemplating where we’d go then. I think that was just after Brian left. We did an album called Allow Us To Be Frank. It was the best fun. But it didn’t perform like a Westlife album performed. I think we were very honest with each other in a scary kind of way when we sat down, a bit Toy Keanesque. ‘Lads, this was terrible. What do we do next? Is it time?’”

They took four months off. Nicky and Georgina went to America, and he enrolled in an acting course in New York. “In my mind, mentally, I was preparing for something after the band,” Nicky says. “It was just a taster. I wanted to do in where nobody knew me. I’ve always enjoyed movies, but you could be absolutely terrible, so I didn’t want the embarrassment of doing it in Ireland or England or anywhere.”

When the management persuaded them to do You Raise Me Up, on the album Face To Face, Nicky thought it would be Westlife’s last outing. “I even think that the record company were feeling it, too. I remember at the photo shoot for the album, we were arguing for a song called Amazing, which is like a Backstreet Boys number, and Louis and Simon wanted You Raise Me up. The main marketing man said something to me like ‘Why don’t you just let us make the decision on this lads? Cause you never know how it’s gonna go’. And we all kinda felt ‘Shit, we could be dropped here.’ You know, Westlife, seven years in, all the albums, the records, but that’s what it boils down to. You’re only as good as your last album. Now we never mentioned those words, but I could read between the lines. I remember going out for dinner with Georgina, it was summer 2005, and kind of having a mini ‘this could be it’.”

At that time, nobody was prepared for the end of the band. Luckily, You Raise Me Up was a massive success. “All of a sudden the record company were like ‘Ah, there’s legs in this yet.’ They gave us a big fat cheque, they signed us for three albums”, he laughs.

This time around, Nicky’s more than ready for freedom. Leaving the bubble of a boyband – he joined Westlife when he was 19 – doesn’t phase him. “I think that comfort zone is gone. When you’re in Westlife, you’re completely protected by a security blanket which was Westlife. Nowadays, when you do an interview, that’s gone. Because, all of a sudden, you’re sitting there on your own and you’ve got to be all of it – serious, funny, interesting – and I think that’s a whole new ball game for every one of us.”

Success at such a young age can make moving on a daunting prospect, but Nicky says he’s not feeling the pressure. “It’s more a realisation than a worry. Back in ’05, when I had that brief moment when I though the band was splitting up, that was more of worry. That was ‘Oh, this is finishing. I’m only 24 or 26, whatever.’ I was thinking

‘Oh god, what now? What will I do?’ But I think nearly eight or 10 years on, you kind of go ‘You know what, I’m 34 in October. If I had’ve been a footballer, I would have been retiring at this point.’ Plenty of people have gone before me and faced this in their lives.”

I wonder whether he’s ever discussed the workaholic who faced retirement having reaching the pinnacle of his chosen field, in a different, but equally all-consuming career.

“I’ve never discussed it with him,” says Nicky, “but I’ve certainly looked at it and thought, you know, I’ve seen somebody go from not having a second to think to having obviously a lot of time on his hands.”

And how does he cope? “Well, he spends a lot of time with Rocco and Jay”, says Nicky, “and little Robin [Cecelia’s daughter]. Bertie’s always stayed loyal to his constituency. He was always that type of politician who, grass roots was the most important thing. So he still lives in Drumcondra, still walks around. He’d have a close-knit social network.”

Is Bertie the kind of father-in-law Nicky would go to for advice? “Oh, he is. Absolutely.” Nicky says emphatically. “Plenty of people have their own opinions on Bertie, because of lots of different reasons, but, you know, it’s one of those where he was in power for so long. Unfortunately, with the economic crisis that Ireland is in, the whole world is in it, but people will only look at what’s going on in their own backyard. And I’m sure Bertie probably feels that he made some mistakes, but, actually, not much more mistakes that previous people before him. Or people that will make them in the future. Or probably people that are making them presently. But it’s just that he was there at the time.”

Nicky, who has known Bertie since he was a teenager, says that, of course, Bertie is family, so he can’t help but feel defensive, but he’s philosophical about the whole thing. “For me, looking at that, you just to hold your head high, and say ‘I know him. I know him as a person. He’s a lovely guy, and he is a hundred thousand per cent committed, and always has been, to Ireland.’ You know, that’s the sad part for me. Because out of anyone, some of the stuff would be painted of him as being like a – what would you say? – like a corrupt politician, or anything like that, when he enjoys the simple things. D’you know what I mean? There’s no big house. There’s no Porsches. There’s no anything like that. It’s not there and if it was, believe you me, it would have been found. So that’s the hard part. But that would be something that I would know, and I think most people around would know. The way it happened is the way it happened, it can’t be changed.”

Has it ruined his legacy or his retirement? “He’s a very private person and he wouldn’t speak about those things. But the best way to put it is you just feel a bit of ‘Ah well, the way it ended wasn’t great.’ As a son-in-law, married to his daughter, knowing him so well, he was married to that job. There’s not a politician in this country that gave more time and effort than him. I can only look at it from a personal point of view. He did his best. He was there for long, he was popular for long. He did his best. And it’s a real shame the way it ended. But, sure, that’s life.”

As for his own second act, Nicky is raring to get going and quite clear on what he wants to do: “TV’s where I want to be. Presenting big shows, live shows.” Never one to the let the grass grow under his feet, he has already had meetings with TV agents, RTE, UTV, BBC, and is soon to meet with Sky. Right now, there are definitely no plans for a Westlife reunion. “You never say never,” Nicky says. “ I would hate to think that I’d never sing with the lads again. However, there are no plans. I think we all need to breathe, live, do our own thing.”

So the last word to Georgina. Do they plan to expand their family now? “I know I said I definitely would, but I wouldn’t really want a big family,” she says. “We would want one more, definitely. The boys are great, it’s very fun, it’s very busy.”

Credit/Source: LIFE magazine / Verena / Chrissy & Maya / Westlife.GR

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