The four-letter word that is the key to ‘The X Factor’
I’ve fallen hard for the TV talent show and I know what makes it tick
Conor and Sean Price on The X Factor. Photograph: PA
It was love at first sight for me and The X Factor. Skin tingling, hair raising, palms sweating. A heart beats faster moment.
You could say unrequited love. It’s been going on for years. A bit of a holiday romance, perhaps. A couple of months every autumn, but by the time Christmas arrives I’m beginning to wonder if it was such a great idea. It’s all in the anticipation and inevitably there’s a bit of a let down. The sidelong glances, the fleeting tearful moments, the glimpse of perfection. It turns out it was only a glimpse, only a glance, only a tiny bit of fantasy after all.
But, boy, was it worth it.
I know there are many who don’t share my passion. Members of my own family have threatened to ban me from social gatherings. Do not, I am warned, on any account, talk about it. It’s uncool, it’s cheap and nasty, it’s manipulative and positively dangerous to those of a delicate disposition. And besides, they all chime, when was the last time, apart from One Direction, that an X Factor contestant went on to do anything in the music world, apart from the obligatory X Factor tour?
But even so, on most Saturday and Sunday evenings you’ll find me on the sofa, a bunch of tissues at the ready.
I’ve often tried to analyse what it is that keeps me watching. I produced radio and television programmes for years. I know how to press all the buttons. Cute and thick, smart and plain, spectacular voice coupled with tragedy. Mothers and fathers weeping on the side lines. It’s the old rags to riches story. From Cinderella through Eliza Doolittle to Leona Lewis. We’ve seen them all.
And yet, somehow come September, I’m back watching again.
So what is The X Factor? It’s a simple four letter word. Not cute, or sexy, or nice, or slim, or tall, or pert. It’s hope.
So far this season hope has come in abundance. Shanaya Atkinson-Jones (19), her face hidden by a mass of curly black hair, was adopted when she was three. She had a rough time, but salvation came in the shape of her adoptive parents who “love her to bits”. And there is her beautiful voice. She sings Say Something by A Great Big World. I freeze on the sofa, and my eyes fill with tears.
Then there’s Kayleigh Marie Morgan (26): overweight, with bitten fingernails and a tattoo dedicated to Simon Cowell on her backside. My heart sinks with mortification as she it bares it for him. But she doesn’t need my disapproval. She supplies it herself. I’m stupid, I’m useless, I’m ugly: “Like a pig in a blanket.”
And then she sings the Evanescence hit My Immortal. As the judges lay on the praise you can see the metamorphosis begin.
Grace Davies (20) is plump, packs vinyl in a warehouse and says she’s “destined to be singing Amy Winehouse in the corner of a pub for the rest of her days”. But she’s a writer of rare talent. And when she performs her own song Roots, I shiver and I’m smitten.
There’s 34-year-old Tracy Leanne Jefford, a Traveller who was married for 17 years before getting separated at Christmas. She transforms Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow into a savage cry from the bottom of her heart. “I listened to it a lot when I was going through my bits and pieces,” she says.
And then the sun comes out as Sean and Conor Price, the boys from Blessington, Co Wicklow, bounce into the room. Aged 15 and 17 with winsome smiles and winning voices, they’d been busking for years on Grafton Street, where as Conor put it “the big boys play”.They launch into the Bob Dylan classic All Along the Watchtower. An usual choice for kids of their age, but transformed by their mid-song rap. “Just two Irish kids making it to the top,” they sing, and Simon Cowell smiles and delivers the verdict. “Thank God we found people like you.”
So I’m stuck with it. Auditions are over. This weekend is Bootcamp weekend, and the winnowing continues. I’ll look out for my favourites. I’ll watch the light in their eyes. Confidence will be everything. How far can hope carry them? Over the rainbow? Into the promised land? To find the pot of gold? Or once again will it turn out that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.
Julie Parsons' latest novel is The Therapy House (New Island)