Entertainment

Life as a Reality TV Star: Stevi Ritchie On Being An 'X Factor' Novelty Act

"There are two precious moments for me. One was when my daughter gave me a hug on stage at Wembley. The other was taking Simon Cowell to Harvester."
August 11, 2021, 8:15am
Stevi Ritchie X Factor VICE
Image: Helen Frost
Speaking to actors whose careers have been defined by one role, about learning to live with – or even embrace – that character.

Reality TV promises to turn ordinary people into stars – for a while, at least. It’s a dream that many eagerly pursue but few ever realise and, beyond a combination of luck, timing, talent and personality, it’s difficult to explain what decides a contestant’s fate. Why some strike a chord with the public and see their lives altered beyond recognition, while others fade without a trace.

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In 2014, Stevi Ritchie entered The X Factor again. Before then, he’d never made it to the televised audition stage and had no reason to believe this time would be any different. But, for some reason, it was. He endeared himself to the judges and was chosen as a wildcard in the over-25s category, being mentored by Simon Cowell on the live shows.

Ritchie, an enthusiastic call-centre worker from Colchester, was suddenly performing to an audience of millions every Saturday night. He danced, he wore outlandish costumes while singing “Livin La Vida Loca” and “I’m Still Standing”, he conquered. Ritchie didn’t intend to become a novelty act, but it worked. He surpassed everybody’s expectations, finishing sixth and going on to earn a living as an entertainer.

Since leaving the show, he’s appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, starred in pantomimes and toured holiday camps around the UK. Becoming famous almost overnight was a disorienting experience and, even though that early demand has inevitably faded, Ritchie’s determined to keep enjoying the ride for as long as it lasts.

VICE: Hi Stevi. It's been seven years since you were on The X Factor. How has your life changed in that time?
Stevi Ritchie:
Sometimes I have to pinch myself, because you forget. You look back and you go, ‘Wow, did I actually do that?’ I’m so proud that I got on The X Factor. It was almost like winning the lottery. I never expected to get on. Ever. It changed my life in a good way. It gave me opportunities and I’m still performing to this day. I’ve just come back, in the early hours of this morning, from performing at Pontins. For some people, it’s like ‘Pontins? Really?’ But the thing is, as long as you’re doing what you love, with the passion from your heart, it doesn’t matter if you’re performing to one man and his dog. I kind of lost my passion a couple of years ago, and now I’m getting it back. I feel so good, and I’m loving being in front of audiences.

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It’s good to hear that you’re enjoying it again. Why do you think you lost that passion for a while?
It kind of went to my head a little bit. When I first came out of The X Factor and Big Brother, it wasn’t like I was Beyoncé – but sometimes it does overtake you. You forget yourself. Luckily for me, my daughter keeps me sane and grounded. I lost my passion, thinking ‘Bloody hell, another gig?’ It does get to you. Then, Covid’s made me realise that I’m so happy to be back on stage. I’m so proud to do what I love. It’s taught me to be grateful for what you’ve got and not to focus on what you haven’t got.

Why did you apply to be on The X Factor? What were you hoping to get out of it?
I’d worked in a call centre for three years. I was on 800 quid a month and I was always overdrawn. I sat there one day and thought ‘I just want to change my life for me and my daughter.’ I noticed that one of my friends was auditioning for The X Factor. I’d auditioned for the previous six years, on and off, but I’d never got past the second stage – the producers round. I applied at the last minute and I missed the London auditions, so I went to Birmingham. I got the day off work and I just gave it one last shot. I thought, ‘I’m not going to get anywhere, but I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to be me this time and I’m not going to give a shit what anyone says.’

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There were 4,000 people there. It was cold, windy, wet. I got up to the booth and belted out this Queen and George Michael song like my life depended on it. Then the bloke put me through! It was almost like it was meant to be. I’m getting goosebumps even now, just talking about it.

What are your memories of your first audition in front of the judges?
My arse was flapping. I thought, ‘They’re just going to take the mick out of me here. They’re not going to like me.’ I sang this Queen song and then Simon stopped me halfway and asked me to do Olly Murs “Dance with Me Tonight”. I genuinely didn’t know the song. I blagged my way through it. It wasn’t staged or scripted, it was just me fucking up. But I made the whole crew laugh. The cameramen. The judges. Just because I was ad libbing and dancing on the spot. They found it hilarious. I got four yeses and I couldn’t believe my luck. It just goes to show, you don’t have to have the most incredible voice; it’s about your personality.

What was it like seeing yourself on TV for the first time?
I hated it. I couldn’t watch myself back because I cringe. I just wanted to do the best I can and get it out the way. I never wanted to see it again. I’m my own worst critic. When my audition aired, I was working in the call centre. Olly Murs tweeted me that night! I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I almost dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe it.

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How did family and friends react to your performance?
They were in shock. They were like, ‘How you’ve got the bollocks to do that, I don’t know.’ They congratulated me and said good luck. They’re very supportive, but at first a lot of people were like ‘Don’t expect anything. You’re not going to get anywhere on The X Factor’ – even before I auditioned. It was nice to prove them wrong.

