Everyone knows Simon Cowell has one of the most massive egos in show business. Obviously it'd take some serious self-confidence to quit a hugely successful TV show like "American Idol" (and a $36 million "Idol" paycheck to boot) to launch a new show like "The X Factor." Perhaps you've heard of it? Of course you have. No new show of the fall season, other than maybe "Whitney," has been as megahyped and throat-crammed as Simon's new talent competition, so as "The X Factor" at long last premiered Wednesday night, no expense was spared and no hyperbole was avoided. From the repeat mentions of the "largest prize in TV history" (a $5 million Sony contract); the fleets of "X"-branded Mack trucks; the slo-mo scenes of Simon cruising in a pointy black sports car with "X Factor" vanity plates; the Michael Bay-worthy aerial shots of the "sea of humanity" at the audition sites; the dramatic soundtrack swells underlying every emotional apex; and the live auditions held inside arenas packed to the rafters with shrieking fans, it was clear: Simon was determined to make a typical "American Idol" episode look like a dusty old Beta/VHS tape of "Star Search."
And you know what? SPOILER ALERT: He pretty much succeeded. But interestingly, the show worked because, in the end, he didn't
make "The X Factor" all about him. Instead, after introducing the judges--his old BFF Paula Abdul, his new TV nemesis L.A. Reid, since-ousted judge Cheryl Cole (whose Los Angeles footage surprisingly didn't end up on the cutting-room floor, and who did a fabulous job), and Cheryl's replacement Nicole Scherzinger (who took over halfway through the episode)--Simon got right down to business and started trotting out the Los Angeles and Seattle contestants. And those contestants went on to hog the majority of the screen time.
Perhaps to prove Simon's point that "The X Factor" can find a megastar worthy of a cool 5 million, the series' kickoff episode was light on trainwreck contestants, focusing more on the serious singers. And even the handful of bad auditioners were entertaining, and they were let down relatively easily. Sure, Simon had his share of zingers, like when he told the blue-haired emo screamer from a rejected duo called You Only Live Once that she sounded like she was "swallowing poison" (I guess you only audition
once, too). But for the most part, he let the music do the talking. Hey, maybe Simon's ego isn't so big after all. (Yeah, right...)
Anyway, now, after all those months of hype, here are the standout contestants of "The X Factor's" big premiere. Do any of them really have the X factor? You decide.
Stacy Francis - Stacy received some serious screen time in an eight-minute promo that ran on Fox last week, but the 42-year-old single mother's full audition this week made an even bigger impact. As she shared her sob story of emotional abuse, missed chances, and deferred dreams (her ex-husband had told her repeatedly that she'd never make it), and she told Simon, "I don't want to die with this music in me," everyone in America, myself included, was rooting for her, hoping her ex hadn't been right all along. And then, when she belted out Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman," it quickly became clear that her ex had had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. She was a little rough around the edges and didn't quite nail the song's big money-note the way "Idol's" Kelly Clarkson once did, but her natural talent during her big, belty performance was evident and had the audience in tears. Even L.A. and Simon seemed moved, with the former saying, "Everything that I do musically is about having my spirit stirred and the hairs on my arms raised; you did both," and Simon saying, "I've been doing this a long, long time, and that was one of the best auditions I have ever heard in my life." Crying hardest, of course, was Stacy herself, who let years of pent-up pain pour down her mascara-smeared face as she basked in the audience's adoration.
Siameze Floyd - He is Siameze, if you please. And this flashy fellow certainly was a crowd-pleaser. The androgynous showboater with a blown-out Rihanna bob and funky James Brown kick-splits gave an utterly bizarre performance of Rick James's carnal hit "Give It To Me Baby" that at times bordered on being a circa-Dirty Mind Prince impersonation, while his shrill shrieking made the Darkness's Justin Hawkins sound like that dude from the Crash Test Dummies. But Siameze was fascinating, and 100 committed, and fearless--so in terms of sheer showmanship, he was the champion of the night. Cheryl couldn't decide if he was "genius or weird." Simon called him "talented but deluded." Paula found him unoriginal, but still seemed charmed. And so, against lone dissenter L.A. Reid's wishes, Siameze advanced to the Boot Camp round. If he ends up winning the $5 million grand prize, maybe he can use some of that money to fund his other dream: manufacturing and marketing his own "Siamenergy" drink. I'll drink to that!
