Photography by John Wright
Just a few months ago, Ella Henderson was a shy, introverted teenager. She was miserable at school and desperate to quit the studies she’d grown to loathe.
What a transformation. Even she doesn’t recognise the fearless young woman who has emerged during this year’s series of The X Factor.
Voting controversies, Nicole Scherzinger’s “shamazing” reinvention of the dictionary, judges’ accusations of bad breath and the inexplicable popularity of Christopher Maloney – Ella’s sublime talent has transcended all the usual X Factor nonsense. Predictions that she’s on the verge of worldwide Leona-esque success surely can’t be too wide of the mark.
“I feel like I’m in somebody else’s shoes, like it’s not really happening to me,” she says.
“This time last year I would never have dreamed that I’d be where I am today. I was quiet, private and held myself back. Now I’m happier than I’ve ever been before. I’ve grown so much in confidence.”
Of course, Ella is no ordinary 16 year old. Quite apart from the powerhouse of a voice that stunned the X Factor judges in her first audition (when she belted out a song she’d written herself, and dedicated it to her late grandfather, Bill), in conversation she’s as cool as a cucumber. Ella is wise, measured and mature way beyond her years.
She’s also distinctly unimpressed with the glamorous side of fame. When she sees the rails upon rails of gorgeous dresses and kick-ass heels we’ve brought along for our photo shoot, she gives them a cursory glance and doesn’t get even remotely giddy with excitement.
There’s really not too much danger of level-headed Ella getting carried away with anything at all.
“Everyone says that I’m an old spirit trapped in a young girl’s body,” she agrees.
“I’ve grown up around older brothers and sisters and been surrounded by older people and old-fashioned characters as well, like my grandad. He was someone I admired and looked up to. So yeah, they’ve influenced me, I guess.”
Despite her composure, Ella, who grew up in Tetney, near Grimsby, with mum, Michelle, dad, Sean, and her three older siblings, admits to being slightly terrified about what the future holds post-X Factor. The thought that life will probably never be quite the same again is a daunting one.
“It’s weird to think that things won’t go back to the way they were before, but my family are so supportive and I’ve always been grounded. When I go back home, I’m just Ella the normal 16-year-old girl – I’m not this star, this singer or anything like that and I haven’t changed as a person.
The things around me might change and I might grow in confidence and grow as a performer, but I’ll never change as a person. “I won’t ever let myself become a monster.”
Ella has been singing since she was a toddler and taught herself how to play the piano. At the age of 11, she won a scholarship to Tring Park School For Performing Arts in Hertfordshire. She confesses that although living away from her parents at such a young age has made the X Factor homesickness easier to bear, she never really enjoyed her time there and sees the competition very much as an escape route from the stifling classroom. It’s highly unlikely that she’ll return to her studies.
She says: “I’ve been desperate to leave school for the past two years so all this has come about at the right time for me. The plan was to go back in to sixth form, but now this has happened… and legally I’m allowed to leave.”
“Sitting in a classroom and studying subjects, none of it interested me. Unless I was in a music lesson, I wasn’t bothered. I didn’t skive or anything like that. I was actually quite good in school and came out with some really good GCSE grades. But I never enjoyed it.”
“When I’m on stage performing, that’s where I’m happiest and I feel this calm come over me. When you’re angry or upset, some people cope by painting, others have to go for a walk in countryside and it puts them at ease. For me it’s songwriting and that’s just who I am. Whether it means in the future I’ll be performing in front of thousands of fans, or to two people down the pub, it doesn’t matter as long as I’m singing.”
Ella has grown closest to Rylan Clark, 23, and Lucy Spraggan, 21, on the show, and sees them as a surrogate big brother and sister, but it’s her friendship with Union J’s George Shelley, 19 (the one who’s pinched Harry Styles’ hair) that has set the old rumour mill grinding. Let’s face it, everyone loves a reality TV romance.
Ella blushes at the mention of his name and protests their innocence. Some (but not us, oh no) might say she protests a bit too much… “No, no! We’re just best friends! We’ve got a lot in common, we’re in sync with one another. You don’t come into this competition or this kind of show to make a friend for life and stuff, but with certain people I think I’ve found that, and that’s really nice.
“I was afraid of coming on this show and feeling quite lonely on my own as a solo act and being quite young. But I feel really happy and I think that’s been really important for me. I get on well with everyone, not just George!”
She doesn’t allow herself to think beyond each week, and sensibly ignores the chatter which has her pegged as one of the clear favourites to win.
“I have a ritual before I go on stage. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and I say a little prayer to myself about what I want from the performance, and to remember why I’m doing the show. At the end of the ritual, I always say that I’m doing it for myself and nobody else. I always have to have my lucky bracelet on me somewhere, whether it’s tucked in my bra or inside my shoe, I always have it with me.”
There have been reports that Simon Cowell is lining up Beyoncé to duet with Ella in the final, should she make it that far. It’s been done before, when Bey appeared alongside a bawling Alexandra Burke in 2008, so the pairing certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
Ella is genuinely gobsmacked at the thought.
