Gary Barlow is happy to play the hard man. Unpopular, me? Bring it on, he says. The day we meet The Sun has reported that The X Factor audience booed him and an elderly X Factor contestant felt humiliated when he rifled through her bag.
“Oh I’ve upset a lot of people, most of all the audiences, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve spent 20 years being cheered and screamed after, but being booed is actually quite addictive.”
He grins. The truth is that however hard he tries to antagonise, the audience appears to love him.
Barlow, 40, is still dazed by what’s happened to him over the past five years – his pop group Take That again rule Britain if not the world, they’ve enjoyed an ecstatic reunion with Robbie Williams, and such is Barlow’s presence on The X Factor that Simon Cowell is not being missed.
The rise and fall and rise of Gary Barlow is an astonishing story. Barlow was the leader of the amazingly successful boy band Take That 20 years ago. He might not have had the moves of the other members, but Barlow wrote the songs and called the tunes. When they split up in 1995, we all knew what would happen – the other four would sink into oblivion while Barlow would go on to become the new George Michael. Simple.
But in fact it was cheeky chimp Robbie Williams who went on to great success while Barlow disappeared. Soon enough, he lost his recording contract and retired to his Cheshire mansion to eat, smoke dope, mope, and eat some more. Yes, he wrote a few hit singles for people, but they didn’t mean much to him. He felt a terrible failure. So he ate some more.
In 2006, his former band members minus Williams discussed a comeback. Barlow hadn’t sung for seven years, was verging on the obese and thought the idea ludicrous. But the more the other three members talked about it, the more tempted he was. Why not give it a go?
It all seemed a bit sad and desperate, and we assumed they would roll out the old hits and that would be it. But by their 30s they’d matured, looked better than ever, and the band knocked out new hit after new hit: Patience, Shine, Rule the World.
Today, Barlow looks svelte and confident. He poses for the photographer in his classic Mount Rushmore stance – chin raised, square jaw, dead-pan face. Suited and booted, with a coat hanging over his shoulders, he could pass for upmarket Mafia. He talks slowly and deliberately, in that familiar monotone, part Mancunian, part Liverpudlian. Barlow has spent most of his life in Cheshire, halfway between the two cities.
You’ve lost so much weight, I say. He smiles. “I know. Now I’m under 12 stone. Eight years ago I was 16 stone 11 at my heaviest.” Which is heavy for a man who is only 5ft 9. How did he feel? “Horrible. S***. For someone so big, I felt incredibly small.”
Did he just want to eat all the time?
“You know what, it wasn’t about food.” He stops. “Well, it was about food obviously, because I was shoving it in my mouth, but it was more about a reaction to who I’d been. I’d decided, ‘OK, nobody wants me but I don’t want to do it anyway, and to make sure I don’t do it again, this is how I’m going to look.’ ”
Was he aware of that at the time?
“I wasn’t saying it in my head, but I realised afterwards it was a form of depression. I’d always played music since I was ten and then I’d gone through this rollercoaster ride of fame and I just couldn’t believe that it was all over and I was only 24.”
Stuck in a groove
One of his biggest regrets was that he’d not even enjoyed the good times. “You’re engulfed by the industry, and you’re so busy you’re just existing. There was no personal growth for me at all in those years.” All that time, he says, they were strictly controlled by management – no time off, no long-term girlfriends. “We were five years in the real spotlight, complete craziness and when we decided we were going to split up and do our own projects, it kind of stopped that day.”
Did anyone cope well with the split?
Not really, he says. “I think everybody’s got a story from that time, but I guess everybody coped with it in a way because we’re all still here and we’re all pretty normal people. It was a bit of a journey, though. And thank God, because I’ve approached it this time completely differently with a totally relaxed attitude, not takings things too seriously… though I do take a lot of things seriously.”
Actually, he admits, even at his most relaxed he’s still pretty intense. “It’s a bug, you know, and I think it’s more in songwriters than in anybody else. I always try to tell myself if you have a number one or you have something that people are loving, take that moment and go, ‘This is bril- liant,’ but I never do it. As soon as I’ve finished something, I’m on to the next thing, trying to make that as good as the last thing, and it’s just a bug. I don’t think I’ll ever be cured.”
The reason he doesn’t go totally bonkers, he says, is his wife Dawn. They’ve been together 16 years and have three children. “I don’t know how she puts up with me.”
Are you hard work?
“I am hard work because I’m just so driven. I get a good song for every 25 songs I write. That’s my hit rate. So I’ve got to go through the process of writing 25 songs to get what I think is a good one. And that’s a lot of time. So I’m constantly not in the house, constantly somewhere else if I’m wandering around the house, and if I’m talking about an artist on my label or doing charity walk or touring, I’m always obsessed by trying to move them forwards and upwards. In general I think I’m a bit of a nightmare.”
Who would be harder to live with, him or Robbie?
“Oh me, for sure. He compartmentalises his life much better; he loves his time off, loves a holiday… I’m not good on holidays, not good at taking time off. I’m the complete opposite.”
Barlow appeared in the press for the first time at 15 – The Guardian reported that he’d won a schools’ music award. From then on, he regularly took a train to London, visited record companies, performed for them in offices.
By the time he was 20, Take That were massive. Then came the fall. At his lowest, the press taunted him, with pictures under headlines like Take Fat. He quotes another one for me, with a smile: “Relight my fryer.” Did it make him laugh? “No. I hated it. I just wanted them to forget about me. I didn’t want nice stuff printed, I just wanted nothing printed.”
