Together, opera duo Jonathan and Charlotte have confronted bullies, depression – and Simon Cowell’s demand they split up. Now the BGT runners-up explain why they need each other so much
21:42 GMT, 21 September 2012
Britain’s Got Talent opera duo Jonathan and Charlotte don’t like dogs. In fact, Charlotte Jaconelli is petrified of them and Jonathan Antoine is a cat lover.
Which is rather uncanny given the bookies’ favourites to win this year’s BGT were pipped to the post by an adorable dog called Pudsey and his equally adorable owner Ashleigh Butler.
‘When we were backstage, I was really trying to touch Pudsey. I said, “Ashleigh, hold it so I can slightly pat it,”’ says Charlotte, with an I’d-sooner-kiss-a-shark look on her face.
Jonathan and Charlotte wowed the crowds and judges with their true tale of friendship, as well as their musical talents
‘When I was about seven, I was in a park with my mum on a scooter and there was a man with nine dogs – none of them on leads,’ she explains.
‘They came running up and surrounded us, barking. Ever since, every time I see a dog, I think they’re going to attack me. I’m easier with older dogs that are sleepy and don’t do much, rather than little ones that…’ Scamper off with Britain’s Got Talent’s 500,000 prize and star billing at the Royal Variety Performance
‘I was happy for Ashleigh,’ she giggles. ‘It can’t be easy to get a dog to do all that stuff. And we can say we came second on one of the biggest competitions in the UK…’ But to a dancing dog
‘My friends won’t let me live that down,’ Jonathan laughs. Clearly, he doesn’t give two hoots and neither should he. Jonathan and Charlotte, who are both 17, are about to release their first album, Together, after being signed by Simon Cowell’s Syco label for a reported 1 million. With impresario Jonathan Shalit – who discovered singing prodigy Charlotte Church – masterminding their careers, they stand on the brink of the megastardom they could only have dreamt of a year ago.
Which is probably why Charlotte is as exuberant as… well, a puppy today, and Jonathan looks as if he’d wag his tail if he had one. Instead, he pushes his long curly hair off his face and sits tall in his chair in the splendid 18th-century Chiswick House, London, where we meet.
In the Britain's Got Talent The Final Only Boys Aloud finish third, Jonathan and Charlotte second, and Ashleigh and Pudsey took the crown
Indeed, their joy is infectious. All the more so because theirs is a story not just about the pursuit of record deals and a management team, but of an inspirational friendship and loyalty that moved everyone who watched this year’s BGT.
After wowing the audience with their performance of The Prayer in their first audition in front of the judges, Simon Cowell couldn’t have been more complimentary about Jonathan, obviously seeing a new Susan Boyle or Paul Potts-type figure emerge, and urged him to ‘dump’ the (supposedly) lesser-talented Charlotte, warning she would jeopardise his chances. Jonathan refused.
‘We came here as a duo and we’re going to stay here as a duo,’ he said. And, gosh, how we applauded his loyalty.
But how did Charlotte feel
‘I didn’t know how to feel,’ she says. ‘I was so happy Johnnie got the comments he deserved, then I was trying not to cry. I thought, “What do I do What do I say Do I just stand here” It was the way he said “dump” that was so disheartening.’
Simon Cowell couldnt have been more complimentary about Jonathan
Jonathan bristles at the very mention of dumping Charlotte. ‘I was just annoyed, It was unfair – the judgement was unfair,’ he says. ‘We’d had the conversation before about what would happen if that situation arose and I just followed what we said and what was right. I can’t imagine what it would be like now without her.’
In truth, Jonathan knows only too well he probably wouldn’t be here at all. For, little more than a year ago, the young man now being talked of as ‘Britain’s Pavarotti’ was having a nervous breakdown following years of bullying. It was Charlotte who gave him the will to survive.
This is the first time they’ve spoken at length about the friendship that binds them together. The chemistry between them is palpable.
They share a depth of understanding that often eludes couples who have been married for years. But this is a platonic love. Toss in the boyfriend/girlfriend question and it’s Jonathan who pulls that I’d-sooner-kiss-a-shark face.
Charlotte says, ‘We’re friends. It’s a friendship you wouldn’t expect to happen. Never in a million years would I have thought we had anything in common. We’re such opposites.’
Opposites indeed. Charlotte was the chatterbox extrovert, while Jonathan, troubled by demons he kept to himself, was a shy young man when their music teacher at West Hatch High School in Chigwell, Essex, paired them to sing The Prayer – originally performed by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion – for their GSCE exam.
Buoyed by a standing ovation at a school concert, Charlotte decided they should enter BGT together. ‘I was online when they advertised BGT and stared at it for ages, thinking, “Should I or shouldn’t I” before I started typing,’ she says. ‘Then I texted him and said, “I’ve applied for BGT.” He said, “OK.” ’
They both achieved As in their music GCSE and headed off to separate schools – Charlotte, who was hell-bent on a career in musical theatre, to the Arts Educational School in west London and Jonathan to the private Forest School in Walthamstow, north-east London, on a music scholarship.
In less than two months, Jonathan was in the midst of a terrible depression.
