"Can you just wrap your hand around Lola a bit more?” asks photographer Tim Bret-Day. “Really grip her.”
Oritsé Williams happily complies, sliding a leather-gloved hand around the model’s milky white thigh, inching up her dress, just a touch further. “You’re an expert,” says a stylist.
“I’ve done it enough times,” says 25-year-old Oritsé.
It’s just a whisker past 9am and the boys of JLS – Marvin Humes, Aston Merrygold, JB Gill and Oritsé – are sveltely suited and booted sitting all in a row while Amazonian blonde bombshell Lola reclines across their laps (the dress is soon ditched in favour of lingerie). She clutches JB’s calf, one leg resting on Marvin’s neck, her chin tilted back in faux-orgasmic ecstasy. Meanwhile, JLS work their angles, moving minutely with each click and flash; Marvin cocks an eyebrow, smiling with his eyes like a pro. Tyra Banks would most certainly approve.
Afterwards the quartet crowd round the photographer’s monitor. JB’s so stoked about the results he wants a couple of prints for himself. It’s not the sort of shoot they’d normally take part in. JLS are a boy band whose fanbase is largely made up of young girls; their choreography sometimes involves miming heartbeats and each member has their own colour. Aston, for instance, is blue. If you’re judging popularity by the amount of blue JLS T-shirts sold, he’s outstripping the other three in the swoon stakes. They sing about love, mostly, and sometimes lust, but in a hilariously unsexy manner (sample lyric: “I’m going to turn you on just like a TV”).
Officially, JLS are losers, The X Factor’s 2008 runners-up to Alexandra Burke. But if there’s one thing Britain takes to it’s an underdog. And a successful underdog? Even better. In the past four years JLS have scored five Number One singles, more than any other reality-TV artist, won two Brit Awards and even more Mobos, shifted six million records, and along with Take That and the Spice Girls they’re the only British act to sell out 10 dates at the O2 Arena (that’s 1.25m bums on seats). Dazzling stats aside, JLS are surprisingly switched on, savvy businessmen with writing credits on almost every song across all four albums. One Direction may be the country’s biggest boy band, but they’re at the mercy of Simon Cowell’s fine print, mere ciphers for teenage girls’ damp-palmed desires. JLS are laughing; they’ve got two houses apiece, multiple cars and a work ethic that borders on obsessive.
“We were never supposed to be this successful,” nods 27-year-old Marvin.
Rewind to an hour earlier, JB and Marvin are eating breakfast while Oritsé speaks in earnest, hushed tones with his publicist. Aston is slumped upstairs, in a cozy onesie, catching up on sleep where he can. Yesterday’s itinerary was packed, including the BBC’s annual Teen Choice Awards. When JLS eventually clocked off at 10pm, there were girls waiting to catch a glimpse and grab a snap. When the boys rose at 6am, blurrily piling into cabs heading to this photoshoot, the same girls were camped outside the hotel. This is part and parcel of being a successful boy band: girls banging on plate-glass windows with oestrogen-fuelled ferocity, sneaking into their hotel at 1am and setting off the fire alarm so JLS are marshalled out wearing nothing but shorts. One girl went as far as hiding in a suitcase in the hopes of getting slung on their tour bus.
“They just know everything and I’m like, even I don’t know where I’m going to be at this time!” says Aston, now awake, but still in his onesie. Ask the 24-year-old if he’s ever felt that fanatical about anything in his life and he shakes his head: “I don’t get it, but it is nice.”
As they prepare to release their fourth album, Evolution, a cursory flick through their schedule reveals almost every hour accounted for, every move mapped out till Christmas. Their publicist spies a rare couple of days off and makes a note: “I’m having those!” Recently they were invited to Usher’s birthday, rolling into bed at 4am before waking up two hours later to kick off a day of promo.
“It was amazing!” says Oritsé. “We were all dancing in a circle and Usher – who is one of my biggest inspirations – willed me to go in the circle and do my thing. He was like, ‘Yo Oritsé! You can cut it down, homie!’ I couldn’t believe I was performing in front of Usher! He’s been consistent in his career and worked hard on his craft. That’s very important. I love what I do and the best way to show gratitude is by getting better and improving and being more exciting.”
