Blue look back: ‘The press said we got millions for this photo – a school friend’s mum rang and asked for £20k’
Antony Costa, Lee Ryan, Simon Webbe and Duncan James are Blue – the R&B-influenced pop band best known for hits such as All Rise, One Love and If You Come Back. As one of the biggest British boybands of the 00s, they collaborated with Elton John and Stevie Wonder before a hiatus in 2005. Then came a flurry of solo careers, an appearance in reality documentary The Big Reunion and representing the UK in Eurovision 2011. The band are back with their sixth album, Heart & Soul, to be released on 28 October.
This was taken on a shoot for Pepsi. Blue didn’t do abs showing or shirts flowing – the styling was just four normal lads. We wanted to appeal to everybody, and it worked: a lot of the audience for our gigs back in the day were men with their girlfriends or blokes on a night out.
I was straight out of school with one drama GCSE, wondering what the hell to do, when I met Lee at an audition for a boyband: Will Young was there, as well as Andy Scott-Lee [3SL] and Declan Bennett [Point Break]. Me and Lee gravitated to each other over our mutual love of Only Fools and Horses, and while he got into the group and I didn’t, we kept in touch. Around that time I met Duncan in a karaoke club called the G-Spot. Lee’s band didn’t work out, so we reconnected and got a manager. Lee goes: “I know this guy called Simon, if you like him, then I think there’s something here.”
Me and Webbey clicked right away. We’re from culturally diverse backgrounds – my mum’s Jewish, my dad’s Cypriot; Simon’s from the Caribbean and grew up in Birmingham – but he’s a clean freak like me. Meanwhile, Lee is like my little brother. If he’s done something stupid, he’ll tell the boys but won’t tell me, because he knows I’ll be disappointed. Me and Dunc have that head honcho thing; I look up to him a lot.
The key to Blue is we try not to socialise too much outside work. When we’re together, it’s magic. But we need that separation. That’s why we’re still here.
I remember two things from this photo: I wanted to look like Hellraiser so I shaved lines in my hair. And the press coverage after the shoot said we got millions for it. We didn’t. But that didn’t stop everyone asking me for money. The mum of a kid I went to school with rang me up and said: “Listen, can you give us 20k?” Even my dad called and went: “Son, you’ve done well! Can I get that motorbike?’’
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I was 17 and in New York on 9/11. The twin towers were crumbling in front of my eyes. I probably had PTSD from it, and then we were sent off to speak to the press. In the end I said: “Fuck New York, fuck it.” I didn’t know what I was saying, and the fallout was awful. The press twisted it. [The Sun printed the headline: “Who gives a f*ck about New York when whales and elephants are dying”.] What people didn’t understand is that I was just a teenager. If it came from a logical, rational adult, I’d understand the hate, but I was still learning about life. The media ruined me. I’m lucky I didn’t kill myself.
At the start of Blue, the papers called me the Bad Boy of Pop – so I decided to own it. I’d chuck myself down the stairs to see who would come and give me attention. It was probably a lot for the rest of the band to handle: when I first met Duncan, we were in a car and I was having an argument with someone on my phone. I ended up head-butting it until it smashed. I looked at Duncan and said: “I’ve broken my phone. Can I borrow yours?” I’m sure he was thinking: “Oh no, I’m in a band with this bloke.”
I’ve calmed down a lot since those days. There was always so much going on behind the scenes, but all of it has made our friendship stronger.
My standout memory from this shoot is that Lee shaved his head. The record label went mad. Other than that, it’s funny to see my body’s gone from a V shape to a dad bod.
I’ve always been the laidback one. I never wanted to get a big head. From the start I considered myself lucky: I was a model who got into a boyband. What made me especially grateful was that I grew up in Moss Side in Manchester. I was around violence; outside my front door there would be drug addicts and dealers. I went from that world to private jets. My feet didn’t touch the ground for years.
As soon as I met Antony, we got on. I shook his hand and he said: “Good handshake! Yeh bruv. You know these people who have flimsy handshakes …” It was like we were kindred souls. We ended up sharing a room – he would get his clothes out for the day before, fold them up and leave them on the chair. So did I. We did everything together. Well, not everything. Some things you don’t want to mix.
As Blue, we’ve had one argument in 22 years. We were in Manchester and had a concert in Birmingham. Me and Antony left on time. The other two went shopping. There was a traffic jam and they were late. We were booed by the audience and fined by the venue, so we didn’t make any money from the gig. Afterwards, we realised a lot of the crew were poking us. From that moment on we decided no one else should be involved in our domestics but us.
I was always experimenting with my hair. I had this brilliant Swedish hairdresser and she was like: “Right, we’re going blond! Let’s do a mullet!” I also had gappy, peggy teeth. It took me a while to realise there was a dentist who could fix that.
After this shoot, I went through a period of not trusting people. I had friends calling up thinking I’d got millions of pounds from Pepsi, when we didn’t even get a fraction of that. It made me reassess my social circle, and I went from being a loving person to a very insecure, paranoid guy who needed antidepressants.
Around the same time I was going through lots of mental issues regarding my sexuality. I didn’t tell the rest of the group I was gay. I just felt: who do I trust? Who do I talk to? I came to the conclusion: nobody. So I kept it all to myself. I look back at this photo and see someone who was not being true to themselves; who was at the peak of their career and loving life with the boys but also carrying this huge secret. I’m not sure how I did it.
As Blue, we’ve got our war scars and we’re proud of them. We’ve been through a lot together: Lee bore the brunt of the press coverage and still does. But he’s got a heart of gold. When we first shared a room I was woken up by this noise at 4am – Lee banging his arm against the wall violently. I asked him what was going on but he couldn’t speak. I was thinking: “This guy is an absolute fucking nutter.” I didn’t realise then but he suffers from really bad night terrors. Shortly after we got a bit more money and were put into our own rooms. Thank goodness.