My X Factor Journey

I am officially an X Factor reject.  And I couldn’t be happier about it.  Let me tell you why.

Many months ago I entered the famous TV talent show by way of a video audition and then promptly forgot about it.  Then on Friday an email arrived in my inbox saying:

“Congratulations!  You are through to the next round of the X Factor 2013 auditions.  You are one step closer to achieving your dream”.

The email went on to give details of my second round audition, which was to be held the following Monday at 7am.  After miraculously sorting out the most complicated child-care arrangements known to humankind, and a weekend of outfit-choosing and song-singing, I duly arrived at the London venue yesterday at 6.55am.  I stood amongst hundreds of other nervous hopefuls, queueing in the cold for two hours.  And when I say cold, I mean that I couldn’t walk properly having lost all sensation in my toes.  Eventually I reached the front of the queue and was asked to read two pages of small print before signing a form.  My fingers were so cold I couldn’t hold the pen, so I scribbled a barely-legible mark without reading the text, knowing full well that it was simply asking me to sign my life away to the money-making machine that is X Factor.  At last we were shepherded indoors – into a space closely resembling an aircraft hangar.  A few auditionees made a grab for the handful of available chairs, but were given short shrift by the production crew who informed them the chairs were only for those in real need – the concrete floor was evidently good enough for the likes of us.  After a further hour of waiting (and with a derriere now as cold as my toes) my name was finally called, and I joined a group of others as we were led to our fate.  A skinny blonde girl (there were lots of those) started jabbering to me. “Oh fuck!  Oh fuck!  Shitting fuck!  I’m shitting myself!  Are you shitting yourself?  I’m like, totally shitting myself!”  I was nervous but not shitting myself.  Didn’t seem right to say so though.  “Yeah” I replied.  “I’m shitting myself too”.  She gave my hand a squeeze.  “Don’t worry babe” she reassured me.  “You’ll be fucking brilliant”.  I asserted that she, too, would be fucking amazing.  Her sparkling beam confirmed that this was the correct response.

We were led down a narrow corridor and told to wait outside door 11.  We sank to the floor again, grateful for the carpet.  The corridor was buzzing with people humming their first lines repeatedly under their breath; strumming guitars; reapplying their make-up; and my skinny blonde friend screeching “Has anyone got a pen?!  I need to write my words on my hand!  I’m gonna forget my fucking words!” Every few minutes someone would appear from an audition room.  Some, jubilantly clutching the red slip of paper that meant they were through to round 3, skipped back down the corridor shouting “Good luck guys!” over their shoulder.  The rest came out red-faced and downcast, trying to slip away unnoticed.  One boy muttered “Not enough confidence?  They don’t even bloody know me” as he stomped past us.

It was impossible not to get caught up in this frenzy of nerves and excitement and adrenalin, and as the queue in front of me gradually diminished I felt the butterflies in my stomach growing.  My breathing started quickening, my hands trembling.  My mouth grew dry.  I felt certain I would go blank when it was my turn to audition, so started quietly singing my first line over and over.  I sipped water.  I sprayed Rescue Remedy on my tongue.  I wondered what the hell I was doing there.

Finally the door opened and a crew member said “Your turn.  Just stand on the X”.  I walked into a room that was much larger than I had been expecting.  I beamed at the two producers sitting behind the table, with a huge floor-to-ceiling window behind them making it difficult to see them them clearly.  I took my place on the hallowed red-and-black cross on the floor in the centre of the room.  I confirmed my name with as much excitement as I could muster.  “And what do you do?” asked the man.  “Well up until a year ago I was a secondary school teacher.  I taught Sex Education to teenagers in London!  It was brilliant!” I wittered.  I decided they wouldn’t be as interested in the Human Rights modules I had taught, or the Government and Politics.  Sex Education would surely make better TV. “Really?” asked the woman.  “So lots of putting condoms on bananas then?”  “Oh no!” I responded with more enthusiasm than a CBeebies presenter on ecstasy. “We don’t use bananas, we have blue demonstrators!  Ours was called Bob!”  The producers smiled at me.  They looked vaguely amused.  So far so good.  I went on to tell them that I’m now a single mum to four-year-old twins, and made some general chit-chat about how challenging yet rewarding that is.  Yadda yadda yadda.  “OK, well when you’re ready?” the man said.

