This time last year, Simon Webbe was in a bad place. After weeks spent sitting at home with the curtains closed, drinking a bottle of brandy a day and, at his lowest ebb, even harbouring thoughts of suicide, he was forced to confront the fact he was suffering from severe depression.
‘I was never clinically diagnosed because I didn’t want the pills,’ the Blue singer tells Weekend. ‘But what I realised, sitting in my house by myself, was that I didn’t really like myself. I didn’t know who I was. And I kind of had to go back to the beginning. It’s like Mayweather going to fight Pacquiao – he went back to chopping wood. He said, “I need to go back to basics, to remember who I was that got into the game to be the best”. So that’s what I did. I looked at myself in the mirror and asked some honest questions.’
Shortly afterwards, salvation arrived in the sequined form of a certain Saturday night TV dance phenomenon. ‘Strictly came along at a really good time,’ says Webbe. ‘I was at a place where I couldn’t see an out and Lee [Blue bandmate Lee Ryan] called me up and said, “Si, listen, there’s something big in the pipeline for you, I can feel it”.’
Partnered with Kristina Rihanoff, Webbe made an uncertain start on the Strictly dancefloor. ‘I can’t watch those first four dances,’ he admits. ‘There were too many demons in my mind.’ His moment of epiphany came when judge Bruno Tonioli told him he looked like he was ‘participating in the dance and not being it’. ‘With those words, everything clicked,’ says Webbe. ‘I was like, I get it now. Forget the image, and be the dance.’
This new mentality took him all the way to the final, where he was voted runner-up to champion Caroline Flack. But Strictly also taught him something else: ‘My passion is to be an entertainer,’ he says. ‘I want to be a triple-threat who sings, dances and acts.’
It’s a campaign that seems to be working, if the rest of 2015 is anything to judge by. The day after his chat with Weekend, Webbe is due to fly to the Far East with Blue. Over the summer, he’ll be in the West End playing the Big Bad Wolf in new family musical The 3 Little Pigs. After that, he’s off back to Hong Kong to perform for his beloved Manchester United, then taking some time to work on new songs before seeing out the year in panto in Nottingham.
Opening at the Palace Theatre in early August, The 3 Little Pigs is the latest creation from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the hit writing team behind Mary Poppins and Betty Blue Eyes. ‘I believe in the sprit of things,’ says Webbe. ‘When I went to Blackpool with Strictly, I could feel the spirit of ballroom. The same when I was at the Palladium [where he starred in Sister Act]. And I’m going to enjoy doing this, being the Big Bad Wolf at the Palace. When I was young I was very bubbly and bouncy, very energetic. This is my chance to be that kid again.’
The West End has proved a reliable second vocation for many a pop star who’s currently between hits. Webbe is candid about the career trajectory of former boy band members. When Blue split in 2004, having sold 15 million records with the likes of All Rise and One Love, Webbe fared better as a solo artist than former colleagues Ryan, Duncan James and Antony Costa, racking up two top 10 singles and a double platinum album. But it couldn’t last.
‘I was lucky that I was able to have a successful first single and album,’ he says. ‘But the record company didn’t really listen to the direction I wanted to go in, and the next album sold half as many.’ His third solo record, scheduled for release in 2009, never saw the light of day. ‘I hit a brick wall,’ he admits. ‘You think it’s going to last forever. But when your boys aren’t around you, you suddenly lose that safety net.’
Pop stars, he says, need to accept they have a shelf life: ‘Going into this business, you always have to believe you’re the best there is. But you also have to be prepared for things to turn around very quickly. And nobody prepares you for that.’
Blue reformed six years ago, and remain a popular live draw, despite being dropped by their label after the disappointing performance of recent album Colours. Earlier this year, Lee Ryan became the fourth and final member of the band to file for bankruptcy, leading to inevitable tabloid headlines about re-naming themselves Busted. Webbe’s losses were particularly harsh as, instead of squandering his fortune on a lavish pop star lifestyle, he’d invested heavily in property. And then came the crash.
‘I was in the Rich List one year, and a year later I was bankrupt. But it was just money,’ he shrugs. ‘I thought, I made that £10 million in three or four years; if I get the right plan, maybe it will all come back.’
Even as a kid, Webbe had “always had a target in mind” about how much money he wanted to make. Before being recruited for Blue, he worked for British Gas and as a bingo caller, but says employers were often reluctant to hire someone from Manchester’s troubled Moss Side estate. He might have been a troublemaker himself, he admits, if his mum Marlene hadn’t sent him off to spend a summer with family on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where they didn’t even have running water. ‘It was a boot camp,’ he recalls. ‘I went away a boy and came back a man.’
Post-Strictly, Webbe says life is good. Depression is “an ongoing thing” but he is optimistic about the future. ‘I appreciate my job,’ he says. ‘I wake up living the dream.’ He is close to his 18-year-old daughter, Alanah, and is currently dating Jess Impiazzi, star of MTV reality show Ex On the Beach (‘She’s bubbly and bright, as well as being sexy,’ he grins).
And, perhaps inspired by the Big Bad Wolf, he is no longer scared to bare his teeth once in a while. He’s planning to write a book, he tells Weekend, in which he will reveal all about the ‘bullies’ who forced him into bankruptcy: ‘This is a very tough industry,’ he says. ‘But I’m 37 now. I’m not afraid to speak out. And people will be named.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 9, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend