Voices: X Factor was manipulative – when will it be held accountable?

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‘The X Factor’ was always as much about ridicule as it was success (Getty)
‘The X Factor’ was always as much about ridicule as it was success (Getty)

“You’ve got three minutes to change your life.” This is the sentence that Simon Cowell was using as words of encouragement to contestants by the time The X Factor had made its US debut in 2011.

In the years prior, the show dominated the British charts, headlines and social media. Its 2010 finale was watched by 17.71 million people – the highest rated UK TV episode of the decade. However, X Factor dressed up what some critics have called its exploitation in showbiz glitz, but turned many into national laughing stocks.

In the years that followed, X Factor faced dwindling ratings and a barrage of criticism regarding alleged manipulation of some of its most vulnerable stars. Caroline Flack’s death, Jesy Nelson’s continued struggles in the spotlight, and Misha B’s bullying storyline have all received significant coverage.

But through making the podcast Lights, Camera, Melodrama! – which highlights X Factor’s highs and lows – some lesser-publicised moments have made me conclude that the show was always as much about ridicule as it was success.

Sam Reay, who auditioned for the first season in 2004, remembers The X Factor advertised on morning TV as a chance for “the normal person” to become a superstar. “Everybody found it hilarious that people got ripped to shreds publicly. We were told it was okay because it was entertainment.”

Sam was told by Cowell: “You sound nice, but look like a shop girl.” She was put through to the next stage after Cowell said he’d “like to see what this girl is willing to do”. Sharon Osbourne added “go on a diet and I’ll see you at the next round”. It later emerged that Sam was pregnant.

Gemma Davies auditioned as part of girlband Eskimo Blonde. In 2006, her group was pitted against former member Hari Blanch, who Gemma claims the production team invited back to create drama for the cameras. The audition, labelled X Factor’s “most desperate” on YouTube, concluded with them being dragged out by security in tears.

Looking back, Gemma says: “We were young, vulnerable, and easily led. I couldn’t cry on camera and say, ‘I’ve been set up’. It was the emotional drama that sent me over the edge.” When speaking of former bandmate Jemma Moon, she says: “To a certain degree it’s ruined her life. She’s a total split personality, still very much in recovery.”

Teeyana Aromi, who worked on the show in 2018, said on-set therapists had since been brought in but that “people of colour probably make up 10 per cent of production crew.”

Echoing some of the sentiments from an hour-long Instagram video posted in 2020 by contestant Misha B, who accused the show of creating a bullying storyline that left her suicidal, Aromi says: “As a black woman I could never afford to have a bad day by comparison to my white counterparts. It’s a very lonely place to be.”

Kelly Northall, who infamously branded Simon as “very, very harsh”, says she is still dealing with the aftermath, 15 years after auditioning.

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Kelly alleges the production crew goaded her into her now-infamous tirade. When invited on the 2007 finale for a performance with the worst contestants, she claims she was asked to mess up as she was “too good to be a bad audition.” Kelly says she faced continuous abuse in her hometown of Walsall. She’s since moved to Wales and has never returned home.

Branded a “complete and utter nightmare” by Cowell, Amy “Ariel” Burdett arguably gave the show’s most memorable first audition in 2008. She died of drug toxicity and a self-inflicted stab wound to the neck in 2019.

Of course, the show cannot be held responsible Amy’s suicide, but friend Andy Strach tells me she was “troubled, guarded” and seemingly ashamed of her appearance, keeping it hidden throughout their friendship.

Covid has allowed The X Factor to bow out quietly without any retrospective send-off. But the contestants who remain in the public consciousness are often those whose lives have been defined by a single audition. X Factor’s legacy isn’t music, but its power to change someone’s life in three minutes – for better or worse. When will it be held accountable for its hit rate?

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