At the tender age of 21 Jon Lee has led a life most could only dream of. In his short time in the sun he has starred in a number of television series, a film and had a string of hit number one singles all as part of top pop partiers S Club. With the band having gone their separate ways, leaving numerous distressed fans in their wake, Lee is taking the role of Marius in West End long-runner Les Misérables (Palace). Matthew Amer caught up with him to find out just why there ain’t no party like an S Club party.
Another day, another interview. It all seems very run of the mill for ex-S Club (nee S Club 7) heart-throb Jon Lee. During his relatively short career to date – he is still only 21 remember – he has probably taken part in more interviews than Michael Parkinson and David Frost put together. Still, professional to the end he puts on a brave face and struggles through a short chat about his new career direction.
"It has always been my dream to go back to musical theatre."
To some the jump from high-profile pop poser to serious musical actor may seem a bit surprising. Other entertainers that have taken a similar leap have been met with a brand of cynicism usually reserved only for ‘caring’ dentists and ‘truthful’ politicians. But Lee is no ordinary pop star with delusions of stage grandeur. The first successes of his career came in the arena of musical theatre, when he starred as the hungry orphan Oliver! in the West End production, before he had even reached his teens. This experience was the first step on his road to success, but also gave him the foot in the stage door he needed to win his new role of Marius. “I worked with Cameron [MacKintosh] when I was doing Oliver! and always kept in contact. They approached me two years ago when Jo [O’Meara, his fellow band member] and I sang a song from Les Mis at Showtime At The Stadium, but I was doing S Club then. So when I knew that S Club was wrapping up I got back in contact with them and auditioned. It has always been my dream to go back to musical theatre. Les Mis is such a great show. I’m delighted to be here.”
The change from the toe-tapping, hip-swaying feel good funk of S Club’s pop hits to the emotional and emotive songs of Les Misérables is no small step. Other artists making the move from pop to theatre have opted for lighter-hearted shows. Jason Donovan led the way taking his boyish good looks from the teen scene to Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. More recently one of Lee’s contemporaries, Lee Latchford Evans of Steps fame, hand-jived his way across the stage every night playing Teen Angel in Grease. Lee, though, has chosen a less walked and more perilous road. “I wanted to do something very, very different and it doesn’t get more different to S Club than Les Mis. It’s to stretch myself really, just to prove to me that I can do it.” Lee is very aware that he is not the only person he will have to prove himself to though. As is always the way there will be plenty of knockers just waiting for the chance to pull the rug from under his dancing feet. But an old head on young shoulders, metaphorically speaking, he is not fazed by this. “People have this thing that you’ve been in a band so you can’t sing. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s fair enough because there are some people out there that can’t. I know I can do it. Cameron wouldn’t have given me the job if I couldn’t.”
"It doesn’t get more different to S Club than Les Mis."
Although the worlds of pop music and musical theatre don’t often cross paths their spheres aren’t as distant as one might think. Both require the ability to sing and often involve a certain amount of dressing up in clothes that you wouldn’t dream of wearing out in public but are happy to wear in front of a paying audience. There are though, some key differences, carefully pointed out by our man in the know: “[S Club] performed in front of maybe 15,000 people and they were all wearing our T-shirts and scarves and standing on their chairs screaming, whereas here it’s a little bit more reserved.” Oh I don’t know, there’s no telling when an excitable member of the audience may accidentally clap in the wrong place… “Also we did about 18 or 19 songs in [S Club’s] show and all of them had dance routines. Obviously that doesn’t happen here. There are no dance routines.”
For Lee playing Marius in Les Misérables is a return to where he began his career. Having become interested in acting at a young age he won the role of Oliver in the West End production opposite Jonathan Pryce and was a musical star by the age of 12. Although he did not find the pressure of performing to a packed auditorium every night a problem, leaving his family in Devon and relocating to London was tough at such a young age. “I didn’t know London at all, so that was the hardest thing for me.” Following his stage success he won a part in Eastenders “by complete accident really” before auditioning for a place in pop svengali Simon Fuller’s new band S Club 7, an audition he went to “as a laugh”. But theatre is where it all began and where his heart seems to lie. “Theatre is such a great experience and such a great night out. I think there are a lot of people that think ‘it’s not really for me. I don’t think I’d like it.’ But seriously come down and watch the show, or other shows. Just come and see a show and you’ll love it. You’ll get hooked.”
"We didn’t want to finish like sad old gits."
It is probably for his time in S Club that Lee will be best known to young pop fans and students alike. Half a decade at the top of his profession, a record of the year and numerous awards must have made breaking up a difficult decision to come to. “After we’d done the movie it felt like we’d done everything we could do without repeating ourselves. We left on a high at the peak of our career. We didn’t want to start tailing off and finish like some sad old gits. I think we did the right thing to finish when we did.”
Lee speaks like a man who has no regrets about his time in pop’s favourite multi-gendered septet, but does look back with a rueful smile at certain fashion and style choices made while a member of ‘The Club’, a pastime he had plenty of time to enjoy once the media found out the group were splitting up. “Every TV show we went on played back old performances and we looked shocking. I don’t know how we got on, I really don’t, because we looked atrocious! We’d have a dresser go out and buy [their outfits] and some of the things they used to bring back…” You get the feeling that S Club really did have as much fun as they appeared to, even if they did wear ridiculous clothes and have silly haircuts now and again. They also avoided the snares and pitfalls of the tabloid media for most of their careers, preferring a chilled orange juice in a quiet corner of their local pub to the all-night alcohol-fuelled parties of the celebrity circuit. There was really only one occasion that the paparazzi and hacks managed to get their teeth in to them, but that chance was seized on with eager incisors. In March 2001 the three male members of the band, Lee, Paul Cattermole and Bradley McIntosh were found in possession of cannabis in Covent Garden and cautioned by police. In the eyes of the law this was a minor offence but in the eyes of a nation’s parents, who saw the band as their children’s role models, the effect could have been devastating. Thankfully for Lee and the rest of S Club those effects never really surfaced as the incident was dealt with maturely by the band. “I think we did the right thing. Instead of shying away from it and disappearing for a couple of weeks we were straight on TV the next day talking about it. I think that helped. We got a lot of letters from our fans saying that they were still going to support us. It was really nice actually.”
"We looked shocking. We looked atrocious!"
For a man who has been part of one of the nation’s biggest pop phenomena of recent times, Lee is remarkably rooted; no pretensions, diva-like demands or temper tantrums. He seems happy and at peace with his lot in life. Having just broken away from his whirlwind life recording, promoting, touring, and filming with S Club he could have been forgiven for taking a little time off to enjoy himself and relax, but that would not be the Jon Lee way of doing things. “I’ve been working constantly since I was about 12 or 13 years old. I’ve always loved work. That’s all I kind of do really. But I love it though. My life is good.”