Last week The X Factor quietly shuffled off our TV screens, ending a 17 year hegemony on weekend viewing. When it started, the Simon Cowell led venture felt like an attempt to democratise pop – anyone could be a star, so the story went, so long as they had some kind of spark. Yet news of the show’s demise sparked some unwanted obituaries, with countless former contestants speaking out about their ill treatment on the show, the harsh, overwhelmingly public critiques, and the lack of any kind of after-care.
Indeed, it could be argued that the X Factor’s main legacy is providing an example of how not to treat people. Simon Cowell’s notorious barbs aside, the structural failings within the show make it a wonder that anyone succeeded at all. It’s noteworthy to look back on who actually emerged victorious – One Direction, surely the show’s one grasp at an iconic pop moment, were pipped to the post by Matt Cardle, a man whose victory is remembered solely for his bizarre 2010 duet with Rihanna. It’s unlikely to view RiRi agreeing to that performance in 2021.
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In casting their net wide enough, The X Factor were able to secure small nuggets of gold, which somehow made the whole tawdry venture feel viable. It’s gargantuan run, however, staggers belief – 17 years, almost two decades of post-performance tears, and wave after wave of disappointment. The show’s ubiquitous success probably meant that we simply forgot it was on after the first few series – either that, or the series had long since lost its spark.
In a neat turn of phrase, so unbelievably lacking in self-awareness that it could only come from an associate of Simon Cowell, a show-runner told the Sun: “Clearly the last thing he wants is for X Factor to fizzle out with a whimper and become a bit of a joke – especially in contrast to the show in its pomp.”
But even in its pomp The X Factor was a deeply flawed show. In common with many other reality TV shows – Love Island is a heart-breaking example – little to no after care was offered. Ordinary people, often with no coping skills, were thrust into the spotlight, then back out again – and expected to get on with their lives.
The glare of the media distorted their impressions of themselves, leading to mental health crises. High-rise coiffured Irish twins Jedward became synonymous with the show, rocketing to fame with their hi-energy performances and quick wit. Yet they’ve also condemned of The X Factor for its treatment of contestants, and gleefully celebrated its demise on social media.
Writing on Twitter, they said: “Every contestant on the X Factor was a slave to the show and got paid zero while they made millions.”
Fellow X Factor alumni Katie Waissel revealed the devastating impact her experiences had on her life: “We all had to go through media training – almost a type of brainwash – ensuring we never said a bad word about the show or those that worked on or alongside it.”
“How can we stay silent when future careers were shattered, and past contestants, myself included, are still undertaking therapy for PTSD caused by this show? I had experienced such a low point when I was trying to rebuild my life, that I had frighteningly found myself contemplating suicide.”
In an essay for Clash titled Surviving The X Factor, Lucy Spraggan wrote eloquently about her experiences on the show, and subsequently learning to claim her independence. Indeed, she points out that in many cases appearing on the show would have a detrimental impact on the career of a young musician: “The stigma of being involved with The Big X is one of the hardest parts of beginning a career and being taken seriously. Once you have been a contestant you will almost always be known as ‘that one off X factor’ and it can be difficult then to shape your own identity in the industry.”
Ultimately, the appeal of The X Factor has long since fizzled out. Weekend TV options have supplanted its impact, with Simon Cowell said to be working on a new venture, a musical gameshow. Undeniably successful in its ability to root out talent from the grassroots – Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Alexandra Burke, and countless more had their start on that stage – the show’s legacy is tainted through an inability to move with the times, and failing to provide a safety net for those thrust out into the searing light of a public platform.
Whatever comes next needs to do better.
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