The Axe Factor

Ten years after getting six million votes in The X Factor final, Steve Brookstein (the man who got six million votes in The X Factor) finally releases his tell-all book in which he reveals exactly what it’s like to get six million votes in The X Factor final. And also to have the entire UK media conspire against you.

Poor Steve Brookstein. The first crowned winner of The X Factor hasn’t been remembered so much for his victory as he has for being one of the greatest casualties of Simon Cowell’s singing shows. Like a doctor who has spent their entire career trying to make a name for themselves, only to find that name becoming synonymous with a disgusting, disfiguring or disturbing condition – so he has unfortunately found his place in popular culture. But Steve Brookstein does have a fantastic story to tell, and Getting Over The X is his attempt to tell it.

It’s ripe ground for a scintillating read too. Simon Cowell, The X Factor and reality TV have been the unholy trinity that has framed popular culture over the last decade. Dictating what we watch, what we listen to, who we read about – the show has had a pre-eminent place in modern mainstream culture. And yet the real story of the last ten years has largely gone untold. Cowell (with the help of long-time henchman Max Clifford) has exhibited a Putinesque hold over the British media. No-one has wanted to displease the Dark Lord (or his lawyers, Carter-Ruck) and dared to speak out of turn.

Now, ten years after its launch – with barely anyone still interested in the show and with Max Clifford safely behind bars – Steve Brookstein has finally broken cover and decided that the moment has arrived for him to tell his side of the story. So is this the explosive tell-all that the world has been waiting for?

Erm. Kind of.

If you’re wanting a quick-and-easy “Needless to say, I had the last laugh…”-type biography, then Getting Over The X is a solid example of the genre. He namedrops celebrities like Fiona Phillips, Will Mellor and Jane McDonald throughout. He talks about a low-level beef he has with “the broadcaster Chris Tarrant”. He singles out the venue management skills of The Stables in Milton Keynes for particular praise. A significant plot point revolves around whether or not he will be able to attend the premiere of The Dukes Of Hazzard reboot (and we all remember where we were that night…).

He can barely go ten minutes without reminding you that he won six million votes in the final of The X Factor (mentioned six times). Or that he once had to turn down a support slot for Lionel Richie (nine times). Or that Louis Walsh once said he looked a bit like Fred West (four times – and we’d completely forgotten about that until he mentioned it).

There’s plenty of cheap chuckles to be had, if cheap chuckles are your MO. But what if you’re in the market for a searing exposé of the whole X Factor sham? A book that is finally going to blow the lid clean off Simon Cowell’s sordid little show? Well, if that’s what you’re after, you’re half in luck.

Actually, maybe a third in luck. It’s probably closer to a third.

This is how the book plays out.

Part One: The X-perience

Part of what makes Steve Brookstein’s tale so noteworthy is that he suffered his misfortune back in late 2004, a far-off time when people were actually watching The X Factor. (To put those famed six million votes into context, the total was bettered only by Joe McElderry’s 6.1m votes in 2009; and last year’s winner, Sam Bailey, won by scoring just one million.)

Steve was an incredibly popular contestant, The X Factor was a hot new show and the promised prize was a million-pound record contract with Simon Cowell’s new Sony-backed record label, Syco. After years of hard graft, this success was supposed to finally put soul singer Steve on the path to fame and fortune – but it didn’t work out. Despite a number one single and album, less than nine months after taking the throne on primetime TV, Steve had been dropped from the label and was out on his ear.

It wasn’t hard to see the invisible hand of Cowell behind some of the stories appearing in the tabloids shortly afterwards, labelling him difficult and unpopular. Max Clifford also dropped him a handy call to let him know that if Steve ever talked to the press, Clifford would see to it that he was buried. Tabloid journalists who were praising him in victory, now used him as both punchline and punchbag.

All of this has left Steve, entirely understandably, with a rather unpleasant taste in his mouth. So much so that even a decade later he is still stewing about it.

One of Steve’s express concerns in writing this book was that he felt he might be providing the journalists who have been ridiculing him for years with a trove of quotes that they could take out of context and use to humiliate him further. We would hate to be accused of pulling such a cheap trick, so we want to make sure that we put any quotes we do use in their fullest possible context.

Like this one, for example.

The thing that appears to rankle most in Steve’s mind about his time on The X Factor (aside from the time that Louis Walsh said he looked a bit like Fred West) is when Sharon Osbourne took him to task for trying to sing a soul song “like a black man”.

Rather than ignore it, or brush Sharon’s comments off as being inappropriate, Steve chooses to address the decade-old incident head on. And what does he have to say on the matter?

