Free spirit finds her own voice

DIANA VICKERS is not your typical X Factor graduate.

To begin with, there’s her temperament. Softly spoken and down to earth, she exudes none of the manic desire to be loved that is the defining quality of many of the show’s alumni.

“I went on X Factor because I wanted to be a singer. Not because I was desperate to be all over the papers,” she says. “I was very determined to succeed in music. Even without X Factor I honestly think I would have gotten there anyway. For me, the X Factor was the beginning. Not the be all and end all.”

Also, her taste in music is rather more eclectic than you might expect. For their debut album X Factor stars are usually paired with an A-list line-up of pop composers. Vickers, though, had other ideas: as its mouthful of a title partially hints, Songs from the Tainted Cherry Tree is an angsty singer-songwriter affair, containing only one cover version and with co-writer credits ranging from indie warbler Nerina Pallot to this year’s big new thing Ellie Goulding.

“When I worked with Ellie, it was before she’d even put a record out,” says Vickers. “I didn’t even know she could sing. She wasn’t signed at the time. It was good — just two girls working away together on a tune.”

That’s not to say making the album was an entirely pleasurable process. On her first day at the studio, Vickers admits to being “frozen with terror”. “I was scared when I started. It was a bit like ‘oooh... what on earth have I let myself in for’. I’m past that now. If I don’t like something I’ll say it. You have to voice your opinion. The whole tip-toeing around people and quaking in my boots — that’s gone.”

It took a while though. On X Factor she was crippled with nerves on a near-weekly basis. Sometimes it got so bad she had to consciously stop herself bolting for the exit. “I was the one that was being sick in the wings before I went onstage,” she recalled in a recent interview. “And when I was singing I was absolutely terrified because I knew I was being judged.”

What probably didn’t help was the tabloid press romantically linking her with fellow contestant, Dungiven-born Eoghan Quigg. Or the selective editing that painted her as a ‘villain’ of the season. Being judged by millions of viewers — and Simon Cowell — each week is nerve-wracking enough. To know that a fair chunk of those watching at home hate your guts must have made it unbearable.

Oddly, however, finding herself anointed public enemy number one turns out to have been the part of the process she found the easiest to cope with. “People hating me on X Factor was the best bit for me, definitely,” she said recently. “Being loved and hated is great. If you can’t get people to have some emotion about you, why are you even bothering?”

Vickers was mentored by Cheryl Cole and she speaks warmly of the singer, describing her as one of the “sweetest people” she has worked with. “She’s sent me some lovely gifts, and a card to say congratulations,” she said. “The other judges sent on their congratulations too, which I found really lovely. I don’t work with Simon, but he sent his congrats, which is really great. He’s a very busy man, so for him to go out of his way to do that is lovely.”

Still, Cowell can’t have been that smitten by her. It is usual for X Factor stars with long-term career prospects to sign to his SyCo label. Vickers was passed over and instead found a home at RCA (both are part of the Sony Group).

“SyCo is a very small operation. They take on all the big acts. I was aware I probably wouldn’t be signed. RCA is a great label with a lot of interesting musicians. My A&R guy looks after Newton Faulkner. There’s loads of variety.”

Considering all she’s been through since the X Factor, it’s remarkable to think that Vickers is still only 19. She was born in Blackburn, and attended a private school, though her love of performance was cultivated on the stages of working men’s clubs across the north of England. Her parents split when she was 13 — to cope with the trauma of her dad moving out she threw herself into music, developing a passion for artists as far-flung as The Spice Girls and The Rolling Stones.

Until she actually appeared on it, the X Factor wasn’t something she was especially interested in. She actually had to be dragged to the 2008 auditions in Manchester by a friend. Even then Vickers almost never got to sing for the judges after a producer considered eliminating her on the basis that her voice was ‘really odd’.

“I was in bed one day and my friend said, ‘I’ve filled out a form, you’re going to go to do X Factor’. I remember waiting in the pouring rain for 10 hours and thinking, ‘I’ve got to do that essay for classics tomorrow’. I nearly gave up at one point. I just took it one step at a time and before I knew it everything was just thrown at me.”

Still, when she finally did make it in front of the cameras, she blew Simon, Cheryl and Louis away and, in an usually competitive year, finished fourth. Which may have turned out to be as much a curse as a blessing. Whilst the exposure was invaluable she sometimes wonders if the shadow of the X Factor may not be a long-term disadvantage.

“I’m working hard to establish myself as my own artist,” she says. “A lot of people who watch television and listen to the radio... they don’t really know what’s going on in the charts. Two years on, I feel like a completely different person. I’ve co-written one album, I’m working on another. My fans... they see me as Diana rather than Diana from X-Factor.”

That’s not to say she’s gone entirely cold turkey on the programme. She admits to finding it “incredibly addictive”. She’s certainly enjoying the current season and is particularly intrigued by Dublin singer Mary Byrne.

“She’s great. She’s a person who has a dream and by ’eck is she pursing it. She is a talented woman. I can definitely see why people are backing her.”

* Diana Vickers plays the Academy, Dublin next Monday.

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