You all know the song that goes “Last night a DJ saved my life”?
Well, it may be a little extreme but on 14th December 2014, an X Factor winner saved my life. OK, maybe he just cheered me up a bit in reality, but the events leading up to that night meant that winner:- Ben Haenow, will always, ALWAYS hold a special place in my heart.
*Ben on X Factor, photograph not my own.
Firstly though, let me address the fact that I do, indeed, watch The X Factor. I’m not ashamed. People criticise it, yeah there are novelty acts that slip through every now and then but we’ve got to remember, this is a ” light entertainment ” show aired at a peak time on a Saturday night. The more people talking about it, good or bad, the better. The reason I like it, essentially, boils down to the fact that I love live music. So many times in my life, I’ve been to local pubs and festivals and thought “how have they not hit the big time yet”, or ” its such a shame more people can’t benefit from hearing their voice”. X Factor has become a platform for those very people. I agree, once they hit the live shows, they get a commercial make over and are almost squeezed into a box to conform to what the show thinks they should be. There’s always the ballad diva, the novelty act, the good looking boy with the weakest voice but the voting public of teenage girls will love him. I get it, its pants. However… Remember this, these acts HAVE to sing live EVERY WEEK. They can’t hide behind auto tune. No, not all of them are good. Some look the part, put on the show, but vocally can’t keep it up. On the very, very rarest of occasions, a real talent will slip through. Although I’ve watched every series, I have only ever voted for three acts in the whole time the show has been running. Matt Cardle, Ben Haenow and Louisa Johnson. They all won. Louisa has recently really taken off, with upbeat dance anthems and a duet with Olly Murs. You’d be forgiven for thinking the other two had disappeared off the face of the earth, but you’d be wrong.
I’ve seen Matt Cardle live and his voice is perfection. This is what ex X Factor contestants are used to. Standing on a stage, giving their all to a crowd of people, live. On X Factor, they had a week to learn new songs, they understand delivering a performance. They haven’t been polished and guided through their career with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths. Since winning, Matt has struggled with drink and drug problems, something I don’t condone but can fully understand. You go from Joe Bloggs, painter and decorator, scraping pennies together to get by, to having a record contract, a tour and money overnight. The support isn’t there for them. They choose to go on X Factor to get a break. And that break is instant. Matt checked into rehab, sorted himself and came back with an understated, intimate tour and was moved to tears on stage from the support he still had. Still has. Matt’s albums are mainly self-penned. His voice lends itself to soulful, heart breaking ballads but he’s definitely capable of upbeat too. His X Factor performance of “First time ever I saw your face” was spine tingling.
Matt Cardle, X Factor 2010 winner on tour in Birmingham in 2012. Photograph © me
I was fortunate enough to see Louisa Johnson when she toured with Olly Murs this summer. This is a girl who was just 16 when she auditioned for X Factor. She was studying, rehearsing and performing live every week. That is talent. Pure and undeniable. Her winners single was a flop and she dropped off the radar after that. That didn’t mean she gave up. Just when people had written her off, she came back with the single “Tears”, a collaboration with Clean Bandit, and firmly established herself as an artist away from the show. She’s taken a more edgy, dancey route and it suits her. This girl too, deserves more recognition than she gets. Her voice is beyond her years.
Olly Murs and Louisa Johnson in 2017. Photograph © me
These three favourite acts of mine to come from the show haven’t even had the biggest success since winning. When you look at the likes of One Direction (who were only ever runners up to Matt Cardle), Little Mix and Leona Lewis, who all have international fame now, you could easily say I’m backing the weakest links. But nope, I have my reasons. And Mr Haenow has earnt my loyalty in a way he’ll never know (unless he reads this blog of course).
So onto 2014, Bens year. From his first audition right through to the final, he was my firm favourite. He had a natural gritty, rocky voice which instantly meant any song he covered sounded different enough from the original and distinctively “Ben”. On screen he came across as a cheeky chappy, white van man, down to earth. Each week he got through he looked genuinely shocked and grateful for the support he was getting. In the final he was up against a sassy, ready made artist in Fleur East. She performed as if she was born to entertain. Firm bookies favourite. But Ben, with renditions of Highway to Hell and Cry me a River both perfectly executed, always had my vote. I always remember the judges telling him how brave he was to sing the first part of “Man in the Mirror” completely acapella, just his voice, raw and exposed.
Now, let me explain my opening comment.
My then husband used to watch X Factor with me. When I say “watch”, he did at least used to be in the same room as me. Albeit on his phone, or his laptop. By 2014, he was aware that Ben was my favourite act that series, but more often than not, he’d be down in the cellar “working” when I was having my Saturday night chill out. Our son was no longer interested in watching TV with Mum and Dad. It became my thing. Watching X Factor on my own.
The final that year fell on the weekend of 13th/14th December.
In the early hours of Friday 12th December, I kicked my husband out of our bed where he’d fallen asleep after telling me he no longer loved me, and left me crying downstairs. Yes, while I sat crying, wondering what the hell was going on, what this meant, what happened now… he stayed up in bed, where he’d made the statement after I had said I needed a hug as we approached our first Christmas without my sister, and fallen back asleep so deeply he was snoring. If my memory serves me correctly, at about 2.45am, when I could cry and wonder no more, I went upstairs, woke him up and told him to get out. No man could say he couldn’t hug me because he didn’t love me and hadn’t for two years then stay in our bed and fall back asleep. I didn’t care where he went.
