A U.K. teen idol drops a few pounds — and his mates

The all-singing, all-dancing British boy band Take That may have had only one U.S. hit (1995’s radio staple ”Back for Good”), but their domestic status was so exalted that following the announcement of the band’s split last year, suicide hotlines were quickly set up across the country (seriously!). ”People were a little upset,” understates ex-member Gary Barlow.

Though he penned most of Take That’s original material and sang lead on all of their British hits, Barlow’s scream appeal was comparatively limited. The sole musician in a band of dancers and models specifically recruited for their chiseled good looks, Barlow was known, even to devoted fans, as ”the chubby one.” But such slights are a thing of the past. Suddenly svelte — ”Everyone went, ‘Wow, Gary looks different!”’ — the 26-year-old Brit is embarking on a solo career under the aegis of no less an industry figure than Arista president Clive Davis. The tycoon, who had firsthand knowledge of what can happen when a pop act successfully transforms a country tune, thanks to Whitney Houston’s ”I Will Always Love You,” persuaded Barlow to make his first U.S. single a cover of an old Joe Diffie hit, ”So Help Me Girl.” The subsequent Open Road album is specifically geared to mainstream American tastes, boasting contributions from hitmakers like David Foster and Diane Warren. After five years cranking out assembly-line pop hits in Britain, Barlow is thrilled with the results.

”I’d always dreamed of bringing Take That to America and working with these people,” he enthuses. ”I’m in another world here. This is the real music business.” An upcoming single, ”Love Won’t Wait,” was a gift from another writer-performer. ”Clive called up and said,’I’ve got this young lady in my office, Madonna, and she’s given me this song, but she only wants a guy to record it.’ She knew Take That. [After] he played me the song down the phone, I thought, ‘I’ll have that.”’