It’s pretty standard JLS – they play hard – but they’re deadly serious about their careers. Although no longer part of Simon Cowell’s machine, the group have learnt how to behave like 21st century mainstream pop pin-ups. They’re super-friendly – but not disingenuously so – flash broad smiles and deliver upbeat, on-message answers, no matter how few winks they’ve clocked up the night before. The hectic pace clearly suits them.
“We’ve always said we want to do 10 albums, one every year, and there’s no reason why we can’t do that,” explains Marvin. “Look at Rihanna: she’s done seven albums in seven years and she’s a solo artist and an international superstar, arguably, the biggest artist in the world. And there’s four of us. We write individually, we write in pairs, so for every album we write 50, 60, 70, 80 songs sometimes. We can get a lot of work done and none of us are shy of working.”
For Evolution the band have assembled a crack team of top-notch American songwriters and producers including Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Mr Bangladesh and Midi Mafia, who between them have helped create smashes for Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Whitney, Britney and Bieber. A calculated ploy to break America?
“For us it’s more about breaking the world,” asserts 25-year-old JB.
Lead single Hottest Girl in the World Right Now is far and away the best thing JLS have ever done. A lean, super-slick cut of electro-R&B, full of Michael Jackson-esque falsettos, jagged chords and jittery, hand-clapped syncopation; it’s the sort of future-pop that Justin Timberlake would’ve been keen to put his name to if he was still in the game. For JLS’s fourth album they’ve switched up their stylist too, rocking black leather jackets and Converse in an approach that’s cool rather than cheesy. There’s not a plunging V-neck or exposed ab in sight.
And it’s not just the dress code. JLS are getting more confident, and with it more explicit. Dessert, for instance, references Silk’s 1993 hit Freak Me and pulls in elements of New Jack Swing – that late-Eighties, early-Nineties genre of American R&B that included Boyz II Men and Jodeci, both formative influences and the inspiration for their name – “Jack the Lad Swing”.
So what’s Dessert about?
Marvin: “What do you think it’s about?”
Aston: “Licking a girl out!”
Marvin: “I wanted her to say that!”
Oritsé: “Desserts are usually aphrodisiacs, so I think it works well having sex and dessert in a song.”
Do you think sex and foodstuffs is a good thing?
Oritsé: “Sex is a dessert.”
Now that’s a conversation I didn’t expect to be having with JLS, let alone at 8.46am. It’s a long way from the straitjacketed world of X Factor.
If there’s one thing that JLS believe has stood them in good stead in terms of surviving X Factor and succeeding beyond it, it’s that their foundations are rock solid. The boys formed in 2007 and spent a year toiling away, rehearsing every moment they could manage, setting up photoshoots, booking gigs, knocking on the doors of labels and producers, all the while holding down day jobs and studying. During those 12 months they made some inroads, including winning Best Unsigned Act at the Urban Music Awards, but for JLS – then called UFO, an abbreviation for the fantastically camp Unique, Famous, Outrageous – success simply wasn’t coming fast enough. Auditioning for X Factor was their make-or-break moment.
“You’re saying, ‘Oh, you only tried for a year’, but you have to remember that at the time no one was interested in boy bands,” says Aston. “Now it’s a different thing because there’s so many of them, but that’s after we set the benchmark. For that whole year people were like, ‘There’s not one boy band around in the world right now, so why would we take you?’”
And he’s right. Bar Take That – long established and who have since moved into “man band” territory – the musical landscape was a barren of fresh-faced boy combos. In 2007 Leona Lewis, Rihanna and the Sugababes dominated the charts.
“You could call it destiny, you attract certain people in your life if you’ve got the right kind of spirit,” says Oritsé, the group’s founding member. “When I met the boys we all shared the same goal, we never slacked, no one was lazy.”
Marvin whips out his phone and shows me an interview with his local newspaper. He’s 13 and grinning, above him a headline proclaims: ‘In five years’ time I want to win best newcomer at the Brits or the Mobos.’ “It took a little bit longer than I expected,” says Marvin, “But we won both!”
