The Essex factor: How Olly Murs went from X Factor reject to pop sensation

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He might not have won The X Factor, but that's not stopping Olly Murs, as Fiona Sturges discovers

So, hats off to Olly Murs, last year's runner-up on The X Factor who, with a number one single under his belt, has successfully eclipsed the winner, Joe McElderry – the Geordie boy-child whose name was always going to make a credible pop career a tall order – and now looks like the one most likely to make a go of it.

Murs, you might remember, wowed the judges at auditions with his version of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition", a performance in which he revealed a startling soul-brother voice and a twitchy dancing style that the comedian Alan Carr likened to "shaking a turd down your trouser leg". Now, with early success in the bag (his ska-influenced debut album went into the charts at number two last month), 26-year-old Murs is being tipped to "do a Will Young" and establish a lasting career, which is clearly better than being compared to Steve Brookstein, the 2004 X Factor winner who was dropped by Simon Cowell's record label within eight months, and who recently performed at a Cornish pub where he charged £2.50 a ticket; or indeed Leon Jackson, who triumphed in 2007 but whose career quickly went kaput and who recently grumbled to a newspaper that his X Factor win was "a curse".

"Well, since I didn't win, the curse hopefully won't be an issue," says Murs with only the tiniest hint of anxiety. "And Leona Lewis has done all right, hasn't she? But you never know what's going to happen. I know that my career is on a knife-edge. The singles have done well but this is a fickle industry. It could all disappear in a second."

For the time being, however, Murs says he is "living the dream", a dream that has him zigzagging the country on the promotional trail and being wheeled out for meet-and-greets, autograph signings and assorted television and radio appearances. Lately, he's been doing brisk business on the Christmas lights circuit, switching them on in Manchester, Uxbridge and Chelmsford. He also did Paisley, where he found himself in hot water when it emerged that he was being paid £15,000 by the council which was also in the process of making budget cuts to the tune of £24m. Murs kindly – though possibly through gritted teeth – gave his fee to charity.

Today, as a special Christmas treat, Murs's publicist has organised for our interview to take place on the London Eye. Murs is excited about this, though it takes an age to reach our capsule, as he is waylaid by gaggles of tourists who greet him like an old school chum and ask to have a picture taken with him.

All this excitement might seem odd for a singer who has been in the public eye for just over a year. Then again, last year's X Factor final was watched by over 15 million and Murs has already appeared on this year's ratings-busting show as a guest performer. For the time being, this probably makes him more famous than David Cameron.

Eventually, we get into our capsule, where Murs wonders out loud whether people have had sex in it and if so, where they positioned themselves for maximum privacy. He mocks up a few positions before deciding that doing it upright against one of the metal beams would probably work best.

You can see why Murs makes the girls come over all unnecessary. Of course, he's a good-looking boy, but he's also very charming. He's got that twinkly Essex thing going on, a combination of earnest and cocky that either wins people over or drives them up the wall. He talks nine to the dozen, never knowingly using five words when he can use 50, and has a habit of touching your arm as he talks to you, just to let you know that you have his full attention. Murs keeps shtum on his private life, but does refute the rumour that he's been dating I'm a Celebrity stalwart Stacey Solomon.

I ask him about his time on The X Factor, where Simon Cowell was his mentor in the over-25s category. He was devastated not to have won and says the pressure of the final

few shows was immense, but hasn't a bad word to say about the programme itself.

That he is so resolutely on-message is hardly surprising, given he has a record deal with Cowell's label. At one stage, Murs says he is "very proud to be part of The X Factor family", but then winces a bit and adds: "I know there's a lot of X Factor haters out there, the way that we get into the limelight very quickly and seem to get handed a record deal. But that comes with its own problems. It's a long way to fall if it doesn't work out."

When Murs first emerged from the show, his plan was to make as much money as he could before he fell off the radar. "I made a deal with myself that I would sing everywhere, I would go to every corner of the country and earn as much as I could. That way I might be able to get a house and maybe even put some money in the bank, and then I would go home and get back to normal life. It was only three months after the show that someone mentioned a record deal..."

Murs was one of only three acts to land a record contract in Cowell's Class of '09. He observes that, in general terms, expectations for X Factor graduates far exceed those of other artists who have come into the industry via the usual channels of playing gigs and hawking demos to record companies. "If I'd have released my first single and it went in the charts at number 20, I'd have been dropped, no question. It's a lot of pressure. But had that happened I'd still have no regrets about any of it. None at all."

Does this mean you're ready to embrace panto, I ask. "Ha! God, well, not really," he mumbles. "You know what? I've always said I would never do musicals unless it was a role that was absolutely right ... Some of the fans have suggested I do Dancing on Ice, because of the way I dance. I think that would be brilliant fun, perhaps a bit further down the line if the music thing isn't going so well. I don't want to be desperately hanging on to my career when it's going down the tubes."

When he's not zigzagging the country and being put up in swanky hotels, Murs still lives with his parents in Witham, Essex. Over the years he has pursued several different careers. After leaving school, he trained as a fitness instructor, but hated the job when he finally did it. For a couple of years, he played as a semi-pro footballer, but a knee injury put paid to that. He also did three years in a call centre, first selling kitchens and then mortgages; he says he lived for the weekends when he could go clubbing with his friends.

In a bid to make some quick cash, he went on the TV game show Deal Or No Deal in 2007; to his great shame, he came away with a tenner. That same year, on a whim, he applied to go on The X Factor, but never got past the producers' auditions. By this point, Murs knew he was a pretty good performer. A friend who owned a local pub had bought a karaoke machine and one night persuaded Murs to pick up the microphone.

