(from Cambridge News)
MOST people assume being in a boyband means being told what to do by record company execs while looking pretty for the fans.
And while Westlife's Mark Feehily admits some people tried to take them for a ride during their early days, he says after several years in the business they are firmly in the driving seat.
"I'm 26 now, I've been doing this job for eight years and no-one tells us what to do," he insists.
"Nobody would try to tell us what to do, but it's sensible for us to work with our label and our management and make sure we see eye to eye.
"We don't get told what to do, but we certainly do respect and listen to the record company's opinion. It's in our interests to work with them instead of getting stroppy and constantly challenging what they say."
During the early days the boys were just teenagers. They emerged from their roots in Sligo, northwest Ireland in 1998 and landed a support slot with their heroes Backstreet Boys at a concert in Dublin. They went on to win the best newcomer act at the Smash HitsPoll Winners Party later that same year and were soon on their way towards an unprecedented run of 13 number one singles.
"I've learned so much about the music business, but there's still so much more to learn," says Mark. "I came from secondary school straight into record contracts and lawyers and business deals talking about thousands of pounds; it was a very scary thing for me at the time. So one thing I've learned is to control myself and calmly make decisions about money and other important things.
"We've certainly had people in the past who took advantage of our naiveté and the fact we didn't really have a clue, but on the other hand we were very lucky we had people close to us who were very protective.
"But although we were 18 or 19-year-olds we weren't brought up to be walked all over and we dealt with it, basically by firing anyone near us who was trying to."
The one question Mark always dreaded from journalists was: "So where's your girlfriend then?"
It was inevitable for a singer in a band like Westlife, who are loved by thousands of screaming female fans across Ireland and the UK.
But he dreaded what would happen if his secret relationship with another man got out.
While the rest of the group were courting glamorous girls - Kian is dating former Hollyoaks babe Jodi Albert and Nicky is married to Irish PM Bertie Ahern's daughter Georgina - Mark had found love with Kevin McDaid, a singer in another boy band, V.
In August last year he decided to come out in an article in The Sun. The reaction he got gave him renewed faith in the band's fanbase.
"I got so many letters off fans and also people weren't necessarily Westlife fans, but had been touched in some way by what I did in coming out," he says. "I really haven't had one negative comment and I can say that with my hand on my heart. I think it speaks volumes about the progression in modern society - it really doesn't affect anybody. Our fans aren't like pop fans from the past; they don't want to marry us. It's not like a few years ago, when fans didn't see the reality of a pop act.
"At the moment we are all in long-term relationships and it hasn't affected anything.
It was no big deal. It might have been a bigger deal a few years ago, but people just literally said: 'So what?'" The story did nothing to dent the band's sales and their album Face to Face later that year duly hit the top spot in the charts.
But, as well as the public reaction to his decision to come out, Mark says it has also made a great difference to him personally.
"It's a relief to be able to talk about it. It's just something off my shoulders," he says. "I never spoke too much about my private life and I still don't intend to, but it's definitely a relief I don't have to fend off questions any more about where my girlfriend is. I can just ignore those questions now, I can stand up and be proud and say, 'Actually I'm going out with a fella'.
"It's been nothing but positive in terms of the reaction I've had and the effect it's had on my life."
Mark had become used to seeing his face in the newspapers since the band first broke out of Ireland in 1998 and become Europe's biggest boyband.
Much of the media speculation recently has centred around rumours of the band splitting.
Since they released a Greatest Hitsalbum in 2002 and Bryan McFadden parted company with them in 2004 Westlife have been dogged by reports that they quitting the music industry.
"I think the nation's hearts have been broken twice before by two of the biggest pop acts the UK has ever had, Take That and the Spice Girls," explains Mark. "And I think, understandably, people feel bands are just going to go for a while and then split up. They have maybe lost an element of trust in the fact a band can actually be happy and want to continue together.
"Robbie left, Geri left and it all kind of went down hill for Take That and the Spice Girls, so of course when Bryan left our band they just assumed we were going to go down the exact same route. But personally I think we have got stronger since he left."
At first the rumours were hurtful to the band members, especially since their fanbase showed no signs of abating. But they soon learned to deal with it and now it's a regular joke between the members whenever they get together. In a way, says Mark, it's a compliment because it shows they are defying people's expectations.
"We are always going to get asked the question because once we got past the greatest hits album we are in uncharted territory for a boyband, so everybody is always wondering when we are going to split up. We could tell people we were going to split up in five years and they would still ask us every day of that five- year period if we were splitting up. It's just something we've learned to deal with.
"When people first started saying it, it freaked us out because we were thinking, 'Seriously, why are you saying that? Where are you getting this information from?' We thought the press must know what they're talking about, maybe they're right but we're the ones who decide if we're going to split up so no matter how many people suggest we might be, at the end of the day it's up to us."
Westlife are at Audley End on Sunday. To book tickets visit the website at www.picnicconcerts.com
Westlife will also be at Newmarket Nights in August 18.