She beat One Direction in the TV talent show, and is now taking on the songs of Billie Holiday, writes Ed Power
THE list of credible X Factor graduates is short, but near the top is Rebecca Ferguson. The Merseyside singer placed second in the competition in 2010, behind Matt ‘where is he now?’ Cardle, but ahead of One Direction, the world’s biggest boyband.
Ferguson has worked hard at being a respected artist. It hasn’t been easy. There was the distraction of her relationship with 1D’s Zayn Malik (five years her junior). They split in 2011.
This was followed by a tabloid frenzy last year that while Ferguson was six months pregnant she split from her boyfriend (baby Arabella was born in October). Ferguson, 28, has just released a polished collection of Billie Holiday covers, Lady Sings The Blues, a fact thoroughly and predictably overshadowed by her personal life.
Is she annoyed? A little. However, she is also a realist and understands that with her public profile comes media prurience. She shrugs — what is she to do, other than make the best music she can?
“I get so much coverage because I’m an open book,” she says, her Liverpool burr clopping past at 100kmh. “When I do interviews, I’m a lot more forthcoming than the average person. I have an attitude of ‘Here I am, take it or leave it’. I make myself quite human and I think the fans respond to this.”
She can stand up for herself. After a nasty narrative in the UK tabloids regarding her figure post-child birth, she Tweeted a stripped-to-the-undies selfie. Naturally, that led to claims she was too skinny. You can’t win.
“I happened to say in an interview, that I wasn’t putting pressure on myself about losing weight,” she says. “They stretched my image so that I looked fatter than I was. It was ridiculous. I wasn’t dieting — but I wasn’t sitting at home eating five cream cakes in one go, either. My attitude was, ‘Stop lying — you look silly’.”
Much of the criticism about her appearance comes from other women. “We do it to each other — we make each other feel guilty. We moan about celebrities, if they’re fat or if they’re skinny. And there’s a lot of pressure on women after they have given birth to look good.”
X Factor 2010: One Direction, Aiden Grimshaw, winner Matt Cardle, Paije Richardson,
Rebecca Ferguson, Wagner Carrilho, Mary Byrne, Katie Waissel and Cher Lloyd.
Ferguson grew up dreaming of being a singer. However, aged 17 she fell unexpectedly pregnant. By 20 she was an unmarried mother-of-two. The years that followed were difficult. When she finally broke through on X Factor, she’d already been rejected twice by that show and by Britain’s Got Talent.
Alas, success proved double-edged. Going on the road with the X Factor live tour in 2011, her relationship with Malik was already a scandal.
“That was my first mistake. I was 23, he was 18,” she subsequently said. “Of course, if it was a 23-year-old guy dating an 18-year-old girl, no-one would have batted an eyelid, but this way around was a big deal, apparently.
“I didn’t realise that. I was just a hippy, free-loving person, but that’s not a good thing to be in this industry. You can’t just follow your heart.”
After X Factor, the media scrum was overwhelming. But today she’s past worrying about the intrusion. “Confidence comes with age. I don’t care. They can say what they want about me. It’s not going to make a difference — that’s my attitude. People will always love and hate you — you have to be comfortable in your skin. I have a family and a career — I don’t have time to fuss about what strangers think.”
The idea for a collection of Billie Holiday covers originated with her manager. This year marks the centenary of Holiday’s birth; it was felt that Ferguson, with her rich, expressive voice, was perfect to honour Holiday’s legacy.
“I’m a bit nervous over how it will be received,” she says. “Although you feel like that with every record, this one is different. I can sense things building around it. I’m jittery.”
Holiday’s tragic life is well-documented. She was physically and emotionally abused as a young woman and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, dying of complications from cirrhosis of the liver aged 44. Nothing in Ferguson’s life can compare to that level of p ain and heartache. Still, stepping into Holiday’s shoes required her to dredge deep, to draw on her own pain and disappointments.
“If you sing without any feeling, it’s just a nice noise,” she says. “It doesn’t mean anything — all it is is sound. Your heart has to be in it. If you sing and it means something to you, the listener can feel it. I’ve seen the difference. When people are simply making a pretty sound, it bounces off the audience. To leave a lasting impression, I try to always sing from the heart.”
Ferguson was three-and-a-half months pregnant going into the studio. She found out she was expecting after fainting during a live television performance. It was proposed that Ferguson put the record back until late 2015.
She wasn’t having it. “I was a proper little trooper,” she says. “People ask me how I possibly did it. Actually, recording was very helpful. It was a good distraction — it got me out of the house, doing something other than eat cakes”.
She looks back fondly on X Factor and is proud of her association with the franchise. Yes, she has since encountered sniffiness in the industry, by dint of her links to reality TV. All she can do is work harder at proving her detractors wrong.
“You meet snobby people now and again,” she says. “It’s silly. What can I do about it? I am who I am. You’ve got to believe good music will win them over. Otherwise, it’s out of your hands.”
In a way, it feels surreal she was ever on the show. It was great fun — yet her recollections are cloaked in a haze of unreality. It is almost as if it all happened to someone else.
“It was a fun year,” Ferguson says. “The drama was amazing. It was like being in a panto. There were moments of stress. My overall memory was how enjoyable it was. We had a great time.”
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