“The truth is I probably do have black blood in me. My dad’s side are fairly dark. My aunt, who is only three years older than me, was called ‘Paki’ as we grew up. My family tree was certainly diverse. My grandfather was from St Helena, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of that Chinese slave trade had got mixed in.”

When he’s not defending himself against the slights he suffered, there is actually some genuinely interesting insight into the weird world of Simon Cowell. Particularly illuminating is one scene that takes place in Cowell’s dressing room, minutes before the live final. Cowell summons Steve into his room, whereupon he shows him his idea of pre-show relaxation.

We wouldn’t want to spoil one of best selling-points that Steve has by giving this away. Heaven knows he’s been screwed out of enough money already (and he more than deserves his payday for this book – so you will have to buy it yourself to find out what takes place exactly) but it involves Simon Cowell sat smoking in a chair while a topless Sinitta does his strange, semi-sexual bidding.

Salacious titbits like that are always a joy to read, but even Steve’s insights into the seemingly mundane administrative details involved in putting a show like The X Factor together – the sorts of emails and letters and phone calls that go between producers and talent and contestants – are surprisingly enlightening.

At the risk of sound too pseudy, the whole X Factor story becomes positively Kafka-esque at points. In the blink of an eye, Steve becomes completely devoid of any agency and finds himself being pushed around by powers far beyond his control; his every word twisted, manipulated to be used against him. One day he gets hit by one of Sharon Osbourne’s staff; the next day it appears in the tabloids that he was the one doing the hitting. It paints a nightmarish portrait of pop contest popularity and shows quite plainly how cold, calculated and utterly devoid of soul it all is.

But Steve’s motivation in writing this book isn’t to show people the real workings of The X Factor – no matter how many times he might insist that it is. His real motivation is to show you how hard done by he was. And this is where things start to get a little bit tricky because, sadly, before we reach the halfway point, Steve’s story has deteriorated into little more than an exercise in axe-grinding.

It’s easy to see how this would happen. The temptation to stick the boot into the recently-jailed Max Clifford, the recently-jailed Andy Coulson and the guilty-but-spared-from-jail Dan Evans (all of whom he singles out as having made his life particularly miserable) must have been immense, and it would be a very callous person indeed to say that Steve Brookstein wasn’t entitled to take a strip out of each of them.

It all sets a very tedious precedent, however, and soon Steve starts taking (what feels like) every single person who has ever wronged him to task. He has a lot to say about journalists, tabloid conspiracies and “fixed media narratives” (a phrase he uses even more frequently than Russell Brand) and you’ll be goddamned if you think you’re getting out before he’s said his piece.

Part Two: X Wounds

One thing Steve does comprehensively demonstrate in this book is the level of help and support that your usual ex-X Factor star gets. And the answer is: absolutely none. One minute your every move is co-ordinated by a huge team of producers and runners who make all your decisions for you, feed you lines for the press, bundle you into the backs of cars. Then, suddenly, they’ve gone. There is no-one supporting you. You are left to fend for yourself.

It must be difficult not to take any of that personally, but Steve has more difficulty than most. To him everything is personal. Every single little thing. Even when it isn’t.

At one point Steve talks about how he’s surprised to see one journalist who had previously been kind about him (Clemmie Moodie: currently of the Mirror, then of the Mail) turn in a “hatchet job”. He then goes on to quote her article at length, but what’s striking about it isn’t how vicious it is, more that it’s actually rather even-handed and sympathetic – especially by the Mail‘s standards.

Moodie describes his set as being ‘entertaining’, she praises his ‘self-penned songs’, she insinuates that the crowd were pleased to see him. She also, critically, appears to blame Simon Cowell for the fact that Steve isn’t selling out stadium gigs. Still, Steve pisses and shits everywhere because she refers to him fleetingly as a ‘pub singer’.

(The gig in question, it’s worth noting, took place in The Bedford Arms in Balham. Which, lest we be taken to task for stripping this out of context, Steve says “is a credible music venue. The likes of Paolo Nutini have appeared on their bill.” It is a credible music venue. It is also a credible zumba studio. It is also a pub.)

Here’s the problem. After seeing him lay out what he considers to be hatchet job, it suddenly becomes much harder to take many of his other grievances seriously – however legitimate they may actually be.

Life as an ex-pop star is obviously pretty hard, particularly when you were only in the pop star phase itself for a few months. Your sense of importance in the grand scheme of things could easily become a little exaggerated. Especially in your own head. Steve starts to think that he may have had his phone hacked, so he calls up the Metropolitan Police to ask if they could find out for him. They do. The police investigate the matter and tell him that he hasn’t had his phone hacked.

