Simon Cowell: The missing X Factor

So tonight's the final, at last, but as Veronica Lee rounds up this year's highs and lows we're all still pining for the biggest act of all: stand up, Mr Cowell!

They sing, they cry, and then they talk about going on journeys. It could only be The X Factor. Tonight it's the big one, the final we've all been waiting for (though not all for the same reason).

Millions will tune in to ITV to watch the journeys of three finalist acts come to an end, though it could be just the beginning (or at least a stopping-off point along the way). Only one act can win, but that doesn't mean the others will lose, if previous contests are anything to go by. Last year, boyband One Direction were pipped by Matt Cardle, but both have since enjoyed chart success. Olly Murs is a worldwide celebrity, though he came second in 2009.

This year, some have wondered if The X Factor has, well, lost its X factor. Ratings are at their lowest, averaging just 10 million, while rival show Strictly Come Dancing has cha cha cha'ed ahead, with 11.7 million.

One reason could be that panto villain Simon Cowell hasn't been on the judging panel. He's been busy undoing yet more buttons on his crisp white shirt – oh, and appearing on the US version of the show. We may hate him, but we love hating him more.

Still, the show must go on, and ITV has signed a contract for Syco, Cowell's company, to keep making The X Factor until at least 2013. That's two more years of singing and crying and going on journeys. Here, we round up the highs and lows of this year's contest, and look forward to many more to come. It's a long and winding road ....

Factor facts: All you ever wanted to know

The Romances

As the contestants are overwhelmingly young, and live in a shared house during the competition, it's perhaps inevitable that there will be the odd dalliance. It's even more inevitable that the show's publicists feed the red tops with speculation. The following may or may not true .... Caroline Flack, 32, and Olly Murs' onscreen chemistry on The Xtra Factor (The X Factor spin-off on ITV2) is such that people have assumed they are an item. But they're just good friends – and, in fact, Murs introduced Flack to his mate Harry Styles, 17 of One Direction, the boy band that finished third on 2010's X Factor, and they are reportedly stepping out together. However, Flack has since defended her relationship with the singer and the age gap, saying she's done nothing wrong. The presenter has received death threats and abuse from One Direction fans on Twitter.

Little Mix's Perrie Edwards has denied she and One Direction's Zayn Malik are an item. The singers met while working on this year's charity single, "Wishing on a Star", and she said: "We did text and I said thanks for the support. But, no, we didn't kiss." Malik is a busy boy: during last year's show he was dating Geneva Lane, 21, from girl band Belle Amie, who were eliminated early on. Other reputed match-ups have been between Katie Waissel and Storm Lee last year, Stacey Solomon and Olly Murs in 2009, and Diana Vickers, top right, and Eoghan Quigg, above, in 2008.

In this series, Frankie Cocozza was linked with almost every female on the show – and he has former conquests' names tattooed on his buttocks. Classy. In 2010 it was reported long-haired lothario Wagner and Tesco Mary were an item. Apparently Wagner, a ladies' man in his day, asked Mary out after one show. Despite her reservations, Wagner apparently did not take 'no' for an answer.

So, what happens to the winners?

2004: Steve Brookstein, 43

Debut single and album made No 1; very good. But he was dropped by his record label eight months later. A follow-up album and single (on his own label) failed to reach the top 75. Since then it's been gigs on P&O Portsmouth-Bilbao cruise ships and at a pub in Cornwall for £2.50 on the door (free if you bought a pint and pie). Last year he was voted biggest reality flop ever on the website Preloved.

2005: Shayne Ward, 27

Debut single, "That's My Goal", scored the obligatory Christmas No 1 and gained him a Novello Award. Vocal cord surgery in 2006 did little to help – he was dropped by Simon Cowell's label this year. Still, he is now in the West End Eighties jukebox musical Rock of Ages – it's hated by critics, loved by punters.

