X Factor 2011: Was Misha Bryan too black to win?

Was Misha Bryan too black to win The X Factor

Confident: Misha B performing on last week

Confident: Misha B performing on last week”s show

Since her exit from the semi-finals of The X Factor last weekend, contestant Misha Bryan has tried her best to appear sanguine. ‘That chapter of my life is now closed,’ she declared earlier this week. ‘Forgiving is the thing I have done. You shouldn’t get bitter, you should just get better.’

Strong sentiments — but what on earth, you may think, is there to forgive After all, despite exiting the competition earlier than she’d hoped, it’s clear the 19-year-old has a bright future.

Already, there are rumours she may record a duet with international rap star Missy Elliott, as well as talk that a prestigious record deal is already in the bag. Not bad for a girl who until last year was performing at community centres in some of Manchester’s less salubrious districts.

Then again, there is another part of the ‘chapter’ Misha wishes to close that sits unhappily with such a success story.

In October, X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos very publicly accused Misha of bullying her fellow contestants. Her feistiness and ambition, Ms Contostavlos said, had on occasion translated into a degree of mean behaviour backstage. Not one to mince his words, judge Louis Walsh joined in, branding Misha a bully.

Misha robustly denied the claims, but they came to define her appearance in the competition, leaving a lingering aroma which sealed her fate.

As head judge Gary Barlow said last weekend, despite her obvious vocal talent, just the very suggestion of bullying had made it impossible for Misha to win.

In one sense, this is a storm in a teacup — a familiar ‘drama’ from a show where a bit of controversy is par for the course in a bid to boost ratings. Yet in some quarters, Misha’s departure is being seen as evidence of something altogether more sinister and culturally significant.

Some commentators — both white and black — have suggested that the real reason Misha didn’t win the competition was not her behaviour, but the colour of her skin. Put bluntly, they believe she was simply ‘too black’ for The X Factor.

Among them is Erica Sebastian, a writer for The Voice — Britain’s most influential black newspaper — who wrote an article called How To Survive X Factor (If You’re Black), which examined the singer’s unpopularity. ‘No doubt branding her [Misha] a bully was a major blow to her fan base,’ wrote Sebastian,‘but the secret to her lack of success is a little closer to home.’

‘Never forget — African and African Caribbean people are a minority in this country, so in order to win, you’ve got to appeal to the masses. This means less keeping it real and more keeping it bland — like chicken korma. Acts can’t be too spicy or have too much flavour — Mr and Mrs Average Joe from Sandbach just won’t be able to digest it.’

Her views were echoed by The Colourful Times, an online site devoted to black culture, where writer Paul Boakye this week argued that while black women had won The X Factor in previous years, they only did so after being effectively sanitised for a white audience.

A key reason for the success of Leona Lewis, who won the competition in 2006, was, he stated, the fact that her complexion was not black but ‘international beige’ — while Alexandra Burke, who succeeded in 2008, had the might of the Cheryl Cole machine behind her to compensate for her darker skin.

‘As her mentor, Cole tried every trick in the book to persuade the folks at home to vote for her protge, which, of course, indirectly meant a vote for our Cheryl,’ wrote Boakye.

Support: Misha with her mentor Kelly Rowland after being voted off. She robustly denied claims of bullying, but they came to define her appearance in the competition

Support: Misha with her mentor Kelly Rowland after being voted off. She robustly denied claims of bullying, but they came to define her appearance in the competition

Rivals: Misha with fellow X Factor contestants Janet Devlin (left) and Amelia Lily (right)

Rivals: Misha with fellow X Factor contestants Janet Devlin (left) and Amelia Lily (right)

‘If you recall, Cheryl performed in between the voting, and all manner of other attempts were made throughout the series to persuade us that we were really voting for Cheryl Cole, our new English Rose, to win the competition between judges that year.’ Boakye’s observations chime with accusations that the image on the new album by Rebecca Ferguson — another former X Factor finalist mentored by Cheryl — has been photographed to make her appear much paler than she is in the flesh.

The whole controversy has even become an international issue, with the global online news site The Huffington Post carrying an article from the (white) documentary maker Cat McShane, in which she stated that Misha B was the blackest contestant the competition has ever had, which in turn meant she didn’t stand a chance. ‘The Britain that votes for X Factor is scared of black culture,’ declared McShane.

Could this be true Could it be that the British public cannot champion a strong, urban, black woman Or was Misha’s exit from the competition less sinister, a matter of personality rather than pernicious racism

As one X Factor insider told the Mail this week: ‘You can talk about skin colour, or bullying, or any number of things, but in my view it was actually far more simple than that. People just didn’t take to her. She wasn’t popular backstage and that usually translates to the public, one way or another.

“People just didn”t take to her”: Misha wasn”t popular backstage and that usually translates to the public, an X Factor inside said

‘You saw it the opposite way with Joe McElderry, who won the sixth series in 2009. All the crew loved him and the public did, too.’

