This article was first published in April 2017
There are a couple of so-called curses in the realm of reality TV. There’s ‘the Strictly curse’, where celebrities have been known to waltz off with their professional dance partners on Strictly Come Dancing.
And then there’s The Voice UK’s ‘winner’s curse’ reflecting the fact that after five series and five successive champions, the show is yet to produce a hugely commercially successful music star.
Not long after they each won The Voice UK, winners Leanne Mitchell, Andrea Begley, Jermain Jackman, Stevie McCrorie and Kevin Simm have all found themselves associated with words like “failure” and “flop”. And yet behind the headlines there are complicated, heartfelt stories from immensely talented singers who never set out to be global superstars in the first place.
“It’s been a long up and down road since The Voice. It was difficult, but it feels better now,” admits 2015 winner Stevie McCrorie. “I’ve had time to digest it and looking back now I just see it as such an amazing achievement. I’m so proud of myself. I grew up on council estates with no money – sometimes I just take that second to think how I came from absolutely nothing to win a national TV show. That’s the way I think about it now.”
Stevie was originally scouted for the show’s first series but “didn’t have the guts” to pursue competing on the show. Four years later, his colleagues at the fire station where he worked sent off his application for The Voice.
“I went on the show to get maybe an extra few hundred quid at gigs with a bit of TV exposure, and it just snowballed then,” he says. “I got caught up in the whole thing and I ended up going on and winning it. It was such a surreal experience, even to think back now.”
Surreal is a word that Andrea Begley, who competed on the second series of the show in 2013, also uses to describe her experience of winning the show. “I’d been writing my own songs and playing small gigs and my thinking was that any coverage at all would give me an opportunity to do more of it,” she explains.
Jermain Jackman sees his win the following year as “one of the highlights” of his life. Not that he ever applied for the show with the intention of winning. Whilst Stevie and Andrea, who were already well into their 20s and appeared on the The Voice for more gigs and exposure, 18-year-old Jermain entered in order to gain a scholarship to a music college in Boston.
“I thought it would add more weight to my name,” he tells me. “I went back to the university and I said ‘I’m at the live shows’ and they gave me the full scholarship. So I was like ‘oh my goodness – there’s no need for me to be on the show. I can go to Boston and follow my dreams’.
Jermain Jackman wins The Voice UK in 2014
“And then I ended up winning and then having to do a tour and an album and I couldn’t even get to go to the university. And I’m not saying that I’m ungrateful for winning – but things get thrown in and mess up your plans. So I was on the show for whole different intentions, a whole different mind set.”
It didn’t take long before the papers were after him. On the day his debut album was released, a story ran in The Mirror claiming he had only sold 600 copies. “A lot of the press were really down my back to say ‘he’s failed,’” reflects Jermain who says he felt shocked and found it “very hard” going through the experience of having so much fame so quickly – and then losing it almost as rapidly.
“At first it was difficult because you had all these expectations,” he tells me. “I was not the bookies’ favourite, no-one expected me to win and a lot of people thought I would break ‘the curse’ of The Voice winners. And I really believed I could break that mould. Now it’s fine, but it was difficult to look back.”
Although there is no one precise reason why winners of The Voice UK have failed to achieve huge success, much of the blame has been placed at the door of the BBC. As a publicly owned broadcaster, there are rules in place that prevent them from promoting their own products – red tape that means singing contestants are unable to plug their own music after winning.
“They can’t be seen to be doing anything for commercial gain,” says Stevie. “So when I went back on the show a year later to sing, they weren’t going to let me mention my album that was out. It wasn’t The Voice being bad people, it was just policy and they couldn’t be seen to be doing it.”
Leanne Mitchell won the first series of The Voice UK in 2012
With that in mind, he believes that ITV is “definitely a better place” for the programme following its move from BBC1 last year. “I don’t think it should’ve ever really been on the BBC because they can go on about creating this winner and potentially going on to be commercially successful – but the show was the opposite.”
Jermain agrees and thinks there are simply “too many politics” at the BBC. “I feel like I need to write a book about all of this!” he laughs. “When you’re on a BBC show, you’re seen as a BBC product. I remember being told that: ‘You’re a BBC product’ and I was like ‘Wow, that’s a crazy label’. There’s a whole bunch of experiences that I had working with the BBC that I struggle to understand.”
According to Jermain, he was originally on the line-up for the first ever BBC Music Awards but was hastily removed.“The BBC couldn’t be seen to be promoting their own product. I was on the bill – but I was quickly taken off. I remember having meetings with my label – they were so sorry and didn’t understand the bull**it that was going on with the BBC.
“I was still 19. At this time I had all of these things going through my head: ‘am I good enough? Do they not like my voice? Do they not like my music? Was I the right person who won?’ But you have to stay so strong and thick-skinned and know that you do deserve it.”