Simone Battle - With her bootylicious fierceness and red satin American Apparel booty shorts, this 21-year-old baby diva impressed Simon with her sex-kittenish style (intriguingly self-described as a mix between "a cheerleader, a hipster, and a drag queen") and feisty rendition of the Pussycat Dolls' fame-fantasy anthem "When I Grow Up." Perpetual contrarian L.A. Reid was inexplicably unenthusiastic, even after Simone did a second a cappella audition of La Roux's "Bulletproof" that better showcased her solid vocal chops. But Simon loved Simone's fearlessness and foxiness, and he went to battle for Miss Battle. Luckily, this is one L.A./Simon battle in which Simon prevailed, because I think Simone totally has the X factor.
Rachel Crow - A ringlet-topped moppet with an irrepressibly sassy personality and the outsized confidence of a diva twice her age, this bubbly tween also had a semi-sob story, albeit one not nearly as sobby as Stacy's: The six-member Crow clan "has like, no money" and lives in a two-bedroom house, and she needs the show's $5 million prize to purchase a roomier family home. "I'm a girl, I need my own bathroom!" she exclaimed. The excitable tot would've been downright annoying if it weren't for the fact that her rendition of Duffy's "Mercy" was, mercifully, pretty good. The girl certainly has potential. "You have everything that every artist I've ever signed has," raved L.A. And Simon told her, "Get ready for a new bathroom!"
Marcus Canty - This handsome 20-year-old soulman, who was told by his mom he had two years after high school to pursue music and is now almost out of time, currently mows lawns for a living. But he may soon be mowing down the competition. Marcus delivered an infectiously groovy performance of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish," during which he worked the crowd like an old pro and even had Nicole and Paula up out of their seats and dancing. The overall audience response was so overwhelming, Marcus had to take a seat on the stage just to soak it all in. L.A. likened him to a prime-era Bobby Brown, while Simon compared him to the almighty Usher. Marcus just may be just the type of current, marketable, dancing-wonder R&B sensation that, for whatever reason, "American Idol" has never been able to find.
The Anser - The first (and only) boy band of the evening to get through, these Salt Lake City cuties immediately got on Nicole's good side by serenading her with "Happy Birthday" (it was her birthday, you see, and she wasn't exactly modest about it). But they didn't impress the other three judges until they sang Adele's "Rolling In The Deep." I wasn't too thrilled by their song choice--no one can sing that song as well as Adele, too many talent show contestants sing it, period, and I'd honestly like it to be banned from all reality shows. But their mashup of the song with Britney Spears's "Till The World Ends" was a creative touch, and they had the vocal skills to pull it off. Plus, they looked like stars. "Girls are probably gonna like him," Nicole said of the middle boy, the one with the best voice (sadly ignoring the bespectacled one on the left who'd actually initiated her birthday singalong), adding, "You are three words: Fab U Lous." Said L.A.: "You were prepared, you got the swagger, it felt good down here, and I know it felt good up there!" Paula told them, "You get that this is a $5 million prize. It's an honor to have you." And Simon, who currently is enjoying huge success in Britain with his "X Factor U.K." boy band signing, One Direction, kept his critique short and sweet: His answer for the Anser was yes.
