Stephen Gately: A pop tragedy

The pop world was rocked to its core earlier this month with the news that Boyzone's Stephen Gately had died aged just 33.

Ben Sebborn

Date published: 18th Oct 2009

The pop world was rocked to its core earlier this month with the news that Boyzone's Stephen Gately had died aged just 33. The mild-mannered singer, famed for his clean-cut image and devotion to his fans, passed away while at his holiday home in Majorca, Spain, with his civil partner Andy Cowley after a Saturday night (10.10.09) out where they met and befriended Bulgarian Georgi Dochev.

The trio returned to the home together to continue drinking, before Georgi retired to a bed, leaving Andy and Stephen asleep together on the sofa. Andy later woke up and went to bed as well, leaving his beloved partner on the couch. But, the day after, Stephen couldn't be stirred from what was believed to be a heavy slumber, he had slept for the final time in his too-short life never to awake again.

Theories as to why this seemingly fit and healthy young man could just suddenly die began to circulate, but a prompt post-mortem revealed Stephen died from a pulmonary oedema, a build up of fluid on the lungs which is often connected to heart problems.

His family believe he had an undetected heart condition. The singer's mother Margaret Gately told family friend and lawyer Gerald Kean: "As soon as I head he had died I knew it was a heart problem. It has lifted a huge burden off our family's shoulders."

Gerald added: "There is a heart condition on his dad Martin's side of the family. Stephen would have had no idea he had this condition."

Medical experts confirmed the post-mortem tests suggest he may have been a victim of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS), caused by an undetected condition.

Dr. Sanjay Sharma, consultant cardiologist at King's College hospital, London - a leading expert in SADS - said: "The fact they found waterlogged lungs in this young man suggests his heart failed suddenly. That is a heart attack.

"In young people like Stephen, the vast majority of heart attacks are due to either hereditary diseases affecting the heart muscle itself or an electrical fault of the heart."

As soon as the news broke tributes began flooding in for Stephen, with many pop and rock stars amazed that someone so young and seemingly full of life could have passed on.

Boyzone manager Louis Walsh was among the first to pay his respects to Stephen.

He said: "We're all absolutely devastated. I'm in complete shock. I only saw him a few days ago at an awards ceremony. He was a great man."

Louis is currently mentoring the Groups on UK TV talent show 'The X Factor' and was left so devastated following the news he felt unable to take part in that week's programme. He also did not participate in this weekend's shows as he struggles to come to terms with his grief and mourn his friend at his funeral on Saturday (17.10.09).

It was an emotional day. Thousands of well-wishers, most of whom would never have met Stephen, lined the streets and gathered outside the St Laurence O'Toole Church in Dublin, Ireland, to pay their respects, lay flowers and tributes outside the chapel and listen to the service on loudspeakers.

And those who did know him, both privately and from the showbiz world, gathered in their hundreds to say one final goodbye.

As well as Stephen's parents, family and Andy, other mourners included Louis, Jason Donovan, actor Christopher Biggins, the members of Westlife - Kian Egan, Shane Filan, Nicky Byrne and Mark Feehily - Sir Elton John's long-term partner David Furnish and ex-Westlife singer Brian McFadden.

Messages of condolences were also received from George Michael, David and Victoria Beckham, Simon Cowell, Take That, U2, Robbie Williams, Cheryl Cole, Colin Farrell and Sharon Osborne.

Stephen's bandmates - Ronan Keating, Shane Lynch, Mikey Graham and Keith Duffy - bravely took responsibility for many aspects of the service with all of them acting as pall bearers as well as performing a musical tribute to their late friend, a version of Ronan's solo song 'In This Life'.

Ronan - who was Stephen's closest friend in the group - was unable to contain his emotions as he broke down in tears while delivering his eulogy to his "brother".

He said: "The world has lost one of its brightest stars. We have lost a brother and I have lost my wing man. For Stephen, we will carry on but the band will never be the same without him.

"Forever young and never forgotten. A friend, a brother, a son, a husband and a hero. We are going to miss you brother, we love you and we always will. We know you have found peace, perfect peace."

Mikey added: "He brought colour to the band - and that band now feels black and white without him."

After the service, Stephen was cremated at a private ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery before around 450 guests attended a wake at the city's Four Seasons hotel. At the wake his mother Margaret - who was being comforted by her husband, Stephen's father Martin - described him as her "beautiful son" and admitted her life would never be the same again.

