Is winning ITV’s talent contest Britain’s Got Talent a sure-fire way to fame and riches — or is there another side to triumphing on the live entertainment show? As Britain’s Got Talent goes live, Frances Taylor catches up with four past winners…
Paul Potts, 48, was working as a store manager at Carphone Warehouse when he performed Nessun dorma on Britain’s Got Talent in 2007. He went on to become the show’s first ever winner
“When a pop-up window appeared on my computer screen, I tried to cancel it and pressed the maximise button by mistake. It was the entry form for Britain’s Got Talent. It was the night before the entries were going to close, so I decided to let luck play a part. I took 10p out of my pocket, flipped the coin and said that if it landed on heads I’d apply, and if it landed on tails I’d cancel the whole thing and not think about it again. I can’t believe that was 12 years ago – it makes me feel old!
I won £100,000, but it was taxable, so about 35-40 per cent of it went straight away. It’s because in winning Britain’s Got Talent you use a skill. If it was a quiz, it wouldn’t be taxable – that’s the taxman’s argument, anyway – but if you use a skill, then it’s employment. There are only two things certain in life: death and taxes! Some went to paying off debts, and the rest went towards setting up me and my wife for life.
I’ve done about 1,100 shows in the past 12 years, but I’m still the shy person I was and being in the public eye can still be a little bit disconcerting. But you learn to deal with it. You can’t go into this industry thinking that you’ve got to have a persona, because when you try and keep something that’s not real going, that’s the route to mental health issues. You have to be you – if not, life finds you out in the end. You also have to manage your expectations. I always try to prepare myself for the worst and the best, because it’s easier coming up from the bottom than it is falling from the top.
I’m so glad that coin landed on heads. You can never really know, but I’m fairly confident that if it had landed on tails I’d still be selling mobile phones. Life has a funny way of turning around in ways you don’t expect, and I’m very glad everything turned out the way it did.
Paul Potts will be performing at the Princess Royal Theatre, Port Talbot, on 6th September
Ashley Banjo, winner 2009
Ashley Banjo, 30, was part of dance troupe Diversity who triumphed over Susan Boyle in Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. He is a Dancing on Ice judge and star of The Real Full Monty
There was so much attention on Susan Boyle in the week leading up to the final. It was SuBo mania and it felt like it was already written that she would win. But that really helped us prepare; I feel like our relaxed attitude is probably what won it for us. Winning the final was such a shock – maybe more than any other year because we were opposite somebody who was already famous worldwide. We never thought for a minute that the public would get behind us like they did.
We shared out the prize money and I think it came to about £9,000 each. The first thing I bought was an Apple Mac so I could edit the music for the sets properly, and I remember at the time saying that we would try to do a tour. But first we had to convince a promoter to take a risk on a dance group. They were all saying “this probably won’t work” and then, 12 promoters in, we came across the fantastic one we’re still with now. There was no record label or creative team telling us what to do – it was only me. I had to create a show to fill big venues and I’d never done one in my life. But the first dates sold out in 12 hours and so we tripled the tour length.
Back then we didn’t know anything about telly. We were so naive! I think we only really got through it with ourselves and our values intact because we had each other and always kept each other grounded. When you’re in a group, you have various people [in the industry] trying to cherry-pick members, but we stayed together and did what we loved – and ten years on, we’ve managed to do it all against the odds. The whole experience has made me and all of the boys the people we are. It’s been life-defining.
Tickets are on sale now for Diversity’s tenth anniversary tour, Born Ready
Jai McDowall, winner 2011
Singer and former support worker Jai McDowall, 32, won the fifth series of Britain’s Got Talent in 2011 and shortly afterwards released his debut album, Believe
Before Britain’s Got Talent I performed at local pubs and clubs, and jumping from that to being on TV felt really strange. After the final on the Saturday, I was like, “Am I allowed to go outside?” so I sat in the hotel room all day Sunday and watched the show back. On the Monday I did press, on Tuesday I went home to do more interviews in Glasgow – and managed to get my washing done – and then the next day I flew back to London for the BGT tour. It was crazy.
To go and win was such a high, but then it was taken away a wee bit with some of the headlines. There were some weird articles at the time [attributed to Jai] about Simon Cowell being anti-Scottish that were misconstrued, and it’s a shame because I have a lot of respect for him. But that’s the industry, and headlines aren’t going to be nice all the time. It did take me a good while to learn to deal with that.
Work over the last eight years has been sporadic. There have been times when I’ve maybe made the wrong business choices, and there was a period when I had financial difficulties. But I’ve been lucky that I’ve got a very good core group of fans who have stuck by me and been very loyal over the past eight years. There have been ups and downs, but I’ve never had a boring time. I’m very grateful and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the show.
Jai McDowall is currently touring in the UK with G4’s Jonathan Ansell in Les Musicals and will be performing solo at London’s Brasserie Zedel on 13 July
Lost Voice Guy, winner 2018
Lee Ridley, 38, aka Lost Voice Guy, has cerebral palsy and uses a communication aid for his stand-up routine. He is the first comedian to win Britain’s Got Talent
It’s always a risk when you put yourself in the limelight like this. I’m quite an edgy comedian and I had to tone down my material for Saturday-night television, so I wasn’t sure how well it would go down with the BGT audience. I’m really glad that I did BGT, though, and it ended up going better than I expected!
In the week leading up to the final I was so busy doing filming and rehearsing that all of it just blended into one, but my main memory was of me falling and hitting my head after the semifinal. I was just getting ready to celebrate in the hotel bar when I tripped over thin air and landed on my face. For a few moments, Lost Voice Guy became Lost Balance Guy. Thankfully, I recovered in time to compete in the final.
In the days after my win I did a lot of media interviews and got asked the same questions over and over again, but luckily I could just use copy and paste on my iPad for that.
Winning has changed my life in so many ways. It’s enabled me to go on tour and write a book, but one of the best things to happen is that people are engaging with me a lot more. I’m always getting stopped for selfies and, for the first time, people seem comfortable talking to a disabled person. When I first started comedy seven years ago, it was only supposed to be a bit of a laugh. I never expected to be making a living out of it, and I certainly didn’t expect it to lead to all of this.
Lee’s new book, I’m Only In it for the Parking, is available now (Bantam Press, £14.99)
The live rounds of Britain’s Got Talent air Monday to Friday at 7.30pm on ITV, with the results shows at 9.30pm each night. The final takes place on 2nd June