Words: Will Stroude; Images: Supplied
“Just going into the band, one of the first things that was said to me [by management] was ‘You’re not gay are you? Because if you are then you’ll be called Union Gay’. And that stuck with me…”
Ten years is a long time in pop music, even if it does seem like only yesterday that Union J were being propelled to fame on The X Factor in 2012 on a post-One Direction wave of renewed boyband hysteria.
After finishing in fourth place, George Shelley, Jaymi Hensley, Josh Cuthbert and JJ Hamblett were promptly signed by Sony Music subsidiary RCA Records and released four Top 10 singles and two albums between 2013-14, with magazine covers and merch deals flowing in abundance before the pop rollercoaster came to an all-too-abrupt end.
Despite boasting an out and proud gay member in Jaymi throughout their time in the spotlight, the group’s youngest star George was secretly suffering in silence when it came to his own sexuality, coming out publicly shortly before departing the group in dramatic fashion in early 2016.
Union J carried on for another two years as a trio and released a third record before Josh too decided to leave, but the unexpected events of 2020 and lockdown provided the opportunity for the foursome to reconnect and plot a comeback with a planned 10-year reunion show at the London Palladium on 28 May.
Now with two out and proud gay members, Union J are ready to finally shine authentically as a foursome for the first time as they prepare for a musical comeback on their own terms. With a case of Covid-19 rendering JJ temporarily out of action, Attitude caught up with George, Jaymi and Josh ahead of the reunion show to find out what led them to this point, how label execs and media pressure contributed to George’s fear of coming out publicly and Jaymi’s fear of expressing himself freely, and how Josh and JJ have remained fierce allies throughout...
It’s great to see you guys back together – how long has this reunion been in the pipeline?
Josh: It’s always been in the pipeline… we always kind of knew it was going to kind of happen at some point, it was just when. We’ve obviously been apart for six years and the 10-year anniversary just felt like the perfect time to get back together. It happened so quickly, Jaymi started talking to us individually and kept the conversations going and it just felt right.
Jaymi: I think the universe just aligned for us all where we had the pandemic to just work on our personal relationships without work or anyone being able to do any jobs, so that when everything started lifting we were all so eager to get back. Like Josh said it was just a whirlwind. It’s exciting.
George: It’s been amazing, everything across social media has been awesome. The reaction’s been insane.
Can fans expect new material?
George: Yeah, for sure. We’re writing next week together, we’re going to be in the studio.
Jaymi: I think the aim for all of us is of course music. It was kind of like the missing piece I think: back in the day we never spend enough time actually working on writing music and being musicians. Even if it never [goes] anywhere, at least you’re in the studio and working as musicians, not just as people who are the face of dolls. I think this time round is what all of us really want to do. I haven’t missed sitting at Hamley’s signing dolls, I’ve missed being in the recording studio writing songs! And I think I speak for everyone on that.
George: Our voices together have always been a good blend for us and that’s something we never really focused on with our music. We were put into a deal and a lot of our songs at that time were pre-written but as a group and four tones, sonically, we just blend together and I feel like for the first time ever we can appreciate that as a band. We want to harness that and show people what we can do vocally.
I picked up your old 2013 Attitude cover earlier. When you look back at moments like this, what do you associate with that time now you’ve had a few years to reflect on the whirlwind you went through?
Josh: You’ve literally just answered the question in the question: it was a whirlwind. It was just insane, it was so busy, so hectic. I think the thing that we want to do this time round is not take everything for granted [and] actually live in the moment, enjoy it. Last time it was so full-on that you just thought this would last forever. This time, we’re going to be grateful and only do the things that we want to do, not fill our days with stuff that we don’t enjoy or that aren’t good for our mental health. I think it’s good because it’s going to be on our terms this time. I look back on the old days with great pride now, but it also makes me feel very tired!
Union J on the cover of Attitude, June 2013
Jaymi: That Attitude cover, I remember going into a shop when I was 14 and putting an Attitude inside another magazine and taking it to the counter so they wouldn’t know what magazine I’d bought. That I was on [the cover of] Attitude was like the biggest bucket list tick, but at the time we were so rushed and we didn’t have time to feel proud and be like ‘Oh my God, this is massive for me’.
