For over a decade, Markus Feehily was part of one of the most successful pop acts in recent history. As a member of Westlife, he sold out shows all over Europe, collaborated with stars like Mariah Carey and Diana Ross, and recorded no less than 13 UK number one singles.
Now, though, he’s stepping out on his own, with the arrival of his first solo collection ‘Fire’.
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Following the album’s release, we sat down for a chat with Markus, as part of our WISE WORDS interview series, where we ask a range of stars from all walks of life about the important life lessons they’ve learned along the way.
He told us about how he deals with negative comments online, his dream to start a family and why coming out was the best decision he ever made…
What do you do to switch off from the world?
I like a good city break as much as the next person - just going to eat some nice food, admiring the city, seeing what the local restaurants, bars and clubs are like. That’s when I literally forget any kind of stress.
Walking around a new city and people-watching, really takes my mind off everything, because there’s always so much great stuff to look at.
How do you deal with negativity?
I deal with it on different levels, depending which mood I’m in, really. Sometimes I can really be strong and I can deal with it well, but if you catch me at the wrong time, it gets me down and it does, unfortunately, have quite a strong power over me.
Recently I read some really negative YouTube comments underneath this interview I’d done on TV, and sometimes I can be like, ‘oh whatever, who cares, it’s just one person’. But then other times it really gets to you, and it gets you down much more than it should.
When it’s about me as a person, especially when it’s about my physical appearance, that’s when it can be very hurtful. Let’s face it, in the past I’ve had ups and downs with my weight, especially in my teenage years. The stuff that you get bullied for in school stays in your mind, so if you read a negative comment on a YouTube video, all of a sudden you’re back in that classroom, you’re back in that same emotion and you feel exactly the same. And it’s not the best place to be, so to protect myself from being in that situation, I’m better to just not bother reading it.
I think, I really need to get out of the habit of reading websites and YouTube videos and seeing what everyone thinks, the more healthy approach is to keep your eye on the prize, and keep doing what you’re doing - keep moving forward, and not worry so much about what each individual person thinks.
When and where are you happiest?
I’m happiest when I’m laughing. I love doing creative things, you almost go into a ‘mode’ while you’re in the studio or designing artwork or whatever, but when I’m switched off from all that, and I’m just sat around at home with friends or my boyfriend, watching a comedian or a TV show, just when I’m laughing, I’m happiest.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I’ve spoken before about going to a therapist when I was really struggling in my younger years, in particular struggling to come out. I’d told the lads in Westlife, and I’d told my very close friends and my family, but to make that leap of actually announcing it publicly was very difficult.
Once again, I was caring far too much of what people thought of me. I wasn’t thinking for myself, I was constantly trying to live up to being this person that keeps everyone happy all of the time, and was scared that if I was honest, I would disappoint people.
That was having a really negative effect on me, and the best advice I got at that time was actually from a therapist. Obviously it’s good to be a people-pleaser, but you have to be selfish sometimes, and you have to think, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks of this, I’m going to do it, because it’s best for me’. And that was probably the best advice I ever got, because coming out was by far the best decision I ever made.
The weird thing was, it was almost anti-climatic, I was kind of all tensed up and ready for shock and, ‘oh my god I can’t believe it’, and the fans saying ‘you lied to us’, and everything. But it was literally such a pleasant experience. And I thought, ‘Oh. The world didn’t end. The fans are still buying tickets. Everyone’s saying they’re happy for me, and nobody is in jail, nobody’s dead…’ It was just a massive sense of relief.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
I think the hardest lesson is about not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone, something I sing about in ‘Butterfly’, my new single. I’m honestly not saying this for promotional reasons, the reason that I wrote the song is because it’s something that I genuinely meant and a lesson that I did learn.
It’s crazy how we can get so comfortable in a relationship that we sometimes take it for granted, and all of a sudden you’re just hit with a bus and it's all over, and your life completely changes. And then you think, ‘God if I’d only paid attention more then and there’, maybe things could have been different. So that’s a really tough lesson, when it’s already too late and you can’t change anything about it. You can’t go back and fix it, it’s too late, it’s already broken.
What would you tell your 13-year-old self?