“My mum used to tell me, ‘No matter what you do in life, someone has to be first, so why can’t it be you?’” says JB. “A lot of people say, ‘I want to release music but it’ll never go to Number One’, or ‘I want to go to the Grammys but I’ll never win an award.’ Why not? To me, it’s all possible.”
“When we started we were young and bold and there wasn’t even a flicker in our minds that this might not work,” says Oritsé. “For some reason, and it might sound a little bit arrogant, in our heart of hearts we all believed that something was going to pop.”
For Oritsé there was another motivating factor. His mother, Sonia, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 11, at which point he became the man of the house taking responsibility for his mum and his younger siblings. By the time he was at university studying music management he was also holding down three jobs. Music was his expressive outlet, but he was also keen to make it his means.
“My mum is my inspiration for everything,” says Oritsé. “There’s no other person that drives me as much as when I think of her. I just try and do whatever I can to make her life more comfortable and easier. My mum always tells me there’s people in much worse positions and we’ve got to be thankful for anything we do have and just deal with it.”
These days she’s in a wheelchair and her eyesight is failing but Oristé says she’s strong in spirit. Although he finds being away from her tough, the success he’s had with the band means he can provide. Plus, as an ambassador for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, he’s keen to raise awareness. His brothe0r, meanwhile, recently graduated with a degree in biomedical sciences; his lifelong goal to find a cure for MS.
Four years on from X Factor and JLS remain adamant that the reality talent show was the toughest challenge they’ve faced. When Alexandra Burke was crowned the X Factor queen and the cameras stopped rolling, JLS buttoned their blazers and marched into Simon Cowell’s office asking straight out for a record deal. Cowell declined. Although it didn’t seem like it then, timing was absolutely on their side.
“The year before us Simon signed the top three X Factor artists: Leon Jackson, Rhydian and Same Difference,” says Marvin. “Those three acts weren’t very successful in the grand scheme of things so then the next year Simon said he was only signing the winner because I think he was stung in terms of losing lots of money. For us that was a positive: we got a deal with Epic and we wouldn’t have wanted anything different.”
It’s pretty easy to lay a lot of “what’s wrong with modern pop music” at Simon Cowell’s expensively clad feet. It’s not that TV talent shows didn’t exist before him – don’t give him that much credit – but it is scary to see that with each advancing series of X Factor, the desperation in the contestants' eyes becomes even more rabid, the hopefuls are willing to fight tooth and nail, and sometimes physically fight each other for their moment in the spotlight. And it’s never just about people’s ability to sing and dance. Once you get past the car-crash magnetism of the early episodes (featuring as many deluded characters as talented ones), and the real competition kicks off, it’s all soap opera. What pulls in more ratings than a tale of triumph over adversity? These kinds of shows have always been emotionally manipulative, but it’s the increasingly mawkish way X Factor sets out its stall – stories told over an orchestra of carefully calibrated sympathy strings – that’s truly grating.
For six years of the Noughties, reality-show winners had a stranglehold on the UK’s Christmas Number Ones. Who wasn’t thrilled when the 2009 campaign to get Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name to the top spot succeeded? A triumph of real artistry and people power over pop-music-by-committee and mega-bucks marketing campaigns, right? But it’s too easy to make Cowell ?the scapegoat. He contributes and profits from the pervasive fame game, but sitting in front of JLS it’s not hard to be persuaded that the music mogul is a fairy godmother.
“Simon has been fantastic to us so there is no way we can say anything negative,” says Oritsé. “He gave us a massive launch pad and we’ll be forever grateful for that.” And, of course, JLS are unique in comparison to other X Factor alumni in that they’ve taken the opportunity and the exposure and run with it. Far from being pop puppets, JLS appear to be holding all the strings. As Oritsé says: “We’re about the business!” Not one piece of official merchandise makes it’s way to production without their approval, while the JLS Foundation means they’re actively promoting and contributing to a range of charities including NSPCC, Beat Bullying, Ray of Sunshine, Young Carers and the MS Society, to name a few. They are adamant that giving back is vital and I believe them. Touting JLS condoms, each package emblazoned with their individual faces, well, it’s a pretty bold move.
Aston: “Really? It promotes safe sex.”
Well it’s great to promote safe sex, of course, but the joke is…
Aston: “It’s not a joke.”
