The success of Westlife was fast and vast and band member Shane Filan sought to bank for the future by investing in property. He lost everything spectacularly, including his reputation. Here, he puts the record straight

By Shane Filan’s estimation, he’s been interviewed about 10,000 times. Ballpark. That happens when you’ve sold 44 million records with Westlife. Popstars are tricky to interview. Their answers can sound like press releases. They’ve been on the promotion road for so long that interviews are an autopilot setting. You generally don’t come out of an hour-long conversation with a heap of gossip and a remarkable insight. But since Westlife wrapped in June 2012 and Filan is now launching his solo career, he has no choice but to be honest.

In Croke Park, June (2012), the last night of Westlife’s career, Filan asked everyone in the crowd to raise their phones. Nearly 80,000 lights blinked back at him. He was transported back to his sitting room as an eight-year-old, showing his mother a video of a Michael Jackson song, the part where all the cigarette lighters glow at a massive concert. He wanted that. He wanted to be a popstar.

It was his mother who started it all, ringing Louis Walsh and banking that, considering they shared a home town in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, he might listen to her.

In 1998, Filan queued from 5am for tickets to the Backstreet Boys in the RDS. A few months later Westlife, under Walsh’s stewardship, opened for them at the same gig.

Playing basketball backstage with what was then the biggest boyband in the world was the first truly surreal moment of Westlife’s early fame. Their first tour included 13 concerts at the Point Depot and 10 at Wembley.

They went on to have massive hits with Swear It Again, Flying Without Wings, Uptown Girl and What Makes A Man. “It was so big so quickly that everything in your life changed. Dealing with business people, lawyers, accountants. You go back to Sligo and people look at you differently: ‘There’s your man from Westlife’.”

If he could keep only two memories from Westlife’s decade-and-a-half journey, it would be those phones in the air – “It was the most beautiful thing: a starlit sky” – and repaying his mother for her initiative by getting her to meet Pope John Paul II.

But behind the legions of fans and huge fame, Filan was in trouble. Deep trouble. Shafin Developments, a property company he established with his brother was at the wrong end of letters and phonecalls from the banks. They had one housing estate built in Leitrim, but other projects on green-field sites in Sligo had stalled. Clogged-up in planning for a few years, the second half of the bank loans never came through.

“I was paying out paying out 40, 50, 60, €70,000 some months: €90,000 some months. And it was just interest payments. It wasn’t even fixing the problem. That was the killer.”

He clasps his hands when he talks of declaring bankruptcy in the UK. A large wedding ring glitters on his finger: the same wedding ring he had to buy back instead of handing it over. He handed over the keys to his house, a home he built for his family and remortgaged four times. He told Ryan Tubridy that, at one point, he had €470 in his bank account.

This week it emerged that Filan won’t share in the €2.382 million windfall the other three members of Westlife will receive following the voluntary winding up of their entertainment firm Bluenet Ltd. His share – estimated to be between €476,400 and €595,500 –will go directly to his bankruptcy trustee.

He’s sitting in a box in Croke Park eating tomato soup at a coffee table with a vase of red roses. “You go through stuff and you get very frustrated. Why me? Why did this happen? How could I be in Westlife and then have nothing to show for it financially at the end of it? But it’s like, why not me? That’s just life. It’s tough.

“There’s a lot more problems in the world. There are a lot of people who would wish to God they had my problem instead of having a sick child.”

He got into property to plan for the future. “At the beginning the banks are very happy. They’re giving you the money going ‘great site, edge of town’, you’ve got a SuperValu or Tesco interested in going in there. We went about everything very rightly. We didn’t try and do 100 things or go internationally. We tried to focus on four or five things that were needed. But the whole time of this two, three, four years getting planning, going to An Bord Pleanála, all those kind of disputes and God knows what else was going on in Sligo at the time, the country was starting to fall apart.”

The cracks showed rapidly, “You’d see it. You could see the banks were getting nervous when you got planning. They weren’t delighted that you got planning, because they knew what was coming next – we needed the other half of that money that we were promised to build it.”

Then panic set in. “We were kind of running out of options. We had no money and we had four or five sites up on €20 million of debt. It’s a very scary place because you’re going: ‘If we don’t build this and sell it, we’re going to go bust.’”