This was it.  Time to show them what I was made of.  My hands were still shaking.  My throat felt dry.  I fixed my eyes on a point just behind the judges’ heads, assumed the correct posture to give my voice the best fighting chance, took a breath from deep in my stomach, and began to sing.  After three words I knew I was out.  My voice sounded weak and reedy.  I’d started singing way too low which meant there was no power behind the notes.  Quite frankly I sounded crap.  Before I could even hit the chorus the man raised his hand in a “stop” signal.  “Thanks” he said “but it’s going to be a no today.  The standard is very high”.  Translation: you sounded crap.  “I know that was rubbish” I said.  “I started singing too low.  That’s actually not what I usually sound like at all.  Can I do my second song?”  “Sorry” he replied.  “We’ve got a lot of people to see”.  Translation: you sounded so crap we just want to get you out of this room.  “OK” I said.  “Thanks for taking the time to see me”.  “Thanks for coming” came the reply.  And I left.

And so, like I say, I am officially an X Factor reject.  My friends commiserated with me and I said “It doesn’t matter!  I wasn’t expecting to get through anyway.  It was a good experience”.  And I meant all those thing.  It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t.  And I really wasn’t expecting to get through.  But why do I feel it was a good experience?  Reading through my description of the day, it sounds hellish.  Yet I am pleased I went.  To understand why I am pleased I need to take a big step back.

Anyone who watches the series will be familiar with the concept of a contestant’s “journey”.  When they are voted off by the public and the celebrity judges, they hear the immortal words “Let’s take a look at your X Factor journey” before being shown a video montage of themselves during their months of involvement with the show – singing with their eyes shut tight; crossing their fingers with a tear sliding down their cheek; leaping joyfully into a judge’s arms; ecstatically hugging their fellow contestants – essentially a summary of all the key moments that had led them to this point of rejection, accompanied by an appropriately emotional soundtrack.  They go on to thankfully express all they have learned from the process, and describe how they have changed and grown as a person.  For them this journey began with their first audition.

My journey has, so far, taken me up to my X Factor audition.  And it has spanned years rather than months.  But it explains why I feel that my experience yesterday was overwhelmingly positive and even triumphant.  This has been the third consecutive year that my first video audition was deemed good enough to get me through to the second round.  Twice before I have received the congratulatory email, inviting me to the second round of auditions.  But both times I bottled it.  I found excuses not to go.  The thought of entering X Factor had been fun when sending in my video, but when faced with the reality of being judged and, in all likelihood, being told at some point that I wasn’t good enough – well, that was enough to convince me the whole idea was ridiculous and most certainly not for me.

But this is hardly surprising when I think about my circumstances.  I was in a very different place.  I was in an oppressive and abusive marriage, which left me permanently tearful and constantly feeling that I wasn’t good enough.  I lived on tenterhooks, forever fearful that the next sentence to come out of my mouth would be one that triggered anger and aggression and mean little mind games.  I exhausted myself trying to be the wife my husband wanted, but whatever I did, I could never please him.  No matter how hard I tried to be all he could want, I was never enough.  Unsurprisingly given the strain I was under at home and my fragile emotional state, my work began to suffer.  I started to make mistakes and miss deadlines.  And when I went to a manager to explain exactly what was happening in my marriage and how it was affecting my ability to work, this information was used to bully me, make me into a scapegoat, and eventually push me out of the career I had loved.

