Inside the X Factory: 12-hours waits for a five-minute shot at fame… behind the scenes of the auditions for TV's most ruthless showMass London audition takes place in former Millennium DomeGroups of around 100 contestants at a time are herded like cattle into rows of seatsHopefuls wait to be called into one of 20 audition pods around the venue
22:00 GMT, 16 August 2012
A predictable parade of conceited singers, desperate wannabes and attention-seeking oddballs will be invading the sitting rooms of millions of British households tomorrow night.
The X Factor — incredibly in its ninth season — returns to our screens with the popular but, according to some critics, exploitative audition shows.
Until now the reality of taking part in the country’s highest-rated TV show, which launched the careers of Leona Lewis, One Direction and Olly Murs, has remained Simon Cowell’s closely guarded secret.
Judgement day: The new X Factor panel (from left) Gary Barlow, Tulisa Constavlos, Nicole Scherzinger and Louis Walsh
But this year I was granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access, where I discovered a contestant’s big moment in front of the four judges comes only at the end of a long — and usually fruitless — process.
It’s a brisk April morning at London’s O2 Arena in North Greenwich — the first day of X Factor 2012 auditions in the capital. But the judges are nowhere to be seen.
In fact, Gary Barlow is away working on his song for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Louis Walsh is busy engaging in a very public media battle with former judge Cheryl Cole and Tulisa Contostavlos is spending time with her latest love interest in a different part of the city. New judge Nicole Scherzinger hasn’t even been hired yet.
But for 10,000 applicants who believe The X Factor will change their lives, this is the start of their so-called ‘journey’. A journey that begins with a 12-hour wait in the freezing cold.
Inside the venue, formerly known as the Millennium Dome, a bizarre mass audition is beginning. Groups of around 100 contestants at a time are herded like cattle into rows of seats. They wait to be called into one of at least 20 audition pods spaced around the venue.
Inside each one, a member of Cowell’s staff — picked both from his record company Syco and X Factor producer Thames — is poised to pass judgment on hundreds of singers from dawn to dusk.
Busy: Staff from Simon Cowell's record company Syco and X Factor producer Thames pass judgements on hundreds of singers
The contestant steps up on to a black platform to sing two songs. With so many people singing at the same time, the noise levels are immense.
If there were a factory for producing popstars this would be it.
Cowell’s ‘pop pickers’ are not just looking for the potential superstars, as one might assume.
They also want the extroverts and tone-deaf contestants who have no chance of winning, but make the audition shows so entertaining.
‘The ones we want are either supremely talented, especially good looking or simply barking,’ a show staffer explains.
Moubaied, a 16-year-old, from Essex, who previously made the top 50
vying to become Oliver on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BBC talent show I’d Do
Anything, has just auditioned and is confused.
got in there and couldn’t work out what was going on. There were no
judges, just a bunch of booths, which you would go in to sing,’ he tells
‘You sit in lines and
they call you up row by row. While you’re waiting you can hear everyone
else singing, but you can’t see anyone because the booths are covered
over. It was very competitive. I didn’t have a clue who was picking me.
But I think they’re producers on the show.’
contestants who make it through to the next round then have their
personal history thoroughly researched by the show’s staff before a
decision is made whether they will get to perform in front of the
A failed music career You’re through. A
tear-inducing sob story Call-back guaranteed. Related to Cheryl Cole
Bingo! — Her 21-year-old niece Melissa Armstrong makes it through to
perform in front of the judges this year, albeit only to be rejected.
But while the hopefuls — who have
applied for the show after seeing TV commercials calling on people to
audition — believe they are competing on a level playing field, that’s
not strictly true.
year, for the first time, a number of Cowell’s professional talent
spotters have sought out singers and bands who already have professional
agents and might be good for the show.
lucky few are fast-tracked through the audition process and given a
guaranteed shot in front of Gary and the panel. In the past, The X
Factor hasn’t allowed contestants with existing contracts — and in a few
cases that slipped through, the show has had to buy them out.
Family ties: Related to Cheryl Cole Bingo! Her 21-year-old niece Melissa Armstrong makes it through to perform in front of the judges this year, albeit only to be rejected.
