If there was a prize for the reality series that provided the biggest contribution to British pop culture, we think that The X Factor – specifically the 2008 series – would stand a very good chance at winning.
It was the era of having to decide whether you spent your Saturday night watching Strictly Come Dancing or The X Factor first, with a takeaway on your lap, and it wasn’t just the local fast food suppliers who were serving.
While there were many successful series before X Factor’s demise in 2018, series five stood out. Dermot O’Leary’s spin before announcing ‘Your Saturday night starts here’ was enough to make your belly flip with excitement.
Things started strong with Holly Jervis’ iconic ‘Can I take my specs off?’ audition, which is almost as quotable as Mean Girls despite only being three and a half minutes long. Holly was just one of a reported 180,000 hopefuls who tried to sing their way into UK living rooms by impressing Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh, Dannii Minogue, and then-newbie judge Cheryl Cole.
Unsurprisingly, a huge number of people wanted a piece of the X Factor pie as it was basically a one-way ticket to stardom, or at least 15 minutes of fame.
Eventually, Alexandra Burke won the £1 million recording contract with Syco Music, with a whopping 14 million viewers tuning in to watch the monumental moment.
Fifteen years on from that crème de la crème series, we’ve chatted to three of the series’ stars, Ruth Lorenzo, Eoghan Quigg, and JLS’ Oritsé Williams, who told Metro.co.uk what it was like to be part of the TV juggernaut of the decade.
Eoghan was just 15 when his life was flipped on its head. He enjoyed singing in his school choir and idolised Leon Jackson, who won the previous series of X Factor, so his next step felt obvious – fill out an application form without his parents’ knowledge.
‘Days later, I got an acceptance letter and so I told them. They were happy for me,’ Eoghan, now 31, told us.
‘I’d never even left Ireland before, or been on a plane but I went across to Glasgow for my audition in front of the producers. My family had to pay as X Factor didn’t cover costs until later in the competition.’
Luckily, the financial investment paid off and soon he was stood in front of the four judges in London. Although his first song Home by Michael Bublé was seemingly cut off by Simon, he made it through on Eric Calpton’s Tears In Heaven.
‘I remember that day clearly. I thought it would be an hour and then I’d go home but it was an all-day thing. There was so much waiting about. I was a teenager so I was just tired and hungry, but then when I got in the room it was amazing.
‘I remember thinking the judges looked really big as I’d only seen them on the TV screen, and that there were so many lights and cameras.
‘Watching it back, I was annoyed as they made it look like Simon cut me off but that’s not what happened! I just performed two songs for them on request.’
For Oritsé and his JLS bandmates Aston Merrygold, Marvin Humes, and JB Gill the show was a final attempt to pursue their dreams.
‘We did talent shows, tried to get the attention of record companies and did anything we could to just be heard and known. Nothing was going as planned, and so X Factor was the last resort,’ explained Oritsé, 37, who was responsible for putting the band together.
‘One of our friends usually auditioned solo every single year. He actually introduced me to some of the band too.
‘I asked him for his slot, which he gave it to us. I shouldn’t really admit that.
‘I thank him every single day,’ he concluded.
All contestants have to go through multiple producer rounds before they can get anywhere near the judges, but Oritsé recalled knowing pretty quickly that they were going to make it: ‘They made it clear they were excited about what they were hearing.’
Despite the strong start, Oritsé was suddenly struck down with flu. He was doubtful he was going to be able to sing his part, but one band member offered words of encouragement.
‘I was in the hotel the night before shivering, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it but Marvin said “Whatever happens, you have to sing tomorrow”. The pressure was on my shoulders, not just from the group but also from my family.’
Oritsé’s mum has multiple sclerosis, and he put the band together to better her life so was determined to be a success.
‘Somehow my vocals came out and at the end of the audition Simon pointed to me and said: “You, I like your voice.” All the boys put their arms around me.
‘It was the most intense 24 hours of my life,’ he concluded.
Eoghan may have travelled from Dungiven in Ireland while the JLS boys were London-based, but Ruth, 41, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be a competitor after some British holidaymakers convinced her to apply after listening to her sing Purple Rain at a golf club.
‘“Simon Cowell is going to love you,” they promised me.
‘I had no clue who he was,’ she admitted.
‘They gave me an application for my 25th birthday. I didn’t even have a UK address so they let me put down theirs. The audition was my first time in London.
‘I could tell my eventual mentor Danni Minogue liked me from the first moment.
‘I bumped into her in the hallway during bootcamp, and she said “Can I give you a tip? You need to sing in Spanish” so I did, and that’s how I got through to judges’ houses.’
Eoghan also had moments with Simon in his Barbados home when the record button hadn’t been pressed when he also made it through to the next round. ‘It was just like we were at a coffee shop having a chat when they stopped rolling. He is not his nasty persona at all,’ he stated.
Off-camera the producers were also making discoveries about Oritsé’s family situation, which was never shown on TV due to a private request.
‘The producers started to figure out something was going on with me. When I explained that me and my siblings take care of my mum they were bowled over. For me, it was normal, but they thought it was extraordinary.
‘My mum’s condition took its toll while we were on the show. By the time we were in the final, she was wheelchair-bound. That period of my life was an emotional rollercoaster.
‘What was going on at home kept me grounded, the success and fame were secondary.
‘The producers were very empathetic, and I knew they wanted me to do well but I asked them to make our storyline about the group as opposed to my life story, and they stuck to that. I didn’t want any handouts.’