Steve simply refuses to believe this. He can’t see how the police could have possibly crosschecked the number he gave them with Glenn Mulcaire’s notes in just five short hours, and it doesn’t seem credible to him that – given the amount of negative press he’d had in his career – that he wouldn’t be close to the top of any NOTW journalists’ hacking lists.

Then he starts in trying to tie his lot to the Leveson Inquiry. Something that Charlotte Church had said when giving evidence (about Rupert Murdoch offering to pay her £100,000 to sing at his wedding) inspired a journalist to write a feature about the going rates of pop stars. At the bottom of the list was Steve, priced £2.50. Steve’s reaction to this joke?

“At the height of the biggest investigation into the British press, which dragged in royals and the Prime Minister, yet another article was written by the British press ridiculing me. They either didn’t see the irony or weren’t taking any notice.”

As soon as you hear the creeping voice of the conspiracy theorist coming to the forefront, it becomes impossible not to hear his whole story in that voice – something that isn’t helped by him having an alternate explanation or excuse for absolutely everything that happened.

The reason he wasn’t a successful estate agent in 1988? He joined the business just as the property bubble popped.

The reason he didn’t make it big after coming second in The Big Big Talent Show on ITV in 1997? Princess Diana died and hogged all the headlines.

Hurricanes, flooding and famine – they all have to shoulder some responsibility in his downfall. They stopped managers from calling him back, they caused recordings to be delayed, they meant his single was released later than was ideal.

It’s a real shame that Steve gets so distracted with so much of this, because it gradually turns what could have been an great insider’s look at the cruel machinations of reality TV into a petty, point-scoring whinge.

Even an essentially well-meaning tribute to a friend who died in a tragic accident (Clive Scott – a man with whom Steve was writing and recording in 2009) includes the line “This was going to put back recording which was just my luck.” There is no doubt Steve felt great affection for Clive. It’s just that his habit of making absolutely every incident about him and his career can make for some seriously uncomfortable reading.


Writing an autobiography can be a cathartic process. It allows the subject a chance to vent, to rage, to say all the things they’ve had to keep pent up for years, to tackle all those thoughts that have been preying on their mind. They can speak as freely and fiercely as they like, and do so without filters. It is a tremendously thrilling thing to do.

But editing an autobiography needs to be done when calmer heads prevail. A time to say “Does the reader really need to be reminded of my deep and abiding love for the Luther Vandross song Dance With My Father a seventh time?” or “Will my audience care as much about this complaint I once made to the PCC as I do?”

And those calmer heads should say “No. They won’t. Why don’t you tell a fun story about your time on the Madness musical Our House instead? Maybe one which doesn’t end with you unnecessarily threatening to knock someone’s fucking lights out?”

And that’s the most frustrating part of the whole thing. Not that Steve continually drops hints that he is a fuseless little scrapper who would fight a moving train if he thought it had looked at him funny, but that he is sitting on a wealth of material that would be fascinating to read. A wealth of material that is still unpublished as he decided to squander that opportunity in favour of writing a hundred pages of solipsistic scab-picking.

We would be deeply intrigued to read a honest account of what an ex-X Factor contestant has to do after the show has spat them out. Written in the right way (and Steve and his ghostwriter Tony are capable of writing very well together when they’re on track) this would have made for an excellent second half. Just as Steve has been the first person to write a contrasting account of what was really happening backstage at The X Factor, so too could he have been the first to write frankly about what happens when you’re stuck in the difficult and unenviable position of feeling like you’ve been shafted out of a million-pound record deal, left in contractual limbo, and you still have rent to make.

If he ever does write that book, then we will be the first to hand over our cash to read it.

He probably will brush us off, claim we’re part of the shadowy media cabal, pushing our fixed agenda, taking our orders from the prison cell of Max Clifford – and that is entirely his prerogative. He’s wrong, but he is obviously entitled to think it.

Truthfully though, we really aren’t looking to stick the boot into him. He’s been through more than enough already, and it really is hard not to feel any sympathy for Steve as he explains what it was like to be involved in that first series of The X Factor. Hopefuls who enter the show nowadays might at least have a rough idea of what to expect, but back in Brookstein’s era this was all uncharted territory. He was a guinea pig, and there are guinea pigs at Huntingdon Life Sciences who have happier experiences than he did.

But if he showed just a touch of humility and wasn’t such a spiky little radge about every last thing, it would be a lot easier to extend him much more.

Ultimately, what this book teaches us is that Simon Cowell and the Syco machine is a lot like razor wire. If you work with it, and don’t put up any fight, you can get yourself out relatively unscathed. But the more you struggle with it, the deeper it wedges itself under the skin and the harder it becomes to extract yourself without leaving a horrible, bloody mess.

All we can hope is that, having written his book and settled his scores, Steve will finally be able to stop struggling.


You can buy Getting Over The X here