Is it fair that some are being fast-tracked ‘In the end everyone has to go through the same process,’ a show worker insists.
weeks later, it’s back to the O2. This time it is an unseasonably hot
Saturday in London, with temperatures topping 27c. For the first time,
the judges — Gary, Louis, Tulisa and guest Leona Lewis — will actually
see the contestants.
they’re served a lavish lunch spread in a backstage suite, it’s a
different story for the ‘lucky’ auditionees and their friends and
I join them in a
holding area in the public car park of the O2. There’s a row of ten
Portaloos, some fold up chairs and not much else. They wait, and they
wait, and they wait.
some ways, it’s incredible so many people go to such great lengths for
the tiniest hope of success on the show. After all, history proves even X
Factor winners tend to wither within a year.
2010 champion Matt Cardle was axed by Sony a few months ago and the
programme hardly made stars out of Leon Jackson, Shayne Ward, Steve
Brookstein or Joe McElderry, either.
Remember them After being voted the winner by millions of viewers Matt Cardle, left, lost his record contract a few months ago while other stars such as Steve Brookstein have failed to make an impact
But 42-year-old Jason Patrick
Pritchard, who’s wearing his favourite Versace velvet suit, has no
intention of giving up on his dream, despite failing to get through
‘This is third
time lucky,’ he says hopefully. ‘I was working in the software
industry, but I gave it up because it was affecting my music career. I’m
now a singer-songwriter. The rules have changed this year, so I can
perform one of my own songs.’
I speak to 23-year-old Zimbabwe-born Sharon, a singing waitress from
Essex. She has also auditioned twice before. But she’s considered such a
strong contender this year that presenter Dermot O’Leary interviewed
her mum Rose and dad Godfrey earlier in the day.
clear her personal story has piqued the interest of producers. ‘They’re
constantly asking about my family background, because we all sing in a
choir and are from Zimbabwe originally,’ she says. ‘We came here in 2000
when I was ten years old.’
Mastroianni, 26, a distant relative of the Italian actor Marcello
Mastroianni, applied to audition once before but pulled out because of
her nerves. She’s getting fed up after seven hours of waiting: ‘There’s
no glamour about this at all.
Look at the Portaloos in the corner. We’ve
had to go to Marks & Spencer to buy ourselves some food.’
So far everyone I’ve spoken to is some
sort of talent show reject, so X Factor staff quickly move me on to
Roger Dos Santos. Roger, 18, who lives in Surrey but was born in
Portugal, has been picked out as one of the early favourites.
is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. I lined up for my
first audition from 8am to 8pm before getting called up, so I wouldn’t
be here if it wasn’t worth it. I’m going to do one of my own songs. It’s
a risk, but I hope it pays off.’
Hopeful: Roger Dos Santos, 18, who lives in Surrey but was born in Portugal, is been picked out as one of the early favourites. He has queued up from 8am to 8pm
up to 12 hours in the heat, one of the show’s army of 20-something
runners, who all look like fashion models in their tight black X Factor
T-shirts, move the contestants one by one into the holding area that
viewers will get to see on the show.
from the uncomfortable conditions outside, the area is like a dressing
room for a Hollywood A-lister, with large mirrors, stacks of make-up and
hair products, and trendy black furniture.
the new innovation is essentially a TV set and is referred to by X
Factor staff as ‘the reality room’. That’s because, once inside, their
every move is filmed by one of five camera operators.
show staff member says it’s more like being in the Big Brother house:
‘There are even hidden cameras inside the mirrors. It’s incredible what
the contestants will say when they think they’re not being filmed.’
believe the friends and family are here simply for support either. The
reality is that they’re part of the show, too. Often 20 strong, they
stand next to Dermot in a separate set next to the stage and add to the
drama as their friend or family member takes to the stage.
the arena, the four judges are finally introduced to an audience of
10,000 members of the public who have also lined up for the privilege of
watching their favourite TV show be filmed. One by one, the contestants
are called out for their moment in the spotlight. They’ve been waiting
months for this, but it won’t last any more than five minutes.
soon as the singer steps on to the stage, the judges get to work. They
each take turns to ask scripted questions designed to elicit emotional
information from the contestants.
