There’s an archetype of auditions on shows like this, in which an auditionee is initially portrayed as self-deluded or otherwise weird, but turns out to be vocally brilliant and wins everyone over. Saara did this not only in her audition, but over and over and over again. It’s been one of the most remarkable journeys in X Factor history for an act currently celebrating Finland’s Independence Day and planning to make the UK her adopted home.
And it’s all there, in microcosm, the first time we meet her. Our introduction to Saara initially portrays her as some kind of yokel from the Finnish boondocks with an annoying laugh, who is blissfully unaware of how she’s coming across to others. ‘Sleigh Ride’ strikes up in the background as she makes animated small talk about Santa Claus with awkward-looking fellow auditionees. Louis and Nicole frown uncomprehendingly as she says her name in a Finnish accent.
Then she sings ‘Chandelier’, and it’s great. Other auditionees, watching on the big screen, are shown to be captivated. Nicole stands to applaud, and seems genuinely impressed; she says “her range is out of this world” as Saara walks out of the room. The background music is now ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’. It’s a textbook of the audition genre.
But even in Saara’s archetypal redemption, there are touches of continuing to poke fun at her. After Nicole wonders “where did you come from?”, Louis helpfully says “Finland”. As ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’ fades out, producers can’t resist adding a few sleighbells.
Saara was only briefly sighted at bootcamp, with Simon describing her as “over the top” but “a character”.
Then came the six-chair challenge – the most difficult piece of Saara’s journey to make sense of, even in retrospect. Producers will have known, at this point, that they’d have one wildcard slot available to parachute a reject back in for judges houses – but they won’t have known that Ivy-Grace Paredes would be denied a US visa, allowing them to bring back a second act.
We’d be fascinated to know which of Saara and Honey G producers originally intended to bring back. They’ve claimed it was Saara, but logic points to Honey G: she was given the pimp slot in the first audition show, an editorial decision presumably made before they knew about the Ivy-Grace visa issues. And Honey G was clearly their priority of the two once the live shows started.
So: was Saara’s 6CC car-crash choreographed or unexpected? It began by reprising the motif of an audience initially sceptical about apparent weirdness being won over: as Saara cheerfully introduces herself as a “snow fairy from Finland”, a cutaway shows a watching girl disdainfully wrinkling her nose; but by the time Sharon sends Saara away, saying “I do not feel a connection”, as Nicole pleads for clemency, the audience has been won round and is loudly chanting “bring her back”.
What happens next is the puzzling bit. Saara returns to stage; Simon asks: “is there another song you can sing to change her mind?”; and it all seems set up for the payoff of Sharon being won over, too. But then Saara starts warbling in French. Dermot puts his head in his hands. The audience boo. Nicole grabs Sharon’s mic and sounds annoyed as she tells Saara: “this was your one shot! These people had your back!”
What was in the script here? Our best guess is that it called for Sharon to be won round, but that Saara hadn’t been briefed on what would happen because they wanted to film a genuine emotional reaction. We’d guess that as Saara walked off, a producer will have encouraged her back on stage, but they’d assumed she would have had the sense to launch into a more suitable second song.
Who knows. At any rate, after her reinstatement, at judges’ houses poor old Saara was back to square one, being portrayed as self-deluded and socially unaware. After she’d sung ‘Winner Takes It All’ for Sharon and Robbie Williams, the edit juxtaposed Saara telling Dermot “I think I saw a tear in Robbie’s eye” with Robbie telling Sharon “I got a bit bored”.
Before that performance, Sharon had told Robbie: “this is Saara from Finland”. In the first live show, Sharon introduced her as “Zara” from “Norway”. So either Sharon rapidly developed memory problems, or she was play-acting her sudden inability to pronounce Saara’s name or remember her home country. We know where our money is. After the performance, Dermot jokingly asked Sharon to confirm where Saara is from; she said, dismissively, “abroad”. It all had the effect of emphasising Saara’s foreignness – thereby making it harder for her to connect with the British audience – and diminishing her by suggesting that she was unimportant in her mentor’s eyes.
Producers gave Saara a song she knows well, ‘Let It Go’, but chose not to allow her to shine with it: they mucked around with the arrangement, and decked out the stage with dead trees.
The show keeps on doing this – choosing to prioritise controlling an act’s vote over taking the opportunity to create great television – and they wonder why ratings keep falling. It landed Saara in the first of her three singoffs.
After the week 2 rendition of ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, the unhelpful treatment continued as Louis called Saara “cold”. This was an interesting choice of insult – nothing we’d seen of Saara’s personality suggested coldness, but perhaps viewers will have subconsciously been primed to accept it by knowing she’s from a cold country. Saara duly appeared in her second singoff, before which Sharon introduced her as “from abroad” then needed to be reminded of her name. It all felt unnecessarily cruel.
And, as we argued at the time, puzzling: acts like Saara – combining vocal prowess and performing ability with an interesting personality – don’t come along often. Why did the show seem intent on wasting her? (Presumably, because there’s only so much oxygen to go around, and their initial priority was wringing as many column inches as possible out of Honey G.)
However, it seems that Saara also had her cheerleaders behind the scenes – it’s been clear from choreographer Brian Friedman’s column in the Gay Times that he rates her. About week 3, he wrote “it inspires you to create when you’ve got a singer that you can give anything to and they’re going to be able to achieve it”. And this was the week the penny finally seemed to drop for producers. They embraced the madness, and Saara delivered a jaw-droppingly entertaining ‘Oh So Quiet’ from the pimp slot.
