So what's a nice boy like you doing in a bar like this? Maggie Wicks asks the questions and Ronan Keating buys the drinks........

He enters the room looking like a poster boy for poster boys. His stylist has cultivated a sort of metro-surfer look - chunky silver rings, a leather strap around his neck and two tattooed shoulders showing through a starchy white mandarin-collar shirt. His cheeks are scrubbed pink with a perfect, pale five o'clock shadow. The hair is so blond it can't be real. Scrubbed, clean and really rather gorgeous, Ronan Keating could have stepped straight off the set of a Boyzone video.

Keating is in Sydney to promote his fifth solo album in six years. As he moves around the VIP bar of the boutique Establishment Hotel he looks tired. He is polite, animated, but the strain of a full week of publicity is showing.

Ours is the last of more than 40 interviews this week, and Keating is gripping a tall mojito when he sits down with me in a dark leather booth.

"It's been a long week," he says, and it's the only clue he gives that this international circus of self-promotion may get tiring. Our 20 minutes together have been cut thanks to TV One's Close Up crew before us, who wouldn't stop shooting, questioning Keating about his activities in Africa with the charity Christian Aid.

He was all smiles at the time. "They were trying to trip me up," he says, "but I enjoy it sometimes. I know what I'm talking about."

Keating is impressed I have crossed the Tasman just to speak to him - he visited New Zealand a few years ago, staying at the Hilton in Auckland and met the All Blacks in Wellington. In fact he's so impressed that he invites me for drinks after the interview, all of 12 minutes later.

Keating's not a demanding star - at the end of our interview he doesn't ask for a barman to be sent to our private area, but quickly calls his wife at home then braves the packed public bar upstairs. Slumped at a corner table, he says he plans to get pissed, simply because he's now free to fall asleep any time he chooses. But for now, still in professional work mode, he's straight-backed and chipper, and giving me his media all.

Not yet 30, Keating has been living in the spotlight since he was 16, when he auditioned to be part of Ireland's first boy-band, Boyzone. It was boy-band fever in Britain - Robbie Williams' Take That had won over the nation and Westlife and East17 were snapping at their heels.

Boyzone had the necessay components - the blue-eyed Ronan out front, and the bad boy, the actor, the sensitive artist and the boy-band movement's first openly gay member behind. Boyzone's first 12 singles made the top five and they became the first Irish band to have four No 1 singles in England. In 2000 Keating broke free and released album after album of belting love songs. Other than 2004's unpopular Turn It On - his attempt at rock'n'roll - he's been at the top of the charts since.

"After Turn It On I had to have a rethink where I was going and who I was writing records for," he says.

"The big ballads really suit me and the fans love them -'When You Say Nothing at All', 'If Tomorrow Never Comes' -and so I try to play to those strengths on this album."

The result is a slow, contemplative album full of folk songs and longing, and plenty of schmaltz.

Despite his success, Keating doesn't appear to have let it go to his head. As a kid he had manners ingrained into his bones by his mother, who died from breast cancer eight years ago.

He shakes hands, holds doors, meets your eye. "I was a good kid," he says. "I might have broken a couple of windows with me football but I didn't cut the legs off pet frogs or anything. I was always taught to have respect - to treat people with the same respect you want to be treated with - and to have manners. That's what me mam asked of all her children."

Keating is the youngest of five children, born in a Dublin working-class family. He was raised Irish Catholic and remains so, attending mass irregularly and teaching the Bible to his children (he has three, to childhood sweetheart Yvonne Connolly).

"I'm not a Sunday mass-goer but I go to church with me kids and they pray at night. Yes, I believe in God, I'm a true believer."

Does he believe God put him where he is today? "What I believe is that we have options, and God likes to leave it up to us to choose for ourselves. I know I'm in a blessed position, I truly am. The people I've met, the hands I've shook. But he leaves it up to us. He has to."

His posture and earnestness give him a serious air, even if it's sometimes hard to take the career of a pop singer seriously. Keating started in a band that was manufactured to make money, and his career has made him the singer of songs he didn't write.

But he admit his inadequacies. "I'm not the best musician in the world," he says. "I'm an OK guitar player, and I can pick away at chords on the piano. But to have someone who can really play bar chords and stuff helps. I get really lazy on my own, I do. I have this studio in my house - I go in there, I start writing, and then I start thinking of other things and I start playing on the computer with grooves and drum beats, and the song goes out the window."

While Keating didn't make it as far as New Zealand this time, he's played concerts and even spent time with Jonah Lomu, whom he met while hosting Miss World in 1998 (Lomu was a judge). "I like Jonah. He's a lovely man, a gentleman." It was Lomu who translated a haka for Keating ("Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora," he chants. "That's really cool.")

The final track on Keating's new album has a Maori chant running through it: Toitu he kianga; whatungarongaro he tangata. People are transient things, but the land endures.

"The song was written by an Irish guy and I suggested we try it with a Maori chant," Keating says. "And it just worked. New Zealand really reminded me of home. It's incredibly green and rolling hills and beautiful, especially Wellington with its hills. I felt very at home there."

Twelve minutes after we said hello, we are off - along with Keating's team of stylist, security manager and documentary maker - to drink his new favourite, mojitos (he is usually a Guinness man, but the beer in Australia is too light for his tastes and the sugar syrup in the mojito is doing wonders for his jet lag). Keating phones home, then offers the first round of drinks. He asks about my career, my boyfriend and future plans. I tell him I'll be travelling overseas by myself. "Alone?" he asks in his burly Irish accent. "You watch out, Maggie."

Few punters notice the immaculately groomed Irishman in the corner, and those who do receive a little nod and a conspiratorial look that seems to convince them to move on. When I go to leave Keating pushes out his chair and stands. "Go safely," he says, shaking my hand again.

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