2006: Leona Lewis, 26

Arguably X Factor's first true global star. Her first album, Spirit, was the fastest-selling of 2007 and made her the first British solo artist to debut at the top of the US Billboard 200 chart. Nominated for three Grammys, Leona, is the only winner to have made a US breakthrough and last week released an EP, Hurt.

2007 Leon Jackson, 22

His debut single, When You Believe, remains the best-selling single by a male X Factor winner. He was dropped by his record company after poor sales of his debut album, Right Now, and is said to be working on a second album (but has been saying that since 2009).

2008: Alexandra Burke, 23

Her debut single, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, was Christmas No 1 and sold more than a million copies. Her debut album, Overcome, entered the charts at No 1, and Burke, is recording her second album.

2009: Joe McElderry, 20

The model and singer's first single, "The Climb", was held off No 1 by Rage Against the Machine in a social-network campaign against Cowell. He was reduced to taking part in another reality show, ITV's Popstar to Operastar, this year, but salvaged some dignity by winning. His album Classic Christmas, out last month, is at No 26.

2010: Matt Cardle, 28

The show's "credible" winner. His debut "When We Collide", a retooling of Biffy Clyro's "Many of Horror", took Christmas No 1, and his debut album, Letters, out in October, hit No 2. Matt,  is now touring the UK with his own band.

The shows nipping at its heels

Since it started, X Factor has been the UK's most successful Saturday-night entertainment, but there are lots of shiny-floor shows angling for top spot.

The Voice

The BBC's latest reality show, an import from the US to air next year, is, ahem, very similar to X Factor, with a panel of four (coaches rather than mentors, though) judging. Sir Tom Jones,, Jessie J and Danny O'Donoghue from Irish band The Script will ape Cowell & Co.

Britain's Got Talent

Cowell's second-string talent show is played more for laughs at the contestants than as a serious search for the next big thing. Cowell and Amanda Holden return as judges, while names in the frame to join them are actresses Kim Cattrall (from Sex and the City) and Samantha Womack (EastEnders). Returns to ITV in spring 2012.

Strictly Come Dancing

The BBC's flagship entertainment show, above, overtook The X Factor this year, pulling in 11.5 million viewers against 11 million at the end of October. The final is on Saturday, live from Blackpool Tower Ballroom, and, for the first time, it's in HD.

The Myths

It's not live! They all mime

They don't, but the show's producers do use Auto-Tune – a machine that drags the odd bum note into pitch.

The winners go in a two-year cycle of good singer/bad singer

They don't; the pattern may have started out like that, but falls apart on closer inspection (although it does depend on your definition of a good singer).

Simon Cowell's acts always win!

Nah! His acts have won two out of seven series.

The whole thing is stitched up from the start, anyway

Although gaffes by HMV – putting the "winning track" on its website last week – and STV might suggest so, telephone voting is so closely monitored by independent overseers that it's all but impossible to rig. What happens in the studio could be decided beforehand, but producers strongly refute this.

The judges are always fighting, like cats in a sack

Gary hates Kelly, Kelly hates Tulisa, they all hate Louis! It really seems like a school playground. Cowell realised early on that lots of press inches spring from the impression that the judges are at each other's throats. They're not.

The contestants are backstabbers

There have been surprisingly few stories emerging – from talent or backstage crew – about discord behind the scenes. In fact, most talk about how supportive the acts are to each other.

The Finalists

Amelia Lily Oliver,17, from Middlesbrough

Mentor: Kelly Rowland.

The teenager, far left, was voted off in the first live show, but was brought back after Frankie Cocozza was fired. In last night’s final she left the show for good when she came third, leaving Little Mix and Marcus Collins to fight for first place tonight.

Favourite cliché: “I have had a roller coaster of a journey.”

Little Mix

Jesy Nelson, 20, from Romford, Essex, a barmaid; Leigh-Anne Pinnock, 19, from High Wycombe, Bucks, a waitress; Perrie Edwards, 18, and Jade Thirlwall, 18, students from South Shields.