I would say, go and get a big speaker and a microphone. And stand on top of an ice cream truck, and ride around your home town in Ireland, and just tell everyone you’re gay, because that’ll be so much easier than going through the next 10 years, being afraid and being scared that everyone’s not going to like you. You’re making that all up in your head, so do yourself a favour.
Maybe 13 would be a little bit too young, but that’s the time I was entering adolescence, and all these feelings were coming into my head. And after I realised I was having these feelings, I started getting very scared, because I didn’t know what I was going to about them.
What three things are at the top of your bucket list?
To have children. I think that no matter what happens in my life, having a child and bringing it up and teaching it about the world and helping it to grow up and stuff, would really be better than everything I’ve ever achieved before, all put together.
I’d also love to write some sort of theatre show. I don’t mean ‘Grease’ and I don’t mean ‘West Side Story’, I mean some sort of unique musical theatre show. Sometimes people have a certain perception that musical theatre is cheesy and stuff, but it’s phenomenal, shows like ‘Taboo’ and ‘Spring Awakening’, they’re just as good as any kind of contemporary music, and I’d love to write a musical that showcased that.
And I also just want to live happily ever after with somebody that I love.
What do you think happens when we die?
I grew up in a Catholic house in rural Ireland, and we, obviously, were taught that we go to heaven. And growing up, that was something I really loved the thought of, it was a really nice thought to have.
But as you get a little bit older, your thinking changes. You learn about the variety of different religions - the first time I met an atheist person was when I was in London working with Westlife! All these different people have their own arguments, and all these arguments have valid points, so I really don’t know what happens when we die.
When do you feel a sense that we live in the presence of something bigger than ourselves?
I’m quite an astrology-friendly person. I couldn’t tell you the names of all the stars and things like that, but my theory is, if the moon can control the ocean, then we little tiny humans, who are made up of mostly water, surely the moon can also affect us.
So I do feel that the moon has some sort of effect on us. I don’t know what the effect is, but too many times recently I’ve looked up and seen the full moon and thought to myself, ‘OK, well that’ll explain that crazy behaviour that I just experienced’.
What do you try to bring to your relationships?
I like the thought that my friends and my boyfriend and family members can look at me as the sort of person who is approachable, and that has an open mind.
I’ve learned through my own personal experiences that people with an open mind are the people who you think, ‘If I approach them and talk to them, they’re not going to judge me’, so I like to think people can tell me anything and I’ll try and look at it in the best, most open-minded way possible.
What I think a lot of gay people learn growing up is that you always celebrate unique people and people who are different from everybody else, because that’s what we felt like. So when I’m in London a lot of my friends are quite ‘out there’ characters, there’s some from the fashion world and actors or drag queens… people that are misfits, but then who’ve created their own crowd of misfits, and we all fit into that crowd.
What was the last good deed or act of kindess you received?
Oh actually just the other day, I had a small scratch on the front of my car. So I brought it down to a garage I go to a lot. And in London especially, you can get people charging far too much for things like a little scratch, but the guy in the garage just said, ‘I’ve got that exact paint inside, let me just go and do it. Come back in half an hour, I won’t charge you, you’ve given me enough business’.
And it was a very un-London thing to do. And, of course, there are a loads of really nice people in London, it’s not just city people who aren’t nice to you or won’t talk to you or anything.
And from what I do, from being in Westlife, people go, ‘oh here comes money-bags, we’ll charge him triple’, so it was nice to see he wasn’t like that, and he was just a nice guy, you know?
What keeps you grounded?
I think my friends keep me completely grounded. I’m still best friends with all my friends from my teenage years. They’re not in the public eye, and I’m one of them. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m not one of them, and they’ve taught me that just because I was in Westlife doesn’t mean that I can’t just do normal things. Why wouldn’t I?
It was kind of well-publicised that me and my friends had a catering van that we put into a festival, and people seemed shocked that someone from Westlife would do that, but for me, it was the most normal thing in the world. So my friends keep me grounded, and they remind me that you should just be yourself and do whatever you want.
Mark Feehily’s debut solo album, ‘Fire’, is out now. Watch the video for ‘Butterfly’ below...