“If Beyoncé walked in the room, I’d probably faint. Seriously, I would faint. I’d be totally star-struck by two people – Adele and Beyoncé – so I don’t know how I’d be able to…no, I can’t let myself… It’s probably not even true.”
And she shakes her head and almost immediately reins any excitement back in again. See? Ella Henderson is simply not one for getting carried away.
● Watch The X Factor tonight, 8pm, ITV1.
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Ella on the spot
What’s your TV turn-off? Property programmes.
TV turn-on? I love TOWIE.
Earliest memory? Singing Big Spender in front of my family, aged six.
Worst habit? Picking my nails.
Last book you read? Fifty Shades Of Grey.
Best freebies? Vivienne Westwood shoes.
If you could travel in time, where would you go? The ’60s – I love the music.
What’s your best quality? I love to have a laugh.
Best party outfit? A peplum dress that comes in at the waist.
Dream party venue? A beach in LA.
Who would you invite? Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Adele and her baby.
Best showbiz party you’ve ben to? A recent Women Of The Year awards.
What would your last meal be? My mum’s shepherd’s pie.
What would your superpower be? I’d love to be able to fly.
The Ex Factor
Remember Sami Brookes? James Michael, anyone? How about Nu Vibe? A year’s a long time in showbiz – here’s how 2011’s X Factor finalists are getting on now…
1. Frankie Cocozza, 19
He got his marching orders after his marching powder scandal, but Funtime Frankie staged a comeback on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year, finishing second. Despite questionable vocal talent, his EP The Motorcycle came out on Monday.
2. Craig Colton, 24 After recently unveiling the results of his 4st weight loss, Craig has yet to release any material. But he assures his legions of fans that he is working on a debut album and has been writing with Robbie Williams. We’re on the edge of our seats with anticipation. Honest.
3. Marcus Collins, 24 The hairdresser from Liverpool launched a solo career almost immediately after finishing second to Little Mix in the final. Debut single Seven Nation Army went to No.9, but his follow-up flopped and the album spent just three weeks in the charts. Ouch. Marcus will join the touring production of musical Hairspray in the new year.
4. James Michael, 21 Ditched by mentor Gary after the first live show, James went on to do a spot of modelling for online retail site Mr Porter. Since then he has been gigging around the country and auditioned again for this year’s show, but didn’t make it past the early stages.
1. Janet Devlin, 17 The Irish teenager received the highest number of votes for the first four weeks, before being dumped in week eight. It’s debatable whether she cracked a smile during that time. Her album will be released next year and apparently a tour will follow.
2. Amelia Lily, 18 Last year’s comeback kid, she was voted back in (via an alleged fling with Frankie) and came third. Debut single You Bring Me Joy got to No.2, and an album is in the pipeline.
3. Sophie Habibis, 21 Another one who’s beavering away on an album that she reckons will be out next year… Sophie hasn’t yet had to return to the north London pub she worked in before The X Factor.
4. Misha B, 20 Misha was 2011’s surprise package. She rubbed the other contestants up the wrong way and was called on her behaviour on live TV by Louis Walsh and Tulisa. But debut single Home Run hit No.11 and the follow-up Do You Think Of Me is out today and set for a high chart position.
1. Sami Brookes, 32 Poor old Sami is a dim and distant memory. Brought in at the last minute to replace Goldie Cheung, she was kicked out after a sing-off with Kitty in week three. Sami toured Pontins holiday camps this summer, no doubt belting out power ballads and show tunes aplenty. Um, no thanks.
2. Kitty Brucknell, 27 Love her or hate her, Kitty had everyone talking… until she was voted off in week six. No single or album has materialised, although the Gaga obsessive has been doing regular PAs. Last one was at Passion Nightclub in Sunderland. Not quite Wembley Arena.
3. Jonjo Kerr, 27 The singing soldier and housewives’ favourite was eliminated in week one. Plans have recently been announced for an album release next spring and according to Team Jonjo, Bryan Adams, no less, has expressed an interest in writing songs for it.
4. Johnny Robinson, 46 After being kicked out in week five, Johnny found presenting work on This Morning’s The Hub and has hinted (or threatened) that he’ll release a Christmas single this year.
1. 2 Shoes Essex was de rigueur in 2011, so no surprise that Basildon and Brentwood’s finest, Charley Bird and Lucy Texeira, both 23, reached the X Factor finals. The duo are still going, and Charley has an 11-month-old son. Aww!
2. Little Mix Tulisa’s little muffins became the first group ever to win the show. Leigh-Anne, Jesy, Jade and Perrie have had two No.1 singles (Wings was a particular triumph) and their debut album DNA is out later this month.
3. Nu Vibe The five-piece formed after the boys auditioned solo, but rumoured in-fighting meant it ended in tears. Stefan, Richard, Jordan, Bradley and Ashford left in week two and soon split. Ashford replaced Ashley in The Risk.