Interview: Joe McElderry on The X Factor, coming out and winning Popstar to Operastar

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In 2009, more than 19m people watched him win the sixth series of The X Factor. His debut single went to number one and his debut album was certified gold. He announced he was gay in 2010. Since parting ways with Simon Cowell, 4m people saw him win ITV’s Popstar to Operastar. Two more gold-certified albums followed. He’s still only 20. Laurence Watts catches up with Joe McElderry.

When I chat to Joe, he’s in buoyant mood. He’s wrapping up a fantastic year with some last-minute promotion of his Christmas album, Classic Christmas. The album was certified gold within a day of its November release. I take him back to the beginning of his music career. Why did he enter The X Factor?

“Well, I knew I wanted to perform,” he tells me, “but I didn’t know how I was going to go about it. So I just thought, I’ll try for the X Factor and hopefully it’ll give me some insight into the music industry. I didn’t think I would get through. It was more just to see what would happen. I thought I’d just have a bit of fun with it.”

That was back in June 2009, the same month he turned 18. When did he first have an inkling he might actually be in with a shot of winning?

“Probably about half way through the competition,” he answers. “I never allowed myself to think I might win it, but I kind of said to myself: “OK, if you do want to win this you’re going to have to work harder.” I think that was probably about week six or seven. I started to see so many people leave the competition. I realised we were getting really close to the final.”

An average of 12m people tuned in during the 17 weeks that The X Factor aired that year. During the final, when Joe defeated Olly Murs to be crowned series winner, the audience peaked at 19.4m. Other things being equal, his debut single should have been the 2009 Christmas No.1. Unluckily for Joe, a Facebook-based campaign to end Simon Cowell’s dominance of the Christmas charts led to his single coming in at No.2, despite selling 450,000 copies in its first week of release. It reached No.1 the following week. A delay in releasing his debut album was then blamed for poor sales and ultimately led to Joe parting ways with Syco Music, Simon Cowell’s record label.

“I was only contracted to do one album with them,” says Joe. “It would have been easier if I’d continued working with them, but I think it was more of a challenge for me to go away and try something different, like Popstar to Operastar. Looking back now, I’m glad that it all happened the way it did because I was able to go off and experience things I wouldn’t have been able to had I still been with them. Being on me own, without a deal, going to meetings and thrashing everything out, I’ll keep that forever. It’s going to be useful in the long term, dealing with all that at a young age.”

Joe says he harbours no ill will towards Cowell and his former team at Syco. I wonder if he’s still a fan of The X Factor. He is.

“I haven’t been able to watch as much of the show this year as I would have liked to, because I’ve been on tour. But every time I watch it, I’m with them on that stage. You can feel what they’re going through. Your heart’s pounding. This was the first year I could watch it and not get so involved. Last year I couldn’t watch it without feeling sick. It brought back all the memories.”

During and after Joe’s X Factor victory people speculated about his sexuality. As it turned out, Joe wasn’t actually aware of his sexuality at that point so a lot of it turned on the fact that he was simply a good-looking, polite young man. In July 2010, at the age of 19, Joe gave a series of tabloid interviews in which he announced he was gay. With his debut album still to be released at that point, some people were cynical about the timing.

“I was quite annoyed people would think I’d talk about something so personal as a publicity stunt,” says Joe. “There are much easier things to say than that, if you’re looking for publicity. I didn’t realise it was going to be all over the papers. I was quite shocked when I walked into a shop and saw the front pages. Was it really that newsworthy? I’d only told my friends and family a week-and-a-half to two weeks before. That’s how new it was to me.”

“I’d never really had a chance to think about it when I was on X Factor. When I went into the show I was only 18. Before then I was never really interested in anybody. I was always kind of busy with performing. When the show finished I went into this big press conference and journalists fired loads of questions at me. When was my first girlfriend? When did I first kiss somebody? Where did this and that happen? I was like: “Oh, my God!” I didn’t have much of a chance to think about anything until I finally had a bit of time off. I went away and came to the conclusion I was gay. Once I was comfortable with it I decided to talk about it. I would never tell lies.”

I tell Joe I didn’t come out to my parents until I was 20. I can’t imagine being under the pressure he must have felt reading third parties speculating about his sexuality. Does he accept that his private life is a matter of public interest?

“I don’t have a choice really,” he says. “I’ve put myself in this position. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t do the job. I think if you want to be in this industry that’s a sacrifice you have to make. I always think it’s strange when people complain about it because I think, well, you chose to be in the public eye. With the power of the Internet and Twitter, nowadays everything’s open and out there.”

I ask him if he thinks he would have won The X Factor had he been out at the time. Obviously, he won Popstar to Operastar after he came out.

“My fans have stuck by me since I did, so I would say, yes. They’re amazingly supportive. I don’t see why it would have made a difference.”

After splitting with Syco, Joe opted to take on a new manager. He tells me he wanted to develop a personal relationship with someone he could work alongside. He turned down offers from big companies and eventually he and his new manager decided he would take part in ITV’s Popstar to Operastar. Was he hesitant about doing another TV show?

“I think had it just been a reality TV show and not about singing, I would have been hesitant. Because it was about singing and involved a different and credible style of singing, I had no worries about it. I didn’t really think I was going to win. It was just a kind of fun project to take on.”

Of course, win he did. On the back of his and the show’s success he signed a deal with Decca and released two albums in quick succession: August’s Classic and November’s Classic Christmas. I point out that, based on the sales figures I’ve seen, he’s sold three times more albums since leaving Syco than he did when he was with them.

“I always find it really weird talking about things like that because I try not to focus too much on album sales,” he says. “You can get a bit obsessed with it. But I feel a great sense of achievement in what I’ve done this year, especially considering that at the start of the year a lot of people would have written me off.”

Finally, I turn to the future: will he continue recording with Decca and what are his plans for next year?

“I’m really happy with the work I’ve done with Decca. They’re an amazing team and I’m proud to be signed to them. Everyone has been signed to Decca over the years, including Elton John. We’re already talking about my fourth album, my third with them. I want to have a bit of time off because I’ve been working solidly since January last year, then I’ll probably go straight back into the studio. I’ve just finished a tour and we’re already talking about another one next year.”