Costly delusion brings home reality of TV talent shows like X Factor

X Factor will discover raw talent, but the contestants who end up with the short end of the stick have told MaltaToday that social media has turned their flat performance into a living nightmare

“It’s an entertainment show, so you have to accept that reality. And I knew failure is a consideration when signing up to this… but I felt the judges could have been more courteous, maybe sent me off in a different way.”
“It’s an entertainment show, so you have to accept that reality. And I knew failure is a consideration when signing up to this… but I felt the judges could have been more courteous, maybe sent me off in a different way.”

It’s the show that will give Malta its next Eurovision Song Contest performer, and fame for its winner.

But as the first weeks of X Factor give us a taste of the perils of delusion, the ‘losers’ in X Factor are having to contend with the shame of having desired fame in the first place.

It is a harsh business, but aspirants who had to face up to the bluntness of four ‘no’s from the judges are part and parcel of X Factor’s magnetism: not only do viewers get to be swept off their feet by some beautiful voices, but they also get to snigger, laugh and cringe at hearing some of Malta’s worst talent try to prove otherwise.

And once the floodgates of social media are opened wide, so do the memes come in thick and fast: ‘trumpet girl’, ‘the rapper who sang with headphones in his ears’, ‘the passionate couple’… or, dealt a less-than-diplomatic observation by one of the judges, ‘cake girl’.

Cake girl, it turns out, is aware of what has happened since she tried to wow judges with her rendition of ‘Que Sera Sera’.

“It’s an entertainment show, so you have to accept that reality. And I knew failure is a consideration when signing up to this… but I felt the judges could have been more courteous, maybe sent me off in a different way,” says Ruth Xuereb, whose peroxide-blonde hair extensions and yellow-and-red costume immediately struck a mirthful note with the judges.

“I think that when judging me, they talked and addressed me in a funny way in order to entertain the audience,” Xuereb says, referring to Alexandra Alden’s ‘cake’ quip (Ira Losco patched it up by insisting Ruth looked like a ‘nice cake’). “I think the image I portrayed was not to her liking and she was overly harsh with me,” Xuereb claimed.

Xuereb, who in her off-stage interview had told X Factor that she had already been mocked for her personal, zany fashion sense, said that despite being slightly offended, she would not take it too personal.  “A cake brings people together… if I can make people smile that’s good enough for me,” she said.

Shown the ‘cake’ memes that have made the rounds on Facebook pages, Xuereb takes it in as best as she can. “A humorous post doesn’t bother me as it’s publicity for me. What bothers me is when people take things too far,” she said.

One other contestant who had to be shown the door, says she had a more unpleasant experience. Speaking to us on condition of anonymity, she felt that the second she started performing, she could notice the judges’ expressions and body language.

And although her performance was objectively disappointing, and – as the memes show – entertainingly so, she thinks she could have been let down a little more gently. “I accepted that failure might be a possibility when I signed up… I knew that I wasn’t going to be the best, but there are ways of turning down people without being too rough on them,” she said.

“Ira was the only judge who took the time to actually care about my feelings, the
others just blatantly took the piss out of me,” she said, complaining that some judges’ reactions fuelled the sarcasm on social media.

“Someone said I had given them ‘cancer to their ears’, others called me a screeching cat, a disgrace to the country, and a million and one other things,” she said, unhappy also about the final edit of her performance for the Sunday show. “The first two days after the show aired, I just couldn’t stand the hate on social media,” she said, admitting she was reluctant to speak to MaltaToday in the first place.

But X Factor’s brand is also about sorting the wheat from the chaff, and that often means putting delusional candidates in their place. The music business… is a tough business.

Albert Bell, a University of Malta sociologist who is himself a musician, suggests that a psychologist should assess whether contestants are fit enough to perform on TV and face the social media onslaught that such ‘karaoke’ type contests provoke.

“They should be made aware of the potential psychological and personal effects, failure on live television would have on them,” he said.

“Full consent entails that you are given every detail to what your participation involves, including the psychological impact on the individual. The music business is a very cut-throat business. Contestants who have never been in it need to be made aware.

“In some instances, if participants are not deemed to be mentally stable by psychological experts and they possess no musical talents, it is the producers or the national television station’s responsibility not to air that footage,” Bell said.

However, Bell also says that a tendency to sugar-coat failure or disappointment in Malta, with social expectations that one cannot be “cruel to be kind”, is a factor in the way those who do not cut the mustard feel let down.

“In every aspect of Maltese mentality, there is a strong feeling of over-protection. Aspiring musicians and singers need to learn that resilience is an important ability to possess in the industry,” he said.

Indeed, having seen the quality of those denied their ‘boot camp’ promotion, and the reactions of judges on foreign X Factor editions – like the feared Simon Cowell – Bell says the Maltese judges were timid by comparison.

“There is only a certain point up to which you can accuse the producers and judges of simply airing ‘bad’ auditions,” he says of the TV show’s format to put in some howlers with the stars. “If you have no musical talent to start with and still insist on competing, then there is nothing people can do,” he said.

And despite the online criticism received, Ruth Xuereb will still be enrolling in next year’s competition. The unnamed contestant will not.

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