Just seven days in, and it already feels as though the X-Factor never went away. Once again, we’re plunged into a world of cacophonous voice-overs, giant CGI Xs crashing onto London like something out of Man of Steel, and so many queues of eager young hopefuls. One thing that does seem to be changing, is the confidence of the contestants, who’ve finally begun to come out of their shells. They used to rock on their heels in hoodies, eyes turned to the ground, almost apologetic about taking part in a competition. Now they’re up on strategically placed platforms, dancing to the music that exists only in their heads as camera cranes swoop dramatically overhead.
It must be a slow day in Manchester, as the local news appears to be covering the arrival of Cowell and company. And despite the best efforts of the excitable ushers who are welcoming hopefuls by turning themselves into directional signage, Manchester still seems as rough as Mel B in asbestos dungarees. Cheryl’s not intimidated by the grimy vibe – compared with her Newcastle upbringing, this must be like mooring a yacht in St Kitts – she knows that “Manchester always delivers a golden nugget.” She’s probably thinking of McDonalds.
This week’s first wannabe is Ten Senah. When pushed for a job description, she responds “I party.” I can’t tell if this means she just celebrates all the time, or if her social engagements are of the transactional variety. Having stayed out all night before her audition, she swaggers into the room and announces “I’m gonna do an original, it’s called 15 minutes,” as if she’s already cottoned onto the likely extent of her fame. She sings like Beverly Knight, if she’d just eaten a pack of Marlboro Reds, but the whole performance is a bit of a mess. Cheryl blinks some kind of Morse Code warning to Ten, then adds that she’s not taking it seriously. “You wanna be a backing vocalist – carry on, party forever.” I’m sure the stars of ‘Fifty Feet From Stardom’ might disagree. Simon sums things up, saying “You got four yesses, why don’t you go an celebrate with a hot, black..” I don’t like where this is going. It’s OK, he went with ‘coffee.’
Less than ten minutes into the show, and we’re already prizing open the cage door marked ‘crazy.’ Here’s ‘Queen Christina,’ Britain’s answer to Lady Gaga. But only if the question was, “What would happen if Gaga replaced Barbara Windsor on those Bingo ads?” Looking like a decorative toilet-roll cover, she runs through a surreal opera performance that sounds like a mouse tuning his viola. She tells us “A few years ago my voice went into the stratosphere.” And that’s probably where it should stay; like the posters say, ‘In space, no-one can hear you scream.’ Mel decides that it was all a bit nuts, which is pretty harsh coming from someone with Geri Halliwell on speed-dial.
Maria Ellinas is a receptionist who looks to have had some cosmetic dentistry done, courtesy of Groupon. Her veneers make it impossible for her to sing Street Life, without making every ‘s’ into a ‘sh.’ As the judges dissolve into giggles, I’m distinctly unimpressed. Speech impediment or no, that was a load of sit.
Hot Charlie Martinez is with the US airforce, and needed White House clearance in order to appear on the X-Factor. He performs an anodyne bilingual rendition of Enrique Iglesias that has Mel B out of her seat like there was an electric current running through it. Equally popular with our judges is Charlie Brown, who croaks his way through Trouble and is complimented for having a great throwback sound. You know, just like Ray Lamontagne, whose song he was performing. Good grief.
Ben Haenow refuses to dream it’s over. He’s a twenty nine year-old van driver who’s seventy percent stubble. His Ain’t No Sunshine is fair enough, but I’m kind of wishing they’d fade him out and just play the rest of the Minder theme instead. “What’s the most unusual thing you’ve had in the back of your van?” the judges ask him, and I’m concerned it’s a little too early for #gaycode. The judges are happy to put him through, but there’s an awkward moment as he goes in for a congratulatory cuddle and Mel B warns him off with “I don’t kiss.” To be honest, I doubt she sits down to pee either.
Jake Sims has to look after his sister and mum, and is hoping to provide for them by appearing on X-Factor. I guess the odds of finding gainful employment in Bristol are just too slim. Kyle and Josh are identical twins, and they’re wearing matching bandanas that make them look like they take their fashion tips from the ninja turtles.
Finally, after an interminable parade of tedium, we meet Monica Michael. She might be wearing earrings large enough for Beth Ditto to hula-hoop in, but she seems grounded and genuine. She’s written a song for her sister, about the dangers of falling in with the wrong crowd, and it’s surprisingly good. She’s less polished than Adele, largely because she hasn’t had the benefits of a Brits School education, but the sincerity and talent are inarguable. Cheryl weeps one of her photogenic mono-tears, and Mel complements her “torn and versatality.”
