Two miles down the rough, untarmacked track, I catch a glimpse of a modest stone-walled cottage. In this narrow, forest-bordered valley, the building stands in quiet isolation, bathed in the pale light of the late-winter sun. I step out of the car. A horse pokes its head inquisitively from an open stable door. The smell of fresh mulch fills my nostrils.
My crunching arrival on the loosely- gravelled driveway hasn’t gone unnoticed. I’m warmly received by a rather curious welcoming committee consisting of a dozen chickens, two geese and one rare and unusual beast indeed: a former member of one of British pop’s most successful boybands.
Abz Love – or, as almost no one’s called him since 1997, Richard Breen – looks every bit the retired Nineties boybander. Wearing a camo-print trucker cap, loose white rugby jersey and low-slung baggy jeans, only his mud-and-manure-caked hi-tops attest to his having spent the past two years in one of the most remote, inaccessible corners of Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales, with only his wife and a retinue of domestic and farmyard animals for company.
As one-fifth of 5ive, the group manufactured with the intention of becoming the male answer to the Spice Girls (by the same team who’d created them), Abz – along with bandmates Sean, Ritchie, Scott and J – sold over 20 million records, after being signed by Simon Cowell. The boys sold out arena tours. They won awards. Every teenage girl in the country had a poster on her bedroom wall of the one she wanted to snog. Every boy knew at least some of the dance moves to ‘Everybody Get Up’. They were phenomenal, untouchable and, as the title of their second album proudly proclaimed, invincible.
Until they weren’t. In 2001, four years after they were plucked from obscurity and thrust into the brightest of limelights, their whole world came tumbling down. Their third album flopped. They were done. And then what? When the fame dries up, and the money along with it, how do you cope? The answer, in the case of many a former boybander, is very badly indeed.
“Hype’s infectious, man,” says Abz between sips of a green smoothie – one of the trappings of his newly organic life. “People get this thing called ‘hypenitis’. You start believing the hype, getting caught up in it.” The chances are you’ll never be touched by this malicious, entirely figurative disease, but for Abz, who was only
17 when he was chosen to leave his home in Hackney and join 5ive, the condition hit him hard. “In the band, I could have anything I wanted. And I’m buying people whatever they want – clothes, jewellery, cars. ‘F*ck it, let’s buy the whole f*cking club a round of drinks.’ I had hypenitis.”
These days, the nearest club’s some 22 miles away. We’re sitting in his living room, the walls a deep, warming crimson. A wood-burning stove occupies the hearth, and five fluffy Pomeranian dogs patrol the small farmhouse kitchen. His partner, Vicky, takes a seat on the armchair next to him. No platinum discs adorn the walls. There are no outward mementos, in fact, of his stratospheric, if short-lived, success.
The internal memories are patchy, too, if for different reasons. “During the band, it was crazy. But after, I took it up a f*cking notch, man – I was a rock’n’roller.” Abz laughs his way through weird and wonderful anecdotes, like the time he did cocaine in a toilet cubicle in Milan with one Oscar-winning actor, or the time he got felt-up at the dinner table by another. These days, memories trickle back to him as he’s mucking out a pig sty, or feeding the chickens. “It’s dreamlike, because I was always f*cked. I went so hard, I wouldn’t even remember the next day what I did, so I’m not going to remember 10 years later. I wake up and think, ‘Oh God, I met so and so,’ and I cherish that day.” He bursts out laughing. “They’re not thinking the same. They don’t give a f*ck about me!”
While that’s not necessarily the case – these superstars of stage and screen may have rather fond memories of partying with the bloke who sang the second verse in Keep On Movin’ – Abz never quite managed the career longevity that his self-diagnosed hypenitis led him to believe he would. Then again, you can name on one hand the number of former boybanders who went on to lead careers as successful as the ones they enjoyed as part of their groups. Let’s play the game: Gary Barlow, Robbie Williams, Ronan Keating, Justin Timberlake. Any more for any more?
With hindsight, it’s easy to see the career car-crash that was coming Abz’s way, but, at the time, planning for the future was the last thing on his or any of his bandmates’ minds. They were all having far too much fun.
Only 20 years have passed, and yet the musical and pop-cultural landscape of the late ‘90s feels aeons away from what it is today. There was no YouTube, no Vimeo, no Twitter takeovers, no Facebook Live. Instead, dominating the charts meant a relentless media schedule. In telly terms, that meant cd:uk, SM:TV, Live & Kicking and, of course, Top Of The Pops. But the real gatekeepers to the charts were the magazines, and the cream of the pop crop was Smash Hits. “We were selling three-quarters of a million copies,” remembers Jordan Paramor, who rose through the ranks of the pop bible from intern to editor. “At its peak, it was something ridiculous like two million copies. Pop was massive: you had Take That, Boyzone, East 17. It was a time when there was still a lot of money floating around.”
