After five nights of concerts at London's Wembley Arena, the office of Westlife tour manager Anto Byrne looks like a thrift shop, with piles of gifts from stuffed animals to underwear: boxers, briefs, Calvin Kleins, a pair that says "BABE MAGNET." Enough, says Byrne, so that "none of us ever have to buy it ourselves."
In less than three years, the Westlife guys-Nicky Byrne, 22, Shane Filan, 21, Kian Egan, Mark Feehily and Bryan McFadden, all 20-have become fixtures atop the charts and on girls' bedroom walls from Slovenia to Singapore. Guinness World Records 2001 lists the Irish fivesome as the only group to have had its first seven singles enter the British charts at No. 1. But Westlife's squeaky-clean look and ballad-driven charms haven't worked everywhere. "We may be the biggest band in some parts of the world, but we want to make (hit) records for Germany and America as well," says Westlife manager Louis Walsh.
What to do? Some clues are in their Coast to Coast tour, now wending its way through the U.K. and Ireland before heading to northern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South Africa. First, Westlife has ditched its sedentary ways. In the past, the five would perch for a verse or two of each song on stools before springing up in a burst of key-change energy. "You can understand why five big lumps sitting on stools was perceived not to cut it," says Alex Needham, an editor at the music magazine NME.
The big question is whether stylistic tweaks will. The guys have added dance moves, promised more up-tempo songs, and redone their hair. But is that enough to propel Westlife into the global pop pantheon alongside the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, the cream of the teenybop crop?
When Westlife did a U.S. promotional tour last year, their record company, Arista, "tried to break us as an Irish Backstreet Boys or an Irish 'N Sync," says Byrne. "It wasn't right for what we are." Which is? "A ballad band" that can mix it up musically with racier songs like their forthcoming single, When You're Looking Like That.
Famous nonfans-from Spice Girl Mel C to Damon Albarn of the band Blur-have slammed Westlife for everything from not writing their own songs to being pawns in a giant game of pop marketing. To be fair, the group isn't pure manufactured pop. Feehily, Filan and Egan are old friends who shared a classic teenage band experience, singing covers and dreaming of stardom together in their hometown of Sligo. (Byrne and McFadden won their spots in auditions.) But given the hostility within the industry, "I wouldn't blame the general public for not taking us seriously," says Feehily. "The things some pop acts use to promote themselves are anything but talent."
Westlife believes it has the talent, even if that's not always enough. Pop music these days depends as much on hype as harmony. Of their current transatlantic push, says Filan, "We just have to get to every corner of America, keep promoting ourselves and do TV over and over."
The group is gambling that British audiences will stay loyal, a brave bet considering the fickle nature of its largely teen and pre-teen following. Warns Karina Brandt, founder of the Westlife Fans United club: "Being a fan means being in love. The spark needs nourishment to be kept alive." Which isn't easy to do from the other side of an ocean. Westlife's edgier "new" look may also disappoint those who think of the guys as the sweet, identically dressed boys next door. That image "isn't very accurate, to be honest," says Egan. By all accounts, the guys have a wilder side and enjoy their late nights out. As for the wardrobe, when the group started out, stylists told them what to wear. Now, says Egan, "it's gotten to the stage where I'll say, 'I'm going to wear what's me.' It's as simple as that."
Cracking new markets isn't quite as easy as declaring stylistic independence. Perhaps it's some comfort then that Westlife fans are as generous with thoughtful advice as they are with underwear. Take Ashley Laurie, a 14-year-old who was at all five of the Wembley shows in March. If you ask her, and even if you don't, she'll tell you what Westlife has to do: Get rid of the leggy, female backup dancers. "They're poo!" she declares. "But if they need a replacement, my last name's L-A-U-R-I-E and my phone number is ..." Got that, guys?
-With reporting by Jumana Farouky and Hugh Porter/London