IT IS 12 years since Gareth Gates stole the nations' hearts when he appeared in the first ever Pop Idol show.
The now 30-year-old may have come second - pipped to the winning post by Will Young - but it didn't stop him from forging a successful career as a singer before branching out into musical theatre.
Along the way he also set up a performing arts academy in his home town of Bradford, qualified as a speech coach and delved into the world of panto.
And he says he loved the experience so much the first time in 2008 that he's been back for more in most years since.
This year is no exception as he's about to take on the mantle of the Prince in Snow White And The Seven Dwarves at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon.
Before all that though he has the small matter of squeezing in a tour with his band 5th Story as well as a nationwide tour of Mad About The Musicals.
"It's really busy for me at the moment," he laughs as we chat in what must be a rare break in his schedule.
"I've got a lot on the go what with the band, doing solo work, recording more music, planning an acoustic tour for next year as well as this year's Musicals tour so it's all go!"
Despite the hectic schedule, he says he's very much looking forward to coming to Croydon and starting rehearsals.
"It's a lovely theatre and the audiences are always really enthusiastic," he says. "I was last here a year ago doing the show Boogie Nights with the Osmonds which was amazing. They were fantastic to work with and we had a great time.
"So I'm really excited to be coming back to Croydon," he adds. "This is my fifth panto. I love the experience of it and over the years it's become very much part of my Christmas.
"Initially I used to find it hard not going back to Bradford where I'm from to see my family but now they travel down to me so it's great.
"There's always a fantastic buzz when you are doing a show like this - it's such an important part of peoples' Christmases and I always look forward to this time of year."
Indeed it was going to Bradford's Alhambra Theatre as a child to see its annual panto that inspired him to go into showbiz.
"Bradford is a real panto loving city and we went every year without fail," he says. "It was a real tradition in our family and one of the best bits about Christmas - it still is really - and every year I'd dream that one day I'd be the one on the stage - sometimes I do have to pinch myself that I'm now able to live that dream!"
Snow White opens on Friday, December 5 and Gareth promises there will be all the usual thrills and spills, music and mayhem that go into making an entertaining show.
"I've worked with writer Paul Hendy before and so I know the script will be great," he enthuses.
"He writes brilliantly and all the essential ingredients will be in there - everyone is well catered for - there are jokes which the mums and dads will get and then there's stuff for the kids plus there's all the fabulous costumes, magic and dancing.
"Obviously everyone loves the ad libs that are a traditional part of it so I'm sure there will be plenty of those!
"I have done lots of West End shows like Joseph which are set and structured and there is no scope for ad libbing or elaborating which is as it should be.
"But the great thing with panto is it's where you absolutely can add bits and bring in your own humour - even on show days you can introduce things - so every night it will be different.
"However, my role as the Prince is quite traditional and quite serious so I don't get as much of an opportunity but it's fun to be on stage with the Dame and have it all go on around me - it's my task to stay on track."
But it's the music that Gareth says he's particularly looking forward to as he will get to have his input into some of the songs.
"In terms of the music Paul trusts my judgement and lets me have my creative freedom which means I will get a chance to suggest songs or harmonies I think might work well."
Despite the merriment and laughter Gareth insists it's hard work.
"Panto is such a major part of Christmas for so many people - it's a huge tradition and so it's important that we all do a good job.
"We have a great cast though - including Quinn Patrick as the Dame who is one of the best in the business - and we all work really hard to make sure we put on the best show possible - we're all really up for it so I know it's going to be a fantastic!
"What's great for me is that I get to be a hero every day and I get the girl - what could be better!" he says.
Snow White And The Seven Dwarves is on at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon from Friday, December 5 until Sunday, January 4. Tickets from £21. Family, group and concession tickets available. Visit www.fairfield.co.uk or call the box office on 020 8688 9291.