Week 4 brought Lady Gaga for Hallowe’en, as ‘Bad Romance’ gave Saara another showcase to entertain. She escaped the singoff for a second week. But she dropped back into the bottom two again in week 5, when the song choice of ‘Sound Of The Underground’ seemed designed to restrict her room for vocal expression, and Brian’s technicolour Geisha staging just felt odd.
By now Sofabet commenters were referring to Saara as the “singoff assassin”. The theory was as follows: with her being foreign, producers could dampen Saara’s vote any time they want to, dunking her into the singoff; and they could rely on her, once there, to outsing whoever she was there with, giving them ample justification to send the other act packing.
Assassin services were not required in week 6. Saara was allowed to shine with ‘No More Tears’ and granted a hugely helpful VT that showed her charmingly appealing for votes via regional radio in various parts of the UK. Perhaps not coincidentally, she was shown appealing for votes from Newcastle and Scotland; the singoff was contested by Samantha (from Newcastle) and Ryan (from Scotland).
We still have a sneaking suspicion that the script called for a fourth singoff appearance in week 7. This time, her VT portrayed her as being homesick for her family in Finland, and there was a lot of subtitled talking in Finnish. Then her styling was unflattering, and the arrangement and staging for ‘My Heart Will Go On’ felt unhelpfully musical theatre. It will be interesting, when the voting statistics are released after the final, to see how far Saara was above the drop zone. Our suspicion is that producers possibly wanted her to be there, assassinating Ryan, and keeping the wheels on Honey G for another week.
But by week 8, the thinking behind the scenes seemed to have changed once again. Parsing Dermot’s teases on the state of the vote strongly suggests Saara won week 8, and that this was the first time she’d topped the vote. She gained huge praise from the panel for her first song, ‘Winner Takes It All’ – but then the judges seemed keen to dampen her momentum in their reactions to her pimp slot mashup of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’, Nicole and Simon calling it “cheesy”. It’s worth remembering producers will have known, at that point of the show, how the vote was going.
If that indicated a desire to help Saara, but not too much, we also detected a similar vibe during the semi-final. Saara’s Christmas mashup earned the “corny” tag from Nicole and Simon, and there were some debatable styling and staging choices for ‘Chandelier’. Of course, we shouldn’t make too much of that, because the big picture was clearly that producers wanted to help both 5AM and Saara while deramping Emily and Matt.
More interesting was what didn’t happen. If producers were thinking of Saara as their inevitable winner, they might have done more to establish a feelgood narrative around her: remember that at the semi-final stage in 2014, Ben Haenow’s VTs featured an emotional festive dinner with his family and a heartstring-tugging charity visit; Saara’s VTs were more anodyne. Likewise, there could easily have been some self-congratulatory Cowellian spiel about “honoured you chose to compete on this stage… the UK X Factor launches international stars”. There wasn’t. It didn’t feel to us, yet, like quite the done deal in producers’ minds.
We’ve long speculated that Saara would be easy to take down if producers wanted to: there are myriad ways they could subtly suggest that her heart is with Finland, not the UK, and it would be easy to tell the story of her relationship with fiancee Meri in a way that might make a few Middle English bums shift uncomfortably on their sofas. The two main stories in the press about Saara on Monday featured calls for Meri to feature in her coverage on the show, and speculation about whether Finns are voting illegally.
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We assume the show has some influence over its press coverage, and the second story in particular is unlikely to have been accidental after Louis jokingly asked Finns to vote during the show itself. The “insider” quote was about as unhelpfully phrased as possible: “it’s hard to tell what is happening here… it’s just supposed to be people in this country.” But then, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than the show taking a chance to get itself in the press. As Simon told Honey G, “when people are talking about you, you’re winning”.
And, as we saw with the Finnish embassy VT in the semi-final, everything that could in theory be spun negatively can also be portrayed in a helpful light. How the media covers Saara in the rest of the week will hopefully give us more clues as to how her VTs will be edited. From the footage of the Helsinki homecoming, it certainly looks like they have plenty of material to portray it in an hugely positive, heartwarming way if they want to embrace Saara as a feelgood underdog winner.
The rumours of an Adam Lambert duet also seem reasonably promising: again, it could go either way, especially as not all the Middle England audience will necessarily be familiar with the frontman now working with Queen, but it certainly has the potential to be a vocal showstopper (unlike, say, when Che Chesterman was landed with Rod Stewart last year).
Whatever happens, it’s amazing that Saara got this far, given how unhelpfully she was portrayed in the audition stages and the first two live shows – a testament to her ability not only to sing and to perform, but also to shrug off those negative attentions. Unlike a number of other acts this year, notably Emily and Matt last week and Ryan every week, Saara has typically come across as cheerfully oblivious to when she’s being stitched up.
Perhaps, as implied by her initial audition portrayal, there really is a Chauncey Gardiner aspect to her character. If so, it’s probably a sanity-saver on a competition like this. For example, when Nicole and Simon were slating the creative concept for her diamonds mashup – which the VT had told us was all her own work – she kept nodding and smiling winningly instead of looking hurt, and the criticism seemed less harmful as a result.
Or perhaps she’s been well aware, but just sucked it up and kept her eyes on the prize. Again, it’s all there in her first audition: she told us that this was her first time in the UK, and she’d come over from Finland because she wanted to find a way to help her career. She’s certainly done that.