Since then, a lot of people have said that maybe he couldn’t cope with how he thought I was going to be over Christmas. I’ll let you into a secret. The first Christmas and every one since losing my sister, is crap. No two ways about it. The only person that saw me cry was my husband. The one person that I thought it was safe to cry in front of. The person who had taken vows to protect me. Everyone else saw the brave face. I “got on with it”. I didn’t break down often. When I did it was with him. Turns out, he thought he was being strong for me. He wasn’t. I was strong for myself and my family. He was thinking of himself. Trust me, I’m not being nasty saying that. Comments that have been made since have proved this to me. I’m not cold enough to think my sisters death didn’t effect him too. We’d been in each others families for almost 18 years. I’m not saying he’s heartless, completely. But the thing that has stuck with him the most about my sisters death is the fact they were the same age. To this day he still speaks of her death as a life changing moment for him. How he needed to change his life because life’s too short. Cards on the table, the only change he made was leaving me. And even then he said he hadn’t loved me for two years. Since before my sister passed away.
I had to phone in sick to work on that Friday, and our son had to take a day off school. Not ideal. I hate calling in sick. I hate letting people down. When I’m genuinely ill I go into work to be sent kicking and screaming home again. Lack of sleep, infact no sleep at all meant I had to take the day off, and our son had woken up and heard it all. There was no blazing row. Just that statement and my following order to get out. On Friday I needed to see my husband and have the inevitable “what now” talk. Long story short. It was over, he moved out. Saturday 13th I was back at work. Admittedly, I found paperwork jobs to keep me busy out back for most of the day. But I was there, doing the job I’m paid to do. That night was the first half of Ben’s X Factor final. The press had pretty much declared Fleur the winner, and although I tuned in, I barely watched as Andrea Faustini was voted off, leaving Fleur and Ben going through to Sundays head to head. I was numb. X Factor no longer seemed important. My life had changed overnight and would never be the same again. Nothing else mattered.
So much did change between 2.45am on Friday morning and that Sunday evening. Although I spent a lot of the time wondering what the hell I was meant to do now, and questioning how it had come to this, seemingly out of the blue, I also took the time to think stuff through, find things out, connect the dots and discover untold truths amongst the outward lies. It really is amazing how hindsight and discovering the truth will turn a situation around. When I should’ve still been mourning my marriage, I was actually starting to feel grateful I was out of it. Truth smacking me round the face, waking me up and forcing me to smell the coffee. Struggling only with how it had taken me so long to see what was going on the whole time. They say love is blind. Love had me blinkered and resigned. The blinkers were now off.
I watched the Sunday night final in bed. Still hurt. Still licking my wounds. Still angry as hell. But already starting to see light at the end of a very instant, very dark tunnel. A tunnel which I zoomed through at break-neck speed thanks to the dangling carrot of truth at the end of it.
Ben Haenow won the X Factor. My phone was ringing and my best friend S was screaming with joy down it. S had been there first thing the morning after it all happened. She was the Watson to my Sherlock. The left to my right. And she was there for me when I needed her. So was Ben.
We both loved Ben and when he won, I smiled with genuine happiness for the first time in 3 days. The X Factor winner is so trivial. So unimportant when you look at the bigger picture, but Bens win came at a time when I needed a switch to flip. So soon after my marriage breaking up and despite knowing stuff I hadn’t known three days earlier, I was still having conflicting feelings. I’m not cold hearted. I didn’t instantly stop caring about what I’d lost, what I had, what I was to do now. I got stronger as the minutes passed but I wasn’t about to go out celebrating anytime soon. Bens win made me smile. And the smile didn’t feel out of place on my face at a time where most people would probably still be wallowing under the covers in bed and crying themselves to sleep. New Years eve, which I spent at another friends house, was the real “fuck this shit I’m not crying anymore” moment for me, but Bens win showed me that I would be fine. I knew, deep down that I would be, but after being with the same guy from when I just turned 20, was I sure?
I distinctly remember my ex calling our son the next day and one of his comments was “I bet your Mum was pleased that her favourite won X Factor”. My son sheepishly answered yeah, still feeling awkward, confused and not understanding what was going on. That moment was the start of a pattern. No matter how little or how much time passes, what I do, where I go, who I see and how I feel will always be asked of our son. Just because I’m no longer loved, the control is still needed, craved, as if some kind of invisible puppet strings are still attached to me. As the time does go on, however, it’s become easier to ignore. Genuinely, his loss. His problem if he can’t let go. All I did was love him, and want him to love me back. Lesson learnt, I’m not sure he ever truly did.
Anyway, I digress. Ending on a happy note, its only fitting that December, the worst month of the year for me, has this year, become the month I met Ben Haenow. After buying tickets as a birthday present for S, we attended the gig, the first of his tour, looking forward to fun times with our bestie and a sing a long. We didn’t have VIP meet & greet tickets so when we got in and had a browse at the merchandise, imagine our joy to see Ben just stood there,taking time to personally greet everyone. Even when he was notified he had to go ready for the support act, he still had time to pose for a couple of cheeky selfies and indulge us with a hug and kiss. The gig was amazing. Ben sang songs from his album, new releases and very new material. He was entertaining, enigmatic on stage and his voice was as wonderful as I’d remembered. It was a small venue, and it felt like he was aware of every one in the crowd. Putting on a winners performance.
Ben was buzzing, S and I were happy.
If you read this Ben:- Thank You! I kinda love you.
Photograph courtesy of S