The X Factor 2011: week five

As the exploitation factor took over, Tulisa's tears gave the last auditions some heart

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“Honestly, literally, I don’t find it very fair that someone hasn’t told you that you can’t sing.” So said Tulisa Contostavlos to Natasha Paton Ali, a Swansea girl whose strapless dress was losing the fight on two fronts.

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Natasha was oversexed, overenthusiastic and deep in denial about sounding like a loose fan belt. Although she could handle herself, it was slightly unfair that she’d been put on the stage. If Tulisa had been talking about the X Factor producers, she’d have been spot on.

Natasha wasn’t the weekend’s worst case of exploitation. To fill that second, money-spinning Sunday slot, The X Factor did what it’s regularly, often wrongly, criticised for doing: it took advantage of people who don’t know what they’re getting into.

It’s a fuzzy line between eccentric and worrying, but several contestants were over it, culminating in the genuinely hard-to-watch audition of poor Ceri Rees, who’d been cannon fodder for the show three times in the noughties. Gary Barlow slowly realised something wasn’t right: after Ceri’s first song he took the mickey out of her phonetic pronunciation of Les Miserables, but after her unrecognisable I Will Always Love You he ushered her off politely. Too late. The X Factor had cashed in on Ceri’s vulnerability for a fourth time.

Neil and Margaret Sinclair were meant to be hilarious, because they were odd and unattractive. They met in their 50s, online. They were shown kissing with tongues, twice – yuk! And in fairness, Margaret was a bit of a sour fish when the judges trashed her. But Neil was a hero: his Crocodile Rock was a disaster delivered with absolute conviction and good humour. The X Factor rewarded him by snidely showing footage of him getting lost on his way out of the arena. 

Other contestants flourished away from the norm. Terry Winstanley was a 51-year-old HGV driver who, despite having the amber tan, swept hair and roomy suit of a mid-ranked mafioso, was a soppy sod who was worried he was too old. He did the Michael Bolton version of To Love Somebody, pub-style – I had a sudden craving for scampi and chips. Big notes flew out as Terry dramatically raised his left arm and sang to a spot on the floor two feet to his right. 

It was old, hard cheese but Terry did what he did well. He’d be welcome on the live shows as a break from the younger contestants trying to be credible. Similarly, Essex-girl duo 2 Shoes were great because they celebrated their vast Essexness and never took themselves seriously unless they were singing. They were good – you were willing them to be better.

Bradley Johnson and John Wilding might as well have come with an “eliminated at boot camp or judges’ houses” caption on the screen. John was at judges’ houses in 2010, where he was notable for his random clothes and shrieking voice. This year, his clothes were less random. Bradley was a reformed youth offender who still looked angry about something when he sang.

The main talking point was Michelle Barrett. Debate about her claim to be 31 years old evaporated when we saw she had four children, which makes looking ten years older than your age sadly all too plausible; debate about whether her voice was special or just adequate evaporated when we saw Tulisa’s reaction. 

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Michelle reminded Tulisa of her mum. Anyone who saw the wonderful BBC3 mental health documentary Tulisa: My Mum and Me knew what Tulisa was talking about when she said her mother’s gift for singing had gone to waste. Soon Tulisa was sobbing, Michelle was crying and Louis Walsh was wobbling. The same cynical programme-makers who went out of their way to humiliate Natasha, Ceri and Neil slathered on the mood music to get us weeping too, but there was no need. This was one moment where nobody was being manipulated.