H from Steps on JK Rowling, trans skaters in Dancing on Ice, and why the band will never, ever do Eurovision
Ian Watkins, or “H from Steps” as he’s more widely known, has been busy during lockdown. No, he hasn’t gone slightly mad, he’s just been keeping his twin sons occupied with various creative endeavours. Life in the world of a pop dad.
“I literally go from doing the O2 to doing the school run. So yeah, there’s two extremes,” he laughs.
But that’s not all he’s been up to. Steps, as you may have heard, are back. Their new single, the Sia-penned “What the Future Holds”, topped the iTunes chart within an hour of its first play on Radio 2. The album of the same name arrives on 27 November and tickets are selling fast for a 2021 tour.
Their last album, 2017’s Tears on the Dancefloor reached number two and was certified gold. Not bad for a group that started their career 20 years previously with cowboy country-pop stomper, “5, 6, 7, 8”. But stats and Steps facts be blowed – we just want to know how gay the new album is…
“On a scale of… Let me think, Liberace to Kylie…” H laughs loudly. “It’s up there. I mean, it’s got all the bells and whistles, it’s got everything you would expect from a Steps album. I’d say it was probably gayer than usual. The last one, for me, it reminded me very much of Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madonna’s clubby album. Just because there was just kind of banger after banger.
“But this new album goes back to classic Steps. So I would say, like the lyrics say in the new song, ‘One foot in the past, and one foot in the future.’ There’s something for everybody, for the diehards, and for those who’ve just joined.”
So it’s not all bangers – What the Future Holds promises mid-tempos, big power ballads and uptempos “that everybody can join in with the dance moves, of course”. Well, of course. But let’s get right down to business – which one screams poppers o’clock?
“Poppers o’clock? Oh I love that!” he chuckles. “There’s a track called ‘To the One’. I love that one. There’s also one called ‘Heartbreak in the City’, which was written by one of our old Steps writers, Karl Twigg. But there’s another great one, ‘Under My Skin’, which is a big power ballad.”
Poppers o’clock? Oh I love that!
That’s three in case you’re as giddy with excitement as H clearly is about it all. “I am, because we’ve been sitting on this for, like, three years, that’s why!”
While a ‘comeback’ may have been on the cards since they last toured in 2018, it was all due to happen much sooner.
“We were literally ready,” H explains, “the first week of lockdown. Lisa was traveling from Dubai. It was the day after lockdown. So we literally made the decision to pull the single, the album and the tour just to see where the land lay. And now obviously, the word is out there and I think it’s come at the right time as well. People need some hope, you know, some brightness in these dark times.”
Speaking of brightness in the dark, the challenge to make their upcoming live shows bigger – and gayer – than 2017’s Party on the Dancefloor Tour has already begun.
“That was pretty spectacular. We did everything apart from pull unicorns from our arse, right?” he laughs. “We’ve got some funky stuff up our sleeves. We’ve just decided the set designs, the layout, and we’re doing stuff that we’ve never done before on a Steps tour, which is great.
“We’ve got different concepts kind of bubbling up. But this is our baby. This is where we get to have ideas, we put them into a pot, and we have great creatives that actually make them come to life. So this is really exciting.”
Back when the last tour was planned, the group had no idea if their return to pop following a five-year absence would work, let alone if the tour would be successful. A sell-out run of arenas followed.
“I don’t think anybody realised,” he admits. “We didn’t realise the reaction as well. We announced the tour before we even released the album. So people bought tickets, I guess, on the strength of our back catalogue. The album came later because we just didn’t realise that there was going to be a demand for it. It just blew us away that we did, like, 30 dates, and they literally sold out,” he laughs. “It was just crazy.”
It probably doesn’t seem out of sorts for their fans – the afore-mentioned gold album in 2017 was preceded by numerous number ones and a catalogue of classic pop tracks that would, no doubt, be classified as ‘bops’ in today’s terms.
“I’m such a pop boy, I love great pop music. And I think people under our umbrella, LGBT+, are quite sophisticated, you can’t fool a gay,” he laughs. “You can’t just palm them off with a bit of production and a rap and call it a song. You have to have a tune, you have to have drama, a keychange and I think Steps song has all those ingredients. And that’s why our community embraces us so much.”
Community is something very much at the heart of everything H now does, since appearing on Celebrity Big Brother back in 2007 and, more recently, making history as part of the first same-sex dance partnership on Dancing on Ice.
“I never get bored talking about this, because it’s something I’m so passionate about,” he stresses. “I fought for this partnership, for so many years, every time I was paired up on a contestant based show, I was always knocked back,” he reveals.
“But it finally happened. And for me to be my authentic self, on television, dancing with the correct gender for my sexuality, do you know, I just felt like all of the stars aligned. Just synergy. And it was the right time. Our world is going through so much crap and we need to embrace all communities.