Making it to the live shows meant the 12 final acts all moved into a three-storey detached house together in London, filled with bunk beds and camera operators. Due to the exposure the series was giving them, photographers were also outside their front door around the clock.
‘I remember the paps being outside our X Factor house constantly and everyone talking about the paps like this big thing,’ Ruth recalled.
‘Some of the X Factor contestants would be like, “Oh my God, our life is gonna change forever.”
‘I just saw men with their cameras waiting for hours and hours to get a stupid picture. I used to make them tea and go out to check they were okay. I didn’t see the point in them being there.’
‘We got to know each of their names. I was probably a bit naive but I did just see them all as my friends,’ added Eoghan.
A particular point of interest for the photographers was a possible romance between Diana Vickers and Eoghan, as the public had a growing interest.
‘They were always looking for romance and I suppose I was young and branded cute so from the get-go it was like “Has he got a girlfriend? Is he seeing anyone?” I wasn’t, I was just kind of enjoying the X Factor,’ Eoghan told us.
‘Diana was like a best friend on the show.
‘We just kind of clicked because we were the same age – I was 16 and she was 17 and we got each other.
‘That’s how we came close because we could relate to each other. I think at the time, the press wanted something to be there that wasn’t. We were told “Maybe you should play on it” and stuff.
‘But we genuinely were just buddies going through a crazy experience.
‘I could see that was the angle that some people might have wanted us to take but we kind of just laughed them off. We did our own thing and that was really it,’ he explained.
‘I was the teenage boy who all the girls liked so I felt like I was popular and didn’t need to work to get coverage. I 1 million percent wasn’t the best singer – I am better now – but people seemed to enjoy me.’
The sudden fame meant the aspiring musicians had to quickly learn, and Oritsé still carries those lessons with him: ‘I remember a lot of people in the house would be getting quite upset because there’s a lot of stories flying out about their personal lives and they’re not understanding how to deal with it.
‘We were taught how to manage attention and controversies. The X Factor was like a fast track bootcamp for understanding what it is to be a musician in this industry. Without that period of my life, I don’t think I would have been able to deal with a lot of things I’ve dealt with being in the public eye, to be honest.
‘The X Factor was a lifesaver in many ways. It changed my life.’
Living with strangers who were also your competitors was a little unusual, but Ruth remembers most people just looking out for each other. She took on a maternal role and cooked everyone Spanish food, and even ensured their cupboards were well-stocked.
‘For me, it was more about being caring and then going on stage to do my thing to prove Simon Cowell wrong. I would be concerned about everyone’s health making sure they were drinking enough water and getting enough sleep.
‘I used to steal toilet paper from the recording studios,’ she declared.
‘I’d fill a big bag up with them. We still had to do our shopping on top of everything else so that was my hack.’
There were many standout performances of X Factor 2008 – JLS’ cover of Wham’s Last Christmas mainly thanks to the meme of JB saying Merry Christmas that is as pivotal to the festive season as pigs in blankets, Alexandra’s Listen duet with the Queen herself, Beyoncé, of course, and Ruth’s epic rendition of Purple Rain by Prince.
Each week, the two acts with the fewest votes would be forced to sing for their right to remain in the competition, and Ruth opted to sing the power ballad to fight for her place.
‘I always wanted to sing whatever I wanted to sing. I wanted to sing Purple Rain and so I did,’ she told us with some determination.
Despite her passion for the song, she wasn’t given support for her choice.
‘I had a call from producers saying that I shouldn’t sing this song. Simon wanted me to sing Unbreak My Heart in Spanish and I was like, “That’s so cheesy”.
‘If I have to go home because of my choice, then that’s fine so I stood firm.
‘It became one of the strongest performances on The X Factor. It’s been repeated through time, and I often see comments that nothing beats Ruth Lorenzo’s Purple Rain.’
Even after Ruth was voted off the series, she remained living in the house: ‘I got on with the producers in the show and they let me stay in the house until I got myself together as I didn’t have a home in the UK. I just had to try to avoid the cameras, and they’d edit me out if needed.’
Although, Ruth didn’t quite it make to the final, Eoghan did and there was always a special feature in the final episode where hopefuls would head to their home town to perform for their new fans.
Eoghan had to take a helicopter to get to the venue as it was there was so much interest in him, and 30,000 people had gathered to hear him sing.
‘I thought this is actually quite scary. Two months prior I was just a normal schoolboy doing my GCSEs,’ he recalled.
JLS found themselves in a similar situation: ‘We had a police escort, and there were thousands of fans running after us.’
Reflecting on the whole unique experience Ruth said: ‘The fame we experienced was not real fame. It was just a moment and maintaining that would have been unsustainable. I always treated it as something external to me.’
Eoghan added: ‘People still recognise me from The X Factor now and want to ask questions about it. I guess I did something right if people are still remembering the series.
‘When everything died down, I didn’t mind, it was always unlikely that it would last forever. I’m glad I kept my feet on the ground and just enjoyed it for what it was.’
The final words go to Oritsé who told us: ‘When I watch clips now, there are moments where I cringe at myself but mostly I just feel proud. The X Factor will always make me smile.’ Us too! Now, somebody please ask Netflix to upload the whole series.
Got a story?
If you’ve got a celebrity story, video or pictures get in touch with the Metro.co.uk entertainment team by emailing us firstname.lastname@example.org, calling 020 3615 2145 or by visiting our Submit Stuff page – we’d love to hear from you.