He’s still dealing with the fallout and wants to clear certain things up: “Most people that might be giving out about it, give out about all these tradesmen that we left in the lurch or people that did work for Shafin or the builder who was building the housing estate for us, that they weren’t paid, or that people who built my house in Sligo weren’t paid . . . Everybody, every tradesman that worked for Shafin or built my house got fully paid, well paid. Everybody got paid.

“I would like that to be said if I could because I haven’t said it before and it’s important. People kind of think we left all these plumbers or electricians without getting paid. Even when I had to clear out my house, I paid people to help me move it. I paid people to take out stuff that I wanted.

“A lot of people give out about that, especially in Sligo, people give out about that a lot . . . but they haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about, genuinely.”

A few weeks earlier, press are gathered at Odessa in Dublin to listen to tracks from Filan’s upcoming EP. Glenda Gilson is doing her make-up on a couch, journalists are eyeing up the nibbles and pouring themselves coffee.

Filan’s songwriting is embryonic. Slightly naive, a bit clichéd and, like Westlife, devoid of grit, but it’s honest. A few years ago, he mightn’t have had a hope with a tune like Everything To Me, but in a musical landscape in which Mumford & Sons are gigantic, and with Bruno Mars, Passenger, Ed Sheeran and Olly Murs occupying the charts, pop music is having a “nice” moment.

Filan is a nice guy. He has a shot. Louis Walsh is managing him, a man Filan says he has the same level of respect for as he does for his father. Walsh believes in him.

A friend said to him recently: “If you can be good at one thing in your life, just be good at it and don’t try to be good at two things.” It’s stuck in his head. “I hadn’t a clue about property. I was like a lot of people, ‘that’s the thing to do, that’s the thing to invest in’. I didn’t know.

“You can control the song you release, you can control how well you sing. But you can’t control if the economy is going to fall apart. I’m just going to focus on singing from now on and that’s it.”

Gillian, his wife, believes in him too. When Filan realised he was in love with Gillian, in a club in Sligo drinking sex-on-the-beach cocktails and chatting at the bar, he went home and couldn’t sleep for hours. Staring at the ceiling, he realised she was the one; his bandmate Kian Egan’s cousin, who Filan had gone out with when he was 13. The next day, on the way to McDonald’s, he bumped into her on the street and was so nervous he couldn’t form a sentence. A year and a half later, he won her over.

More recently, after putting the kids to bed, husband and wife would have a cup of tea and chat for hours. Every night. Initially he was afraid to talk to her about the money problems. He was afraid to talk to his family. The guys in the band had no clue how bad things were. He was scared, anxious. “But she just kept telling me we’ll be alright, whatever’s meant to be for us will be. She kept telling me, ‘look at our kids, look at our marriage, everything is great’. She was like my shrink nearly, she talked me through stuff and was amazing.”

She encouraged him to write the songs that will make up his album: another form of therapy. “She’s the reason I’m still positive. She’s the reason these songs are out there. I can’t say enough about her. She was my rock, mountain, boulder, you put it altogether, she was that person.”

He jokes to her now about it, about her support and her inspiration for his new-found skill of songwriting: “Ah, see, that’s why I married you. I knew you’d come in handy when I needed to write a song or two!”

Filan walks around the pitch at Croke Park, pointing out where the Westlife stage was, where he sang to thousands and didn’t care that the money he was being paid would never make it to his wallet, because the feeling of performing was worth far more.

The day before this interview, he found himself talking to the man in the mirror while shaving. “Don’t think like that, don’t think like that,” he repeated when he started to imagine worst-case scenarios. “I kind of had a freak attack. Imagine if the album doesn’t do well? If the song doesn’t do well? Goes in at number 40 and the album flops. What am I going to do then?”

But what’s the point in worrying? He spent three years worrying about property, “and then it ended up the worst f***ing s*** happened”.

He has a different perspective now. “Whatever will be in my life now, genuinely I feel it’s meant to be. I was meant to lose everything financially. I was meant to write these songs. I just feel like everything is happening for a reason and I’m starting to see a positive side out of it. Even though I lost my money, I got to realise I could write songs, which is more important in my opinion.”

Croke Park is empty, and the rain falls heavier now. People on a tour of the stadium are gagging for photos, and he bounds over enthusiastically without complaint.

Filan has nothing and everything. He lives to sing. He trusts Louis. He adores his kids. He loves the way Gillian laughs. So, tell me what makes a man?

An interview with The Irish Times in 2013

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