"I knew I was OK at singing and I'd never been shy about getting up and doing it in front of my parents. I just wanted to liven the place up. But then people were like, 'You're really good Olly', and it turned into a Sunday night thing. The place would get busy and it was obvious they were coming to see me."

Murs applied for The X Factor the following year, but was knocked back a second time. Undeterred, he formed a band and started playing at local pubs as The Small-Town Blaggers. "We ended up being booked in lots of different pubs doing Fifties and Sixties theme nights. It was all word of mouth. They would be packed." Murs was having a fine old time, though the money wasn't exactly rolling in. It was at this point that his grandfather sat him down for a no-nonsense talk.

"He said, 'What are you doing with your life? At your age I had a house, a wife, kids and a car. More importantly, I had a decent job. What have you got?' Later on there was this family dinner and they all ganged up on me, saying I needed to get a proper job. I know they were being realistic but it was sad because, after all the different jobs I'd done since I was 16, there I was finally doing something I loved."

By this point, Murs had already planned a third attempt at The X Factor, though this time he kept it to himself. In fact, he didn't tell anyone until after Cheryl Cole branded him a "natural-born entertainer", Cowell said he was "very, very, very cool" and the judges voted to put him through to the next round.

Now, as a bona fide recording artist, Murs is still adjusting to the change of lifestyle, one where he rarely takes public transport, lives out of a suitcase and hardly ever cooks. Now he has a team of people who work out his daily schedule. "It's a strange feeling after being used to doing nine to five, seeing my family and then going out with my mates."

There have been occasions when the demands on Murs's time have caused unusual amounts of stress. In December last year, his twin brother, Ben, was due to get married just as the final episodes of The X Factor were taking place. Murs's request for time was turned down. The brothers subsequently fell out and this August, Ben sold his story to a newspaper in which he called his brother "self-obsessed" and "a sell-out".

"We don't speak and haven't done for a long time now," says Murs. "It was devastating to miss his wedding. But the whole thing has escalated now where he's not talking to my mum or dad or my sister or my nan. That he's chosen to speak about it to the papers and not talk to any of us is just terrible. He actually sat there in a room to give an interview with a stranger and just destroyed me."

Family rifts aside, Murs still maintains that the past 12 months have been the best of his life. He even says that Cowell is a nice boss, despite the fact that he was rude about his mum's food (they were being filmed for a documentary; Murs concedes there is no way Cowell would have come to dinner otherwise).

"The thing about Simon," he muses, "is that he really does know his stuff. The tweaks that he's made on my songs, in my head I was always thinking, 'I'm not sure about this', but then every time it worked. I mean, the man's loaded, isn't he? You don't get that far without knowing a thing or two. I'm very happy to have him in my corner."

When it comes to plotting his career, Murs insists he's been given free rein to pursue his own direction. He co-wrote his album and, give or take the odd dodgy suit, he has still retained the mod look that he sported when he first arrived at auditions.

"There's no one behind me pulling strings," he says. "I'm still my own person. But because of the way I came into the industry I know I'm never going to be seen as a credible artist. That's just the way it is.

"Then again, look at Will Young. He won Pop Idol and everyone thought that you could never take him seriously. But now you don't think of Pop Idol when you think of him. You think of one of the best male singers that this country has had in the past 10 years. If I could be in his position in 10 years' time, well, that would be ideal, wouldn't it?"

Olly Murs's self-titled album is out now on Sony

The class of Cowell: Hits and misses

Steve Brookstein

Despite winning the first series of The X Factor in 2004, Brookstein fell out with Cowell and was dropped by his label. In 2009, he said he was writing a "tell-all" book, dishing the X Factor dirt.

High point: his first (and only) single, "Against All Odds", went straight to number one.

Low point: when he got paid a paltry £2.50 to perform in a pub in Cornwall.

Shayne Ward

Winner of the series two, Ward's debut single and album were big hits.

High point: his debut single "That's My Goal" was the fourth fastest selling UK single ever.

Low point: he re-launched his career last month with a Nickelback cover, "Gotta Be Somebody".

Leona Lewis

A genuine X Factor success story, the series three winner has shifted millions of records, topped charts around the world and scooped three Grammy awards.

High point: Her mega-hit "Bleeding Love" went to number one in more than 30 countries.

Low point: being punched in the head by X Factor reject Peter Kowalczyk at a book signing in 2009.

Rhydian Roberts

Although pipped to the winning post by Leon Jackson in 2007, the platinum-quiffed Welsh runner-up signed with Cowell – and his eponymous debut album went platinum, too.

High point: currently on a European arena tour with a musical version of HG Wells' War of the Worlds.

Low point: a nude photo shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Alexandra Burke

After winning series five in 2008, Burke's saccharine cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" took the Christmas number one slot. Burke later secured a £3 million, five-album deal.

High point: "Hallelujah" broke the European record for number of singles sold in 24 hours.

Low point: in June she became the "face" of Sure deodorant. Glamorous!

JLS

Runners-up in 2008, JLS continue to win the hearts of British tweenage girls. The boyband have a multi-million pound record deal, three number one singles and popstar girlfriends.

High point: the first X Factor act to win a Brit Award.

Low point: launched a condom range with Durex in September.

Joe McElderry

Last year's champ was taken down a peg or two when his supposedly surefire Christmas number one, "The Climb", a Miley Cyrus cover, was ousted by Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name". Has failed to trouble charts much since.

High point: his first single did top the charts...

Low point: ...but not for Christmas, when it was de-railed by an anti-X Factor Facebook and Twitter campaign.

By Holly Williams

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