ACCESS ALL AREAS
Declan Cashin goes backstage at the hottest TV gig in town
Sunday evening in the northwest London suburb of Wembley is usually only about one thing: 'The X Factor'. The show's home, Fountain Studios, is nestled in the shadow of the colossal Wembley Stadium, an imposing physical and psychological presence for the poor creatures trying desperately to win the public vote to get to the point where they might, perhaps, maybe, with a little luck, sell out that very stadium with a triumphant tour in the future.
Tonight, though, the venue has been taken over by some 80,000 American Football fans who are there to cheer on the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That background event seems appropriate for 'The X Factor' this year, however: an American cultural touchstone trying to gain a foothold in the British consciousness, just as Simon Cowell is attempting to sell British television's biggest show to an ambivalent American public.
The Dark Overlord's absence, as well as the departures of Dannii Minogue and Cheryl Cole, has produced the "new generation" of judges, but there's one constant from the previous series, and that's Mayo's most prominent export, Louis Walsh.
'Weekend' was Louis' guest at last Sunday night's result show, at the end of which he had to choose between Kitty Brucknell and Sami Brookes, two of his own acts from the Over 25 category.
In the end, Louis sent Sami home.
It was a tense weekend for everyone involved in the show. All week, the papers had been carrying reports about Simon Cowell's apparent fury that this series has slipped in the ratings and that it lacked any major zing.
Watching the show on Saturday night, it was hard not to conclude that the sudden bitchiness on stage and between the judges was a direct response to his intervention.
On Sunday evening, my guest and I arrive at Fountain Studios at 6pm and set up prime stalking position at the bar in the VIP holding area. The contestants don't have dressing rooms, so they wander in and out of here when they're not being primped.
First contestants spotted are the adorable Marcus Collins and the waif-like rebel without a clue, Frankie Cocozza.
Halfway through dinner, Sinitta comes over to the lads -- yes, she's still around, bless her -- with a bag of bracelets and accessories to drape over them. Misha B -- she of the freshly minted 'backstage diva/bully' accusations -- strolls through wrapped in a dressing gown, her hair properly helmeted and lacquered for the night's appearance.
At 7pm, we're herded into the studio to take our seats for a pre-record of the performance by Bruno Mars, who has to nip off early to do a show in Brixton. For continuity's sake, the host Dermot O'Leary and four judges are brought out for the Mars set.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that the biggest cheer is reserved for Gary Barlow, followed closely by Tulisa.
There doesn't seem to be much rapport between the two women, especially after the tense standoff the night before, during which Tulisa, and then Louis, accused Misha B of making disparaging comments about other contestants in the show.
As 8pm approaches, the 11 remaining contestants are brought on stage for O'Leary's live pre-credits intro. Once the show ends, the contestants head back into the VIP area, where they are ambushed for pictures and autographs as if they're one of The Beatles, or even Justin Bieber.
One of the first through is Tyrone-born Janet Devlin. The teenager was upset during the results as she'd grown close to Sami, but she looks more composed now.
"I'm getting better at faking being confident," she says with a nervous smile as she poses for a picture. Next in is Frankie, who is immediately swamped by young girls. To be fair, he's patient and talks to all of them. Marcus comes in then, and is a popular one in the room, along with Johnny.
At 10.30pm, Louis fetches us to take us backstage to the judges' area. Gary isn't around, and we can't spot Kelly either, but in Louis' dressing room there's a small party going on with Sami, Kitty and Johnny.
I follow Louis next door to Tulisa's dressing room. I'm still making up my mind about Tulisa as a judge, but in person she's very friendly. "Any mate of Louis' is a friend of mine," she says, pulling me in for a picture.
Racks of clothes take up a lot of space in the room. There are boxes of supplements on her table -- Wellwoman and Perfectil for skin, nails and hair. There are a few bottles of Champagne open, and Tulisa's aunt is dishing out the glasses.
Tulisa chit-chats about her Irish relatives -- her mum Anne Byrne is originally from these parts -- and how most of the drummers who performed with Kelly Clarkson on stage earlier in the show come from Wexford.
The topic turns to her time on the show so far. "I never thought I'd get as emotionally involved as I am," she says, waving an arm that I can't stop staring at. Erm, what's the story with the arm-wave thing you do when you're introduced on stage, I ask her?
She shows me the tattoo on her left arm, which reads 'The Female Boss'. "It's what I stand for and it sums me up," she explains.
Things start wrapping up around 11.30pm. The knackered contestants are rounded up to be taken by coach to their house in nearby Hartford.
I catch a ride into central London in Louis' chauffeur-driven car (only the best for 'Weekend', darlings). Louis winds downs, checking texts and emails on two phones.
One is from David Hasselhoff, as you do. Another message is from Simon Cowell. It's a text of support in response to a story they know will be on the front page of a British tabloid the next morning: that Louis is getting the sack from 'The X Factor', and Cowell is swooping in to replace him.
"It's rubbish," Louis says of the story. But isn't Cowell worried about reports that this year's show is losing viewers? "This is the second-biggest series of the show ever in terms of ratings," Louis responds. "And it will get bigger as the weeks go on."
Louis is still getting to know Kelly Rowland, but is in full-on showbiz crush mode with the other new mentor Tulisa. "She's the most honest judge I've ever worked with," he gushes. "She's so genuine and real."
As the car drops me off, I just have time to ask how Louis is getting on with Gary Barlow, who has since replaced Cowell as "head judge" and occasional Mr Nasty.
The Take That frontman hasn't been shy about reminding Louis of the new pecking order either. "Gary and I are friends," says Louis. "We don't always agree, and we rib each other quite a bit, but it's all good fun."
He pauses and adds, with a smile. "It's just like me and Simon in that respect."