There seems little doubt that Misha was not a particularly popular contestant. Let’s not forget, she herself admitted in an interview, soon after Tulisa’s outburst, that she had been a bully in the past.

‘At school I was bullied — and I’d bully people myself,’ she said, ‘but I’m a different person now. Sometimes I would get sent home just to take time out. Being called an X  Factor bully on national TV was not fair. I know I’m not a bad person.’

According to two X Factor insiders who spoke to the Mail this week, her manner was often overbearing. ‘She had very strong opinions, which is fine, but there is a way of expressing them,’ one of them revealed.

‘It’s one thing to know what you want, but if a costume designer is showing you a 500 dress, then just brushing it away is not the way to behave. It got people’s backs up.’

Yet none of this chimes with the sentiments of Misha’s friends and family, who say they barely recognise the arrogant and mean-spirited picture painted of her on the show.

Instead, they talk of a loving and spirited girl who only ever wanted to sing — and who triumphed over horribly difficult circumstances to get where she is today.

As Naomi Reed, 19, who attended school and music college with Misha, and remains one of her closest friends, puts it: ‘The people who say she looks like a hard girl really don’t know her.

‘Misha is the girl who’s always joking about, and getting everyone to smile. She’s such a nice person. I’ve got no confidence, but Misha would say: “Come on, we’ve got to do this.” She always wants everyone to do well. That’s the kind of person she is.’

What cannot be in doubt is that Misha had a very troubled childhood. Raised in Manchester’s Moss Side and Longsight — both areas of extreme social deprivation — her birth mother Florence Bryan, a former heroin addict, gave Misha and her elder sister Monique, 28, to her sister Lily to care for when Misha was only three months old.

Her father, meanwhile, disappeared shortly after Misha was born and has had no contact with her since. It must have been heartbreaking as a little girl to realise her own mother had given her away, yet other family members paint a portrait of a younggirl who never showed an ounce of self-pity.

Playing the game: Previous winner Leona Lewis Playing the game: Previous winner Alexandra Burke

Played the game and walked away with the prize: Previous winners Leona Lewis (left) and Alexandra Burke

As her half-sister Korena, 26, told the Mail this week: ‘Misha’s got a loving heart. She’s the type of girl who gets the whole family together. She’s just a really sweet thoughtful sister. For my birthday in August I was really down. I had no money and couldn’t do anything.

‘She came around with her friend Harriet and said: “We’re going for a walk, Sis.” She took me out and told me how proud she was of me. Then, we got back to my house and it was covered in balloons, banners and party poppers. She’d got me a cake and arranged for all my friends to come around. That, for me, sums Misha up.’

Together with all the family, Korena was shocked by the accusations of bullying. ‘I was very upset by what Tulisa said — we were all shouting at the TV. As far as I’m concerned that’s what made Misha lose the public vote. Obviously, we asked her if she thought that’s what made her lose, but she didn’t want to say.’

For Elizabeth Pears, a news reporter on The Voice, who has followed Misha’s progress closely, the debate over whether it was Misha’s skin colour or her bullying behaviour that led to her being voted off is a nuanced one.

“Misha B is too out there… Britain doesn”t know what to do with her”

‘I don’t think Misha was too black for the competition,’ she says, ‘but there is the stereotype of the angry black woman and when Tulisa made that connection, I think people may have internalised that, consciously or unconsciously. They stopped seeing her as this quite sweet girl from a humble background and started seeing her as a feisty diva, and people don’t like that.’

Pears interviewed Misha when the competition began, and recalls her being ‘humble and sweet’.

‘I certainly didn’t see any of the characteristics that were later levelled at her like arrogance, quite the opposite in fact,’ she says. ‘I think her real problem was that she was original. She was never going to be a dolly-like singer and in some ways she was just too edgy for what is ultimately quite a mainstream competition.’

It’s a view echoed by documentary maker Cat McShane, who believes that while Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke may have been deserving winners, they also did nothing to upset the mainstream apple cart.

‘They wore beautiful dresses, they sang ballads, they played the game and walked away with the prize,’ she says.

‘Misha B is too out there. She’s working-class, confident, even cocky, drawing comparisons with Tina Turner, Grace Jones and Missy Elliott, some of the world’s most powerful black women. Britain doesn’t know what to do with her.’

What Britain does ‘do’ with her, of course, remains to be seen. According to her family, Misha is set to remain in London for another week for ‘talks’ before returning to Manchester for Christmas.

Then comes The X Factor live tour, a fixture in the annual showbusiness calendar these days, which will see Misha performing once more alongside girl band Little Mix, Amelia Lily and Marcus Collins, who pipped her for tonight’s final.

And don’t forget that in the world of The X Factor, it is not always the show’s winner who goes on to have the most lucrative career. Anyone remember Leon Jackson

Whatever the root cause, the controversy surrounding Misha B may turn out very much to her advantage.