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.
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