Oritsé Williams remembers vividly the day his childhood ended. Aged 12, the founding member of platinum-selling boy band JLS discovered his mother Sonia collapsed on the floor of the shower. “I heard a crash from the bathroom. I had to pick the lock with a coin and Mum was lying on the floor. I was terrified,” he says quietly. “I remember calling an ambulance and praying she would be OK.”
She wasn’t: shortly afterwards, his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I went from having a mum who would kick a ball in the park to one who couldn’t get downstairs by herself.”
As the eldest of three – his brother Temisan was nine and sister Naomi just two – Williams had to grow up quickly. His father wasn’t around, so while his friends kicked balls in the park, he was cooking, cleaning, shopping, looking after his siblings and mum as well as juggling schoolwork. “Every morning I’d help Mum down the stairs and make her breakfast, then take my sister to school,” he says. “After school I would do the food shopping and cook dinner for everyone before looking after Mum’s needs.”
These days, the success of JLS means Williams can afford professional help for his 56-year-old mother, who lives in a respite home close to his own west London home. But his experience as a young carer proved formative, and became the inspiration behind new documentary Britain’s Youngest Carers, in which Williams, now 27, meets young carers who look after their parents on a daily basis.
The documentary was the his idea and was two years in the making. “People weren’t interested at first, which is part of the problem. But I was determined, and thank God Channel 4 went for it,” he says. “There is this silent army of young people out there and we know nothing about them. We have a duty to give them a voice.”
And it is a vast army: while the official number of young carers is around 200,000, so many are not known about that the real figure is thought to be more than triple that.
All the children Williams spoke to for the documentary brought back emotions that were all too familiar. Loneliness. Isolation. “Like a lot of the kids, I never really talked about what was going on,” he says forlornly. “I remember breaking down once in front of a teacher, just sobbing in class. But most of the time I kept it all in. Now I know there were probably lots of other kids in my school in the same position – I just never realised it at the time.” Not naturally an aggressive boy, he recalls how he got into endless scuffles. “I was hugely over-sensitive. People would make a jokey reference to my mum but I couldn’t handle it. The only way to explain it is that I wasn’t myself.”
At home, meanwhile, there were other pressures to contend with. “Mum had her disability allowance and that was it. There were times when we had no electricity, no food in the fridge. Our neighbours helped when they could, but it was tough.”
He talks of the difficulties of being a teenage boy helping his mum wash, clean and bathe herself. “It’s hard, doing that sort of thing for your mum. Hard for both of you. But you don’t have a choice. I never felt resentful. I was just determined to do the best for her. She’s such an open-hearted, beautiful person. She has never complained, not once.”
Music became Williams’s escape, albeit one fuelled with purpose. “Mum instilled in all of us that we could do anything, so in my mind I thought I could cure her,” he smiles. “My brother and I came up with this plan – I would make money from music and he would become a scientist. That way we would have the means and ability to find a cure – although now I know it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
It was against this backdrop that he conceived and put together JLS with Aston Merrygold, Marvin Humes and Jonathan “JB” Gill. Two years after they formed in 2006 they came second in the fifth series of The X Factor (behind Alexandra Burke). They went on to achieve extraordinary success, selling ten million records around the world before they officially split last year.
Success, he confides, was bittersweet. “I knew this was a chance to make a difference for us all but it also took me away from Mum. At the same time I knew it gave her a lift, seeing me out there.”
In his absence his brother and sister took up the carer’s mantle. And while today Williams’s earnings fund his mother’s place at a local respite centre, his dream is to buy her a specially modified home. Now using a wheelchair, her condition is likely to get worse as she has the progressive form of the disease.
“I haven’t made a crazy amount of money, but I’ve made enough to give her the best care possible and that’s all that matters,” he says. “Money is what it is, it comes, it goes. When you’ve seen what I’ve seen it changes your perspective. My focus isn’t fast cars and big houses; I’d rather use my money to take care of my family.”
It remains his drive, a year after JLS split. “It was the right time and we’re still good friends. I remember looking round at 22,000 fans on the last night of our farewell tour in the O2 arena and thinking, ‘I put this together in my head, in my bedroom!’ It was an amazing feeling.” He has since formed his own entertainment and management company and seems to be enjoying being on the other side of the fence. “I used to leave all the big decisions to management. Now I am management,” he grins.
It also gives him the flexibility to pursue his own projects, like the documentary, which he hopes will help provoke a discussion about the plight of Britain’s young carers. “It’s a problem in our society and something needs to be done. We need to have a conversation about it rather than turning away.”
For all his fame, status and wealth, Williams still sees himself as his mother’s carer above anything else. “At Christmas, she came to stay with me for three weeks and when she’s with me, it’s just me and her, no one else comes in. I never want her to think there’s anything I can’t or won’t handle.”
Britain’s Youngest Carers, Wednesday 11:00pm, Channel 4