Since its inception in 2004, The X Factor has pulled more names through the meat grinder than it’s created bonafide stars. For every Harry Styles, Olly Murs and Leona Lewis, you sift through piles of forgotten failures. People like Eoghan Quigg (series five), Christopher Maloney (series nine) and Wagner (series seven) – all of whom were loved by the audience before they were booted out.
Though the public ultimately decides who wins by casting their vote in the show’s final episodes, their decision is guided by producers, casting agents and the like, who package contestants to be loved by an audience, but not so much that anyone will remember them when they’re eliminated. You'll likely see similar narratives play out in the celebrity special that aired from last Saturday. So, how do the team do it?
“We take away the messy parts and simplify things. We give you the parts of a person it’s impossible not to like. How couldn’t you like a single mother making her life better or someone who beat cancer? There might be other, less likeable aspects, but an audience doesn’t like complexity,” explains Marcus*, a producer who worked on the show between 2012 and 2014. He tells me the life of a contestant is mined for narratives long before they reach Simon Cowell on the show’s televised portion.
For example: when J-Sol reached the judges last year, Simon and co knew what subjects to pinpoint. He performed a song he'd written about the loss of his mother – something he never intended to explicitly speak about. As he told me, “I don’t like to talk about it. I really don’t like talking about it. That conversation takes a lot out of me.” Regardless, Simon asked him what the song was about. The probing question caught J-Sol off guard. “Because I was like, how did you know? How did you know to ask the question?”
The narrativised practice employed by producers isn’t exclusive to X Factor. You’ll see contestants routinely reduced to one novel aspect on many of the UK's reality TV shows – Candice Brown for wearing red lipstick on The Great British Bake Off or Alex George for being a pale doctor on Love Island. The practice even gave us Katie Hopkins, who was the “outspoken” contestant on The Apprentice before she was a professional embarrassment.
However, there’s a key difference between those television programmes and The X Factor: the latter is presented as a televised singing contest rather than a reality show. Contestants apply because they want to be pop stars. But this is incidental to the producers, whose prime focus is on making an entertainment show. As a result, some of the contestant's back stories are brought to the front, while others are hidden. And this often happens without the contestant having any authority over how their life is presented.
Take Anton Stephans, who appeared on the 13th series of the show. He was open about his former drug use. His background as the child of adoptive parents gave him the required colourful backstory, too. And since he’d been a backing vocalist for Tina Turner, Elton John and Sting, he was framed as being ready for stardom. However the production chose to exclude the fact he'd performed on the West End, thinking if they mentioned his success it wouldn't connect in the same way as the movie-like story of backing vocalist to soloist.
The judges gushed over his likeability in his first audition. Yet, by week four of the live shows Nick Grimshaw had called him “fake”. Stephans feels the producers deliberately recast him as inauthentic, claiming a story was leaked by the production team stating he lied about his adoption.
“I was angry at production; they knew what they were doing… they have a symbiotic relationship with the tabloids,” he tells me. In fact, Stephans believes he was made to look less likeable so that other contestants would look comparatively more so. This isn’t a case of him being a sore loser. In 2018 Gary Barlow wrote in his autobiography, A Better Me, that producers suggested he label Misha B, a contestant from 8th series of the show, a bully; something Louis Walsh and Tulisa Contostavlos said the same week Misha went on to be eliminated.
“The show needs contestants they connect with. The public won’t tune in for people they don’t like, so sometimes we have to help people along” says Amelia, a producer who left the show last year. Describing the exhaustive process from contestant to likeable potential star, she said: “We spend countless hours with contestants for a couple of minutes of footage. If you ask someone again and again how they’re feeling they’ll tell you something that connects with an audience.”
Before she auditioned, Talia Dean, a contestant on the 14th series of the show, carried bags for VIP guests at Heathrow airport, including those owned by judges Nicole Scherzinger and Sharon Osbourne. That provided a neat narrative – one she described to me as, “the dogsbody who had gone from an assistant to possibly being a star”.
Talia was primed to have an audience invest in her. In the VT clip that accompanies her audition we learn she lives on a council estate; we’re shown a photo of her singing as a child and a photo of her holding her baby. Just before she sings, her voice quivers as she tells the judges, “I don’t want to carry people’s bags anymore.” The result is an immediately likeable pop star, “They portrayed me even nicer than I am in real life,” she tells me.
In one episode, Dean wasn’t put through to the next round, only for the crowd to bray and chant “Bring. Her. Back” until the decision was reversed. In another, she wasn’t put through to the live shows, but the viewers voted her through as their wildcard. She was used, she says, as “The likeable character that production wanted to keep crushing so that the public would back. 'The nice girl with the baby,' I think that was my role.” Being booted off by the show only for the audience to demand her back made two things clear to her – “I was the favourite with the public and I wasn’t the favourite with the label.”
Like Anton Stephans, she believes that production engineered her elimination from the show. Things had to be perfect for the favoured contestants she told me, but for her “[Production] were not really putting a lot of effort into my performance. I knew I was not the one they wanted to push.”
Talia also says she received little mentorship compared to others, something she tells me she struggled with – “seeing everyone else supported by their mentors and there was me, just really suffering.” By the second week the once fan favourite was voted off.
After a contestant has been eliminated they're usually asked “Is there anything you’d like to say?” And, almost always, they respond, “this isn’t the last you’ve heard of me,” though it almost always is. Even the winners are forgotten: just see Ben Haenow. Yet, year after year, contestants still queue for hours to sing for producers, sure that it will change their lives despite the near certainty they are there to fill minutes on a TV show. At least in this year's celebrity edition, the show's focus is purely on entertaining.
*Production staff are subject to NDA so their names have been changed.