Jack Walton is from Castleford, which Mel B knows all about, since she too is from Leeds. I hope you’re paying attention, since Mel’s Leeds roots hardly ever get mentioned. Unless she happens to open her mouth. Jack might be the dullest 17 year old ever to violate a sports sock, but the grit in his voice has Cheryl wanting to rub herself on a gravel driveway.
James Graham doesn’t like animals, but “could learn to love them” if it would win him Simon’s favour, and Bre Musiq does a good job with No Diggity, despite having to perform it whilst picturing Louis in a bikini. Returning from last year is a newly slimmed down Paul Akister, who was dropped by Louis at the judges’ houses round. Louis chews on his dentures and avoids eye contact for the duration of his song, then refuses to apologise, bleating “I did the right thing.”
Chloe Hedley tells us that “Music doesn’t just mean a lot, it means (dramatic pause) everything.” It may have prevented her from falling into a bad crowd, but it won’t be helping her get to Wembley any time soon. Mel tries to look encouraging, but her expression quickly devolves into an eye-roll.
Thankfully, Lola Saunders is here to save the day. She’s not very glamorous, and she’s desperate for a job that doesn’t leave her smelling of fish. Insert your own joke here. “I want to sing,” she admits, “I can’t do anything else good.” Well, public speaking is certainly out of the question. She sings To Make You Make You Feel My Love, and manages to make it something more than a karaoke cover of Adele’s version. In fact, the only thing to spoil the whole audition is the judges’ protracted reaction, which drags on like the second act of The Green Mile. At least tomorrow’s show is fifteen minutes shorter.
Perhaps sensing the audience’s growing weariness with the format, the producers are in a rush to get us to Wembley, where the successful auditionees will be re-evaluated by a bunch of mooing, jeering idiots. And an arena-sized audience. It’s an entirely unnecessary extra wrinkle in the format, but it seemed to work for the ratings last time. So this will be our last hour of closed-room auditions, and it promises to be a triple-paracetemol head-banger, if the teaser is anything to go by. Think Wilhelm Scream in triplicate, and you’d be halfway there. On top of that, there’s a weird new special effect, where our young hopefuls’ texts to family and friends are visualised on screen. Coming so soon after a bunch of hacking scandals, I’m not sure this sends the best message about Syco’s concern for the wellbeing of its talent. We’re also reintroduced to our judges with some weird Terminator-cam – I’m just waiting for it to evaluate Louis Walsh as a waste of ammo (one for the Guns N Roses fans there), but then we’re all distracted by the sight of Simon nuzzling a puppy.
Kerriann Covell works in a shoe shop, and complains that most of her customers’ feet stink. It’s gone eight o’clock; you’ve finished dinner, right? Anyway, she’s playing hooky from work and there’s every chance she could get sacked for her unprofessionalism. Her mum’s on-hand to misrepresent the situation with a double negative; inexplicably telling her “You’ve jeopardised losing your job.” She’s got a touch of the Spraggans about her, but the performance is surprisingly authentic, despite the double thumbs up she gave as the accompaniment started. Sensing that she’s done enough to win over the judges, she smiles to reveal an alarming amount of gum. Cheryl credits her with inventing the goosebump, and complements her ‘gorgeous face,’ just as Kerriann gurns like Muriel Heslop. Simon takes her phone to call her boss (he’s obviously run out of minutes on his own) and leaves a message to say that, although Kerriann’s through to Wembley, she’d like to keep her job in the short term – no sense getting her hopes up.
As the auditionees make bold pronouncements like “Cheryl Cole’s back. We’re in Newcastle. It feels right,” we’re introduced to Lauren Lovejoy, who seems to be dressed for an ITV2 take on Mad Men. Her voice is just as overstyled as her outfit, and she completely oversings Jessica Rabbit’s signature tune. Stevie Tennet is still studying for his GCSEs, so Cheryl voices her opposition to the inclusion of 15 year olds in the content. Based on his performance, so am I. Maybe he’ll be better in a couple of years’ time, but for now he sounds like he’s out of breath from all the wanking. Not to worry, his audition seems to have done the trick. “I have to say, I’ve got to eat a bit of cake right now,” adds Cheryl, cryptically. Either she means humble pie, or she’s hypoglycaemic – someone get that woman a Krispy Kreme.