Andrea meanwhile found it “frustrating” when her debut album didn’t make the playlist for Radio 2. “I felt it was a bit unfair, given that it was a BBC programme and a BBC radio station,” she explains. “And I think that was more pivotal than anything in terms of how things carried on. I think if it had been playlisted, it would have made quite a difference.”
Andrea Begley on The Voice UK in 2013
There are also marked differences between The Voice UK and The X Factor. Whereas The Voice searches for someone with impeccable vocal talent, The X Factor is a different beast. Its acts often have personalities as big as – or even bigger than – their voices.
“The Voice is about the voice and The X Factor is about having that x factor,” surmises Jermain. “I didn’t have that x factor, but I had the voice.”
Stevie also admits he was “was never going to be a pop star”.
“I wanted to be a guy with his guitar, touring around dingy venues and working my way up,” he says. “I think maybe people were expecting me to be this bubbly guy and singing and dancing on TV shows, and it just wasn’t really me.”
Another recurring problem they all cite was the uniformity of the management and the label, which was decided long before the winner was crowned.
“You’re always watching your words because you don’t want to come across ungrateful, because I’m so grateful for the experience that I got on that show,” says Stevie. “But there are 48 people that get through to the battles. The way the music industry works, it’s so hard to think that one management or label are going to suit everybody. As soon as I won I was with the wrong management and the wrong label. I just knew it was never going to work because it wasn’t natural. I think that’s why The Voice has never produced a ‘superstar’.
Andrea agrees with his sentiment. “My music probably would have been more suited to a label like Decca, but because that year Capitol had been chosen as the label, that’s who I ended up with,” she explains. “I mean, we made the best of it in the circumstances, and it actually worked quite well. We worked together as much as we could, and it ended up quite successful.
Last year’s winner of The Voice UK, former Liberty X singer Kevin Simm
“Looking back on it, I suppose I might have wanted to do things differently,” she continues. “I wanted to do an album that was more my music, and obviously the label weren’t keen on that.”
Andrea was with Capitol for about a year and a half when she says “the trail just went quiet”.
“There really wasn’t a huge amount of communication from them, but it didn’t seem that a second album was going to happen. It was kind of a mutual thing really, because I think I recognised as well that by that stage it was just the direction it was heading in.
“It was a bit disappointing, but at the same time I got to walk away from the situation knowing I had a top 10 album, which is a heck of lot more than most people.”
For Andrea, not finding huge success wasn’t a shock. “I think because I had fairly realistic expectations, and I had seen how things had gone in the first series, I had fairly… I wouldn’t say limited ambitions, but I think I had a fairly realistic view.”
Finding such sudden fame and then reverting back to a normal life had a greater impact on both Stevie and Jermain.
“They pick you up every Saturday night, you’re live on BBC1 and you’re held on a pedestal,” says Jermain. “‘Oh my goodness, you’re amazing’. And then after the show it’s just…nothing. And everyone’s like ‘well, what now?’ And you’re just dropped. There’s literally no contact, they don’t call you – for months there had always been someone calling you every single day. And then after the show you’re like ‘what now?’
“If it wasn’t down to my family, my friends and my faith I would’ve been one of those artists who were eaten up and spat back out. There was a singer on my year who I was told had a mental breakdown after the show, and that’s how much the machine just chews you up. If you don’t have that foundation you’re going to fall straight through.”
Stevie found it “a shock to the system” because of all the hype. “’You’ve won The Voice, your single’s at number one – it was there for five days. I was going to Radio 1 and I was going to all these other places and then all of a sudden it kind of got taken away from me in the space of six months.
“And there’s no aftercare – it wasn’t as if there was somebody saying ‘we’re going to get someone to develop your TV presence or develop this or develop that,'” he says. “You just win it – there’s your label, there’s your management. See you later.”
Stevie laughs recalling the gulf he felt between himself and some X Factor contestants who had been on the show the same year he won The Voice.
“I was doing songwriting sessions when I saw them. They seemed to have someone with them driving them around. I was cutting it about on the bus.”
There were splashes in the tabloids last year when it was revealed that Stevie had returned to his former job as a fireman at Kirkcaldy station in Fife a year after winning the show. The word “flop” was back again – and the coverage was something Stevie found frustrating.
“I think people saw it as a bad thing when I went back,” he explains. “But I always saw The Voice as a good platform. I never expected to be super famous and I actually got more fame than I expected.
“Becoming a fireman was another amazing achievement for me because I can’t believe I managed to do that – I used to be a lazy musician drinking beer all the time,” he continues. “It’s a job to be proud of and I was just like ‘I’m not going to give up this career I worked so hard to get’. I’d only been in the job two years.
