Something changed at judges’ houses. Until then, everything about Fleur’s treatment said “cannon fodder”. Since then, the show’s producers have pushed her determinedly, all the way into pole position for the final weekend – literally pole position, in the case of the battle buses lined up at the end of Sunday’s results show.
[Illustration courtesy of Sofabet commenter Heisenberg]
So what changed? Simon Cowell must be a busy man, and it’s always interesting to wonder how much he delegates and at what stage he seriously engages attention. Our best guess is that producers sent Fleur to Simon’s judges’ houses as the intended disposable over, and Simon surprised them by taking a liking to her and instructing them to push her instead. The decision not to have a disposable over has come at quite a cost for the rest of the series.
Producers went into the lives with two disposable groups (Blonde Electra and Overload Generation), whom they eased out in the first week, and one disposable girl (Steph Nala), despatched on the second Saturday. Without a disposable over, they were then relying on getting their most disposable boy into range. However, that was Jake Quickenden – likeable, good-looking and afforded plenty of tearful audition screentime. It took them another week to drag him down. And so they ended up with a week 2 singoff they didn’t want: Chloe-Jasmine and Stereo Kicks.
Had they had a disposable over to target early, too – a Lorna Simpson, a Sami Brookes – that might not have happened. Chloe-Jasmine could have been saved to last a few more weeks, and Stereo Kicks might have avoided being tarnished by an early singoff.
It wasn’t until halfway through the competition that one of the overs, Jay, was put on the disposable list. That’s a remarkable situation for one of traditionally the weakest categories – indeed, the last time it happened was the last time Simon mentored them, in 2009. Having decided to throw their weight behind Fleur, why did TPTB not continue in the lives the hatchet job on Jay that they’d started at judges houses? Alternatively, why did they not ditch one of Ben or Jay, and let Helen Fulthorpe or Lizzy Pattison play the disposable over? It’s a puzzle.
But back to Fleur. She had, let us recall, not been shown at all at the room auditions. It’s worth reminding yourself of how deeply unpromising was her treatment in the arenas and bootcamp performances: the brevity of screentime they were afforded; the edgy styling and provocative moves; the cursory nature of the yeses from judges, after they’d joked about Simon’s undone shirt rather than made a point of telling us how brilliant Fleur was. According to our theory, Simon’s attention was not fully enaged at this point – we suspect that audition filming of acts not intended to be around for the long haul simply involves the judges following producers’ cues on their cribsheets.
Most telling is how Fleur is tagged onscreen as a “nightclub singer”. While we’re not familiar with Fleur’s employment history, there must have been plenty of other ways they could have chosen to describe her to set up an ordinary working girl backstory. It’s hard to believe they would have chosen something that sounds like a euphemism for stripper had it crossed their minds that she might win it.
And then, at judges’ houses, the 180-degree about turn. Her positive treatment continued into week 1 of the lives with ‘All About That Bass’ keeping the impressively flat abs on display but toning down the sexuality of styling and moves from the audition stages, so as not to put off Middle England. After that, and with Fleur’s odds in the region of 28/1, Sofabet commenter stoney made the call of the season, writing: “Backed fluer today for the win. Straight on the nose. The underdog who grows week by week and takes the crown.”
Fleur’s week 2 ‘It’s a Shame’ saw her hit the headlines with Mel’s “cheating” row over the backing track, which was paid off after week 3’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ as she said she’d been proved wrong about Fleur’s vocals. In truth, though, throughout the competition Fleur’s vocals have been neither more nor less than adequate – it’s her genuinely stellar performance skills that set her apart.
And that’s one reason why many punters – including, to our regret, ourselves – remained sceptical for too long about the level of Fleur’s ceiling in the competition as her odds steadily contracted: if there’s one thing most X Factor winners have traditionally been able to do, it’s belt out the glory notes.