He’d been bullied because of his weight since he was eight. But he buried the horror of it deep inside him, not telling a soul – even his devoted parents – and hiding his misery behind his mane of dark curls and astonishing voice. ‘I’m obviously quite overweight and people noticed,’ he says.
‘It’s what kids do. It wasn’t the happiest time of my life, but I kept it inside. In that situation, you don’t know what to do with yourself. It’s very disheartening in terms of…’ He breaks off. ‘I’m trying to make words and failing slightly,’ he says, and it’s impossible not to be deeply touched by this sensitive young man, who pushes his hair away and draws a deep breath before continuing.
When they returned to the BGT stage several weeks later, theyd changed the name of their act from Charlotte and Jonathan to Jonathan & Charlotte
‘I wouldn’t let it show, so I turned it back on myself. It built up inside me and manifested later.’
The move to his new private school and away from the warm friendship he’d built with Charlotte proved to be the catalyst. He felt out of his depth, not as smart as the other pupils – exposed.
‘They wanted me to tie my hair back,’ he says. ‘In a sense, I hid behind that. I try not to any more.’ He shakes it again from his face to make his point. ‘I don’t know if it might have been partly the pressure of the new school, but everyone was very smart and I felt a little bit out of place.
‘I remember one day I reported sick to the matron and was put in a room where there was a bed. I just lay there for the whole day. I didn’t move. I was tired, not in a physical sense, just tired of being around. I wanted to sleep. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I wanted to not have existed.’
‘When we were on stage I felt numb. I couldn’t fathom what was going on.’
Jonathan had left Forest School and was attending counselling sessions at Loxford Hall psychiatric unit in Ilford, Essex, to try to break out of his depression, when Charlotte was invited to audition for BGT at the end of last year.
‘We’d completely forgotten we’d applied for it,’ she says. She looks at Jonathan. ‘I texted your mum and said they wanted us to audition. I didn’t want to tell you and put the whole pressure thing on you. I was quite happy to not do it.’ Jonathan shrugs and recalls, ‘I said, “Let’s go.” I wasn’t doing anything else.’
And so to the day when they stood before the BGT judges. ‘For a lot of that day Johnnie and me were by ourselves,’ says Charlotte.
‘We sat in a room for six hours talking to each other with mics clipped on and cameras on us. The production crew asked us a lot of questions – questions I didn’t think were appropriate, about the mental breakdown, because I knew he was in the process of it. I thought it was a bit much, and wondered, “Should we go down this route” ’ Jonathan chips in, ‘She was really helpful. She drew the line where I couldn’t. I was so nervous. My brain was in panic mode. I don’t like having my picture taken, so being filmed was making me…’
Pudsey and his owner Ashleigh Butler have made millions from the show
He sucks in his breath and shudders. ‘When we were on stage I felt numb. I couldn’t fathom what was going on.’
Charlotte smiles encouragingly at him. ‘I was watching him for his nerves.’ She turns to him and says, ‘You had this look on your face. The colour just drained.’ But Jonathan sang his heart out. They both did and the audience was soon on their feet, roaring their approval.
‘It felt like a wind,’ says Charlotte. ‘But, from the first note, I sang the wrong harmony. When we got such a good reaction from the audience, I was thinking, “Surely this is atrocious because I sang it wrong, but maybe it did sound OK”.’ Then Simon spoke…’
Charlotte truly thought Jonathan’s loyalty had cost him a place in the semi-finals and was understandably cock-a-hoop when she learnt they were through.
When they returned to the BGT stage several weeks later, they’d changed the name of their act from Charlotte & Jonathan to Jonathan & Charlotte.
It was an appropriate reversal. Jonathan’s world had turned around too. ‘Because the response was so positive, I felt I could almost embrace people as if they were my friends,’ he says. ‘I remember waking up one morning. I looked out of my window and everything seemed more vibrant – the sky, all the colours, everything just looked hopeful and good. That was something I wasn’t really accustomed to at the time.’
The pair described the show, which was judged by David Walliams, Simon Cowell, Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden, as amazing
Now, though, it was Charlotte who needed his support. Determined to prove Simon Cowell wrong, she’d worked her socks off for the semi-finals, but her confidence had been shredded by his harsh words. ‘When the act before us was on stage, I suddenly thought, “I’m going to be sick. I can’t do it.” I just started crying and shaking. I was so nervous. I thought, “I’ve dealt with him slating me once on stage, I don’t think I can deal with it again.”
‘When we were standing on the stage, I looked at Simon’s face and started crying again. I remember thinking, “Please just be nice.” Then I looked at Johnnie and said, “I can’t do it.”
He said, “You’ll be fine.” The worst feeling was when it was over because I didn’t know what they were going to say. Then Simon started talking and he did that thing where he starts really serious and sounds like he’s going to be really negative.’
But he wasn’t. Instead he told Jonathan he’d made his best decision ever by sticking with Charlotte. Jonathan raises a victorious fist in the air when I mention this.
‘Everything’s been amazing,’ he says. ‘It’s intimidating as well. But just to know you have someone who has your best interests at heart, someone you can trust…’ He beams at Charlotte, who beams back at him.
Jonathan and Charlotte’s debut album Together is released on Monday. Watch Red Or Black tonight at 7.25pm on ITV1 for an exclusive performance by the duo featuring fellow BGT finalists Only Boys Aloud.