Paramor had a front-row seat for the festival of excess that was pop in the ‘90s – before digital and streaming ruined it for everyone. She didn’t just interview the stars, but travelled with them on the bus during the annual Smash Hits tour. “It was a party from the minute you got on the coach to the minute it ended. People would be up all night. It was a fun time.” Did she get the impression that the boys in the bands were living the dream? “Oh God, yeah.”
It was like the last days of Rome: all luxury, excess and extravagance. Only now the gladiatorial feats of the colosseum were being played out on Saturday morning TV in front of Cat Deeley, Ant and Dec. Young men, bare of torso and oiled up to the nines, parading their bodies for the baying crowds. But all it’d take was one downward-pointing thumb, and life as they knew it was over. “I don’t think they allowed themselves to think that [it might all come to an end one day],” Paramor reflects. Even as sales slumped and posters were peeled from their teenage fans’ walls, the boyband’s nonstop schedule – from interview to photoshoot to gig to afterparty, day after day – meant they were shielded from the inevitable.
“Some of them lose touch with reality,” says Paramor. “It’s a whirlwind. When you’re in it, it’s hard to see outside of it.” Then suddenly the dream’s dead. “You don’t get any warning. One minute you’re up there, and the next another band comes along to usurp you.”
“Compared to some previous boybands, I feel like we came out relatively unscathed,” says Tom Parker, formerly of The Wanted, now touring the country as Danny Zucker in Grease. “But the politics of the music industry will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
“The record companies aren’t wheeling out counsellors to help you through this difficult time,” adds Paramor. “They’ve moved on.” The question is, what happens to you?
Hearing 10,000 adoring fans screaming your name, bawling their eyes out simply for the sheer, unbridled joy of being in the same cavernous arena as you, is something few can relate to. But what you do once the screams fizzle out and the tears dry up is equally unfathomable. When you’ve been a Big Deal, can you go back to stacking shelves? Noel Gallagher didn’t think so – it’s the reason he took issue with talent shows like The X Factor – once people have tasted fame, he said, their sense of reality becomes skewed. A ‘normal’ job seems beneath them.
“I remember there was one boyband who weren’t huge, but they did well for a while and were on the Smash Hits tour,” says Paramor. “About a year later, I went furniture-shopping on Tottenham Court Road and one of them was working in the shop. We both avoided each other and pretended we hadn’t seen each other. He looked absolutely mortified. There’s always this thing of: you’re not famous any more, you must be gutted.”
That guy’s one of the lucky ones. A brief dalliance with fame, a few awkward moments surrounded by teak armchairs, and then on with his life. But as the old adage-cum-cliché goes: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
“I’ve seen so many go through it,” says Paramor. “When people stop being famous they feel lost, they don’t know who they are.” And when people are unsure of what lies over the crest of the hill and they find themselves without a map, they tend to follow one of two well-trodden paths. “Often people who’ve been in boybands have either found religion or found alcohol. That feeling of being on stage, it’s hard for people once it’s over, and they’ve had to find a way to deal with not having that adoration.”
It’s a feeling that Simon Webbe, AKA Simon from Blue, knows all too well. At their peak, Simon, Antony, Duncan and Lee released three UK No1 albums, sold 15 million records globally and collaborated with artists including Elton John and Stevie Wonder. Although Blue never broke up, and are still performing today, the band struggled to maintain their early success, taking extended breaks during which members pursued solo projects with mixed success.
Today, Webbe’s career is in rude health. A runner-up run on Strictly Come Dancing signalled a comeback that’s seen him take on a slew of acting roles, and 2017 marks the release of his third solo album. But the intervening years were not without their dark times. “There was a point when I took about four years off,” he tells me over FaceTime from the Essex home he shares with his fiancée. “That’s when I went into heavy drinking, long nights out, sleeping all day, curtains closed, watching DVDs over and over again. The same kung-fu films – the ones where their mouths move, but the words don’t match.” He demonstrates this for me. We laugh.
Then we stop laughing. “And then those thoughts start… Drinking too much and having these thoughts, it’s not a good mix. I used to have thoughts of how I’m going to end it. How do I do this? Do I just jump on my motorbike and take a corner at 70mph and see what happens?” He trails off, looks into the mid-distance and makes a diminuendoing whooshing sound. “I’d get on my bike and still do my 30.” We laugh again.
