From Dublin to Texas, 'X Factor' fever is back
With national treasure Mary Byrne and friends from last year's series playing the O2 next week, Ed Power reports on Simon Cowell's plans for world domination
The contrast could not have been starker. In a lavish half-time commercial at the Super Bowl final in Texas last weekend, the Sauron of soft pop, Simon Cowell, was depicted being reassembled from broken fragments, a tag-line declaring: 'He's Back!'
The 30-second spot was for the forthcoming American version of The X Factor and carried a $3m price-tag. With an estimated 100 million watching, Cowell will probably judge it cash wisely splashed.
Several thousand miles away, the winner of the UK edition of The X Factor was photographed celebrating his victory by splurging on a gleaming new . . . Peugeot 107 (retail price, £9,500). The night before, Matt Cardle prepared for the upcoming X Factor arena tour of Ireland and the UK by playing a unpaid gig at his local pub.
The lesson is that unless your name is Leona Lewis, life for a former X Factor star can be a slog. Next week, the cream of the most recent series will descend on Dublin for an unprecedented five-show run at The O2 (including matinees).
Judging by past seasons, they will have to work hard to have a career 12 months from now. Consider 2009 champion Joe McElderry, who went from headlining The O2 in March to performing at a city-centre pub at Christmas.
In Dublin, the loudest screams will be for former Tesco employee Mary Byrne, who reached the semi-finals of the series, along the way becoming a cause celebre in Ireland. Indeed, if any of the 2010 crop stands a chance of emulating Susan Boyle, the Britain's Got Talent discovery who has gone on to sell millions of records, it may be the Dubliner. A gifted vocalist whose unassuming persona is in contrast to the fame-obsessed desperation that is so often the defining characteristic of reality TV stars, Mary has been back and forth to London since the series wrapped, working on her debut album Mine And Yours, which comes out on March 25. Her deal with Sony Records is worth a reported €1m and Madonna and Barbra Streisand producer Nigel Wright oversaw the project.
"What you see on the X Factor is pretty much what you get with Mary," says Tom Evans, producer of the TG4 reality show Nollaig Number 1, which Byrne -- then going as 'Mary Lee' -- won in 2008. "She is that too-nervous-to-get-on-stage person. Once she got up on stage, she was grand. Once the judges started talking to her, she'd go back to her default nervous state. I thought she would win The X Factor, to the honest," he adds.
However, Cowell does it, there's little doubting X Factor's potency as a brand. Such was the demand to see the O2 shows, Aiken Promotions was forced to announce extra performances, with a matinee laid on to cater for the mid-term break audience. In all, the contestants will perform 60 dates on their slog around Ireland and Britain.
And the TV show itself remains as popular as ever. Now in its seventh season, the 2010 finale attracted 17 million viewers in the UK alone. Over the course of the 10-week series, viewers cast 15.4 million votes, reaping millions in extra profits for ITV.
Along the way, Cowell's creation has achieved an unlikely credibility. It has acquired cachet among people you might not expect to take it seriously. "X Factor has its place in that it's really entertaining," says hotly tipped Birmingham-Irish songstress Clare Maguire. "There are so many people who are desperate to be singers. And there are people who need entertainment in their lives; to be able to switch off on a Saturday night."
Moreover, established stars confess that, had their careers not taken off, they might have considered taking the Cowell route. The winner of the prestigious BBC Sound Of 2009 Poll, pop singer Little Boots, actually auditioned for an early X Factor. And Welsh classical singer Katherine Jenkins says that, were she trying to break through today, she too may have tried her luck.
"X Factor is a great thing for people who don't know how to get into the music business," Jenkins says. Had I not had the breaks I had you might have seen me doing something like that."
For Cowell, though, the UK edition of the show is no longer his first priority. He's spent much of the past few months across the Atlantic laying the groundwork for the US version of The X Factor, which goes head-to-head against the series that made him famous Stateside -- American Idol -- when it premieres next autumn.
That may seem a way off but already the show has become ensnared in controversy. First it was reported that Jennifer Lopez had flirted with joining Cowell on the judging panel only to baulk at the last minute.Then came rumours -- swiftly denied -- that Lindsay Lohan was being lined up as a judge. The latest brouhaha surrounds Cheryl Cole, whom Cowell is keen to have on board as an adjudicator. The problem is that Cole is unknown in the US and it is believed that Cowell's American backers have misgivings about her Geordie charms translating in America. To that end, she's been instructed to soften her accent.
If that's what life in the big time is like, then maybe Matt Cardle, zipping through rush-hour in his new Peugeot, can consider himself as having escaped lightly.
The X Factor featuring Mary Byrne, Aiden, Paije, Matt, One Direction, Wagner, Katie, Rebecca and Cher reaches The O2, Dublin, from February 22-24, with matinees at 1.30pm on the Wednesday and Thursday.