Watching his former bandmate Robbie Williams conquer the world should have filled Gary Barlow with brotherly pride – instead, their intense rivalry meant he was consumed by feelings of shame and worthlessness that rocked his mental health for years to come.
Opening up about his three-decade career, the 52-year-old admits that Robbie’s exit from Take That, the band’s split, and his rocky attempt to go solo left him in a vulnerable place in the late-90s.
“I remember thinking, ‘Who am I? What do I really think? I’d lost all identity by that point,” he says. “I spent a year blaming myself, a year feeling sorry for myself. There was a shame thing going on with me, which was constantly being reminded by Robbie – who was King of the World at the time.”
Meanwhile, Robbie’s music career was going from strength to strength with his albums dominating the charts – and the Angels singer couldn’t resist taking a pop at Gary any chance he got. “Sorry Gary, but I was always the talented member of the band,” he said when picking up a BRIT Award for Best Song.
“Every time that happened, it would take me six months to get over another version of him saying something and everyone laughing,” Gary says. “So I had some eating disorders along the way. I battered myself.”
Rebuilding his mental health took years for Gary. “I had to start from scratch. It was a very slow climb back,” he emotionally tells BBC Two’s Reel Stories. “I think in the modern day, a therapist would have undone it in about 12 months but it took me five years to eventually come out of it with some kind of light.”
But today, the Take That boys – including Mark Owen and Howard Donald – can look back at the band’s journey with pride and a handful of laughs. Particularly, the boy band’s early days, performing at a school assembly in 1992.
“It was just before we broke through,” Mark, 51, says, cringing at grainy footage of himself with bleached blonde hair. “It was a slog, it was hard work, we were putting a lot of hours in. But it was kind of exciting just to be part of something.”
Take That took off the same year with ‘It Only Takes A Minute’ entering the charts – although Gary admits that it was a “frustrating time” for him.
“Three of my songs hadn’t made the charts. [Our manager] Nigel turned around and said, ‘Listen – they’re not getting your music yet.’
“I felt like I’d failed everyone. I was begging, ‘No, I’ve got another song.’ But Nigel was right.”
Gary says his Take That journey truly started when their first arena tour kicked off later that year, although the relentless hamster wheel of pop music started to take its toll on the band – resulting in Robbie Williams’ exit.
“We were always told you can’t go away for too long, people will forget about you – and people were making a lot of money out of us,” Gary says. “It’s a treadmill that starts going round and round – and really, the first person who got control of it was Robbie because he left.”
Howard regrets not checking in on Robbie before his shock solo move. “If you look back at that whole situation of him leaving, he’d obviously had enough. In hindsight, you do wish you’d spoken to him the next week – ‘Listen mate, we’re about to go on tour, is everything alright?’”
Despite promising fans that the remaining four – including Jason Orange – would be sticking together, the stress of Robbie’s exit led to the band splitting in 1996. “It was such a massive thing that had happened to us, it was almost like being part of a traumatic event,” Gary reflects. “It was so big, I just think we had to get away from it.”
And it wasn’t long before Gary, Mark and Howard each embarked on solo careers – but none of them could match Robbie’s ever-growing success.
“I probably did three or four gigs and there was just no one there,” Howard reveals. “I didn’t even feel comfortable in the skin of a solo artist and knowing what to say to these people. It didn’t feel right.”
Luckily, the boys were pulled out of their funk when the band – minus Robbie – reunited for a documentary in 2005 and reformed Take That. “The one thing I identified in everybody was fear and it’s not only me who’s scared of this thing that’s spat us all out,” Gary remembers. “I felt stronger immediately. At that point, that was my first day in a band. I’d spent the 90s trying to get away from it but this was my first day in Take That.”
Their past struggles and adventures became material for new songs – and the foursome channelled “10 years worth of pent-up emotions” into what became their comeback hit Patience the following year.
“I felt in many ways it was us discovering ourselves again,” Mark says, with Gary adding; “We were a little bit cut and a little bit bruised and it was alright. It was time to put it down and document it forever.”
After winning old fans and their new families back with albums ‘Beautiful World’ and ‘The Circus’, the unthinkable happened – Robbie Williams returned to the band. Howard admits that he was “nervous” to work on their reunion album ‘Progress’ with Robbie. “I didn’t think he was going to be very giving in his writing but he was. He was so giving.”
The full crew went on to tour again in 2011 and had “an amazing time” – however, that would be the end of the road for Robbie and surprisingly Jason with Take That. “If I go back now, us all being back in a room together was probably Jason’s dream,” Mark says.
“He said he wanted to draw a line under it. We were adults and we spoke a lot about everything but there was no changing his mind. He wanted to distance himself from everything really,” Howard adds. “I felt quite hurt by it – but at the same time, I really understood it.”
Gary, Mark and Howard made the “scary” decision to go ahead as a trio – and have since released two albums, completed three tours and performed at King Charles III’s coronation.
“This was mental for us – we were honoured to be there,” Gary says as the teary-eyed trio watch back their royal performance, the first time they’d been on stage together in five years.
Howard adds, “I was very nervous and I remember when the choir came out and I started thinking, ‘I’m going to lose it here. If I’m blubbing, I’m not going to be able to sing.’”
With their ninth album – their third as a trio – about to come out, Take That are stronger than ever. But in the words of their own hit song, they’ll never forget where they’ve come here from. “It feels like our band now, and that band is Jason and Robbie as well,” Mark says. “Even though they’re not here, they’re in our band as well.”
Reel Stories: Take That airs Saturday 25th November at 8:30pm on BBC Two.
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