Could you ever have imagined becoming one of the key figures in that series? Why do you think you did?
I never expected to be the novelty act of 2014. I actually just wanted to be a good performer. I knew where I was in the scheme of things during the second or third week. It was like, ‘Okay, I’m kind of like the comic here., but I didn’t mind that because I like to make people laugh. I’ll never forget it, Wagner – one of the most memorable acts – once said to me, ‘Singers come and go, but characters have longevity.’ It stayed with me. People like me, Rylan, Wagner, Jedward, Honey G – they stick in your head. It’s not about being the best singer. It’s about being remembered.

Were you worried about becoming a novelty act?
I just went along with it, because who else would get an opportunity like that? Out of 200,000 applicants that year I got down to the last six, so I played ball. The only time I moaned was Halloween week because they wanted me to do “Ghostbusters”. I’d trained in musical theatre, and not many people knew that, and I said, ‘Please let me do Phantom of the Opera, “Music of the Night”. I’ll do whatever you want me to do after that.’ I just wanted that one moment where I could shine as a voice and nothing else. No dad dancing or anything like that. I hit this note and, I swear, the audience went mental. I blew up on Twitter. That was the moment where it turned and people started to vote. I couldn’t believe it.

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What was the highlight of your experience on The X Factor?
There are two precious moments for me. One was when my daughter ran on stage and gave me a hug in front of 5,000 people at Wembley. She was only seven-years-old. I’ll never forget that. It will stay with me until the day I die. The other one, I suppose, was taking Simon Cowell to Harvester. No one’s ever done that. I took the man to dinner at Harvester. No one can beat that.

What was your relationship like with Simon Cowell?
I loved him. Even though he was so busy during the week, he’d always ask if you were okay. If you were happy with your song. He was very attentive. He was so amazing as a mentor. He loves nutty people and that’s why me and him got along so well. He doesn’t like quiet, boring people. He can’t bond with them. He loves the nutters. He didn’t like my singing, really, but as a person he thought I was fucking great. He didn’t want to let me go.

Were you given much preparation or support for how your life was going to change after being on The X Factor?
When you get on the live shows, you sign with an agent if you haven’t got one already. That agent guides you through things and gets the work in when you leave the show. The first two weeks, I was inundated with work. My feet didn’t touch the floor because I was in nightclubs, gigging, earning good money. I was everywhere. What you do on the show helps, but it’s all about what you do after you leave. I was just taking every opportunity that came my way. Working with Paddy McGuinness on Celebrity Benchmark. Reality Bites. Celebrity Juice. Eight out of 10 Cats. Jimmy Carr took the piss out of me – brilliant, I loved it. I was just embracing everything. 

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What do you think is the biggest assumption people make about you?
I think sometimes, before they meet me, they go ‘Oh, that prick.’ Or ‘He couldn’t sing. He was shit.’ But when people meet me and actually talk to me, they’re like ‘You’re alright, you are.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I fucking know I am.’ I never belittle anyone. I never think anyone’s above or below me. I always treat everyone the same. Treat others how you like to be treated, because if you’re an arsehole to everyone, word will get around, and you’ll be known as an arsehole. If I treat people how I like to be treated, I want a little bit of respect back. But if someone’s an arsehole to me, I’ll either walk away or put them in their place. You’ve got to, because some people in this world just want to have a go.

With a few exceptions, reality TV stars tend to have a limited shelf-life. Having been so in demand immediately after The X Factor, how did you deal with the inevitable drop off after that?
It’s hard. Sometimes it’s about trying to keep your profile up and your name out there. Sometimes you drift away and sometimes you come back. I never wanted to be at the top because there’s a big fall, but if I can remain where I am – people recognise me and I get to do what I love, which is performing, entertaining people – then I’m bloody happy. I’ve done Pontins gigs the last three nights and I’ve had good reactions. People have smiled and laughed. Some of them are probably going through a really shit time, and if I’ve made them smile then I’m happy, because I’m doing my job.

How does it feel that you will always be known for appearing on The X Factor?
I don’t mind. I was speaking to Rylan on this X Factor reunion thing, and he said, ‘It’s what makes you. People remember you to this day.’ I have no regrets. I love it when people come up to me. It’s nice. Seven years down the line, people still recognise this ugly mug. It’s the eyes you see. It’s all about the eyes. I do get approached quite a bit and I think it’s so nice. It’s flattering, really.

Did you always want to be famous? Has fame lived up to expectations?
I’ve always wanted to be known, I suppose. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Who doesn’t want to be known for what they do and what they love? I didn’t expect it though. I thought I was never going to achieve my dreams. After six years of doing The X Factor – when you get rejected all the time – you think it’s not going to happen. But I got on it and it’s been mind-blowing. It’s been everything I expected, but it’s like a drug. You always want more. You want to do more. As long as I’m performing and doing what I love, I’m happy. That’s the main thing.

@seanccole