Stephen Gately obituary

Singer with Boyzone who went on to build a solo career on stage and television

Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, who has died suddenly aged 33, had successfully made the transition from teenage pop idol to mainstream showbusiness performer. He had been the first member of Boyzone to bring out a solo single, New Beginning, and his subsequent roles in West End musicals brought him to a new and broader audience. Several successful television appearances, including ice-skating and interviewing film stars, suggested that he would have had a bright future in broadcasting.

Gately was born in the working-class Sheriff Street area of Dublin, the fourth of five children (four sons and a daughter) to painter and decorator Martin Gately and his wife Margaret. He was 17 when he joined Boyzone, having answered an advertisement placed by local entrepreneur Louis Walsh. The fast-talking Walsh had observed the huge success of Take That (an outfit itself modelled on American boyband New Kids On the Block) and was seized with the urge to launch an Irish equivalent. After auditioning 300 hopeful applicants, including future Hollywood star Colin Farrell, Walsh settled on a prototype six-piece line-up. Only a day after their formation, the group were hastily shoved in front of the cameras on RTÉ's The Late Late Show, dancing to a pre-recorded backing track, in a performance that later on brought blushes to the participants' faces.

After some reshuffling, Boyzone settled into a stable five-piece format, featuring Gately alongside Ronan Keating, Shane Lynch, Mikey Graham and Keith Duffy. They smoothed away the rough edges by performing in clubs across Northern Ireland, and signed a recording contract with Polygram in 1994. Their first single, a version of the Four Seasons favourite Working My Way Back to You, with Gately sharing lead vocals, was a No 3 hit in Ireland. Their first British hit was a cover of the Osmonds' Love Me for a Reason, included on their debut album Said and Done, which topped the charts on both sides of the Irish Sea. A Smash Hits award for best new act duly followed, along with further hits including Key to My Life and a version of Cat Stevens's Father and Son. Their first chart-topping single came at the end of 1996 with Words, a perfect seasonal confection of heartrending melodic slush.

Boyzone had entered a golden period of hit-making, enjoying huge success with the albums A Different Beat (1996) and Where We Belong. The latter included their bestselling single No Matter What, which won them Song of the Year in 1998 and was later recorded by Meat Loaf. A greatest hits collection, By Request, followed in 1999, but this was the year when cracks began to show in the Boyzone facade. Keating made his first solo single, When You Say Nothing at All, and Gately sent shockwaves through Boyzone's mostly female fanbase by announcing that he was gay. The story broke in the Sun, under the headline "Boyzone Stephen: I'm gay and I'm in love", detailing his relationship with Eloy de Jong from Dutch boyband Caught in the Act. Gately apparently went to the paper to pre-empt the story being sold by a former Boyzone employee. "This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do but I owe it to our fans – as well as myself – to be completely honest," the singer said. Walsh told the Irish Independent that he probably would not have selected Gately for Boyzone if he'd known he was gay, because "it wasn't cool then to have a gay guy in a band".

It was an opportune moment to launch a solo career, and Gately's debut single New Beginning reached No 3 in the UK charts. The ensuing album of the same name included a version of Bright Eyes, which was used in a new TV version of Watership Down, and I Believe, which featured on the soundtrack of the film Billy Elliot. Yet curiously, Gately was dropped by Polydor in May 2001, despite the fact that his third single, Stay, was still in the charts. He confessed he had experienced a period of depression after separating from Boyzone.

Nonetheless, the future looked bright. At the end of 2002 Gately took the lead role in a new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which played in Liverpool over Christmas and went to London's West End in February 2003. By now, he was in a relationship with businessman Andrew Cowles, whom he had met through mutual friends Sir Elton John and David Furnish. The couple held a commitment ceremony in a Las Vegas chapel in 2003, and in 2006 entered into a formal civil partnership in London.

Gately was back on stage as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium in 2004, and after regional appearances in Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz, he joined a touring production of Godspell in 2007. His television work included appearances on Five's All Star Talent Show and ITV's Dancing On Ice, and he was a regular presenter on the Film24 channel.

In 2008, once again inspired by the example of Take That, Boyzone reformed. A major British tour was blighted by poor ticket sales, though they managed to trigger a whiff of controversy with the video for the single Better, where Gately appeared embracing a fictional boyfriend.

Gately died in his sleep while on holiday with Cowles in Majorca. The cause is so far unknown, though Spanish police say there are no suspicious circumstances. Gately had been working on a novel for children, The Tree of Seasons.

• Stephen Patrick David Gately, singer and entertainer, born 17 March 1976; died 10 October 2009


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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