Why Is The X-Factor Manipulating Contestant Narratives?

It just wouldn’t be a Fox Reality Talent Competition without some controversy and The X-Factor has not disappointed! For several weeks, rumors have been circulating the internet that Stacy Francis and X-Factor producers not only downplayed her past music experience for dramatic effect (“I don’t want to die with this music in me, Simon!”), but Stacy has taken to Twitter to deny any truth to suggestions that she has done more professional work than we have been led to believe.

A recent article offers some details taken from her now deleted professional website, with bio information saying that she has worked with the likes of Madonna, Chaka Khan & Prince. Vote For The Worst did more detective work to uncover her professional past, demonstrating that while she hasn’t achieved mainstream stardom, the story put forth on the show gives the impression that after an abusive relationship she did no further work. However, internet searches reveal that over the past decade she’s done acting work and played the role of Rusty in the original Broadway cast of Footloose. She’s the feature singer on the song “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” (see a picture of her singing the song)!

We want to make it clear that we have no issue with Stacy having a professional background. One of our favorite contestants, Leroy Bell, has a website that outlines his accomplishments in the music industry, which includes several recent albums (check some of them out on Spotify!), songwriting credits to songs by The Spinners, The O’Jays, The Temptations, Rita Marley and Elton John and live performances with numerous others, including B. B. King, Idina Menzel, Sheryl Crow and Los Lobos. Although he doesn’t talk about all this, Leroy never denies this part of his past. Here, either because of production or by her own choice, Stacy is acting like she hasn’t been doing work over the past ten years. Granted, it’s not like any of it is high-paying work, but it’s professional work, none-the-less.

What’s confusing is that The X-Factor is inconsistent on whether or not to reveal the past of a contestant. While Stacy Francis and Leroy Bell haven’t had much said about their earlier work, Brennin Hunt and Christa Collins had their past struggles in the music industry broadcast front and center. It appears as if the contestant’s history fits into a narrative of struggle, then it makes the cut and gets featured on the show. If not, then it gets ignored to make the contestant appear to be a talent that came from nowhere.

In another story involving production decisions, Dexter Haygood claims he volunteered for elimination on last week’s episode of The X-Factor. He cites creative differences with the song choices Nicole Scherzinger gave him, expressing frustration with having to sing pop songs instead of rock songs. Perhaps that explains why it appeared he took last week’s elimination so well, when we were expecting a full on storm of tears and emotion. Without further substantiation, we can’t know if this is the full truth or if he’s covering for his early departure from the competition. If it’s true, it makes the elimination portions of the Top 17 episode feel less sincere.

What this all points to is the active hand production takes in shaping the narrative we see on FOX reality competitions such as The X-Factor. Because these are competitions and not just observations of life, we take issue with all this misdirection. We’d like to think we’ve gotten to a point that we want honesty from our programs, not narrative distortion to manipulate viewer perception. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen it on a FOX reality competition. So You Think You Can Dance often does this with hip-hop/street dancers, with season four winner Joshua Allen being a good example. Throughout the season, the judges acted amazed at how well he picked up choreography outside his own style, as if he was doing all this complicated movement for the first time in his life. Yet, when asked about it, Joshua said he took as many dance classes as he could to prepare for the show. So while he wasn’t a master in any of these styles, he had exposure to them, but the judging panel reacted as if he did not. This is the type of production interference we do not like as it lessens the value of the respective shows through cheap emotional tricks.

Why are all of FOX's reality competitions using narrative manipulation?

Even though The X-Factor is selling itself as big and flashy and has been signed on for a second season, we really think this show could set itself apart from other shows by being honest with the viewers. So what if a contestant has found some modest success in the music industry, tell us about it! Let us know the real people, not the manufactured personalities. Someone that paid their dues for years will get respect as that ethic resonates with American viewers. Why not shape itself as a show that wants to give nationwide exposure to talented indie performers? They have the talent on board to go in that direction. I say go with it and set yourself apart from American Idol.

What do you think about all this? We think this goes beyond just the news involving Stacy Francis and Dexter Haygood and hits at the core philosophy behind the production of reality competitions. Should they continue creating emotional stories for contestants, even if it requires ignoring a large part of their past, or should we move towards a more authentic reality television that represents the actual people involved? Let us know your thoughts through a tweet or by leaving us a comment!

UPDATE
In a post-Top 12 elimination episode interview, Simon Cowell and company assert that they’re aware of Stacy Francis’ past and that they haven’t been trying to hide it. In addition, they say that Dexter’s story about striking a deal to leave the show is “nonsense” and “not the case.” Is this damage control or them setting the record straight? We’re more inclined to believe their word over Dexter’s, but not so much on the Stacy Francis stuff. The removal of her website and short biography along with the deliberate editing job which makes it sound like the only singing she’s done in the past twelve years was in her bathroom after putting her children to bed looks like an attempt to shape a specific narrative around her. As we and many others are saying, we can see that none of her past experiences led to mainstream success, but it’s misleading to say she’s done nothing in the past twelve years when there’s multiple articles that state the contrary. Just be honest and the questions will stop.

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  1. November 3, 2011 at 3:09 AM

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