This article originally appeared on VICE UK
If you're lonely and need someone to talk to, or if somehow you cannot find it in your heart to forget the 2005 winner of the second season of The X Factor, I have a great deal for you. Shayne Ward, of eponymous Shayne Ward 2006 album fame, is available to talk to you on Skype for ten minutes, for the price of $75.
News of Shayne's descent has served as backhanded press for his new album, called Closer, to be released this coming April. He's crowdfunding it through a site called PledgeMusic where, for $170, you can buy Shayne's cardigan by a brand called "Izzue," for $7,600 you can have a private Shayne show, and for $75 you can purchase those ten sexy minutes on Skype.
It's a troubling career move for the man who had the UK's third-fastest selling single of all time, That's My Goal, which stayed in the charts a full 21 weeks. (Nope, me neither.) PledgeMusic, for all the independence it grants artists, marks a curious new level of licensed privacy invasion, with celebrities selling their time, their phone numbers, and levels of access in the manner of camgirls. With auctions for clothes, pictures, and the space in his album liner notes, it's hard not to think that Shayne Ward's star has crashed to earth and he's selling off pieces of the rubble.
Then again, Ward has always belonged, in a sense, to the public, as with any product of a TV talent show. In his first appearance on X Factor back in 2005, he's a 20-year-old shop assistant wearing baggy bleached denim and giant cubic zirconia earrings. "I like the fact that you don't look stage school," says Simon, smelling the possibility of money. "You look real."
It's a gorgeously creepy thing to tell one of the earlier stars of reality TV. Ward was blandly agreeable as the X Factor's second winner, a crewcut-topped, silky-voiced vision of generic masculinity groomed to triumph over Andy Abraham. It was acknowledged from the start that he would trade on his looks, hamming it up in a succession of topless calendar shoots which remain in production to this day (it's not too late, readers—2015's calendar features Ward in a wet T-shirt!).
Ward forever treads the line between Mancunian-next-door and campy, oiled-up Adonis, catering to young gay men and straight women as well as their mothers. In pictures he is forever pulling his clothes off, or inexplicably getting them wet. In some, Ward's shirt and jumper appear to have been awkwardly photoshopped back on again, while in others he is drowning in knitwear.
He served as an early prototype for the peculiar brand of twee male objectification allowed for in TV talent shows: Matt Cardle, Gareth Gates, Will Young, Jedward, Joe McElderry… a succession of inoffensive boys who ran succinctly alongside the show's female "divas." The line reaches its apex in Harry Styles, and its nadir in Frankie Cocozza (who's a delight on Twitter, by the way).
Many of these TV boy-men have since vanished. Where do you go after you've sold your life's story by way of introduction, after you've given away, as Louis Walsh put it, "one million percent"? It's as if we knew from the start that Shayne and his ilk were one-trick acts, indulging them as Christmas number ones with seasonal goodwill.
None of the X-Factor's stars ever tried to keep their lives secret from the press: they gave their stories away early, accelerating the process of getting to know them. Before reality TV we were allowed to grow up with pop stars and follow them from their inception on crappy soaps or children's daytime TV to international stardom. The X Factor, along with its precursor Popstars, condensed this process into short, hyper-emotional TV cycles, sealing the deal with the overpriced phone call you inevitably made to vote.
We'd grow tired of their products similarly quickly, leaving former stars relying on overpriced Skype calls to get by. X Factor has bred so many lower-tier celebrities that no tabloid can contain them. Perhaps Ward owes it to his fans to remain accessible, and perhaps we owe it to him to pay for his too-tight designer shirts.
Dissent in the X Factor ranks is minimal, even long after their fame fades and Simon Cowell's Syco label drops them. Even after he was excluded from X Factor's ten year reunion show along with Leon Jackson, Matt Cardle, and Series 1 winner Steve Brookstein, Ward claimed that he was "not bitter." Brookstein only voiced his complaints a decade later in his book, Getting Over the X, which sold with a quote printed on the cover from Max Clifford: "Talk to the press and we'll bury you." He has since taken to Twitter to attack Louis Tomlinson and his legion of rabid fans, as if leveraging the public's X Factor bitterness into a surrogate career.
For all the ups and downs of his career, Ward appears to have remained a good egg. Last year was a busy one for him: He turned 30, posed for his calendar and Attitude magazine, recorded an album due for release this year, and starred in a stage production of War of the Worlds alongside Brian McFadden and Jason Donovan. In September he judged a girl band contest in Manchester, where he was billed in a newspaper as "Ex Factor"'s Shayne Ward.
Shayne Ward's Twitter profile has a blue verified tick and 262k followers. Even if only a fraction of that figure are hardcore, he retains a steady fan base. PledgeMusic, the "Direct-to-Fanplatform" facilitating his Skype calls and wardrobe sale, crowdfunds artists without retaining rights to their music. Its list of alumni and current users is bafflingly varied, ranging from Peter Andre to Erasure to Stiff Little Fingers to LCD Soundsystem. They claim a 90 percent success rate.
Maybe it's not so ignoble a fate, to sell your time in ten minute increments. Maybe Ward is just one facet of modern celebrity, where it's acceptable to crowdfund a tour and weather the criticism, or blithely practice the "art of asking" more than you practice your actual songs. Music has regressed into a form of high-profile busking: it's needy, but commendably independent at the same time. Beyonce even nods to her past in TV talent shows at the beginning of "Flawless," if only to stamp all over it later with a hymn to her own power.
Whether a celebrity selling their time on Skype a sign of humility, or one last hubristic act of delusion, it's hard to grudge them a certain pragmatism. Ward always had the ear of the public, and he still does today. It just happens to be one ear at a time now.
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