Speculation is rife about what changes will be made to the judging panel for X Factor 2011. Will Cheryl judge on the US show, and give up her UK judging role? If so, who will replace her – Nicole Sherzinger, who was such a hit as a guest judge in 2010? Can Simon judge both US and UK shows? Are Dannii and Louis safe?
The dynamics of the judging panel are vital to making the show work, especially given the judges’ dual role as mentors. This requires them to pull off the delicate balancing act of sticking up for their own acts while recognising that ultimately they are employees of the show. Getting the right mix of personalities is crucial.
The only two ever-presents on the panel during X Factor UK’s seven series have been Simon and Louis. The stability of this relationship depends on Louis genially and uncomplainingly accepting his role as the beta male to Simon’s alpha. That’s not just about Louis regularly being lumbered with the weakest categories and derided by Simon. It’s also about Louis having the license to poke fun at Simon in return.
This wouldn’t work if Louis was seen as having pretensions to becoming the alpha male. Louis is like a court jester to Simon’s king – a minion whose jocular verbal abuse is tolerated because ultimately he knows he is no threat and is happy with that.
Because their relative status on the panel is so firmly established – and dramatised by their seating positions at opposite ends – Louis and Simon can safely trade barbs without it ever getting out of hand. It’s no surprise that in four of the last five seasons, an act mentored by either Simon or Louis has provoked the ire of the other one (Wagner, Jedward, Same Difference, MacDonald Bros), leading to repeated pantomime arguments between them.
If either Simon or Louis leave the show, it will be a tough ask for the two new male judges to fall into a similarly comfortable relationship.
We haven’t had this pantomime bickering so much with the female judges, because here there really has been competition for alpha judge status so there would be much more scope for it to turn serious. For the first three series there was only one female judge – Sharon Osborne. In series four Dannii Minogue – younger, prettier – came along and usurped alpha female status by mentoring both the winner and runner-up. You got the impression there may have been a genuine edge between the two.
By series five, Mrs O was gone and Dannii found herself immediately demoted to beta female by Cheryl Cole – younger still, already more successful (Dannii has never had a Number 1 UK hit), and played up as a ‘nation’s sweetheart’ with her poor and provincial roots connecting her to the audience. But the difference in status between Cheryl and Dannii has been much less marked than between Simon and Louis, and the tabloid press has delighted in playing up their fashion rivalry and speculating about them not getting along behind the scenes.
Dannii has played a good game, carving out a role as being perceived to be the nicest and most honest judge. And in 2010 the sands shifted, with Cheryl finding her image battered by the Gamu row and her public sympathy slipping now she is no longer a put-upon spouse. The tabloids, ever eager to knock someone off their pedestal, started to insinuate that she was too successful given her talents and it may be changing her.
It’s noticeable that Dannii has rarely been the butt of banter from the other judges. This befits her beta female status – it would come across as bullying. As the alpha female, however, Cheryl is strong enough to trade barbs with Simon – but usually in a way that highlights their joint alpha status (for example, drawing attention to attractive aspects of each others’ appearance, such as suntans and white teeth – or as when Simon commented on Cheryl’s cleavage in the 2009 series).
This not only reinforces their elevated position above the beta judges, but adds a frisson of flirtatious sexual tension to the panel (something less easily achieved with Louis or the happily married Dannii).
If Cheryl does move to the US, it would be easy enough to imagine Nicole Sherzinger slotting smoothly into a broadly similar role of fashion rival for Dannii and springboard for mild flirtation with Simon.
What of Simon in all this? If he quits, his would be big shoes to fill – but could he really do both shows? Assuming the UK series is not moved lock, stock and barrel to Las Vegas – which must be a possibility – the transatlantic travel would be feasible for judging, but stretch credibility for mentoring. Perhaps he could appoint assistant mentors on each side of the pond, or assume a non-mentoring uber-judge role?
From a punting perspective, all this matters. It’s impossible to quantify the effect of a mentor on an act’s vote, but it’s easy to suspect that the relative popularity of a mentor sometimes does rub off on their acts. For example, it’s interesting that Cheryl’s popularity was higher in 2009, when she noticeably hit it off with Joe McElderry (who stormed to victory), than in 2010 when she noticeably hit it off with Cher (who limped to fourth).
It’s also a fairly safe bet that Wagner, Jedward, Same Difference and The MacDonald Bros wouldn’t have got quite as far as they did if their presence didn’t appear to upset one of the male judges and invite mischievous votes on that account.
The bickering between the judges can be tiresome, but it’s a major ingredient of the show’s success. Producers will be putting a great deal of thought into how the dynamics between the new judges might play out – what do you reckon they should do?