Starlite’s star doesn’t shine very bright. It doesn’t help that she’s wearing an unflattering black catsuit and an orange visor, and parades around the audition room being rude to the judges. Her rendition of I Will Survive is just as unintelligible as her own composition, but the audience outside laugh along with their favourite kind of idiot-baiting.
Doctor King, comes from Leeds, lives in Bristol and has decided to audition in Newcastle. He’s got lovely blue eyes, but there’s clearly nothing behind them. He attempts a terrible rap, then cops an attitude when the judges prove resolutely unmoved. Cheryl schools him on the difference between ‘entrance’ and ‘exit,’ by which point it’s quite clear that he needs to rethink his life.
Now it’s time for the star of tonight’s show – the curiously spelled Raign. Looking like a cross between Stacey Solomon and a whippet trapped in a lift door, the 31 year-old launches into an incomprehensible monologue, talking over all the judges and winding up Mel and Cheryl before she’s sung a note: “I am an artist, singer-songwriter, writer, really cool, alternative, gets all chart stuff, I think a big part of what I’ve got to sell to the world is my personality, what I need to say to my fans, it’s not enough for me over twitter, they love it up on twitter, but I’m a personality and I wanna be in the world.”
She boasts that she once took a duvet in a suitcase to L.A., but her story would be a lot more interesting if it went somewhere. Actually, so would she. She drones on and on in her monotonous voice, and it’s like listening to a call centre worker read through the Ts and Cs on a new insurance policy. Raign rejects the suggestion that her career isn’t going to plan, telling us “I’m number 17 in Russia. I have a whole team of people, my friend works at Marc Jacobs.” I know someone who works at Waitrose. What’s her point? Her audition is terrible, and things aren’t made any better when she dismisses the other judges; telling them that Simon’s is the only vote that matters. Eagle-eared viewers should, by now, have noticed that the producers are accompanying this footage with the music from 28 Days Later. Cheryl’s getting more and more wound up, so let’s hope Raign tries to offer her a lollipop and a hand towel. Having been rejected, Raign storms back in and forces Simon to put her through. Cheryl comments on the ugliness of her desperation, thereby sealing her fate as the mentor for the ‘Overs’ this year.
Other contestants in the saggy midsection include Janet Grogan, who tells us “My parents mean the absolute universe to me,” because sometimes, the world is not enough. Emily Middlemas is like a squeaky an inoffensive Cher Lloyd, and Lizzy Pattinson is like Michaela Strachan singing Smelly Cat. “Have we met before,” smarms Simon. “Maybe in your dreams,” she shoots back. She’ll go a long way, this one.
Michael Rise works in a chip shop and bores us with his tale of “washing’t tayties.” “What’s popular?” asks a clearly bored Simon, and Michael disappoints everyone by not replying. “Chips.” They’re all shocked that he’s singing Whitney Houston, whereas I’m more surprised he picked something off her embarrassing final album. His performance is solid, if a little theatrical, but he’s quite endearing as he chews his fist, awaiting the verdict. Simon and Cheryl decide that he’s a “little diva” and Louis looks affronted that he didn’t get to use his favourite word. “If you get a yes from Mel, then you must be alright,” adds Louis. Yeah, that’s what Jimmy Gulzar thought too.
Kayleigh Manners is a gorgeous young girl with an L-Word vibe and too many facial piercings. She complains that “The place where I come from, gets a bit of a bad reputation. But Mel B came from here.” The two facts may be connected.
The final slot in the auditions goes to Jake Quickenden, a pretty boy from two years ago. Since appearing on the show, he’s signed with agents and been working as a model and TV presenter. He even had his airbrushed arse on display in Gay Times. But none of this is mentioned, since there’s TRAGEDY to cover. He starts with a John Legend song that isn’t working, so Mel and Cheryl ask him to sing something else, but resist the urge to tell him to try it without the shirt. His second performance is better, and to no-one’s surprise, the judges all agree to put him through. Mel “I don’t do kisses” B gets up and gropes him. “He didn’t even mention that sob story till I asked him,” she adds, neglecting to mention that they’ve got extensive notes in front of them.
Still, that’s the shortlist sorted – next week, we’re off to Wembley. See you there.