Mentor: Tulisa Contostavlos

First female group in a final. They changed name, from Rhythmix, because a charity of the same name objected to the confusion.

Favourite cliché: “We’ve had such a big journey and the best thing that’s happened is us starting as soloists and growing as a group.” (Jade)

Marcus Collins, 23, from Liverpool, a hairdresser

Mentor: Gary Barlow.

Initially the bookies’ favourite, but the flamboyant singer’s support has waned a little.

Favourite cliché: “To win The X Factor would completely change my life. Letting Gary [Barlow] down is not an option.”

The best performer on the show: Kelly's Mole

Perhaps the most amazing journey of this X Factor has been that of Kelly Rowland's facial mole. Over the weeks, it has travelled all over her face, and has been spotted on her lip, her cheek, under her eye, on the left and on the right. Inevitably, it even has its own Twitter account, and, appropriately enough, it doesn't want the journey to end. Can you guess where on her face it will appear tonight?

Kelly v Tulisa

Clash of the titans!

Not so much. Before this X Factor, Tulisa was part of hip-hop group N-Dubz, while Kelly was overshadowed by Beyoncé in US girl group Destiny's Child.

But it's an equal contest at least?

Er, well, Destiny's Child sold more than 40 million albums and 20 million singles, and as a solo artist Rowland, 30, has shifted millions more. So far, N-Dubz's highest chart rating has been at No 6 for their album Against All Odds.

Are they alike in any respect?

They are both attractive and opinionated young women, wear clothes beautifully, and have a weekly designer dress-off.

Has Kelly got anything Tulisa hasn't?

Well, yes, a moveable mole. But let's not go there again. For more of the mole, see pictures left.

Anything else?

Well, Kelly has the edge in terms of musical knowledge. More than once Tulisa, above right, has admitted she didn't know a song being performed, most infamously Aretha Franklin's "Think".

So, are they on speakers now, or what?

Yes, it's all blown over, and, anyway, it was in a good cause. Wall-to-wall red-top coverage doesn't write itself, you know.

Kelly on Tulisa:

"I love Tulisa but we did have a bit of a tiff because she went against one of my girls. But it's over. I'd invite her to my wedding."

Tulisa on Kelly:

"All this stuff about me not speaking to Kelly is not true. She wasn't speaking to me."

Louis Walsh: what is he for?

Fair question. The Irish producer and manager – who gave us Boyzone – is the only constant on the judging panel since 2004. Walsh, 59, is instigator in chief of (alleged) feuds between judges, and, over the show's eight series, has fallen out with everyone. He left the show in 2005 after fellow judge Sharon Osbourne drenched him with a jug of water live on air. He soon came back. In his latest contribution to The X Factor's publicity juggernaut he has confessed to having his hair restored, at a cost of £30,000. He is seemingly unembarrassable and hearing him mirror fellow judge Kelly's gangsta talk on this series has been excruciating. As if all this were not bad enough, he manages Westlife – and Jedward.

The Headlines

X Factor bosses boot "out of control" Frankie Cocozza off show over drug shame – Daily Record.

X Factor Frankie Cocozza's new hanky panky – The Sun.

Not so cocky now: Frankie Cocozza to be investigated by Ofcom for his off-screen boozing and on-screen swearing – Mail Online.

The X Factor fash-off: Tulisa and Kelly go head to head in the style stakes – Mail Online.

Gary Barlow slams X Factor bickering as Kelly Rowland and Tulisa make up – Metro.

Louis Walsh admits that Kitty Brucknell is crying backstage! – Unreality TV.

Gary Barlow's crying shame on X Factor – The Sun.

Simon slams hopefuls, Gary holds crisis talks and two acts face the boot – Eleven.

It's final – Simon's back on X Factor: Cowell has his say via satellite link – Mail Online.

Misha B slams Tulisa over X Factor bullying row – Eleven.