X Factor’s re­vamped

Si­mon thinks The X Factor felt lazy last year. This time around, as the team set off on an­other search for a su­per­star, he’s mak­ing them film through the night... and throw­ing the judges to the wolves.

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - NEWS - By Jenny John­ston

So what at­tributes do you need to work on The X Factor? As well as very white teeth and skin as thick as a rhino’s, it ap­pears you need to be able to func­tion like a shift worker and thrive with­out too much sleep. Ni­cole Scherzinger is shat­tered. She fin­ished work last night at 2am, she says, and her day ended with her leav­ing the set in tears, as can hap­pen when peo­ple are tired and over­whelmed.

Her col­leagues know the feel­ing. Sharon Os­bourne – a woman you could never de­scribe as a frag­ile soul – had been in tears the pre­vi­ous day.

Louis Walsh? When we speak (at some­thing ap­proach­ing 11pm), he can hardly string a sen­tence to­gether be­cause he’s so tired. ‘I need my bed,’ he says. The lovely Der­mot O’Leary – the epit­ome of a man who can put up with any­thing – con­fides that he’s re­cently in­vested in an eye mask; no, not for van­ity rea­sons but be­cause they help him get some kip.

‘We’re not keep­ing nor­mal hours so it’s like be­ing on the night shift,’ he says. ‘I’m go­ing to bed when other peo­ple are get­ting up. It takes a bit of get­ting used to.’

Who shall we blame for this odd state of af­fairs? Step for­ward Si­mon Cow­ell, who started off his TV ca­reer do­ing things in the reg­u­lar way – film­ing his shows dur­ing the hours of day­light – but then de­cided it didn’t suit him. Ever thought there was some­thing of the night about Cow­ell? Well there is! He likes to start film­ing the likes of The X Factor mid-af­ter­noon and some­times – as has just hap­pened – the stu­dio au­di­ence is still in situ well into the wee small hours.

‘It just suits ev­ery­one,’ Si­mon ar­gues, tak­ing it as a great com­pli­ment when you ask if he’s got vam­piric ten­den­cies.

‘I just find it dif­fi­cult to do any­thing cre­ative in the day­time. I’m not sure it’s the most pop­u­lar thing, but I think peo­ple have got used to it now. It’s fun! And, let’s face it, we’re all from a mu­sic in­dus­try back­ground, and ev­ery­one there is a night owl. At the be­gin­ning we’d start film­ing at 9am, but by lunchtime ev­ery­one was knack­ered. This suits the show. It suits us.’

Well, mostly it suits Si­mon. When he clocks off at 2am or 3am, he can im­me­di­ately hit the phones to LA, where the US arm of his em­pire is still up.

‘I fin­ished at 6.30am this morn­ing,’ he tells me, proudly.

If ever you needed proof of the man’s power in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, this is it. Clocks sim­ply run on his time.

‘It shows you how in con­trol he is,’ says Der­mot. ‘That is Si­mon all round.’

So what have all the tears been about? Well, it turns out that the new se­ries of The X Factor has un­der­gone some­thing of an up­heaval.

Ar­guably the most bru­tal part of the process, the Six Chair Chal­lenge, where the judges must whit­tle down the con­tes­tants in their cat­e­gory to a fi­nal six, has been re­mod­elled.

Now the pick­ing judge has to sit at a ta­ble alone, away from the sup­port of their co-judges. This puts them at the mercy of the au­di­ence, who may or may not sup­port their de­ci­sion.

Poor Ni­cole has had a rude awak­en­ing in how vo­cal a stu­dio au­di­ence can be.

‘The crowd is the fifth judge. They hold you to ac­count,’ she says. ‘I get that. But it was like be­ing in the lion’s den. They didn’t agree with my de­ci­sion and they made it very clear. They were so noisy. I was com­pletely over­whelmed.’

Si­mon is in his el­e­ment be­cause he’s en­gi­neered all this, ever wary of the need to keep the show on its toes.

When Louis con­fides that he thinks The X Factor ‘wasn’t as good as it could have been last year, and Si­mon knows this’, Si­mon nods in agreement rather than or­der­ing Louis to be lined up against the wall to be shot.

‘Last year we had what I de­scribe as a lazy year,’ says Si­mon. ‘I think we got to the point where we were try­ing too hard to com­pete with Strictly Come Danc­ing. When they start hav­ing gim­mick book­ings like Ed Balls, and then, you know, we have acts like Honey G, then it’s kind of tit for tat. I didn’t feel com­fort­able with that, and it’s not the route we should be go­ing down. We should be about the tal­ent.’

Ever since they got Ann Wid­de­combe on, that’s where Strictly has been head­ing. They know what they’re do­ing. You don’t get some­one like Ed Balls on be­cause they’re a great dancer. You get them on be­cause they’re a bad dancer and there­fore it’s en­ter­tain­ing for some peo­ple. I guess we prob­a­bly fell into the same trap.’ So what of Honey G? ‘She’s a sweet­heart and she tries hard. I don’t ques­tion her self-be­lief or de­ter­mi­na­tion, but we should be go­ing for acts like James Arthur, Lit­tle Mix, One Di­rec­tion, Leona Lewis – peo­ple who have gone on to sell enor­mous amounts of records. The kind of artists I would want to sign for my record la­bel out­side the show. I think it’s about be­ing true to that, and maybe last year we just lost our fo­cus a bit.’

