Some background for readers who need it: Steve Brookstein was the first winner of the UK X Factor, in 2004. After getting six million votes in the final, his post-show trajectory quickly went awry: he was disappointed at being made to do an album of covers, having hoped to include some of his own original material; and he suffered the indignity of seeing the runners-up, popera quartet G4, have their album launched before his. Within eight months, he had decided to part company with his label.
Since then, Steve has become something of a tabloid punchbag, with occasional stories gleefully poking fun when one of his gigs can be made to seem disappointingly low-rent: a “pizza restaurant”, a “ferry”, a “village pub”. (Steve makes the case in his book that these descriptions are unfair, and that the tabloids ignore his other more prestigious gigs). The show has effectively airbrushed him from its history.
While nothing in Getting Over The X will be too surprising for readers who already view the show from a Sofabet perspective (new readers might like to check out our How To Watch The X Factor post), here are our five main takeaways.
1. Animosities are sometimes genuine
We generally work on the assumption that supposed judge-judge or judge-act animosities are all part of the pantomime, confected to motivate votes in a certain way or simply to keep the show in the headlines. Steve’s book is a reminder that sometimes the smoke comes from fire rather than a smoke machine: it seems that Sharon Osborne and Louis Walsh genuinely did dislike him.
2. The media management game
Steve recounts his view that his post-show troubles stemmed from a meeting with Cowell’s then-media man, Max Clifford, at which Clifford demanded to know any story about Brookstein that the papers could conceivably get hold of. This, Clifford explained, would enable him to exert influence over whether and how those stories appeared. Brookstein describes how Clifford played the media management game: when an unfavourable story threatened to appear, he would trade another secret with the journalist in return for keeping the first story quiet.
At this meeting Steve says he opted not to mention a past experience of sexual experimentation, which he later alluded to in an interview with Closer magazine. As Brookstein tells it, this annoyed Clifford and Cowell so much that they ultimately resolved to ensure he never got any more positive media coverage. Clifford himself is now in prison, but Brookstein says he is still ostracised by media outlets who are keen to keep in the show’s good books – he explained to the William Hill podcast last year that The Sun bought exclusive rights to the story when he published his book, and then chose not to run it.
From an X Factor betting perspective, this reinforces another of our working assumptions: that any show-related story which appears in the tabloids will do so with the show’s blessing of how it portrays an act, either because they planted it or because they didn’t care enough to squash it. Interestingly, in that podcast interview, Steve recommended paying especially close attention to the choice of photos in The Sun – which acts are pictured in glamorous surroundings, and which are pictured munching a sausage roll outside Greggs.
3. How the VTs serve an agenda
Steve tells this story about the week 5 elimination of Cassie Compton:
During the week when she was doing her VT for the show, Cassie didn’t really know what to say. She was given “All By Myself”, which Simon had originally chosen for Rowetta, but after she struggled to pull it off, it became Cassie’s. The VT producer said, ‘Why don’t you just say that you are worried that the song is too big for you so when you deliver it on the night everyone will be blown away?’
Not thinking any more of it, Cassie simply repeated the line to camera.
‘I hope this song isn’t too big for me,’ she said as I watched on, knowing she didn’t feel this
When it came to the live show, it gave Simon the line he wanted and instead of congratulating Cassie for taking on a song that Rowetta failed to perform, he simply said: ‘I think the song was inappropriate and too big for you.’
As regular readers will know, this is the kind of thing we have long assumed goes on as part of producers’ efforts to influence the public vote – see e.g. our retrospectives on 2013’s Abi Alton (“bum notes”) and 2014’s Jack Walton (“small venues”) – but it’s relatively rare to get specific examples in the public domain.
4. Chaos or mind games?
Steve recounts an entertaining story of how, the evening before the final, he received a call from a producer summoning him to Simon Cowell’s house for dinner, at half an hour’s notice:
‘I’m so sorry,’ she begged. ‘Please don’t tell anyone I forgot, they’ll kill me for not telling you.’
And she was gone.
I’ve looked back on this phone call so many times over the years. Was this part of the cynicism of the show, manipulating me one last time, or did she genuinely forget?
At his girlfriend’s place and with no clean clothes to change into, he rushed to Simon’s house, where he was kept waiting and given wine on an empty stomach:
The producer Tabitha called me over for a chat off-camera. Now they began to work me. It was the same questioning as it had been all week and all series. The same, over and over again. And they weren’t even filming. What did this mean to me? How badly did I want it? Was this everything I had ever dreamed of?
Well, right now I would trade it for a clean shirt and a plate of food.
She was dressing it up as a chat but I knew what was coming because I had had a stomach full of it. This, in TV, is known as the pre-interview, so that by the time you do it for real, you give them exactly what they want…
Three hours after he’d been expecting to eat dinner with his girlfriend, Steve continues, the ping of a microwave finally heralded the appearance of food – but he was told not to eat it, so they could film him and Simon with full plates.
‘What does this mean to you, Steve?’ [Cowell] said… I looked down at the M&S take-away going cold in front of me.
Brookstein ends up bursting into tears, thereby providing great footage for his VT as Cowell sympathetically ushers him outside and gestures to the crew to stop filming.
Was this all deliberately engineered in the hopes of getting such a reaction, or simply a by-product of the chaos of making a television programme? Elsewhere in the book, Brookstein inclines towards the former explanation for the handling of contestants at boot camp:
…more hanging around than singing. At auditions this was just part of the practicality of so many people wanting to be seen; at boot camp there was more to it.
We were regularly in position when judges weren’t. Often we were sitting around in anticipation but doing nothing. With the central heating cranked up to the max in the summer, the silence of inactivity in a stifling environment created a tension that could only lead to TV gold.
It’s easy with hindsight to say that so much of these shows are about the footage and not the performance, but you do not think that when most are waiting on their one shot at fame. You can’t see that the silence works for the edit, or that the heat and lack of food and water are a device to exude pressure.
5. How much innocence has been lost in eleven years?
By now, anyone contemplating going on the X Factor knows – or really should know – what the deal is. You sign away all control over how you’re packaged and marketed; in return, you may or may not be granted some prime time television exposure. If you’re lucky and savvy, you may be able to use that exposure to improve your career, whether that’s in reality shows, musical theatre, or just playing your music in slightly bigger venues than before. Chart success is just as possible from finishing second (JLS, Olly Murs), third (One Direction) or even sixth (Ella Henderson) as it is from winning.
This is so self-evident now, it’s easy to forget the relative innocence of 2004. Steve recalls in the book how then-presenter Kate Thornton would repeatedly say that the show’s winner would get a “million-pound recording contract”, while the others get nothing. It’s easy to sympathise with Steve for not having realised at the time the nature of the game he was playing.
While much has changed about the show in those eleven years, some things remain the same. Being willing to do whatever is asked of you is no guarantee of favourable treatment – a theme that links the above Cassie Compton anecdote with Cory Spedding’s account of her audition this year – but it’s evidently a prerequisite to put yourself in with a chance of favourable treatment, not only during the show but after you win it. With luck, Steve’s book should help to open the eyes of future potential auditionees about what they’re letting themselves in for.