It had an ill-fated run on Network 10 back in 2005, but now after a five year absence from our screens, unfathomable success overseas, a shift to a new TV home, multi-million dollar production values, a new host and four new judges, The X Factor returns to Australian screens shortly on the 7 Network. Naturally, we want to get to the nitty gritty of the competition, so who better to ask than two of the very passionate judges. We plonk down on the couch with Ronan Keating and Natalie Imbruglia and discover there’s excitement in the air.
“I’ve been excited since we got the call to ask if we’d do it,” Ronan says. “However many months ago… both of us… because we’re big fans of the show back in the UK.”
“Very excited,” Natalie adds.
They touch briefly on the show’s chequered history in Australia – it underperformed for Network 10 after they scheduled it straight off the back of their other talent show, Australian Idol. Both Natalie and Ronan reveal that fellow judge Kyle Sandilands has an idea as to why it didn’t work the first time around.
“Kyle has a theory about that. We’ve been reading about it,” says Natalie.
“It was 10 that bought both of them, so they wanted X Factor to sink and keep Idol being as big as it was,” adds Ronan, “And from what I believe, it wasn’t anything like this is. Simon’s (Cowell, the show’s creator) behind this 100%. We met with Simon before we came down and he’s totally into it. He’s been watching the rushes of the auditions and has given us a brief of what he’s looking for from a global artist.”
Nothing comes close to matching The X Factor’s runaway ratings success in the UK – it’s one of the highest rating programs in the country’s history. Last year’s final garnered a mammoth 63% audience share across Britain, and series seven starts there later this week. Natalie and Ronan agree that this time around, we’ll see plenty of similarities between the British version and ours.
“Obviously done Australia style, but I know for me that it’s important that we share what we know about the show, because we’re fans of it. So naturally, I’ve been ‘but this is what they do on the UK show’ and everybody here has been really welcoming about it,” says Natalie.
“Yeah, they all want it. You can’t deny the fact that there’s 12 million viewers in the UK,” adds Ronan. “It’s the biggest show. More people voted on X Factor than they did in the general election. So if that’s how big it is at home… It’s worked in lots of other countries as well. So I don’t think it’s unique to the UK. I think it’s a wonderful format for a talent show.”
Auditions for the show were held over recent months, with both Natalie and Ronan agreeing that they have indeed found some amazing talent, despite fears that after so many years of Idol, the talent pool may have run dry. We ask them if one city has shone brightest in producing this year’s hopefuls.
“Oooh, I don’t know. Someone said that Brisbane was going to be the big one, but it wasn’t any better than Sydney or Melbourne,” says Ronan.
“I think Melbourne was pretty amazing,” adds Nat, “We had people from Perth and Adelaide who were in Melbourne and Brisbane.”
“There was some amazing talent from Perth that actually came to Brisbane,” Ronan continues, “People flew from all around the country to be there just to audition. They came from everywhere.”
Last time The X Factor was on our screens it had three categories, but this time around there are four – under 25 males, under 25 females, over 25s and groups. Though each of the judges have been already been assigned their categories, they’re under strict instructions not to reveal too much too soon.
“We can’t say. But we will soon,” says Ronan, before Natalie launches into an impersonation of a cross between Ronan’s accent and a leprechaun.
“That’d be telling! Thirty three and a third!!” she giggles.
“I turn into a leprechaun when I’m talking with them. Unbelievable. I don’t speak like that,” mocks Ronan before launching into his own over the top Irish impersonation with a TV ad tagline, “Frostie’s Lucky Charms – they’re magically delicious.”
After a few giggles from around the room and a moment to compose himself, he continues.
“We’re not allowed to speak about our categories as yet. We do have our categories and we’re all very excited. We all have at least one that we feel that we can take all the way, but most of us have two in our category that we feel confident about taking all the way to the final,” he says.
Ronan’s career has primed him well for his role on The X Factor – a member of Irish boyband Boyzone, a successful solo career and the one-time manager of fellow Irish boyband Westlife. All roles which the singer can draw from in his mentoring capacity. He’s hinted that his relationship with his artist would continue after the show.
“I would like to stay on board with my act, definitely. If I get an act to the final, I would definitely like to keep tabs with them, whether it’s on a management level or a record company level – whatever it may be through Simon’s label. I want to stay involved as much as I can – that’s why I came on board,” he says.
Similarly Natalie’s had incredible success in her music career over the years, selling more than nine million albums globally. The singer recently filled in for Dannii Minogue as a guest judge on the UK version of the show.
“I’d said yes to the Australian show and I was a few days from flying out here and at the last minute they called and asked me to come on and be a guest judge. We were going to do some filming for the Australia show anyway. So it was all very exciting and last minute, but really good training ground for coming out here. I was very very nervous, so it did take the edge off,” she says.
