Friday, 1 August 2014

I was "this close" to Simon Cowell: My live experience at the X-Factor in the UK

When Canadian Idol aired on CTV, my family and I headed down to Toronto each summer to watch live episodes. We did the same for So You Think You Can Dance Canada. Unfortunately both programs went off the air. Last May, while in Los Angeles, I got to see American Idol live. So what was next?

On our last night in London, England we sat inches away from the one and only Simon Cowell at Wembley Arena for what are called Arena Auditions in the hugely popular X-Factor UK series. 

Here I am on the set.

You should recall the US version on Fox, which was cancelled last winter after three seasons. Now in its 11th season here, Cowell owns the show. It attracts as many as 20 million UK viewers an episode on Britain's ITV. Unlike American Idol and its British equivalent Pop Idol (no longer in existence), The X Factor has no upper-age limit. Groups can apply, and contestants are also split into categories. There are five stages to the competition: : Producers' auditions (these auditions are un-televised, and decide who will sing in front of the judges); Judges' auditions (either in an audition room, an arena, or both; Bootcamp (originally a series of challenges and knock out rounds, then the seat challenge since series 10; Judges' houses and Live shows (finals). Below see the 2014 trailer.
Joining Cowell on the judging panel are drop dead gorgeous UK recording sensation Cheryl Cole, Mel B from the Spice Girls and noted Irish entertainment manager Louis Walsh. He has been a judge on the show since its inception.

Mel B., Cole, Cowell and Walsh.
Now I must tell you that my press credentials came with strict conditions. There were no live photos or videos of the auditions. I cannot report upon the names of the performers, what they sang or specific comments from the judges. We were told to arrive at 2:15 p.m. for a 3 p.m. live show. The wonderful tube (subway) left us off right on site. When we arrived at the special gate we were told there was a delay. Proceedings finally began at about 4:30 p.m., with over 3,000 screaming fans in the arena located right next store to massive Wembley Stadium. Standup comic Ian Royce was the warmup act and he was absolutely hilarious. The judges soon made a much celebrated entry. Once they sat down we were all told not to have any cameras or cell phones snapping shots.

I got to meet judge Louis Walsh.
The auditions went on for about four hours. It was a great presentation, unlike anything I saw at the Idol shows. One by one the performers come on stage. They are basically interviewed by the judges, who have seen them in previous rounds, and asked to give a little background about themselves and to preview what they will sing. I thought the judges had pretty good chemistry, especially Cowell and Cole who have been known to butt heads on occasion. Seeing Cowell live was quite a thrill. He really says what is on his mind, unconcerned about hurting anyone's feelings. In fact, it seems that all four judges have the same philosophy. They are at times downright cruel in some cases.

"We are honest," Walsh told me, when I unexpectedly ran into him later that night. 

How do the judges feel when they see candidates getting all emotional on stage because of their sometimes harsh criticism? "That's too bad," he remarked with a smile. "This goes with the territory. I will say that I believe we have a good group of performers this year."

This looks like a great show. How about CTV bringing it to Canada?