He talks of a difficult childhood, growing up in poverty, escaping his father, being embarrassed about his rip-off Nike trainers while his mum wore the same old, tattered shoes for years. Then, as a teenager, the exhausting, soul-destroying process of failed audition after failed audition. And finally, out of nowhere, the big break. It was a life-changing moment, but one that Webbe never truly felt at ease with. “I’ve never told anybody this, but I honestly didn’t think I deserved it. I didn’t go through drama school, I wasn’t made for this industry – I wanted to be a footballer – I just happened to be in this group because my face fit. But that’s going to wear off,” he thought. “People are going to look at me and they’re going to see that I’m really a fake.”
That paranoia was with him through all the highs of the sell-out stadium shows and awards bashes, and stayed with him through the lows, taking on a more sinister guise. “Depression starts from there, because you’re being false to yourself. You’re not going in there with a free spirit and believing.”
Fortunately, those dark days are behind him. He credits the moment when he broke down in tears, live on Strictly in front of 12 million people, as the turning point. “I was in hysterics backstage, I couldn’t stop, but afterwards I was like,” he raises his chin, sits up straight, pulls back his shoulders and breathes a long sigh.
“I just felt this weight vanish. Those thoughts were gone.” His focus now, he says, is on the future. On getting his third album out. On progressing his acting career. And gigging with Blue.
“Now it’s about paying the bills. It’s making sure that my daughter’s going to be fine for the future. It’s making sure my fiancée gets the wedding she deserves. I’ve just got different priorities now. I don’t feel I need to impress any more. I mean, if you’re trying to impress, you don’t do f*cking Eurovision, do you?” He gives a loud, relaxed guffaw, referring to the time Blue finished 11th at the annual European cheese-fest. “We were in Lithuania over the weekend. We’re off to Russia and Kazakhstan and all that, where the corporate gigs are – where the money is. All of a sudden, those kids who grew up on our music in these countries are now execs of banks and oil companies, or their dad’s rich and they want Blue at their wedding.”
Far from feeling any shame about this, Webbe seems grateful to still have the chance to make money from music. Three-quarters of Blue, including Webbe, declared bankruptcy by the time they were in their mid-twenties. From Westlife to the Backstreet Boys, bankruptcy’s often befallen the former boybander. But why? They had fame and fortune and everything that goes with it – how do they end up, sometimes mere months later, with absolutely nothing?
“I’ve always looked back and thought: why didn’t anyone tell me to put a pension aside. Go to Ireland, buy a house, it’d set you up tax-efficient. But na, none of that,” says Abz. Back in Wales, we’ve just returned from a tour of the farm. Abz – looking in good health, if a bit softer round the edges than his made-in-the-Nineties moniker might suggest – proudly points out the shrubs they’ve planted, the wood they’ve chopped and the animals they’ve bred. He once held an east London property portfolio worth almost £2m. Nowadays, this one-bed cottage in remotest Wales is all he has to his name. How did it come to this?
The answer is obvious, really: in the days of plenty, Abz was spending money as fast as he was earning it. Often faster. In the early days, it was going on Discmans, MiniDisc players, cars; latterly on booze, weed and cocaine. Never into a savings account.
Vicky peels off her high-heeled Hunter wellies and resumes her seat next to Abz. She’s acquainted with the music industry. A singer herself, she was once managed by Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father, and has just signed a deal to record a classical-crossover album. The way she sees it, the record labels in the Nineties weren’t just neglecting to give their young signees advice on how to spend their money, but were entirely complicit in their financial mismanagement. “In the record business they know that they need to keep these guys needing money, otherwise they won’t go on tour,” she says matter-of-factly. “They want them to stay in a perpetual need of cash, because then they can do a new deal or rejig your contract, and you’re going to sign because you need that 40 grand.”
Abz needed more than that. For five years, while his band were at the top of the charts, money wasn’t an issue. For the five years after that, thanks to the sizable advance from his (eventual flop) solo album, Abstract Theory, and the royalty cheques still rolling in from the band’s biggest hits, the abyss he’d soon fall into remained outside of his sightline. Until, that is, the day he went to buy a top-of-the-range Apple Mac. His platinum American Express credit card, with a limit of £500,000, was declined. Abz was about to become the latest in a long line of former boybanders to taste bankruptcy.
