The 24 Number 1s between Sam & Mark and Girls Aloud are the longest Popular has been Reality TV free since Hear’Say’s first hit. You might have been fooled into thinking its heyday was over. You would have been quite wrong.

The X Factor is probably the reality pop show British readers know best – it had the success here that American Idol had in the USA, and was slow to peak and to decline. At the start of 2005 we’re still years off its point of maximum impact and its most successful legacy acts. Simon Cowell’s brainchild, it made him even richer and even more of a pop-cultural villain – a position he clearly adored.

Cowell took the Pop Idol format of wannabe singers and public votes and made two major changes. He formalised earlier rounds, adding a second layer of the competition where each judge took charge of one particular tranche of contestants (Steve Brookstein, for instance, was one of Cowell’s “Over-25s”; his vanquished rivals in the final, operatic boyband G4, were in the “Groups”, managed by the ever-hangdog Louis Walsh). And he added a second weekly show, in which the lowest two public voted contestants would sing for their survival, and the judges alone would deliver a final verdict.

The changes made the contest a more lucrative proposition for everyone involved – except, initially, the competitors. At first the X Factor’s biggest stars were its judges – Sharon Osborne and Louis Walsh became household names, but not on the scale of the show’s high-waisted ringmaster. A “Judges’ Houses” section – lasting two full weeks – gave contestants and viewers an OK Magazine style taste of the Cowellian high life, the camera lingering on heartbroken hopefuls as each judge raised and crushed them. The rules for the live shows also gave the judges imperial power – the public could save their favourites, but until the final could not damn them.

These format shifts didn’t entirely guarantee the judges a desired winner, but did give even more power to the show in shaping a narrative and outcome. And these hadn’t changed one bit. For all that the X Factor claimed to be hunting genuine, lasting stars (and did eventually find some), the arc of the series was still a pumped-up rags-to-riches story with a winner’s single at the end of it. One final safety-first change here: no more original songs – the X-Factor winner would be sent on their way with a cover version.

And despite all the changes, the first winner isn’t too far outside the McManus mould. Steve Brookstein was a 30something soul man, the star turn in his local pub, with a likeable grin and no genuine prospect of long-term success. This last was obvious to anyone except Steve Brookstein, whose career never even reached a second single, as he turned out to be truculent and awkward from the get-go, cavilling even at getting up the morning after winning to go on breakfast TV.

Brookstein himself tells a different story, one of dark media forces conspiring to hamstring his career and creativity because he wouldn’t toe the Cowell line. It’s hard to pin down exactly what creative freedom he wanted – the way Brookstein tells it, the label wanted more cover versions and Brookstein wanted to go in his own direction, so a parting of the ways seems like the best option for both. Whatever the case, he was out of his “million-dollar contract” before the year was up, and embarked on his second media career as a man dedicated to rubbishing Simon Cowell and the X Factor at any opportunity before spiralling off into wider, uglier, more familiar conspiracies as even that fame dried up.

Certainly his winning record – withdrawn from streaming services – has no hints of thwarted creativity. It’s a competent, inert cover version of a good song, which on video at least has to build a sense of momentum from tacky X Factor snippets (“Steve! Steve!”). Even by the later standards of X-Factor winning records, it’s a colourless effort.* In his final performance on the show he broke down with emotion, forgot the words, and was angrily accused of faking it all by Sharon Osborne. Not one shred of that drama survives in this pointless release.

*G4’s winning single would have been a cod-operatic version of Radiohead’s “Creep”, which I’m both sad and deeply relieved to have dodged.

Score: 2

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