“I like to use my platform for good. I vowed to do a lot more with my platform for the LGBT+ community, and that was the starting point for me. And it’s made a ripple effect. We were the first to do it, which I fought hard for and the ripple effect has been so positive across the world, really. We had messages from far and wide in support. I mean, obviously we had the bigots and most bigots will breed other bigots. But let’s drown those bigots out with our message. And you know what? It’s working.”
He says he’s not reached out to Nicola Adams with advice for appearing on Strictly Come Dancing after it was announced she would dance with another woman.
“She doesn’t need advice from me, she’s a powerhouse!” he shouts. “She’s going to be representing a whole new side of our community and it’s about time too. I’m glad the BBC are flying the flag for us because I think they’ve been under pressure for a long time. And we’re ready for change. The country’s ready for change.”
It turns out that his journey isn’t quite finished on this particular path, as he reveals plans for the future.
“Next on the agenda – and I’ve already emailed the producers of Dancing on Ice – I want the trans community to be represented. So we just missed the casting for this series. But I do want them to consider a trans contestant for next year.”
I’ve already emailed the producers of Dancing on Ice – I want the trans community to be represented.
Talk of the trans community leads to discussion of the Gender Recognition Act – yet to change when we speak – and the fierce online debate surrounding the views of Harry Potter creator, JK Rowling.
“Obviously the people that she’s employed in her films and her movies have spoken against her,” H considers. “And rightly so. I think the Harry Potter world created this safe haven for all different kinds of people in our community.” It’s this, he says, that made it feel like “a dagger in a lot of our community’s hearts” when people read her posts. “She was absolutely wrong to do that,” he says. “So I stand with my brothers and sisters and absolutely support them.
“What’s happening in America right now, there’s a lot of unrest, a lot of anger. And I do think that translates across the rest of the world. It’s a scary time, but we need to just stay strong and fight for what we believe in and support our community.”
It’s almost as though it’s complete madness to still be debating things like LGBT+ rights and conversion therapy in 2020…
“I know! Let people be people, for God’s sake! I mean, what’s so hard about that, jeez.”
H, who came out at the age of 30 in 2007, says he’s definitely noticed a difference regarding representation in the music industry since Steps first started out.
“Oh my gosh, I mean, the world has completely changed,” he says. “I wish I had had the courage to come out and be my authentic self. At the time, I wasn’t confident, I was still discovering who I was. I think the role models we have today, like Troye Sivan and Olly Alexander, they’re just incredible ambassadors for our youth today. Not even our youth, I mean, our whole community.
“We were talking about this in Steps the other day, and all of our songs, specifically are, and importantly are, genderless. You’ll never hear us sing he or she in our songs, which is, I think, why a lot of our fans identify with our music as well.
“We’ve always said that we have, in Steps, an open door policy. It doesn’t matter how you identify, if you’re non-binary, what colour you are, what creed, what nationality, however you want to identify, Steps is a safe place. You can come and live your best life and be your authentic self with no judgments. And that’s our door policy. I think that’s why we are so beloved by our community.”
Errr, hang on a minute H – wasn’t it you who sang about a more seasoned woman on 1997’s “Experienced”?
“I didn’t write it though!” he laughs loudly. We agree to brush over that as being a song about a gay icon. “Madonna!” he shouts. “I can tell you’re a massive gay, because nobody would know that obscure song from Step One.”
There’s one more rite of gay passage – steady – that H has his sights set on. Being a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“Ohhh God, I would LOVE that!” he gasps. “I’m such a mahoosive fan, oh my gosh. I just finished watching Canada’s Drag Race and the celebrity version and All Stars. I mean, I literally can quote everything. I would love to be a guest on the panel. Make that happen.”
One other ever-so-slightly camp show that Steps are frequently referenced in relation to is the Eurovision Song Contest. Online discussions about whether they should take part in the competition now seems to have gone beyond whether or not they actually want to.
“There’s mixed emotions about it,” he says. “I am a massive Eurovision fan. I love the whole cheesy experience. But it’s not a song contest. It’s a political contest to get back at each other and it’s just not the right place for us. Sadly. I would absolutely love to – but for those reasons, no.”
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But it’s not a song contest. It’s a political contest to get back at each other and it’s just not the right place for us.
It’s not like they don’t have enough on their plate – Steps have already recorded the video for the second single from the new album (the dance routine is “classic Steps” in the vein of “Love’s Got a Hold of My Heart” and “Deeper Shade of Blue”, FYI). He’s not even had a chance to watch the Eurovision movie on Netflix.
“No, because every time I sit down I have to do something with my children. But I’ve had lots of messages, saying, ‘Is this a Steps song? This should be a Steps song.’ Apparently there’s lots of Steps-isms in it…”
And with that he’s off with the kids to a socially-distanced children’s party – probably via the O2.
To pre-order the new album and get tickets for the 2021 tour, visit the official Steps website.