Another reason for our misplaced early scepticism is that the X Factor voting public have traditionally seemed to prefer their female soloists portrayed as in need of external validation as they go on the fabled Journey To Self-Belief, from starting points ranging from the ditsy (Stacey Solomon, Alexandra Burke) to the demure (Rebecca Ferguson, Leona Lewis) to the downtrodden (Sam Bailey, Mary Byrne). That’s not a journey Fleur has needed to go on, having always come across as a strong and self-possessed go-getter who needs nobody’s validation.
Week 4 was when it first looked like Fleur was being set up for a moment, with the recreation of the ‘Thriller’ video. But while she did it well, by common consent it wasn’t quite an unequivocal gamechanger. The same applies to week 5’s ‘Will You Be There’. Producers kept pushing: week 6 is when we started to notice the VTbomb trend, with Fleur popping up suspiciously often in other acts’ VTs – notably as Lauren’s de facto big sister – and she was given the pimp slot to reprise ‘Bang Bang’, her judges’ houses turning point.
The ramping continued in week 7 with ‘I’m Every Woman’, which saw her joined on stage by her sister and mother and becoming favourite in the betting for the first time. By now it was clear that she enjoyed producer backing of Little Mix proportions; week 7 was the first time Little Mix topped the vote, and it will be intriguing to see – when the statistics are released after the final – whether the same was true for Fleur.
But then, in week 8, producers oddly seemed to take their foot off the gas. Neither ‘A Fool In Love’ nor ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ showed her off at her best; comments were dialled down, and speculation was rife that she might have been the act Dermot mentioned escaped the singoff by only 800 votes. We’ll find out from the statistics, which should enable us to reverse-engineer what producers were thinking: was Fleur’s vote strong enough by week 7 for them to ease up on the pimping, or weak enough that they’d resigned themselves to the possibility of a singoff save and James Arthur-esque bounce to the final?
Fleur ceded favouritism to Ben after her weaker week 8, but swung back to the head of the market after week 9 saw a return to full-on ramping. The VTbombs were back: most amusingly, while we got to see both Fleur and Ben enjoying Christmas cheer in person with their respective families, poor Lauren had to make do with Fleur delivering a letter from her grandparents.
More importantly, Fleur finally had her moment. It had looked like a hail mary pass on the part of producers, with Fleur being given a song that hadn’t been released yet, ‘Uptown Funk’; speculation in the Sofabet comments beforehand had been that most viewers’ unfamiliarity with the song, together with its lack of a memorable vocal, could limit her potential to connect. However, Fleur nailed the performance, and afterwards the talk in the comments was about how it had, ingeniously, enabled her to look more like a Sunday guest star introducing a new song rather than a Saturday contestant covering a known one – a theme the judges made explicit in their comments.
In five of the six years for which the X Factor has released voting figures, the winner of the semi final vote has gone on to win the final; the exception is Alexandra, who lost out to JLS in the semi but overtook them again with the help of a Beyonce duet. That kind of favour won’t be bestowed on any of Fleur’s rivals – so if you believe her storming performance on iTunes and YouTube at the weekend was reflective of the vote, it should be straightforward for producers to get her over the line from here.
What nobody can doubt is the ferocity of producers’ desire for Fleur to win. In that sense, the closing vignette of Sunday’s results show must rank as one of the most hilariously shameless pieces of unsubtle voter steerage in the show’s history, as Dermot led the acts outside to show them three battle buses in which they would tour the country – but the only one we got to see from the side was the one with VOTE FLEUR EAST emblazoned on it. We saw Ben get into the second bus and Andrea into the third; as Fleur’s bus pulled away Dermot slapped the message on the side, and turned so the camera would follow the departing Fleur bus rather than give us a view of the others.
The funniest moment came as Ben joshed with Fleur in front of her giant picture and the VOTE FLEUR EAST message. “There are two more buses for you two”, Dermot informed Ben and Andrea. “Are there?” Ben asked, looking genuinely surprised.
One of our stock phrases on Sofabet is that acts producers want rid of get “thrown under the bus”. We’ve used that plenty this season as Fleur’s rivals have fallen by the wayside, and we were hugely entertained that producers decided to show us the actual bus. Do you expect Ben to be under it on Saturday night? Do share your take on Fleur’s journey below.