One high point was the re­turn of Sharon Os­bourne af­ter a two-year break. She ad­mits to­day that it was a deeply mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and it ‘saved’ her fol­low­ing a rather tu­mul­tuous pe­riod in her pri­vate life, af­ter hus­band Ozzy’s very pub­lic af­fair with his hair­dresser.

‘I felt like the cliché, the older wife who’d been be­trayed,’ she says. ‘When you hear all the de­tails, you feel sick. The times you thought he was some­where, when he was

‘I was in the lion’s den, the au­di­ence was so noisy’ NI­COLE SCHERZINGER

some­where else. I was reel­ing. So the show was a gift. If I’d been left in my own head dur­ing that time... well, let’s just say I needed it.’

Rather touch­ingly, she says the fact she and Ozzy are still to­gether has much to do with the sup­port she re­ceived from her fel­low judges.

All the team talk of be­ing like a fam­ily – ‘al­beit a very dys­func­tional fam­ily’, says Der­mot.

Ni­cole says she and Mrs O, as she calls her, have a re­la­tion­ship based on ‘re­spect’.

‘The great thing about this panel is that there is a real friend­ship there. We have a his­tory. We have a chem­istry,’ she adds.

Der­mot says this is the se­cret to ev­ery­thing.

‘Si­mon is the master at putting peo­ple to­gether who gel,’ he says. ‘Yes there can be sparks, but ev­ery­one pulls in the same di­rec­tion.’

Al­beit the di­rec­tion in which Cow­ell wants to go?

‘Ah but the thing about Si­mon is that he loves it when we dis­agree with him,’ says Louis.

‘He thrives on it. He ab­so­lutely does not want to be sur­rounded by a bunch of “yes men”.’

When it came to Sharon’s per­sonal cri­sis, then, she had friends around. She ex­plains: ‘They were just un­be­liev­able. Si­mon to­tally got it. He said, “ah come on, he loves you, you can’t let this ruin ev­ery­thing”. Louis said, “I know him and I know you and I know that you have to be to­gether”.’ She clearly took their advice, as the cou­ple re­cently re­newed their mar­riage vows, but can she trust Ozzy again? There’s a long pause. ‘We have a very dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship now. Ozzy works with his ther­a­pist. We’re more open about things. We talk. We’re mak­ing it work, but it takes time.’ She does seem like the ul­ti­mate show­biz sur­vivor, but when I ask if she sees her­self be­ing on The X Factor un­til her dotage she says no. ‘I have a plan,’ she ad­mits. ‘What hap­pened has made me think about my pri­or­i­ties in life. I want to spend more time with my grand­kids.’ Does Si­mon know that Sharon has an exit plan, even if it’s only half-formed? Per­haps he does be­cause he’s al­ready talk­ing about fu­ture judges. The sub­ject of Ale­sha Dixon – who stood in for Sharon a few times last time around, and has done so again this year – comes up and I ask if she has a big­ger role to come. ‘Well she’s def­i­nitely there in train­ing,’ he says. ‘I mean she was very, very good when she came on. She made a real im­pact, but I don’t think any­one needs to be ner­vous.’ What of the oth­ers? Are they in it for the long haul? Al­though Ni­cole seems to have reached the end of her tether to­day, she says the job is still a dream one. ‘I do have is­sues be­cause I take things so per­son­ally,’ she says. ‘I love the men­tor­ing part, but even then there are times when it’s dif­fi­cult. I can get along with pretty much any­one, but I won’t stand for some of the ex­cuses I hear. But I love my job, I love be­ing part of the X Factor fam­ily. It’s a dream job.’ One sur­prise ad­di­tion to the judg­ing line-up, by all ac­counts, has been Si­mon’s son Eric, who has vis­ited the set a few times. Bring­ing your kid to work is an­other perk of be­ing the boss, it seems. ‘He’s bril­liant. I love hav­ing him there,’ ad­mits Si­mon. ‘We are lit­er­ally best friends. I adore him. When he first came down I said to him, “what does daddy do?” and he said, “you press but­tons”. Louis asked him again the other day what daddy does for a liv­ing and he said, “he speaks into a mi­cro­phone”.’ It also seems Eric ‘has a lit­tle crush on Ni­cole’, ac­cord­ing to his dad, but has achieved the im­pos­si­ble in win­ning Louis over. ‘Louis can’t bear kids nor­mally, and I’ve never seen him close to a kid, but he ab­so­lutely idolises Eric. I said, “who’s your favourite un­cle?” the other day, and he said Louis. So Louis is happy!’ Louis does not dis­agree. ‘He’s a mini Si­mon. It’s scary, ac­tu­ally.’ Per­haps it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore Eric is on the pay­roll then. But will he be able to stay awake for long enough to get the job done?

‘I think we lost our fo­cus. We should be about the tal­ent’ SI­MON COW­ELL

The X Factor re­turns to UTV on Satur­day, Septem­ber 2.

Happy campers? The X Factor team of Sharon, Der­mot, Louis, Si­mon and Ni­cole

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