To look at his lifestyle, bankrupt Abz was pretty similar to monied Abz. Though by now technically homeless, he was being put up in a five-star hotel in London by his new agent. Abz had grown to love his new agent, and trust him implicitly. So much so, that when the sale of Abz’s Docklands penthouse went through – to pay off his remaining debts – the £250,000 leftover cash went into the agent’s bank account. “I was bankrupt. I didn’t have a bank account,” explains Abz. “I asked if I could put the money into his because we were close.”
A month went by, then three, with the agent feeding Abz five grand here, 10 grand there. The fresher of the notes he’d iron in his hotel room, then flash and splash them in exclusive clubs. The grubbier would go to his dealer. All his possessions, including his Brit award, were contained within two Louis Vuitton suitcases.
During the next nine months he moved into the basement of a wealthy heiress who offered him sanctuary, as well as all the weed, cocaine and jewellery he desired. “I had no money, but I was [in a] Bentley GT, I was [having dinners at the] Ivy, I was tuxxed-up. That’s the life I was living, but it wasn’t mine. None of it was real. I had no home, no money. This lady saved my life.” She’d placed him on life support, but there was no salvation to be found here. Giving up the life of luxury, when it was all he’d known since he was 17, wasn’t an option. “Some people can get back on their feet, sign on or get a job and become great members of the community. I was more entertaining the wealthy, I guess.”
He was offered lifelines, mainly in the shape of corporate gigs with his old bandmates, but he refused. “I hated 5ive. I f*cking hated 5ive’s music. That period when I was broken, I was like, ‘F*ck 5ive, I don’t even want to talk about it.’ I remember Scott getting in touch saying we’ve got a gig, for 50 grand or something. I said, ‘Na, that ain’t enough.’ That f*cked-up mentality.”
Eventually, the slippery slope turned to a sheer-faced cliff. Abz lost his footing and plummeted to rock bottom. His nadir came on the day that, convinced that his agent had been withholding his money from him on purpose, he took measures into his own hands. “I got myself a gun. I left the house where I was staying – the maids apparently said my eyes were black – but I’d woken up like, ‘I’m done, man.’” He tells me how he was walking down the street, gun tucked into the back of his jeans, moments from his agent’s office, when his phone rang. His representatives were already there. The matter was being resolved in a peaceful manner.
“The universe stepped in my way,” he says with palpable relief. “It stepped in my path and goes, ‘You can’t go this route.’ I was so sick by this point. I was done. I didn’t have any family, I didn’t speak to anyone – my mum, my dad, anyone. I didn’t trust anyone – I was high as a f*cking motherf*cker all day long. Wake up in
the morning, coke, lemon sorbet with f*cking vodka, blazing all day. I was playing this role, but it wasn’t me. Nobody knows this sh*t about me.”
Abz’s road to recovery has been a long slog. He credits Vicky, who he’d had a chance encounter with towards the end of his basement-dwelling days, for rescuing him. His voice softens when he talks to her, and he gazes upon her with a tender combination of love and reverence. She convinced him that he needed to rediscover his mojo and get back to work. In the end, after debt-clearing appearances on Love Island and Celebrity Big Brother, and a short reunion with 5ive (before parting ways once more in 2014), the only way Abz felt he could put distance between himself and his old life was to physically remove himself from London and become a self-sustaining farmer in Wales.
He’s sober now. He’s dabbled with veganism. And after two years, he’s happy. Not only that, but he seems to have come to terms with everything that befell him. “When all the sh*t hits, you hear these sad f*cking stories from popstars. It’s their own fault. It’s not the job of the record company to hold your hand. Take some responsibility! I look back and think, ‘All right, that was some rough times,’ but it wasn’t what the industry did to me – it’s how I allowed it to affect me, or how I didn’t put up certain boundaries or know how to handle myself.”
For now, he’s content to muck out the stable, tend to his vegetables, support Vicky with her album and watch the current crop of boybands go through what he did, from a safe distance. “This is guru Abz talking, yeah: [the year] 2020, One Direction, all of them lot, they’re going to be in the same f*cking boat. I see it happening over and over again. Just history repeating.”
The teary-eyed adoring fans; the bizarre encounters with Hollywood royalty – and with actual royalty – and the awards and endless flowing alcohol; the red-carpet appearances and magazine covers. Abz remembers all of this fondly. He may not have made as much money as he thought he’d deserved, and he certainly didn’t spend it wisely, but to hear him speak, he wouldn’t change a thing. “I just felt so grateful that I was given the opportunity,” he says, smiling at the hazy memory of his 17-year-old self. “And I still am to this day.”