Does he remind those people what they said at the time?
“I take great pride in the fact that I have never done that to anybody. But when I look at them, they know what I’m thinking.” Fellow X Factor judge Louis Walsh was one of his critics. “Ah, Louis says a lot of stuff. Still does. I have to say Louis has been lovely to me since I’ve been back.” And he wasn’t tempted to remind him of his bitchy remarks? “Like I said earlier, I don’t need to. Don’t need to.”
Barlow once claimed to have slept with 200 Take That fans. He looks embarrassed when I mention it.
“Did I say that?” You did. “OK, right. I always regret things like that.” And is it true? “You know I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t…” He seems to have developed a stutter. “I have children now, and I wouldn’t like to think of a number, but put it this way, we had a lot of fun.”
And he is having fun once again. Barlow says he’s desperate for the US X Factor to be a success but has ulterior motives. “I want the American one to work as much as Simon because that way he won’t be back here looking for my seat. I’m hoping we can do it for a few years.”
Will he reap the profits from the show, by managing the winners or signing them to his label?
“We’ve talked about this already, and obviously I’m going to have an option to write with them or make music with them.”
A couple of days after we meet, it’s announced he’ll be writing the winner’s song.
Finding a voice
Who is his favourite winner from previous series?
“Leona Lewis. I’ve sung with her, and think she’s brilliant. I love that big voice. It makes my spine tingle. That’s the goal – to find someone as big as that.”
What about a winner like Joe McElderry who was dropped from Cowell’s record label within a year?
“Well, you’ve all just voted for him as winner. Don’t tell us now, a year later, he’s no good. I wasn’t really a fan of his, as I haven’t been of some of the winners. He’s not someone I would have voted for.”
The most important message he wants to get across to contestants is make the most of it. “That’s what I’ve tried to do second time round; to go, ‘Wow, look at me. I’m a lad from Cheshire who’s not bad at what he does, who’s had a lot of luck, and here I am, can you believe it?’ ”
How did he know he’d be good on the show?
He didn’t, he says – still doesn’t. But he knows there’s one thing he can offer the acts – his experience. “I’m not a comedian, I’m not an actor, I’m not a great talker really, but I can definitely help those kids on that stage and give them criticism that they can take away with them and help their performances. I bloody love it, I really do. And I’m so emotionally involved already, far more than I should be. I think it’s brilliant.”
Of everybody, he knows it’s his mother, Marjorie, who’s most delighted he’s on The X Factor. “It’s like I’ve done nothing else in my career. She can’t believe I’m on the show. It’s her favourite show, totally.” These days Barlow’s mother is also his touring companion. “With my busy lifestyle I feel awful that I don’t have enough time to see her, so every time I travel anywhere I take her with me. Oh, I’ve had her carrying malaria nets in Uganda.”
Robbie: Back for good?
Barlow says the rest of the band have been so supportive of the show. I ask him if they’re close now after all their problems.
“Yes, incredibly close. In fairness, the tension was with Robbie, not with the others. We’d always got along fine with the other guys. And this last five years with the four of us has been amazing. On the road with your mates, no stress, no pressure, lovely. Really beautiful. Some bands are in that position and they just fight. We’ve never done that, so having Rob back was a pretty big move, there’s a lot of stuff that’s gone on. A lot of stuff.”
Did they talk that out?
“Yes that was the first job.”
Is the tension because two alpha male pop egos are clashing?
“Yeah, it would be unfair for me to say he’s the one with the ego because I’ve got a pretty big ego as well. And especially in those younger days when I was 24 and he was 20, but then you come back – I was 38 and he was 34 – and it’s like, ‘Let’s talk this through.’ All those years I’d just imagined this moment to actually be sat there opposite this person who’d said so much worse than anybody else had ever in my life. Done so much damage and said so much bad stuff.”
To your face?
“No, that was the thing. Not to my face. In records and in print.”
What hurt him most?
“Nothing hurt me most, it was the way it was being done I didn’t like. And to eventually be sat there opposite the person was liberating. And you know what? A lot of people don’t get that chance; they spend their whole lives as enemies and don’t talk. So for me that was a victorious day. And we came back to it a couple of days later and did some more and then we were washed and we were clean.”
Many fans say they prefer Take That as a foursome. I ask if Robbie is back permanently.
“You know what, for us guys it was like the dream; like the healing to get us all back on a record. The ultimate dream was to get us on tour. We managed to do that. It was beautiful,” he says. “We got on well. We finished the tour. We’re all happy. The fans have come along and been happy. Great, great, great great, great. Now Rob’s doing a solo record, and from this point it’s back to where it was.” Take That is once again a four-man band? “Yes,” he says conclusively. “Yes.”
And it ended well?
“Ended perfectly. And you know what, we can revisit it whenever we want. He’s our brother, Rob is, and if he’s ever in trouble or he wants to have a year off being Robbie Williams, he’s welcome any time he wants.”
Of all his Take That memories, he says it’s the last night of the last tour in Munich that’s strong- est. “It’s very vivid to me. We’re all stood there alive, five of us, healthy, and it just runs through my mind standing on stage at the end wondering if we’ll ever be back as a five again, and I thought I hope we get a chance to do this again.”