In hindsight it is obvious why, in previous years, I couldn’t face singing for X Factor producers.  It was because my husband and my employers had completely convinced me I wasn’t good enough.  I wasn’t a good enough wife, I wasn’t a good enough employee, I wasn’t good enough for anything.  (For more on being good enough please read this amazing blog).  I certainly wasn’t good enough to stand amongst the other auditionees and believe I had as much right as them to be there, and to sing a song.  My self-esteem was at an all-time low.

This year, however, I went to the audition.  And it took some doing.  I had to arrange a succession of four different people to take responsibility for childcare throughout the day.  I had to get up at 5am to be there on time.  But I did it.  I showed up and I sang.

The interesting thing is that, in a way, I still didn’t think I was good enough.  By that I mean I don’t think I’m a good enough singer to win the X Factor.  I think I have a nice voice, and given the right song and the right circumstances I occassionally think I sound really good.  But (and this is being realistic, not putting myself down) I do not have the kind of voice that wins X Factor.  Or the kind of looks.  Possibly the kind of personality.  But I did not, even for one fraction of a second, think I was ever going to get close to “making it” on X Factor.

So why did I go?  I went to prove to myself that I could.  I went because I now have enough confidence in myself that it genuinely doesn’t matter to me that two people I don’t know didn’t like my singing yesterday.  If I’m being completely honest I was just a little disappointed.  I had hoped to go one round further than I did.  But the important thing is that I was there.  As a friend put it yesterday: “Here’s to showing up and being seen!”  A year ago, showing up and being seen was terrifying.  This year I did it and it felt great.

So … my X Factor journey.  What would my video montage look like?  Well it would show my transition from tearful, beaten-down despondency to confident optimism.  It would show the look of adoration in my daughter’s eyes when we sing together.  It would show the hordes of friends encouraging me and cheering me on every step of the way.  And my montage soundtrack would have to be “I Will Survive”.

I entered a different contest to the other people queueing in the cold with me yesterday.  They were there to prove something to others.  I was there to prove something to myself.  And I won.

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Does every girl need a Sweet Talkin’ Ken?

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for a couple of months. It started because I was having a truly awful time at work and ended up being signed off with stress, and my occupational therapist had recommended counselling: but of course given recent developments in my life, the counsellor has become more valuable and important to me than I could have known.

Last week we moved on from picking over the details of what had gone wrong and how it made me feel, and started talking more about the future. I’m pleased to say I’m generally very optimistic about what lies ahead. I feel like I’m already getting my life back on track and reclaiming my house, my happiness and my sanity. However, my counsellor asked how I felt about the idea of future relationships, and suddenly the solid foundation I had started rebuilding began to feel shaky and unsteady. I answered that I had all I needed in my children, my family, my friends and my home, and that the thought of another relationship couldn’t be further from my mind.

My counsellor dug deeper. I began to explain, tentatively, that I have lost all confidence in my ability to choose a relationship that is good for me. Looking back I could see that time after time I have made bad choices, and formed relationships with people who are, quite clearly, not right for me. I took a deep breath, then dug deeper still. And as the session went on, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realised that my sense of worth – my own measure of how interesting, attractive and funny I am; my perception of how much I am wanted – has always come from men.

As a teenager I very much wanted a boyfriend. I thought being someone’s girlfriend was a way of showing the world (and myself) that I was important and desirable. And after some perseverence on my part, the boyfriends started, followed in later years by three fiances and an eventual husband. My counsellor asked whether I had ever stopped to ask myself how I really felt about each of these men, and the honest answer is no. Time and time again I have got so caught up in the excitement of a relationship, and been so delighted that someone wants to be with me, that I’ve not taken the time to examine my own feelings.

But why? My inital reaction is that this clearly points to low self-esteem: it suggests that I am “grateful” for someone’s attention and grab it with both hands. But this explanation doesn’t feel right. I don’t believe my self-esteem is particularly low. If anything I was a confident, extroverted teenager, and while the gregarious side of my nature has lessened a little over time, I still feel that in many ways I am confident in myself and my abilities.