“When I made the decision to go back to the fire service it was just hard to deal with because one minute you’re selling out big capacity venues and all these people are coming to see you. And then the next minute you’re a normal person. I think that’d be hard for anybody to deal with. I’ve been through low periods but, without sounding clichéd, it does make you a bit stronger.”
Andrea says the last time she was in touch with her coach Danny O’Donoghue was a brief email conversation last year. “While we haven’t been in great contact recently, we always got on very well,” she notes.
Stevie and Jermain still exchange texts with their respective coaches Ricky Wilson and will.i.am. “It’s good that he keeps in touch. He’s a nice guy,” says Stevie of Ricky, adding that he sees Kaiser Chiefs gigs when they come to Scotland.
All three have advice for artists thinking of applying for future series of the programme. “I would just say to take it for total enjoyment,” Andrea says. “Every week you go out, like a massive advertisement board of what you can do and don’t get too caught up in all the fanfare, because I think there is a tendency to get a bit carried away.
“Don’t expect to be the next Ed Sheeran because even if you do win you’ve got a hell of a lot of work to put in. You need good songs, you need good writers and you need an element of luck, too.”
Jermain is keen to point out to tomorrow’s talented performers that TV competitions are perhaps not the best way to go about becoming a bona fide artist.
“I would say you don’t have to do it,” he explains. “You can build an organic fan base, release music on Soundcloud and just graft and work on your craft until you’re ready. Or you can do it, but know what you’re there for and don’t get lost.
“Know that you’re just a singer on a primetime television show and their main aim is to put out entertainment. Forget about the way you feel, forget about if you’re tired. This is what they’re there to do.
“It’s a machine. If you’re not ready for that machine, they will eat you up and spit you back out. Because as soon as the show’s over, you’ll be Joe Bloggs who lives down the road.”
It would be easy for any or all of them to feel embittered or resentful about the hand they were dealt after the confetti was swept away. And yet Stevie, Jermain and Andrea are all incredibly warm, genuine and kind-hearted people who are still passionate about music and who regularly perform live. Admittedly the venues aren’t arenas and the music they’re releasing isn’t storming the charts, but that isn’t what’s important to them.
They’re enjoying their careers both in and out of music and above everything else are unanimous in their belief that they have come out of the “machine” unscathed because of their rich and varied lives outside of music.
“I think this is what certain reality contestants need to start to think about,” says Jermain. “What’s their love and their passion? It’s just unfortunate for those singers and contestants who just purely do music.
“I started studying politics at Leeds last year and I’m really enjoying it,” he adds. “I’m just trying to get through university one lecture at a time. I saw winning The Voice as the building blocks of the foundation of which my career was built on.
“It’s allowed me to stand on a certain pedestal, to voice my opinions and to also voice the opinions of those who are unheard. And I’ve just set up my own commission in Islington called the Fairer Futures Commission. It’s almost an independent enquiry to see into the policies that Islington council implement and how they can really enable and ensure that young people and children achieve their full potential.”
Most viewers of The Voice remember Jermain saying he was going to be the country’s first black Prime Minister – something he says it’s “great” that he’s remembered for. “I walk into Hackney and they’e saying ‘We’re waiting on you!'” he smiles.
Similarly to Jermain, Andrea – who had to postpone her masters degree when competing on The Voice – has also returned to academia and is currently doing a part-time PhD through Exeter University while working for the government in Stormont in Belfast.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve got my finger in a lot of other pies and have other interests,” says Andrea, who is also an ambassador for RNIB Northern Ireland alongside performing at local gigs during the evenings and weekends and releasing her music independently.
“I have the freedom to do what I enjoy doing, and that’s the main thing,” she says. “Sure, in an ideal world it might have worked out differently, but it didn’t. It’s just one of those things. Besides, there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t have done without it. So how do you look at it? Is the glass half full or half empty? It hasn’t had a lasting impact in a negative sense for me, I’ve just taken the good out of it. Ultimately The Voice has definitely been a positive experience.”
Alongside his job in the fire service, Stevie is still “pushing forward and writing songs”. He’s converted his garage into a studio and is looking towards doing another album.
“110% The Voice benefited me,” he says. “But people don’t see that because I’m not on the TV and I’m not on the radio – but I’m still working. I’ve done T in the Park twice since I’ve won the show, I’m doing other festivals, I’ve sold out a lot of venues up in Scotland.
“I’ve just been writing a lot and meeting people in the industry to really get a better understanding of how to approach it, and I feel like labels aren’t the be all and end all these days. There are other avenues you can go down and that’s what I’m exploring now – get a new album out, hopefully tour the UK and maybe some of Europe.
“I’ve stuck to my music,” Stevie concludes. “And hopefully one day I won’t be judged as just someone who won The Voice.”