Tulisa asks an early favourite called Charlotte: ‘What’s inspired you to audition today’
mum,’ she replies. ‘She died last year. She wanted me to do this and I
felt I had to do it for her. Hopefully, I’ll make her proud. It means a
Auditionee Charlotte says her mum who died last year inspired her to sing. She says: 'Hopefully, Ill make her proud. It means a lot.
She then sings His Eye Is On The
Sparrow, a gospel hymn that was her mother’s favourite song. The
audience gives her a standing ovation and there is not a dry eye in the
house. Tulisa tells her: ‘I’m sure your mum is watching over you now and
will be so proud of that performance.’
judges get an indication from off-stage to stop a contestant singing
when producers have clearly seen enough, although on TV it looks like
the judges decide when to end the audition.
entire arena is deemed a TV set. Even the audience members have to
agree to be filmed for cut-away shots. Legendary warm-up man Ian Royce, a
Cowell favourite who has the same job on Britain’s Got Talent, will
sometimes ask them to repeat reactions so they can be filmed from
Next up is Madeline Wilson, 21, from North London. ‘I went to school with Tulisa when we were 12.’
‘I was a geek,’ Tulisa giggles. That will make another good story for TV.
Contestant Ed Wilkinson is being set up as the new Frankie Cocozza, pictured, the cocky teenager who was booted off the show last year for cocaine use
doesn’t take long for one of the joke acts to hit the stage. It’s
Cleveland from Crystal Palace, who performs three minutes of the most
painful rapping I’ve ever heard.
audience lap it up. They’re much more enthusiastic than they’ve been
for any of the more talented singers. Unbelievably, the judges ask him
to perform another song. This is the cynical part of the show, as he
clearly has no chance of winning.
the producers have an idea and prompt Louis to ask: ‘Can you do the
chorus again and we’ll all join in’ Once again, it’s all for TV.
cycle repeats again and again. After two hours, I have to leave when a
contestant called Ed Wilkinson (he insists on being referred to as Eddie
being set up as the new Frankie Cocozza, the cocky teenager who was
booted off the show last year for cocaine use, but gained a legion of
‘I want to
be the new Freddie Mercury,’ he says without a hint of irony, after
leaping on to the judges’ table during his performance.
‘Remember Frankie Cocozza — we thought he was going to be great,’ Louis warns, before adding, ‘I couldn’t hear your vocals.’
‘Let’s sack the sound man,’ Ed replies, a comment that will no doubt be edited out.
vast majority of contestants don’t make it through to boot camp, of
course. Their dream is over. Well, for another year at least.
some, the rejection is hard to take. On tomorrow night’s show, ITV will
broadcast the most controversial audition in the history of The X
Police got involved after Pink impersonator Zoe Alexander reacted badly to being rejected by the judges for acting too much like the famous singer.
After being told she isn’t going through, she’s shown swearing at the judges and physically manhandling show staff. She was later cautioned by police for her behaviour. However, Zoe insists she had been told to perform a Pink song by show staff.
When I expressed how uncomfortable I was with the situation, the show’s executive producer Richard Holloway explained what he calls the song selection ‘process’.
‘A conversation takes place between them and us about what they want to sing. They come with five songs prepared. It’s up to the judges’ discretion which songs they want to hear out of those five.’
Strong: Zimbabwe-born Sharon, 23, has auditioned twice before. But shes considered such a strong contender this year that presenter Dermot OLeary interviewed her mum Rose and dad Godfrey earlier in the day
Judge Tulisa insists Zoe was not telling the truth when claiming she was told what to sing. ‘As far as I’m concerned, that’s not the case. Nobody gets told what to sing. It’s their audition at the end of the day,’ she tells me.
‘There is always going to be the odd person that throws this massive hissy fit. Out of thousands of people who have auditioned over the years, this was one person who can’t control their temper.
‘I don’t think it’s a reason for people to say: “Oh my God, we’ve got to think about their emotional stability.” That’s one person. It’s her issue. She chose to bring those issues to the stage.’
I ask a staff member if they let rejected contestants commiserate in private. ‘No,’ I’m told. ‘We have microphones hidden all the way down the hallway so we can hear what they say after they’ve walked off stage.’
And that’s why I won’t be able to resist tuning in to see the finished results.
The X Factor, season nine, starts on ITV1 tomorrow at 8pm.