Gary Barlow: Robbie Williams is much better looking than me – he was born to be an icon

Gary Barlow on his dark days after Take That, his one-time nemesis Robbie Williams – and new BBC entertainment show Let It Shine

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Gary Barlow does not consider himself cool. “No.” Has he ever felt cool? “No.” Not at the height of Take That’s fame, when he was lead singer of the biggest boy band on the planet? “No.”

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He wasn’t even the good-looking one, he points out. Robbie Williams, Barlow’s former bandmate and one-time nemesis, is “much better looking than me. Rob is an icon. He was born to be an icon.  I’m not an icon.”

Ordinarily, being uncool should be a problem for a pop star. The only reason why, in Barlow’s case, it isn’t, is because he “never wanted to be cool”. As he says, “Rob can wander out into Wembley Stadium having done no rehearsals, and blow the crowd away. Now, I will rehearse for six months, write songs for ten years, and I’ll blow the crowd away. But it takes massive preparation to do what I do.”

He has never even wished he could wing it? “No, no, no! No, to me that’s part of the joy. The work. Yes, I love that. I love the work.” So while Robbie Williams has been honoured as a Brit Icon, if there were a Brit award for most self-aware star, Barlow would be a shoo-in.

The singer/songwriter has been interviewed so many times that the first thing he says is: “Have we met before?” We haven’t, but I feel as though we have, so exactly is he in real life as I had always imagined.

At 45, trim and well maintained, he’s probably better looking than ever, for his features seem to suit early middle age. Even so, he is one of the unsexiest handsome men I’ve ever met. I think this is down to an indelible and deeply unfashionable quality of earnestness. Worthy to the point of stodgy, the father-of-three’s sensibility has never been very rock ’n’ roll. Happily, however, it makes him uniquely well qualified for his latest project, a BBC show called Let It Shine.

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Gary Barlow on Let it Shine

Barlow’s CV alone would have made him perfect for the job. It’s now a quarter of a century since five gregarious lads from the North West first exploded onto a stage, and such was their impact that when Take That broke up in 1996 – undone by rows and rivalry, chiefly between Barlow and Williams – Samaritans had to set up a helpline for their suicidal fans. Everyone thought Barlow would be the one to make it as a solo star, but it was Williams who went on to dazzle, while Barlow unravelled into what can only be described as his wilderness years.

If Williams was the diva of Take That, Barlow saw himself as the hard-working team player, and was devastated by the public’s preference for prima donna-ish dysfunction. Depressed and humiliated, taunted by Williams as “clueless” and “dated”, Barlow ballooned in weight and sank into self-loathing. When he married in 2000 and began a family, the singer looked unlikely to trouble the nation’s consciousness again.

Even when Take That reformed in 2005, still without Williams, most fans expected nothing more than a quick smash-and-grab raid on the nostalgia market. But the band has gone on to have four more number one albums, sell out stadiums all over the world and scoop armfuls of awards. Williams and Barlow’s feud came to an end a few years later, the pair are friends again, and although Take That are now a trio, they continue to make music that has become the soundtrack of their fans’ lives.

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Robbie Williams was made a Brit Icon last year

But alongside the pop comeback, Barlow has also been repositioning himself as an entertainment impresario. An X Factor judge for three seasons, he’s written the scores for the hit stage musical Finding Neverland, and for The Girls, an adaptation of Calendar Girls due to open in the West End early this year. A third musical, The Band, will tell the story of five young men in the biggest boy band in the world. Not a biopic but “Take That-themed”, the musical is the reason Barlow is about to become the new face of BBC1’s Saturday-night entertainment.

Let It Shine is a prime-time talent show to find five singers to play The Band’s members. Hosted by Graham Norton and Mel Giedroyc, it will audition individuals and assign them into bands, which then compete against each other live every week to win public votes for the ultimate prize of a 12-month contract performing The Band on stage. Talent shows are nothing new, of course, but whereas others such as The X Factor capitalise on cruelty, the USP of Barlow’s will be wholesomeness.

“I don’t feel like kids really interact like they used to,” he explains. “They’re on the phone, their PlayStation or whatever. So wouldn’t this be a lovely thing to show people what it’s like to work as a team?” The show will reward bands that get along with each other, and penalise prima donnas, and it doesn’t take a Freudian analyst to see why this appeals to Barlow.

Naturally, this means the show will be nothing like the music industry, and more like “the theatre vibe” Barlow discovered while making Neverland. “I loved that supportive, warm way of doing things.” Does he feel more at home in the culture of musical theatre than pop? “Definitely, definitely.”

Everyone he auditioned filled out a questionnaire about what they hoped to get from the experience. Barlow’s expression breaks into an almost priestly beam of beneficence. “And a very high percentage of them said, ‘I want to learn.’ I love that. If I was trying to put a boy band together to be in the charts, I don’t think you’d get that answer.”

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Hosting duo: Mel Giedroyc and Graham Norton

The more he talks, the less I can see why he still wants anything to do with the pop world. Musical theatre is so obviously better suited to his temperament, so why keep Take That going? He grins. “Because, honest to God, it’s just so much bloody fun. The record-making’s brilliant. I love that, and then to go and do a gig – you just want to do it for ever.”

Does he still see a future for himself in pop? This time he bursts out laughing. “I’ve never seen a future in the pop world! As I get to the end of every year, I go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m still here doing this.’ ”

He certainly doesn’t do it for the money. As Barlow cheerfully acknowledges, he never has to work again. It’s the memory of his wilderness years, when the world didn’t want him, that drives him now. For while many pop stars struggle with addictions, if Barlow has any discernible demon it is workaholic-ism. As long as he keeps working, he stays safe from the depression that almost destroyed him. I ask if it still lurks in the shadows of his mind, and after a long silence he says quietly, “Yes, it is actually.

“I wasn’t happy for a long period and when you know what that feels like, then I don’t care who you are, you’re going to wake up some mornings and you’re going to feel s***. You just are. You’re going to have your winter days, and I know what that feeling’s like and I hate it. I will do anything to get me from that space. I’ll go for a run. I’ll go and have an ice bath or I’ll go and watch my son’s football game. I know what I need to do to get out of it. And that means I have to keep working.”

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Barlow on The X Factor judging panel

Barlow says he has never met a great performer who wasn’t vulnerable to the dread of depression. “Because it’s an indescribable thing, waving off at Hyde Park and as far as your eye can see there’s hands waving back at you. Now that’s not normal, that isn’t. So in the balance of life, some time in the next week or so, it’s got to go from there,” and he points to the ceiling, “to there.” He gestures to the floor. “It just has to.”

The contestants on Let It Shine remind Barlow a lot of his old self, and taking care of their emotional wellbeing is “an important part of this show, because we have a responsibility towards these young people”.

What advice does he wish he could give to his young self when he was starting out in Take That? He considers the question carefully. “It’s hard, this, because I’m really not big on regrets. I believe all the good and the bad is the reason we’re here sat in this room and most of it I’ve turned into positives, you know.

“But the one thing I would always say about the 90s is, I never really enjoyed it. I never really sat there and went, ‘Oh, we’ve won three Brit Awards!’ It was just like, ‘OK, great, we’ve won, now what are we doing tomorrow?’ I was the worrier. Well, I always felt like I was the worrier, but I was the worrier among worriers. We were always paranoid. We always felt like the pop band no one wanted on the Brit Awards.”

If anyone had told him not to worry, could he have relaxed and just enjoyed the ride? He laughs. “No. Of course not.” 

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Let It Shine begins Saturday 7 January at 7pm on BBC1