Though we question her being nervous after such a long and successful career.
“I don’t know why. Whenever I do something brand new that I’ve not done before… Dannii’s amazing on the show, so they’re big shoes to fill,” she says.
“You know when you have chemistry?” Ronan adds, “The other three have chemistry between each other because they’re literally doing it morning, noon and night. And it’s tough for Nat to slip in there and she honestly – of all of the people that Simon put in; Katy Perry, Pixie Lott, Geri Halliwell – Nat was Simon’s favourite on the panel. So there you go.”
In the past, there’s been a perceived stigma attached to being the product of a reality show singing competition. But Ronan believes that times and perceptions have slowly but surely changed.
“Record companies now don’t have the budgets they used to have, so it’s harder for artists to be developed,” he says, “Whereas shows like The X Factor allow that to happen publicly. Artists start here and we develop them up to the silver plate and we give it to the record company.”
“If you look at how they’ve evolved,” adds Natalie, “If you look at Joe McElderry, how he started to how he was at the end – that is A&Ring. I mean this show really whips people into shape. So the ones that are going to succeed and have the potential with the right guidance really shine.”
“They do – and not just the winner. There’s the second place and the third place that have a career as well,” says Ronan.
“Some people who don’t win the show have a bigger career and that’s great,” says Nat, “I think it’s exciting though – because you’re sending these people off into the industry and then we’ll all be watching wondering which one will do well.”
Natalie and Ronan agree that there have been a few disagreements between the judges during the audition process, paving the way for some interesting television. But they insist that it’s never got nasty.
“No, it’s healthy,” says Natalie. “We want that though. It’d be horrible if we all sat there and agreed with each other. If I’m really strong about something and Ronan says ‘You’re absolutely wrong’, I’ll take on board what he’s saying.”
“We’ve swayed each other as well, which is good,” Ronan adds. “Someone has said, ‘no, I don’t believe they’re right’ and that was the deciding vote. Then we sit there and debate for five minutes and one of us bends.”
And with Simon Cowell undoubtedly the star of the UK version of the show – the bad boy ‘scary’ judge who continues to polarise opinion and spark immense debate with his often vicious comments – we ask both Natalie and Ronan whether they’ve found the same ‘scary judge’ personality traits in Kyle, who alongside former Australian Idol Guy Sebastian, joins them on the judging panel.
“You know what, I don’t live here, so I haven’t seen him judging,” says Natalie. “I’ve seen little snippets, but I wouldn’t describe him as being nasty. I think he’s direct. Sometimes too blunt.”
“Yeah he’s a bit blunt at times. Wouldn’t have the compassion that some of us have on the panel,” he says.
“He doesn’t sugar-coat anything, but that’s really important,” adds Natalie. “Audiences aren’t stupid. And sometimes I’ll be dancing around ‘you were just pretty bad’ and I’ll be trying to say it nicely and everyone at home will be saying ‘just spit it out’ and Kyle will just say it – and I think that is good. So we’re all very different.”
A number of special guest performers have graced the X Factor stage in the UK over its six seasons, including George Michael, Take That, Sir Paul McCartney, Whitney Houston, Michael Buble, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and even Kylie Minogue. Ronan hints that we may also see these kind of celebrity appearances during our live shows.
“Oh we will – I mean as soon as you get an artist… Say you’ve got John Mayer or you’ve got Jay-Z and they have a record out in October or November, why would you not want to be on the biggest show in the country – the biggest ratings in the country on a Sunday night? Of course you’re going to want to be on the show. Every record company will be banging down the X Factor door,” he says.
As for the judges themselves getting up to perform on the show, that’s yet to be decided. But both Natalie and Ronan have nothing to plug of their own, with both Boyzone’s latest album ‘Brother’ and Natalie’s album ‘Come To Life’ now over six months old.
“I’ve got a UK tour January, February, March. UK and Ireland,” says Ronan. “Whether we perform on the show or not, we don’t know. We haven’t spoken about it. Maybe we will. Maybe we’ll do duets with the contestants, who knows.”
“At the moment, we’ve been so engrossed in the auditions and everything that we haven’t had the time to think about ourselves really,” says Natalie. “We’re excited to be a part of it and for it to be about the contestants.”
“We’ve no records or anything coming out. We’ve nothing to promote as such other than just being judges on the show, which I think is great,” adds Ronan.
It’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement surrounding the show with terms like “abundance of talent” and “world class” underlining our conversation. Ronan and Natalie seem to have a genuine rapport with and respect for each other, laughing openly throughout the chat and bubbling with enthusiasm for the show’s impending premiere.
And it’s Natalie that leaves us with a teasing, ominous warning about what to expect from The X Factor Australia.
“People are going to be blown away.”
The X Factor is set to premiere on the 7 Network later this month.