So why then? Why have I sought approval and attention from males for as long as I can remember? I was at a loss to explain this … until this afternoon. Yesterday I finally completed the redecoration of my 3-year-old daughter’s new bedroom, and I went to Toys R Us today to buy her a reward for staying in her new bed all night.

It was here that I came across “Sweet Talkin’ Ken”. This doll proudly wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Ultimate Boyfriend” in a variety of languages. The owners of this doll are expected to press the heart on Ken’s t-shirt and whisper sweet nothings into his ear which he will repeat back, in his own voice. The recommended age on the box? 5+. Little girls from the age of 5 (and it is not unreasonable to suppose it will be mostly girls taking Sweet Talkin’ Ken home with them) are clearly not only expected to want a boyfriend, but to know what he will say to them too. And he’s not just any old boyfriend; oh no. As any discerning 5-year-old will tell you, she needs to have the ultimate boyfriend.

The back of the box bears the legend “The Ultimate Boyfriend always knows the right thing to say!” and bears a photo of a young girl twirling her bunches around her finger as she exclaims “Oh Ken! You’re such a sweet talker!”

Further investigation led me to the Mattel website, where the wonderful Ken has received rave reviews. One delighted customer says: “Bought as a Christmas gift for my niece……she LOVES it”. The happy Auntie has rated the doll 5/5 for “age appropriateness”. Her niece falls into the 3-5 years category. Worse still is the review on amazon.co.uk from a London-based mum:

“My 4yr old has had, and continues to have, lots of fun with this doll. Really enjoys getting Ken to tell the Barbies how handsome he is & how lucky they are to have him. She has about 4 barbies and now they have Ken (lucky doll!).”

It simply astounds me that this disturbing doll and its horrific packaging are seen as OK. The message that this toy gives to young girls is nothing short of terrifying. Before they have even left primary school, girls are expected to want the perfect boyfriend who always knows what she wants to hear; and are equally expected to respond to him with coy flirtatiousness.

Which all leads, in my journey of self-discovery, to the question: was I subjected to these kinds of influences as a child? And of course the answer is a resounding “yes”. For as long as I can remember I have adored Disney films. And what did I learn from them? Cinderella’s step-sisters only recognise that she is someone to be respected when her handsome prince comes to save her from the drudgery of her former life. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is saved from her coma by her prince’s kiss; no doubt to then, in her overwhelming gratitude, devote her life to being the perfect wife. In the Little Mermaid, Ariel falls instantly in love with Prince Eric despite knowing nothing about him, and then like Sleeping Beauty, must wait for her prince’s kiss to save her.

And there we have my answer. Since I was a very young child I have received messages telling me that I need my own prince in order to feel valued and loved; just like little girls now are being told they need the ultimate boyfriend. Last week my counsellor uncovered the fact that I have never taken the time to examine my own feelings for someone before jumping into a relationship: much like Cinderella, Aurora and Ariel I have been happy to wait for a man to tell me I am important and to show the world I am of worth.

Phew. That’s quite an epiphany. So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to darn well sweet-talk myself.  I ‘m going to try to focus on the things I do well, and the things I’m proud of.  I’m going to try to be happy with who I am and what I have. I’m going to remember that my life is full and happy and often pretty darn wonderful without needing a man to validate me. I’m going to try to bring up my own daughter to be confident and strong, and to know that there are no limits to what she can achieve alone. I’m going to question the fact that the bedroom I’ve just completed for her is a Disney Princess themed room …. oh dear.

Well at least I can take a little comfort from the time I spent getting to know Sweet Talkin’ Ken in Toys R Us today. Once I had worked out how to record Ken’s message I set to work on the three Ken dolls remaining on the shelves. And so I can’t help smiling when I think about the fact that the next three little girls to take Ken home will hear his deep masculine voice saying “I respect you for being a strong, independent woman. Of course I will support you in your career. There’s nothing you can’t do”. Aaaah, my work here is done.