WHEN I chat to Gareth Gates – star of Footloose – the Musical coming to Basildon’s Towngate Theatre on August 21 – he is fulsome in his praise of our county.
“I love Essex,” he confesses. “It’s a great place, fun. My best friend in the world, Matt, he lives in Essex. He lives in Southend, so I’ll be staying with him probably while I’m performing.”
In fact, it transpires he even owns a house here.
Six students at Rayleigh’s Masters Performing Arts College actually have the Pop Idol’s runner-up as their landlord.
“I own a house in Leigh-on-Sea – a student house,” he explains.
“Matt [Plummer] is the principle of Masters – the performing arts college – and I bought a house literally down the road from there in Leigh for the students.
“I’ve got six students living there.”
So, he’s no stranger to Southend or even Basildon – where he has performed before.
But then he’s seen rather a lot of the world since coming second to Will Young on ITV’s Pop Idol in 2002, at a mere 18 years-old.
“I’ve had the privilege of visiting lots of places all round the world,” he says.
“In the early days I toured Asia, I was huge out there for bit. I spent months at a time in Singapore and Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea – all those big Asian territories and I still have a big fan base over there actually.
“And I’ve toured a lot around Europe and toured the UK lots and I love it, the hardest bit is obviously being away from my family and when I do come home I cherish it even more.”
The best place, though?
“Actually the best place to be is home,” he confesses.
When appearing on Pop Idol, Gareth was battling more than just the usual nerves. He had a stammer, which he struggled with the entire time he wasn’t singing.
In the 16 years since, he has become speech coach and course instructor with the McGuire Programme – which helps people with stammers like his. The pauses that are scattered throughout our conversation are almost indiscernible.
And acting, he has discovered, has the same effect of his speech as singing. It totally disappears. And it is this freeing aspect of performing which has seen him really enjoy musical theatre – as well as the buzz of live audiences.
“Often when you’re a recording artist, you spend time in a studio performing to a handful of people or a recording studio is quite isolated and alone. But every night I’ve got a brand-new audience so there’s that instant gratification side.
“But for me, I suffer with the stammer, but as soon as I learn a script, as soon as I take on a role and adopt this persona it’s just never an issue, so that for me is a very big and a very nice release.
“I was surprised. Because as child I was so conscious and that why I kind went to music and learnt to play instruments as opposed to going down the performing arts route with the acting and the dancing, I just stuck to the music side of things. So I was very surprised that I found I could act and that when I do act my speech is just not an issue.”
So, what was it that attracted him to Footloose?
“Well, last year, I played the role of Willard. And it’s a comedy part and I’ve never played a comedy part before. I was a bit kind of sceptical and a bit worried by it, but I really enjoyed it, so much so that they asked me to do it again this year and I was like ‘yes, let’s do it.’”
He’s spent most of the past 16 years on tours – be it pop gigs or theatre shows. In fact, he still gigs while on tour.
“Theatre life is hectic. Big shows every week. And there’s no kind of negotiating that. As soon as you are in show you have eight shows a week and you only have one day off. And my days off are obviously filled with more gigs!”
So, what does he do to relax?
“I just hang out with my daughter. I’m running my business through the day [Cuppanut – a coconut tea he created and founded– who knew?] and in the theatre of a night, so all of my time is taken up – I don’t have any free time.
How does it find being away from his family – especially his daughter, eight-year-old Missy
“It’s tough, it’s the only part of touring that I don’t like – the being away from family. I’ve toured ever since I came into the industry which was some 16 years ago. It’s just part of my job, you just have to sort of get on with it.
“Of course, it’s hard at times and of course it’s difficult. But you just have to keep on going. I’m very blessed with what I do and I’m very fortunate to be in this position, so I tend to hold on to that.”
And does Missy come on tour with him?
“Lots. I had her all of last week with me on the road – she’s broken up from school now. And I’ll have this week, till the end of the week.
“It’s great when it’s holiday time because I can just spend all day, every day with her and she loves watching the show, she’s destined for the stage.
“She’s all singing all dancing, she’ll want to be on the stage as soon as she can be that one.”
He was one of the first ever pop stars spawned by a TV show, does he have any regrets?
“I’m a believer in no regrets whatsoever. I think everything shapes and moulds you into the person you are. I’ve been through tough times as lots of people have in life, but it just makes me who I am now.
“And I’m very grateful. I’m a big believer in gratitude, I think if you are grateful for what you have then that will just attract more and so really very grateful.
“I had a blast. I was a young lad and I was given everything. It was incredible and I’m still as busy as ever.”
Footloose the Musical will be at the Towngate Theatre, in St Martin’s Square, from August 21. For booking information and ticket prices, go to towngatetheatre.org.uk
This post was first published in the Echo newspaper on Friday, August 11, 2017: www.echo-news.co.uk