She said: "He was a wonderful son - nobody can understand how proud I am of him. A wonderful, beautiful son. This day was a testament to Stephen that he's made an impression on the world and he won't be forgotten. He would have been deeply proud of the turn-out on the streets where he grew up. I hope I brought him up properly and people can realise how amazing he actually was.

"His sexuality wasn't a big deal. I knew he was gay and it wasn't a problem. I loved him no matter what. Now I'm going to love Andy and be there for him. He's one of the family - Stephen loved him with all his heart and he made my son happy."

A London memorial is being planned, but Louis admitted those close to Stephen were "too upset" to focus on it at the moment.

Apart from his family and Andy, Stephen's shock death has hit the remaining members of Boyzone and Louis the hardest.

Just days after the news broke Louis gave a touching interview about Stephen, who he enjoyed a father-and-son type relationship with.

"I have lost my best friend. He didn't change. He would do anything for his fans and he was the glue in Boyzone that kept them all together," Louis said. "He thanked me all the time. He was the only one who thanked me properly. He was just amazing fun, honest, relaxing and so good natured.

"I am completely broken. I just can't get my head around it and don't know how I'll get over it. I've just been walking around in a daze. I'm still in shock."

Louis was closer to Stephen than any of the other acts or singers he managed and the pair used to speak every two days.

He added: "We had some incredible nights out together. We'd always go somewhere fabulous and gossip, have fun, fall around being silly. We were always having a laugh, always.

"Stephen would send me funny texts. He was like a child - he wanted to be loved."

Louis and Stephen met in 1993 when Stephen answered an advert asking wannabe pop stars to audition for a new boy band - Louis was determined to create Ireland's answer to Take That.

Stephen impressed with his sweet singing voice and impressive work ethic, and joined the band.

A day after the line-up was chosen, the group were sent onto RTE programme 'The Late Late Show' to dance to a pre-recording backing track. Billed as the next big thing, they grinned and gyrated in denim dungarees despite not having a song to sing. The performance is still played today, though more to embarrass the group than to show how talented they were.

The boys performed show after show in an effort to hone their routine, and finally signed a record deal in 1994. Their first single 'My Way Back To You' charted at number three in Ireland.

Their first major UK hit was 'Love Me For A Reason', which peaked at number two. More hits, including 'Key to My Life', 'Father And Son' and 'Words', were to follow, although by the end of the decade cracks in the band were beginning to show. In 1999, Ronan Keating released his first solo material.

That same year, Stephen sent shockwaves across the world when he admitted he was gay. With Boyzone's popularity built on their largely female fan base, revealing his sexuality was a brave move. Stephen had no idea whether he would alienate fans or win new ones, but he decided he could no longer live a lie.

"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," he said at the time. "I know this may come as a bombshell to our followers. Many of them may be upset. I only hope they understand how important it is for me to reveal that I am gay."

But his bravery and honesty only made his fans love him more.

In 2000, Boyzone split. Stephen went on to pursue a solo career but failed to make the same impact he had when part of the band, and sank into depression.

Speaking about the period, he said: "I was depressed for three years when the group split. Even when I was doing my solo album, I didn't feel 100 per cent.

"I missed the guys. It was weird being on your own in Asia promoting yourself and not having your buddies there. I had to get help. I was on anti-depressants for a couple of years."

Although his solo material did not excite fans, he carved out a successful career in musical theatre, performing in 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'.

His personal life was also flourishing, with Stephen and Andy holding a commitment ceremony in Las Vegas in 2003. They went on to marry in a civil ceremony in London in 2006.

In 2008, Boyzone decided the time was ripe for a reunion. Although tickets for their comeback tour prompted only sluggish sales, the five guys were thrilled to be performing again and were even discussing recording a new album with Louis at the time of Stephen's death.

But although that album will still be recorded, Stephen will not feature on it, apart from in spirit.

While most boy band members do everything in their power to keep their fans on side, Stephen marched to a different beat. No matter what he was warned about the effect revealing his sexuality would have on his career, he was determined to be truthful to those who were responsible for his success and his fans loved him for precisely that reason.

Stephen will be remembered for his honesty, integrity and stunning singing voice. Few musicians have seemed so amazed at the scale of their success, which makes it all the more tragic that Stephen was taken so soon.

By Hannah Ferrett and Philip Hamilton