Chris Rene - Clean and sober for only 70 days at the time of his audition, this 28-year-old Santa Cruzer, recovering drug addict, and father of a toddler took a risk by singing an original hip-hop number, "Young Homey," about his troubled past. But the risk paid off. The man had swagger for days, and the song was FANTASTIC; L.A. was getting' down to this hot track. "I've worked with some of the greatest hip-hop artists, and all of my boys would be proud of me telling you that you are the truth," raved L.A. Nicole gushed, "Honey, I'm trippin' on you!" Paula said, "You are a bright light. You lit us all up. You are so talented!" And Simon said he felt like was "meeting a star for first time," and told Chris, "Maybe you need the show, or maybe we need you." L.A. made Chris promise to stay on the right track if the show put him through, and Chris gave his word. Frankly, I'm a little worried for Chris; 70 days of sobriety is not very long, and the stress of competing on live TV might be a bit much for this guy. But I'm rooting for him, and I bet a lot of America will be too.
Dan & Venita - They may've sung like cats in season and looked like Vegas lounge lizards, but I still want to be Dan and Venita when I grow up. This couple is really living. Newlyweds at the respective ages of 70 and 83 (Go Venita! Way to snag a younger man!), these two dream of using their $5 million prize money to go on a coast-to-coast motorhome tour of the country's "most beautiful senior citizen centers." Sadly, that dream probably won't ever be realized, since their duet of one of Simon's old standbys, "Unchained Melody," was bad enough to short-circuit their hearing aids. But their performance had a lot of heart, and everyone in the audience could feel the love--so it was impossible not to crack a smile during their semi-senile serenade. Even Simon went soft, musing, "I hope he treats her well." And Dan and Venita actually inspired Simon's best one-liner of the night, when he quipped, "You know what's terrifying? I can imagine me and Paula being you in 10 years' time!"
Geo Godley - This 43-year-old, pants-dropping weirdo, who claimed to be classically trained on piano, actually full-frontal flashed the audience while warbling his original "I'm A Stud," perhaps the most misleadingly titled song EVER--"traumatizing" Nicole in the process and prompting a nauseated Paula to flee into the hallway, suffering from dry heaves. "What the bloody hell was that?" barked Simon. But L.A. was even tougher, ordering eoo off the premises with: "That was offensive, disgusting, distasteful, upsetting. Get him out of the building!" And so Geo left with his tail between his legs and his pants around his ankles, seeming utterly puzzled that Simon and L.A. didn't think "I'm A Stud" was a surefire smash hit.
Niki Collins - It's true that when it comes to a competition like this, confidence is half the battle. Niki had that...but she lost the other half of the battle because she sang horrifically enough to make even Dan and Venita blanch. She rendered Mariah Carey's "Emotions" so unrecognizable, even L.A. Reid, a man instrumental in actually signing Mariah, probably didn't know what song it was. And none of the emotions the judges were feeling were very positive. Thankfully, Niki cut her own audition short ("I'm done," she shrugged), before Simon got around to it, but she still didn't seem to believe him when he told her she had a "horrible voice," nor did she 'fess up when Paula asked her if she'd auditioned on a dare. Instead, she chased the judges down in the stage wings after the show and threatened to post YouTube clips of her singing as soon as she got home. So step away from your computers, everyone! Niki's YouTube clips could cause server meltdown. You have been warned.
Darren Michaels - This 40-year-old, mullet-headed struggling musician claimed, with a devilish laugh and twinkling eye, that his poor girlfriend has so far sunk $100,000 into his career. Hey, if she's that deluded, she ought to consider investing in Niki Collins, too. Sigh. What some women will do for love, huh? And if Darren's lady was hoping to be reimbursed when Darren won this show's $5 million, she better move on to a plan B, hopefully one that does not involve dating Darren, or at least doesn't involve Darren coming anywhere near a microphone. His whiny countrybilly rendition of "Like A Virgin," which Simon called "some sort of nightmare," was enough to make his girlfriend wish she'd never been touched for the very first time by this dude.
So there you have it. It looks like Simon Cowell has done it again. It remains to be seen if "The X Factor" can overtake "The Voice," "America's Got Talent," "The Sing-Off," or of course "American Idol," but judging from Wednesday's big, BIG premiere, this show is going to be huge. Simon wouldn't have it any other way.
[photos courtesy of Fox]
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