A manufactured boyband has two objectives. In the short term, it is to sell as much “product” – from albums to dolls – as possible. The longer-term aim is to achieve the kind of fame where the wider public can put names to the members’ faces, thus smoothing the way for post-band careers.
The Wanted, a British-Irish quintet who played a major part in reviving the stagnant boyband sector in the early 2010s, put themselves on the map by charting 10 singles in the Top 10, including two UK No 1s, All Time Low and Glad You Came. The latter was the biggest-selling song by a boyband until One Direction’s debut single, What Makes You Beautiful. Each of their three albums also reached the Top 10.
The singer Tom Parker later remembered their two years at the top as being “like Beatlemania” – an exaggeration, perhaps, but an understandable one. In 2014, when their chart success had run its course, they called a hiatus, leaving each member to find his own solo path. The group reunited in 2021, and discovered that the demand was still there: a best-of album, Most Wanted: The Greatest Hits, gave them another Top 10 in September 2021, and an arena tour followed in March 2022.
If it had been up to Parker, who has died aged 33 of a brain tumour, they would not have disbanded, and he had made it clear he was open to a reunion, but there was a plus side to no longer being one of five laddish heartthrobs. Life in the Wanted, whom he joined after beating 1,000 other hopefuls at an audition in 2009, had been constrictive.
The low-key, witty one of the troupe, Parker was proud of their relative singularity – “We established a great brand as boybands go; we were the catalyst, we were the first boyband not to dance, we weren’t clean” – but had chafed at being “a product … a machine … in pop, the artist control is very limited”.
Once clear of the Wanted, he spent a year in recording studios, learning the nuts and bolts of making records, and emerged as a dance music producer specialising in EDM and house. During that year, he kept his hand in by appearing as featured vocalist on the track Fireflies by the former N-Dubz rapper Richard Rawson, but by the time he was ready to fully relaunch, he had missed the golden hour when being an ex-member of the Wanted would have ignited interest.
Parker released half a dozen tracks between 2015 and 2019, both under his own name and as half of Lost + Found – an EDM production duo in which he was partnered by the former X Factor contestant Ollie Marland – but never hit the charts again. That was something of an injustice, as the 2019 L+F song Ghosted was a fine piece of club-pop.
Between track releases, Parker took the route perennially open to former boy- and girlbanders – reality TV. He appeared on the 2015 edition of Celebrity MasterChef, impressing the judges with his tarragon sauce but ending up in hospital after putting his hand in a blender. In 2016, he finished third in the winter-sports competition The Jump.
Much of 2017 was consumed by playing Danny Zuko in a touring version of Grease: The Musical, for which he won some warm reviews; during the 2018 panto season, Parker was Prince Charming in Cinderella in Llandudno. In the last four years he also appeared with his wife, the actor Kelsey Hardwick, in a vlog series called Meet the Parkers. His primary role was acting the wry foil to the exuberant Hardwick as she documented their lives before and after their 2018 wedding.
Tom was born in Bolton, the younger son of Noreen (nee Roche) and Nigel Parker. An ardent fan of Oasis and Stereophonics, he learned the guitar at 16, and auditioned for the TV series The X Factor the same year. Being rejected was so confidence-sapping that he gave up hope of being a musician, and returned to school. Although he left without passing his A-levels, he enrolled on a geography course at Manchester Metropolitan University, which had made him an unconditional offer.
Parker later claimed that when he joined the Wanted, “pop music wasn’t even on my radar”, but in reality it had been for several years. He had left university after a year to be “Mark Owen” (and occasionally “Howard Donald”) in a local Take That tribute act, and so was practised enough to win a place in the Wanted in the first round of auditions.
Managed by Jayne Collins, who had also assembled the successful girl group the Saturdays, the Wanted reached No 1 with their debut song, All Time Low, and Parker thrived as the lineup’s likable joker. “We were happiest when we were on stage, [but] it was all this shit with politics, the record label and too many opinions that caused friction,” he said in 2018.
In 2020, while Hardwick was pregnant with their second child, Parker was diagnosed with a stage four glioblastoma, a condition that typically affects people aged over 50. In response to his illness, he launched a campaign for greater funding for brain cancer research, telling an all-Parliamentary group in 2021: “for decades on end, they haven’t found better treatments, let alone a cure, for brain tumours”. In September of that year he organised a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which benefited the charities National Brain Appeal and Stand Up to Cancer.
His memoir, Hope, will be published in July. He described it as “about finding hope in whatever situation you’re dealt, and living your best life no matter what”.
He is survived by Kelsey, their daughter, Aurelia, and son, Bodhi, and his parents.
• Thomas Anthony Parker, musician, born 4 August 1988; died 30 March 2022
• This article was amended on 8 April 2022 to include details of Tom Parker’s campaigning and fundraising work for brain cancer research. Some revisions and additions were also made to better reflect the success of his band, The Wanted.