Joe McElderry has managed to cram a lot into the six years since he was crowned the winner of the sixth series of ‘The X Factor’. After three UK top 10 albums, and winning appearances on ‘The Jump’ and ‘Popstar To Operastar’, he’s now getting ready to throw himself into yet another totally new project.
Ahead of his debut in the lead role of a nationwide tour of ‘Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’, we spoke to Joe as part of our ‘WISE WORDS’ feature, where he opened up about staying grounded, that body-shaming row and dealing with negative criticism.
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What do you do to switch off from the world?
I find that if I’m stressed about a performance or anything like that, if I do a workout or go for a run it makes me feel a lot better. I love running, there’s nothing better than just popping a pair of headphones in and just going, because you feel like you’re free. It gets all that nervous adrenaline out.
But also sometimes I just like to sit in bed all day, with copious amounts of coffee and tea, and just watch reality TV shows. [Laughs] That sometimes helps me switch off as well.
When and where do you think you’re happiest?
Probably on stage. I feel like once I’m confident with the show that I’m doing…. obviously you have your first couple of shows when you start something, where you feel very anxious and nervous about wanting it to go well. But once you get into the swing of it, you go into the zone and time flies by, you just have fun and don’t really think about anything else because you’re enjoying it so much.
How do you deal with negativity?
It’s funny that one, because I’m a very, very, very positive person, and I don’t entertain negativity in my life. But obviously with the job that I do, you have a lot of people having opinions on what you do, and all that kind of stuff. I also think that too much positivity can be a bad thing too, if people are paying you compliments all the time, and just telling you how wonderful and brilliant you are. So it’s having a balance of both.
As long as it’s constructive criticism, I think it’s fine. I kind of welcome that. After I do a show, I’m more than happy for people to say, ‘ah I didn’t like that bit’, as long as there’s a constructive reason why. As long as negativity is done in the right way, and you do it constructively, it’s fine. But otherwise, I pay no attention to it, it doesn’t even pop onto my radar. I would never type my own name into Twitter, I would never type my name into Google. I don’t read comments on news websites, I don’t read comments on YouTube.
The reason that I did the Instagram post that I did [last year, Joe famously responded to body-shaming articles about him on certain news outlets with a shirtless selfie] was not to be arrogant or ‘look at me’ or anything like that. I was actually really disgusted.
A lot of people that read that website are impressionable young people, and I was like, ‘I can’t believe that you’re writing an article about an 18-year-old boy, growing into a man’s body, and you’re trying to say that I’m massively overweight’. I don’t need the Daily Mail to tell me if I’m overweight or not, I can look in the mirror and make the decision myself.
What I didn’t want was for young people to read that and think, ‘my shoulders are getting a bit broader and my arms are getting a bit bigger’, and think that’s a problem. What kind of message is that to send out to people? That’s why I did it, I wanted to send out a message to be like, ‘you’re not going to victimise me just because I’ve grown up’. Find me anybody that is the same size as they were when they were 18.
What’s been the best advice that you’ve been given?
In a work context, it would just be to work hard and be yourself. You can never go wrong if you’re yourself. And in life, people have a lot of material goals, but someone once said to me, as long as you just strive to be happy in your life, you’ll always win - and that’s what I try and do. I try and surround myself with great people, I try and be a happy person - and I think everything stems from that. As long as I’m happy, then I’m in a good place.
What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
I’ve only been in it [the industry I work in] for six years so I’m still very much learning about it, but I think in the early days, I very quickly learned about the ruthlessness, and that took me by surprise. It was the hardest lesson, but it was also one of the best lessons to learn early on. It set me up very quickly to get a good head screwed on my shoulders, and look at what I needed to look at.
What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?
Just not to worry so much. Not so much now, but I used to be such a stress-head and overthink everything. I still do it a little bit, work-wise, I get nervous before shows and think ‘oh God, can I do this?’, it’s natural to do that. But I don’t worry anywhere near as much as I used to - I used to panic about everything when I was a teenager, and up until a couple of years ago.
I think it’s just part of becoming an adult, one day I just kind of learned how to breathe, you know? To tell myself, ‘it’s fine, you can cope with this’. I still have worries, I’m not an invincible person, but I rationalise a bit more.
What three things are left on your to-do wishlist?
I would love to do a musical film, like a modern-day ‘Grease’. To be part of a huge film that has got music in it would be wonderful, that’s on my list. Obviously with ‘Joseph’ I’m dabbling with acting, and I’ve done little bits and pieces. I don’t think our generation has had an equivalent of ‘Grease’, which was made years ago, we’ve never had a brand new one where everyone remembers watching it for the first time.
I would also love to take my music to different countries, but mostly out of everything, I’d like to have longevity, to be able to look back at 40 years old and say, ‘I’ve had a wonderful career’. That’s kind of my main aim and I’m willing to do and try different things as a performer along the way.
What do you think happens when we die?
I think a soul is a very strong thing, and I think a human being is a very strong energy force. I don’t know where we go and I don’t know what happens, but I’d like to think that you go somewhere and you’re able to be present in some sort of place.
When do you feel like we’re in the presence of something greater than ourselves?
I tell you what, I think sometimes when you sit on a plane and you’re flying. I was once flying from Chicago to somewhere and I remember looking out and seeing this vast amount of land and emptiness, there were no houses or anything, it’s fascinating some of the things you see.
Another time I had that was when I was skiing. We got to the top of the mountain and there was this viewing point that looked over all of these huge mountains. And again, you just think ‘wow, the world is an incredible place’ - and it’s all nature as well. It all stands the test of time longer than we do.
What do you try to bring to your relationships?
Communication, understanding and loyalty.
What keeps you grounded?
My family and friends, definitely. They’re the only people in life who can kind of say to you, ‘come on, pull yourself together, get a grip’ and it comes from a place of genuine love.
I still live in the North East and I travel back. I don’t get to spend a lot of time in my own house, but when I do I value that so much, because as soon as you step out of the world that I socialise in... As soon as you step out of London, or outside of a concert, or a stage door, or a dressing room, it feels like real life again. My job and my world, it isn’t really real life, it’s all an illusion, almost. So it’s important to step back into real life every now and again.
When you do TV shows and concerts and musicals and pantos together, you spend a lot of time with a lot of people, workwise. But most of my close friends are before I was on ‘The X Factor’, they’re from college and school. I would say out of my best friends, four or five of them are all from school, the closest friends I have are the people I knew before ‘X Factor’.
You always have a couple of friends from school, or college, or uni, who you have such a strong connection with, because they were a part of you growing up. And I think that’s such an important thing to always have around you, because that enables you to keep in touch with your roots.
What was the last good deed or act of kindness that you received?
To be honest with you, anyone who makes me a coffee is literally my knight in shining armour [laughs]. I was backstage not long ago, and I went on stage to do a little scene, and when I got back down someone else I was doing the show with had put a little cup of coffee on my dressing room table. That was very thoughtful. It’s the little things that count.
Joe McElderry is starring in the UK tour of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' from 26th January (www.josephthemusical.com).