I know, but I’m telling you a joke.
Aston: “You’re telling me a joke, but it’s not a joke.”
You haven’t even heard it yet!
Aston: “There isn’t one to be told.”
JB interjects: “In the UK we’ve got a serious problem…”
Right, because the UK’s got the highest teenage pregnancy in Europe.
Aston: “And STD rate.”
JB: “Being young guys who influence a lot of that generation, ages 16-25, I think it was important for us. It wasn’t an easy message to carry, as you say, people make jokes about it…”
The joke is you’re actually promoting abstinence because the second a girl whips out a condom packet with your faces on it, sex will no longer be on the cards.
Marvin is amused: “Listen. If that guy’s in the moment, I’m sure he’s not going to mind!”
Oritsé: “You need to get yourself a JLS condom. They’re extra-special. Trust me.”
Aston: “Safe sex is a beautiful thing.”
Out of the four, JB has been in a relationship the longest; he’s been with dancer Chloe Tangney since just after X Factor. Meanwhile, Marvin married Rochelle Wiseman, singer in The Saturdays, over the summer. Two flourishing music careers have meant time together since has been scarce. “Any career and any relationship is tough to juggle,” says Marvin sagely. “Our lives happen to be all over the place, but it’s never really been any different for us. You make it work because of how good you are together and how strong you are together.”
“I’m new to it, being in a relationship ?in this world,” offers Aston, who’s been dating dancer Sarah Richards for just a couple of months. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be, but then it’s still early stages. As with any relationship, that period is exciting.” He may be the back-flipping, light-hearted prankster of the group, but Aston’s trust is hard won. “I’m just built like that, I guess. It’s in my nature, when it comes to women especially.”
Is this based on a particular experience?
“Just based on every experience,” he shrugs. “It’s fine. It is what it is.”
Oritsé is the sole single member of JLS. Not that he’s hurting about his relationship status. Back up at the photoshoot, with a cheeky glint in his eye, he notes: “Being here today and having a sexy model draped over you – it’s a good look and it only gets better.” They dreamed about this as boys. But in the punishing world of pop, JLS know it takes adults to succeed. And, frankly, we’re rooting for them.
JLS: THE WYLDE QUSTIONNAIRE
Do you shave your chests?
JB: No way! I leave mine. Whatever’s there stays there.
Marvin: I don’t have a hairy chest.
Aston: Immac! It’s only a couple of strands. I just like that clean affect.
Who is your celebrity crush?
Oritsé: Nicki Minaj! It’s not just the fact that she’s got a great butt and great cleavage – curves – sorry! And great lips. She’s talented. I’m half Trinidadian and Jamaican, she’s Trinidadian. I just think she’s the sexiest woman, she’s the ultimate. I met her once, we just talked about what I was up to that year. I hit her up on twitter as well. It’s all good!
On your song ‘Have It Your Way’ you sing, ‘You’ve got goods like a corner store?’ What’s your cornershop essential item?
A: Strawberry Pop-Tarts.
What song will you spin to always get the party started?
M: At the moment Niggas in Paris.
Can any of you cook?
A: “I’m good at cooking Mexican food. Chimichanga is a very, very, very lovely meal.”
What film will you never tire of watching?
A: Rush Hour.
JB: Training Day.
O: Shawshank Redemption.
M: Back to the Future II.
When will you become a man band?
JB: Whenever you guys decide to call us a man band. Or when everyone’s married!
Biggest perk of the job?
A: “Free iPhone 5s!”
M: “Free Nando’s every day!”
What do you think of the JLS dolls?
JB: I wasn’t very happy with mine. The second edition was alright.
O: JB’s one looks like Akon, or a Caribbean George Michael!
JB: Ha ha! Wow.
M: The whole doll thing was incredible. Take That and N*Sync did it back in the day. Now it’s massive again. All the boy bands have dolls. We’ve brought that back.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
JB: You know Lucky Number Slevin with Morgan Freeman? They made like 70 replicas of the crystal chess set he plays in that film and auctioned them off. It was about £7k. My dining room has a chess theme.
O: So basically it wasn’t the one that’s actually in the film, but one of the 70.
M: Kim’s really not that impressed!