LOUIS Walsh brims with his trademark joie de vivre and irrepressible humour – and it's pretty remarkable, considering he was recently told he's going deaf.
You'd think the diagnosis would be a crushing blow for the Mayo music mogul – the Kiltimagh-born former X Factor judge (rumoured to be returning to the show) and mastermind behind multi-million-selling Irish boybands Westlife and Boyzone.
Instead, the 63-year-old describes it as "a relief in a way" to finally find out what he'd long suspected.
"I first noticed I was having trouble a couple of years ago during the live X Factor auditions in the arenas. If there was somebody singing and four panellists talking, as well as a big crowd of around 2,000 screaming and shouting behind me, I'd sometimes struggle to hear the acts or chat between the panellists," he admits.
"On a couple of occasions, I couldn't hear what Simon [Cowell] or Cheryl[Fernandez-Versini] were saying to me. I'd have to try to see their faces so I could lip read."
It sounds pretty stressful, especially in front of a live audience, but typically, Walsh can't resist lightening the moment with a joke: "Mind you, at times I did wonder if Simon had the same problem, judging by some of the acts he let through."
Banter between the pair is an integral part of their relationship – he describes Cowell as "his best friend" – but even that didn't prevent the showbusiness mogul making Walsh the butt of jokes.
"I was fine hearing Mel B because she has a really loud voice, but if I asked Simon or Cheryl, 'What are you saying?' they'd tease me and go, 'Are you getting old, are you going deaf?' I'd laugh too, but inside I'd be thinking, 'If they're right and I am, what will happen?'" he recalls.
"I just didn't want to face it or do anything about it because there's still a stigma about hearing loss – which there definitely shouldn't be because it's just the same as needing glasses – but it made me feel, 'Oh God, maybe I am getting old'."
He eventually booked an appointment with an audiologist who told him that years of being bombarded by loud music during concerts, shows, auditions and rehearsals, combined with normal wear and tear due to ageing had, in fact, damaged his hearing.
"Finding out what was wrong actually made me feel so much better, especially as it's diagnosed as only 'mild' hearing loss. It can make it hard for me to hear high frequency sounds and conversation in noisy environments," he says with relief.
"I now realise it was, of course, even harder for me on X Factor because I had an earpiece in one ear so I could listen to studio instructions while we were filming and so had only one ear for everything else."
Walsh says: "I'm probably lucky really to have as little damage as I have, as I've been in the music industry since I was 15. I've been literally pounded by noise and come out of gigs with my ears ringing or feeling muffled and those effects would last quite a while. I never thought that was damage, I just thought that was normal.
"I'd always stand right in front of the PA system so I could 'feel' the beat of the band and the reaction of the crowd. Frankly, if there wasn't high-pitched screaming by girl fans during a Boyzone or a Westlife concert, I thought it was a bad gig. I've also used every type of personal stereo, from a Walkman to an MP3 player and used big headphones on maximum volume."
While he doesn't currently need a hearing aid, he acknowledges that "there'll come a time when I do, but there's no way of telling when that will be. Anyway, there's nothing wrong with wearing one and they're incredibly tiny and discreet nowadays".
Clearly, despite the personal health price he's paid, Walsh's passion for the music industry is undimmed and he gives the impression the news he'd like to hear loud and clear is that he will be returning as one of the four judges on The X Factor.
He was on the show for 11 years – apart from a brief sacking in 2007 which "totally devastated" him – before being replaced last year by 31-year-old radio presenter, Nick Grimshaw.
"Simon's already said he wished he hadn't let me go, so let's see what happens. He's said to me, 'Darling, we have to work together again soon'," says Walsh with a delighted beam.
"He wanted to bring me back in the middle of the last series because the ratings were a little bit down, but I thought it would be really odd to have five judges. Anyway, I wouldn't go back unless it was with the right people."
Grimshaw, he feels, was "completely out of his depth" in the series, while Cheryl (the pair have frequently been at loggerheads over the years) "needs a rest. She's lost a bit of energy. She should go away and make another record and maybe have another hit". He names his "dream team" as his friend Sharon Osbourne, Nicole Scherzinger and Cowell.
"X Factor went a little off the boil last year. Simon tweaked it too much – just like he tweaked his face!" he teases.
"He needs to bring back the old X Factor: have the auditions in a small room so you find out the real personalities. People loved that because it was so intimate and revealing. It needs to have less singing and more fun."
It's a blunt verdict, but Walsh feels free to be frank as he and Cowell have known each other since 1997, when Walsh was managing Boyzone and Cowell was making waves as a record-label boss. "We fight on camera but, off screen, we're best friends. I'm one of the few people who understands him. I'm probably the only person who gets away with taking the p**s out of him," he declares.
"Simon is eccentric, egotistical, successful, vain, rich and arrogant, but he's also a very unique person. He's funny and a brilliant friend."
Undoubtedly conscious that he's competing in a youth-orientated industry, Walsh has, in the past, had a hair transplant and a cosmetic procedure on his eyes, but insists robustly: "I'm entering my 64th year, but that's an advantage. The best people have the most experience, which you can only get with age.
"Anyway, I don't feel old, because I'm actually very young inside and I truly don't think I'm like everybody else. I'm the eternal teenager, a Peter Pan. Inside I think I'm 34 – I love my life and music and the business as much as I ever did and I just want to do more, not less."
:: Louis Walsh is fronting Specsavers Audiologists' Listen Up! campaign to encourage regular hearing checks. The Specsavers Hearing Check app is free to download now. For information or to book a free hearing test visit: www.specsavers.co.uk/hearing.