The boo hoo factor
The X Factor publicity machine knows the sweetest tune to our ears is the one that plays on our heartstrings
The producers of the ITV phenomenon The X Factor have noses like bloodhounds. If there is a sob story lurking in the swarms of hopefuls who audition for the hit show, they will hunt it down.
As this year's show launch date of August 22 edged closer this week, the publicity machine cranked up a notch. Judge Dannii Minogue let slip the "amazing" backstory of one of the latest batch of contestants, a 21-year-old Asperger's Syndrome sufferer who had hidden himself away in his bedroom for years.
Scott James managed to make it to the X Factor auditions in Manchester however -- and blew the judges away with his performance of that reliable tear-jerker 'You Raise Me Up'.
"He told us that because of his Asperger's Syndrome and the fact that he'd been picked on, he hadn't left the house in seven years," Minogue relayed breathlessly to an interviewer this week. "Then he started singing. You will not believe his performance when you see it."
Whatever about his voice, Scott's life story has the X Factor. The show thrives on its image as a second chance for the underdog who fights through the tough times on sheer talent. It's a sort of Rocky for pop music.
The show's canny producers -- of which chief judge Simon Cowell is the masterminding force -- know that there is no tune more seductive than the one plucked out on our heartstrings. Scott James is blessed with a two-pronged attraction. The hardships he has had to overcome have been great, and he has raw talent.
This potent combination is what transformed Susan Boyle from quiet-living Scottish spinster to SuBo, unlikely star of Britain's Got Talent (a show which is also a Cowell creation). She too had suffered bullying and social difficulties.
She was frumpy and frizzy-haired. Then she opened her mouth and silenced the sneering judges and audience with her soaring vocals.
That magical moment of discovery, an instant YouTube hit, is known in TV circles as "the reveal". Boyle would have had to perform several times for producers to get to the filmed audition. From the pantomime jeers to the perfect 'O' of surprise which took shape in Amanda Holden's mouth, a talented choreographer had been hard at work.
But that would be the view of a cynic and The X Factor's success relies on its fans to be the least cynical of all TV audiences. The desperate, the destitute and the plain pathetic all have a place in our hearts -- and the show has an unerring talent in rooting them out.
The stories swing from the trite to the traumatic. A female auditionee told how she had fallen down a staircase and was almost paralysed; a soldier elaborated on his memories of serving in Iraq and witnessing the deaths of two friends.
There is some authenticity -- after all, a person putting themselves through such a public ordeal as The X Factor must be seriously motivated to change their circumstances. (Even so, there appear to be a disproportionate number of agoraphobics who manage to cope admirably to achieve a lifelong dream to top the charts).
The talented Shayne Ward won X Factor 2006 but the runner-up, bin man Andy Abraham (42) had his blue-collar struggle remembered when he was chosen to represent the UK in last year's Eurovision. He came last.
Ward, initially a chart-topper and tipped for American stardom, has largely disappeared, showing that an X Factor win on any basis is not a guarantee of career longevity unless you are Leona Lewis. Last year's winner Alexandra Burke went double platinum with 'Hallelujah' but where is she now?
Like Abraham, former Happy Mondays backing singer Rowetta Satchell attracted attention for her visit to last-chance saloon in the 2005 series. She didn't take the charts by storm but continues to perform, and revealed her alcoholism on reality show Rehab last year.
At the other end of the age spectrum came 15-year-old Eoghan Quigg from Co Derry, his baby face and fluffy mop of hair charming audiences into voting him into the final three of last year's X Factor. His debut album was greeted with dire reviews in April but he's been touring with Boyzone this summer and, sure, hasn't he his whole life ahead of him?
More rivetting still are the contestants haunted by past traumas and the beloved departed. Natasha Benjamin's life with a violent partner was aired in her first audition for the 2007 show. Her seven-year-old daughter Jazmine was sent to stand at the table with the judges while mum performed her heart out.
That year's show also featured Niki Evans who had a poignant reason for auditioning: she found an application for X Factor in her late father's personal belongings.
Judge Louis Walsh said at the end of X Factor 2007 that "there were far too many sob stories and far too much crying in this series. This is supposed to be a talent show, not Jeremy Kyle".
Nonetheless, with 2008 came the pinnacle in the Boo Hoo Factor. Daniel Evans was targeted for interview by X Factor presenter Dermot O'Leary at general auditions as he sat cuddling his cute blonde toddler daughter. By the time he stood nervously before the judges we knew this was going to be a masterclass in pathos.
"Why are you here today?" asks Louis, evidently no longer jaded by contestants' motivations. Daniel dropped the bombshell. His wife had died in childbirth. He was a swimming pool cleaner struggling to raise three children.
As doe-eyed Cheryl Cole dabbed away tears, sad music swelled in the background -- the cue for the rest of us to take Daniel and his dead wife to our hearts.
Evans later declared: "I want the X Factor to be about me and my singing. I don't want to be seen as the sob story guy."
Also featured last year was Rachel Hylton, a former drug addict who had three of her children taken into care by the age of 26. Hylton didn't play up the 'second chance' card herself -- but the programme made such frequent reference to it that Hylton later said she felt "exploited".
Contestant Andy Turner's hopes also went under in 2008 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His appeal for his real parents to come forward and get to know him was rubbished by his birth father who said he had recently spoken to him by phone.
The hype has been cleverly constructed to the point that everyone has an opinion on The X Factor -- even Oasis's Noel Gallagher. "It's a bit s***e really, to be honest," he said last December. "'Oh, my f*****g god, my cat died, and his outstretched paw was pointing to an X, so I'm going to sing 'What's New Pussycat'!"
Now that's publicity you just can't buy.