When Storm Lee looks back on his X Factor experience, he will have good reason to feel hard done by.
All through the buildup shows, Storm seemed to be being groomed for a central role in the early live shows. His spat with Simon over his stage name seemed to set him up to be this year’s anti-Simon candidate. The editing of reaction shots during his bootcamp performance suggested we were meant to be mesmerised. At judges houses he got plenty of time to VT about his Scottish roots.
But then, in only the second live show, the producers threw Storm to the dogs. As the only act to perform while Strictly was still on the other side, he was always going to be struggling for votes.
So what happened?
In a word: Wagner. The Dudley Don Juan’s magisterially barmy rendition of LOR LOR LORB SHACK in week one immediately established him as a far more promising “annoy Simon” candidate. (Sure, Simon is still in “embrace the madness” mode. Give it a week or two: he’ll start saying “this is getting beyond a joke” as soon as they calculate that this will provoke more votes).
By comparison, Storm was uninteresting in week one. He looked nervous on the big stage, while Wagner looked like he was having the time of his life.
The consequent contrast in treatment of the two contestants in week two could hardly have been more marked. While Storm was sent out to die in the Strictly overlap zone, the comments Wagner got from the judging panel seemed carefully calculated to maximise his vote. First Simon teased him about hitting on Mary, emphasising the comically-virile persona the show has constructed for him and giving him the opportunity to display gallantry in response. Then Louis held out the promise of an even madder performance next week.
With Nicolo already gone (and, with hindsight, another victim of the wildcards: his schtick was being eccentric and a diva, but the addition of Wagner and Diva Fever made this a crowded ecological niche), the judges must have been delighted to have the opportunity to ditch Diva Fever as well (because many more of their voters will transfer to Wagner than Belle Amie’s would have done). It now seems certain that the producers will be doing everything in their power to keep Wagner in the competition for as long as they possibly can.
But was that Storm’s only intended role in the show? Few people know the inner workings of the X Factor sausage factory more intimately than Steve Brookstein, so we were intrigued by a theory he floated before the live shows on his blog Searching for Cheese:
Remember: The X Factor is being sold to the Americans now. What will get the middle-aged couch potatoes to put down their KFC buckets quicker than a story of singer from the US living the American dream on Simon’s new show? Is it a coincidence that a guy that’s in the older group (the exact demographic that The X Factor needs to attract in the USA) comes from the USA, just before the show goes to the USA?
With hindsight, I think Steve got the right theory but the wrong act. Would older Americans really identify with Storm, the slightly weird wannabe with dyed-red hair, more than they would with Mary, the chunky middle-aged supermarket cashier? Mary, the plucky everywoman from arguably America’s second favourite country after itself? Mary, the saner SuBo?
Steve’s broader point about the US X Factor looming large in the producers’ thoughts for this year is surely right. And think about it: What is the X Factor’s main US competition? American Idol. And what does X Factor have that American Idol doesn’t (apart from the tedious inter-judge bickering)? Groups and overs.
Mary always looked likely to be carried towards the later stages of the competition by her core demographics: the mature vote, the Irish vote, the Tesco vote. The question was how many floating voters she would also pick up. And it was interesting to note that she got almost as effusive a reaction this week for a relatively pedestrian performance as she did for genuinely knocking it out of the park in week one.
Could we be heading for a One Direction vs Mary Byrne final?