Of course, one of the things that’s amazing about you guys as a foursome in 2022 is that you have two out gay members. George, during Union J’s initial time together you weren’t out publicly; you came out shortly before leaving the band. Does that affect how you look back on back on those years now?
George: Yeah, massively. On the one hand I do think it would have been a very different experience had I been able to be out during the whole experience, but looking back I know everything happened for a reason, and that was my journey. I can appreciate the people I did have. I was able to talk to Jamie about things and although there was some crazy stuff going on I did have a good support bubble around me and I could be open with the boys. We are so close that that didn’t really matter to anyone at that time, and I was still learning and finding my feet in the world anyway, so it wasn’t something that was massively an issue for me at the time. But definitely looking back at it I feel like it would have been different, and I’m so happy that this time around I can just be myself and enjoy everything about it, and I’ve not got to worry about people trying to out me in the press and stuff like that.
Josh: With George right, when people are saying ‘what’s changed now, what’s different?’ it’s actually George being so comfortable in his own skin and feeling like he can be himself; that’s a huge change this time round. For me being a straight guy, it’s so nice to see George being able to be himself and not feeling insecure about having to be the guy that all the girls fancy and all the girls chase after. It’s nice to see him be his authentic self. That's the biggest change for me and that just helps with the dyanmics of the band as well because people don't feel like they have to be a certain way anymore. We're all our normal selves that get on really well. I’m really proud of George for that. It makes me sad when I think back [to a] time in the band George may not have been able to open up to me about his sexuality.
Jaymi And vice-versa, from a gay man’s perspective for you Josh as well, there’s a difference in you and JJ now in the way the straight men can be so much more open about their feelings. Even as the completely Pride flag-waving, hell-bent gay Suffragette that I am and always have been, even I wouldn’t necessarily have talked about my issues. I was always out and never had an issue talking about that, but I didn’t in our workspace and in our friendship because none of us really knew at that time how to approach that subject.
Josh: I was playing football recently a few months ago and a guy on the other team did a bad tackle on one of my mates and he said ‘Oh get up you p**f’ and that really pissed me off. I called him out straight away and was like ‘why are you using terminology like that?’ and I think I have a role as a straight guy in this world to call out homophobic comments like that. Words like that need to go from the vocabulary that men in particularly, straight men, have. It’s not acceptable.
Jaymi: That’s the biggest thing: it’s not our role, it is your role. I love that you said that.
So George, [your sexuality] was something you hadn’t discussed with the guys at the time?
George: It always shocks me because I just always felt like they knew, because they knew me. It was obviously a big part of me and I just feel like it was something that was obvious. Jamie, you said it once.
Jaymi: I knew. You were young… I thought this poor kid is in this position where he can’t come out. Like, I’m out and I felt massive guilt because I’m happy living my truth here and this poor kid can’t. I felt it was my moral duty to be a safe space for George to learn. I learned about being gay from being 14 and sneaking into gay bars… George didn’t have that opportunity so I thought it was very important to give him a grounding space to learn about himself and find who he is without the pressure.
Josh: George, it didn’t come into my mind about my sexuality ever, because to me you’re just George.
Jaymi, you came out as soon as you broke through on The X Factor during a period that felt like a real turning point for the days of closeted contestants and closeted boyband stars. It’s interesting that despite all that, George still found himself in that same position while in the band.
Jaymi: I remember you George being like ‘Oh my God, I feel like places are going to out me. I went out last night with friends, I was at a gay bar…’ and I was like ‘How is this conversation [still happening]?!’ I was given such a safe space by the media to do it: I didn’t want to do the whole white t-shirt on the front of The Sun with the sad-looking face, ‘My trauma of being a gay man’ like so many other gay boyband members had to do. I didn’t have to do that… but George’s [coming out] would’ve been that. Had George done an exclusive they would’ve run with this whole thing. But hold on a minute, like you said, the contradiction from two years ago, you’ve just done this [piece] with me, Rylan, Christopher Maloney, Lucy Spraggan, Jade Ellis; six or seven of the whole cast of The X Factor were gay, but yet you want to pick on this one boy to make him outed. Like, where’s the media’s head in that? I don’t understand it.
