The singer, model and digital creator Josh Cuthbert talks about school days in Berkshire and the road that led to the West End, and then The X Factor and boy band success with Union J

Where did you go to school and when?           

I went to Charters School in Sunningdale, Berkshire, starting in 2004.

Did you love school or hate it?

I loved school. Like most children I had ups and downs. By age 11, I was passionate about singing and music – there are not many kids at that age who are into musical theatre, so I had a bit of grief about that, but overall school was a good experience. I was involved in all the sports clubs and teams and did singing on the side. The school were very supportive of my music. I auditioned for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium when I was 13 and I managed to get into the show. I was in matinee performances every other week and the school liaised with my mum and made it work.

What were your favourite subjects / activities there?

History and PE – I loved my sports. I didn’t really enjoy music at school. I had stage school in London every Saturday and, without sounding disrespectful, I found school music lessons quite boring.

Who were your most memorable teachers and how did they influence you?

I had a period where I misbehaved a fair bit. I was showing off to make the girls laugh – trying to be the class clown. Now, when I look back, it makes me cringe. So, teachers found me quite frustrating at times, however there were some who could see my potential. Mr Courtly was one of them. Instead of getting frustrated he tried to help me through my bad behaviour patches. He and a couple of other teachers took the time. That really helped and, because of that, I gave them huge respect and also behaved really well in their lessons. 

Where was your favourite place at school?

I loved being in the playground and on the Astro pitch, which was always open. Every break I would just play football and for me that was an escape from the pressure of school and having to get good grades. It was the place I could switch off and have a laugh with my friends. I used to hang out there all the time.

What beliefs did your time at school instil in you?

I learned that when I put my mind to something, I’m capable of achieving. When GCSEs came about, I actually knuckled down. This was after four years where I was constantly told I was going to fail if I didn’t pack in my behaviour and concentrate. When push came to shove, I got some impressive GCSE results and that was a big lesson – it gave me confidence. Obviously, I was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for a year, but I was also going to dozens of other auditions during my school days and hearing ‘no’ left, right and centre because that’s the way of the industry. So, GCSEs and my audition experience taught me to never give up on my dreams – that I am good enough.

What was your proudest school moment?

I always used to audition for school plays. Most lead roles went to Year 11s, and I auditioned in Year 8 and got a part. I was going through a period when I wasn’t particularly well behaved, and I didn’t get on well with the music teacher directing it, so he told me he didn’t want me on the play. The next year, I auditioned again when I was in a lot better headspace. The Head of Music was in charge this time and gave me a lead role in West Side Story. That was a really proud moment, and then when it was staged I remember getting a standing ovation and people saying: ‘Blimey, where has he come from?’.

What was the most trouble you got into at school?

I was not someone who was aggressive or got into fights, but I was getting bullied by these brothers – one was in my class and the other was two years above. I got really sick of it, and we ended up in a bit of a scrap outside school. I was put on report by my Head of Year, who I really liked a lot and got on well with. That was actually the wake-up call I needed. It felt like I’d got rid of all the boy testosterone in that scrap and after that I knuckled down.

Making of me: Josh Cuthbert on his schooldays and music journey
Josh Cuthbert attended Saturday stage school and had his first breakthrough aged 13, as part of the cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End. Portraits: David Reiss

Were you ever ‘too cool for school’?

I probably thought I was, but I definitely wasn’t. I used to wear my tie as short as possible – until a teacher pointed out that longer ties make people look slimmer and more muscular! I was a typical teenager and I still remember the pressure of trying to look as cool as possible on those non-school uniform days.

What is your most vivid school memory, looking back now?

It was probably being made a prefect in Year 11. When my name got announced in assembly people said: ‘What?’. Then when I went home to tell my mum she couldn’t believe it either – not in a nasty way but it showed how much I had knuckled down. My Head of Year who made me a prefect, Mrs Campbell, was brilliant and I’ve got a lot to thank her for.    

When and how did your interest in music begin?

I didn’t come from a musical family at all, but I used to sing in my bunk bed every night. I got the part of Scrooge in a Year 6 musical and up to that point my family had no idea I could really sing. I can remember the teacher saying to my mum ‘You are in for an absolute treat and surprise tonight – I hope you’ve brought your tissues’. It was after that performance that I got an agent and began stage school at weekends.

What other key influences shaped you when you were growing up?

Football was always a huge passion. I was football mad. When I made it into the school team I was over the moon. I’m a big Chelsea fan – and my dad and stepdad both used to take me to matches.

What projects are coming up next?

There’s a reunion show with Union J at the London Palladium at the end of May. It’s the same theatre where it all started with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so this feels like full circle. It’s going to be very special as my grandma often used to take me to Chitty and would always sit in the same seat. She recently passed and I’ve blocked out her seat for the Union J show – so it’s going to be an emotional night, but brilliant. I’m taking part in the London Marathon this October, running for Stand Up To Cancer. There is also my regular modelling and branding work and various TV appearances – including show coming out in December. I’m not allowed to say what that is, but I did spend a week filming it in March in Christmas jumpers, which felt very strange!  

How would you sum up your school days in four words?

Rollercoaster, proud, challenging, emotional.

Further reading: Isabella Pappas on schooldays at Arts Ed