It’s plain to see that something out of the ordinary is occurring at Palm’s Jumeirah Zabeel Saray when I arrive on a balmy Monday evening. When I’d originally discovered I’d be privy to a behind-the-scenes look at the Dubai filming of The X Factor UK, I was expecting to see a skeleton set of what remained after the crew had already packed up and left. But I was wrong. The hotel’s right wing is a hive of hushed activity. Relaxed pink-tinged tourists have been replaced by striking twentysomething young gents with indie haircuts dressed in a consistent uniform of singlets, denim shorts, flip flops and trilby hats. Towering production lights stand guard at the heavily disguised Al Nafoorah restaurant, aka the judging room. Further down the corridor, a team of camera-wielding techies are shushing inquisitive tourists as they wave boom microphones in the face of one of the six audition hopefuls as he huddles at the entrance to the Talise Ottoman Spa.
The Dubai segment of the smash-hit talent show, in which contestants visit the ‘judges’ houses’, has attracted some big names this year. US pop star Nicole Scherzinger is hidden away behind closed curtains, alongside surprise judge Ne-Yo, who bagged a suite on the hotel’s Imperial level and apparently enjoyed a lie-in until noon after a big night out at Cavalli Club. But amid the hive of activity I spot presenter Dermot O’Leary, a UK TV celebrity in his own right. After watching him graciously pose for photos with an elderly Irish couple, the antics of his British co-host, Caroline Flack, seem less impressive – we witness her turn down a girl’s request for a photo, upsetting her elderly grandmother in the process.
In contrast, Dermot is more than happy to chat to onlookers – including yours truly. I ask what he makes of his second visit to Dubai. ‘What I’d love to do is get out of the whole shebang and go to see the desert and how the old-school locals live,’ he confides. The witty 39-year-old host comes across as surprisingly in tune with the real world. So what does he make of The X Factor phenomenon? ‘I think a show has to evolve [to be successful], and it has evolved. When I first started, people would turn up and do a Whitney Houston number or something, then they’d say to the judges, “You tell me what you want me to be.” We don’t get that any more, thankfully. Now we get people turning up saying, “Here’s how I see my marketing, here’s the video I want to make, here’s my style, this is who I admire, but I’m very much my own person.”’
Individuality is obviously something Dermot admires. I watch closely as one of the auditionees leaves the judge’s room and paces towards the production crew for a post-audition catch-up. Moments earlier the production team (including a more likeable Caroline Flack) were gathered around a monitor watching his performance, drying their eyes with tissues. The young man comes across as the underdog: tall, blonde, heavily tattooed, in his early twenties with almost inch-thick specs.
Dermot is by now an old hand at this game, but there’s something genuine in the way they interact that tells me they’re already mates. Yet he’s tight-lipped when I ask if he has a favourite. ‘Here? Yeah! But I can’t tell you!’ he laughs. ‘It’s more than my job’s worth!’ He’s a little more forthcoming on the subject of previous contestants. ‘Olly [Murs, runner up in 2009] and I have a very good relationship because he still hosts The Xtra Factor [the sister show featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the main series]. We trekked across the Kenyan desert together for Comic Relief.’
Indeed, his busy schedule no doubt gave him the stamina for that. Dermot juggles his own radio show with the gig on The X Factor UK, which he’s been doing since the show launched six years ago; luckily, his TV job still makes him tick. ‘My favourite thing about this show is when we go live,’ he enthuses. ‘I love the buzz of doing 25 live shows a year on the biggest show on telly. The adrenaline rush… you just can’t compare it to anything. It’s brilliant.’ But his dedication to the project doesn’t stop at the hype: the host can list all of the past X Factor UK winners within a minute.
It’s also clear that he believes in what the show stands for and how important it is for real-deal amateur artists. ‘The show gives talented singers – and, in many cases, singer-songwriters – a real chance to break through into the industry,’ he explains. He’s also aware of the impact that The X Factor has had on mainstream music and its ability to awaken good tunes from the dead. ‘We can break new acts on this show, and we can also get people familiar and assimilated with music that they might not have heard before. We do a cover of an old song or something, and before you know it the original song goes up the charts.’
But there’s one song O’Leary can’t listen to any more: Etta James’s ‘At Last’. When I remark that it’s a great track, he jokes: ‘It was a good song. It’s a good song when Etta James sings it. I’m a huge fan of Adele, but I really only want to hear Adele sing “Make You Feel My Love” or “Someone Like You”. I don’t need to hear anyone else sing those songs any more.’ Next time he’s in Dubai we suggest he avoids almost all live music venues, then. Two Dubai episodes of The X Factor are screening in the UK on September 29 and 30.
Green room gossip
1 Ne-Yo was refused entry at Cavalli Club for wearing sneakers until one clued-up door host recognised him. Earlier in the evening, he was almost kicked out of Voda Bar for wearing a vest and hat.
2 Nicole and Ne-Yo were chauffeured everywhere in a Rolls-Royce.
3 The judges also visited Mahiki, where they danced and shared drinks.
4 The contestants weren’t allowed to leave the hotel – they stayed in one of the huge Jumeirah Zabeel Saray residences.
5 The production crew mostly ate at Imperium restaurant at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray.
6 After filming an arrival scene at The Pavilion marina near JBH, the contestants swam in the lagoon pool at the residences and went camel riding on the beach (seven camels were brought to the hotel especially for filming).