And George, how did that feel from your perspective?
George: A nightmare. Just going into the band, one of the first things that was said to me [by management] was ‘You’re not gay are you? Because if you are then you’ll be called Union Gay’. And that stuck with me. That was like the first conversation I had before Judge’s Houses. I’ve spoken about it a lot with different people over the last ten years and there were things involved of the market we were selling to and what it meant to fit into that.
Josh: I remember going into our management offices and I remember the conversation about how I was in a serious relationship with Chloe and was going to get engaged and married; Jamie was obviously gay, George [was] gay, and JJ had a baby, and I remember the sort of vibe of the meeting was ‘Look, this isn’t what boybands do’.
George: [laughs] Yeah, we were all in trouble.
Josh: That was the vibe that was given and I think that was probably a reason George felt that pressure of not wanting to ‘let the labels down’, the management down, the project down…
George: The craziest thing is these are the unique things about us that make us so amazing, and they’re the beautiful parts of Union J. I think being able to be that and be able to fully embrace who we are is going to be way more special than fitting into the mould of what it means to be in a boyband.
Jaymi: I would also put a lot of the onus on the media as well. I massively felt a huge shift when I came out from the mainstream media of being non-desirable. When I came out as gay, my weight was brought into it a lot more, being the ‘fat, gay one with the high voice’. The mainstream media were promoting this idea at the time that you can’t be desired [as a gay man], that it’s all about being straight and sexy. Like, what the fuck is that about?
George: It’s just made me think Jamie about whenever there was a girl in my life, whether it was Jesy Nelson or the Selena Gomez stuff or Ferne McCann, everyone instantly jumped to it being a relationship thing because that’s what they wanted it to be, but I just ended up becoming best friends with them.
Jaymi: Thank f**k the world has shifted now and we have got a place where being your authentic self is what’s important. I felt like I was a bad gay when I was in Union J… I kind of came out and then became a straight man, down to my image. My image was so made straight by the people that I was working [with]… ‘Jamie why don’t you go and get some All Saints boots and dress a bit more like Josh and model yourself on what JJ and Josh are doing, because they’ve got more followers than you’. So I stopped wearing my hair blond and wearing clothes that were a little bit more camp and became a gay man that looked like a bad straight man. Someone I’m so proud of at the minute is Olly Alexander: I think many gay men in the industry go ‘maybe I wish I’d had the guts to do what he did’. He’s really out there. Lil Nas X, these people now are really out there and unapologetically not caring, and that’s getting some credence now. I think the public want it, I think it’s the people in the suits, the execs, they need to quickly wisen-up to this fact.
Does it feel like you guys are in control now and can bring your true authentic selves to the band in a way you perhaps wish you could’ve a decade ago?
Josh: This is our project now, which is really nice. This is our band, no one else’s.
George: And everyone who’s invested in it are fully emotionally invested in it and want to see us do well and believe in us, which is the first time I feel like that’s happened. You very rarely see that in this industry, where people want to back you because they believe in your passion and your love for it.
What does the future hold for Union J?
George: For me, and for some of the boys I reckon as well, if we can put our experiences down on this journey we’ve been on together into a song, or into some songs, or a format that we can really share how much love there is between us, but also some of those experiences we went through that a lot of people do also go through, I think that’s going to be a really good thing for this year. To be creative and put all this energy and experiences in o music. I’d love to do that this year with you boys.
Josh: For me, 2022 is the first year of being a band and being free to do what we want, when we want. For me this is all about the foundations of hopefully a really exciting – I’m just going to say it – next ten years together, where we can dip in and out of the band, tour more on our terms, see all the fans and release music when we want.
Jaymi: For me, 2022 is [about] enjoying this experience authentically this time round, for me that’s all it’s about: Actually seeing what being our true selves and having a reason for doing [it] this time round will lead to. And if it doesn’t work, we did it the real way this time, we did it correctly.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Union J perform a 10th anniversary reunion show at the London Palladium on Saturday 28 May. Book tickets at livenation.co.uk.