RITCHIE NEVILLE takes a sip from his beer and says: "I love Billie. She's the one for me. We've been going out for about a
year and a half and I can't imagine being with anyone else. I've found the perfect person I want to get up with in the morning."
Ritchie is 20 and has been dating 17-year-old Billie since November 1998. We are sitting in the Presidential Suite in London's Conrad Hotel where he has finally decided the time is right to talk about the love of his life. He explains how the pair were forced to keep their romance a secret because their management and record companies didn't want anyone to know in case it harmed their images. But in March last year The Sun exclusively broke the story that the pair were an item - and Ritchie was over the moon.
He says: "We were both just glad it came out so we could go out together without thinking we were going to get caught. It was a huge relief. The record companies and management had told us that it would be bad for both of us. So it was worrying at first and we were scared because we didn't know what was going to happen. Now it's really cool and we love just being ourselves."
The couple met during a Saturday morning children's TV show in June 1998. They were instantly attracted to each other, although at first nothing came of it. But after continually bumping into each other, they eventually exchanged phone numbers.
Ritchie reveals: "When I first saw Billie I really fancied her but she was only 15 and I thought, 'I won't go there.' I kept seeing her on TV and thought, 'There's something about this girl.' I just couldn't get her out of my mind. Then we got each other's numbers and spoke on our mobiles a lot. I was gutted when I couldn't make her 16th birthday because we were on a promotional tour. But we finally got together two months later in November at the Smash Hits poll winners' party. It was a brilliant night and it was our first kiss. I knew straight away this was it."
The pair were just like any other couple in love - ringing each other all the time, having romantic dinners, even talking about marriage and having children. Then the backlash started - with Billie the victim. Ritchie says: "It was a nightmare. She started getting hate mail, telling her to leave me alone. Some of the letters were worse but she was a credit to herself. It was a difficult time but I was there for her and we got through it. It has died down now, apart from the odd letter here and there."
The couple have moved in together in West London and could not be happier.
Ritchie says: "It's great living together because we can be alone and do what we want. It's quite difficult with our schedules, so when we are together it's really precious. Billie understands what I do, which is really cool. I think if she wasn't in the industry it would be really hard for me to have a relationship. My mum will never fully understand what I'm feeling, while Billie does."
But life was not always so clear-cut for Ritchie. Before Billie, he used to sleep around with girls he met while on promotional
tours around the world.
He says: "I was a complete nightmare. Girls would throw themselves at me and sometimes it was really hard to resist. One morning I woke up next to whoever I'd met the night before and didn't feel right. I felt really cheap and dirty and thought, 'That's it, I want a companion, not just to sleep with someone.' There was something missing from my life. Then I met Billie and I haven't looked back since. I would never cheat on her. Wherever we go, girls are always there but there is no way I would do anything like that ever again because I love Billie. She is perfect. We have talked about marriage a lot and have been deciding where to get married. We thought about having the wedding abroad but have decided on doing it here because of our families. After that we'd go on honeymoon somewhere far away and be just by ourselves. I hate being apart from her. We ring each other about eight to ten times a day. Sometimes it's just, 'Hello, I love you, bye.' We've had to put a cap on our mobile phones because our bills were just getting out of hand. The band were in Argentina recently on a four-day promotional trip and we were on the phone for hours at night. When we checked out, the phone bill was £1500 for just four days. It was crazy. So we decided there had to be a limit to our calls."
Ritchie, the youngest of three children, wanted to be a performer from an early age and went to drama school in his home town, Birmingham. His mum Kim and stepfather Derek now own a pub in Bromsgrove, Hereford and Worcester. Ritchie was still at school, studying for A-levels, when he found fame by answering an advert in showbiz paper The Stage to join a boy band. He was certainly well prepared for his big break. From the age of three he would mimic pop stars in the mirror. Before he was picked to join the band he did odd jobs to earn pocket money - but never lost sight of his dream. He kept up his private dancing and singing lessons and played and sang with a number of rock bands hoping to make the big-time.
Now he says: "It's great being in Five and achieving what we have. I couldn't ask for more. We finally got our first No.1 single - and I'm in love with the most beautiful girl in the world."