MY HEART was beating fast as the train pulled into Wigan station. Marti Pellow, lead singer with Wet Wet Wet, would be waiting on the platform. Or at least, the next best thing - John Finch. John who? John Finch, who swept to victory in the final of Granada Television's Stars in their Eyes, with a perfect Pellow impersonation.

How do you recognise a soundalike? The pointy cowboy boots, the tight jeans and the swagger gave him away instantly. He certainly grinned like Marti Pellow. But the illusion was shattered when he said: 'The car's outside on a meter, we'd better hurry up.' Surely Marti Pellow wouldn't say any such thing.

Stars in their Eyes is a television talent show where the makeover meets the karaoke machine. The make-up department works overtime to transform soundalike contestants into lookalikes. They then have the chance to sing like their idol, be it Tom Jones, Patsy Cline or even George Formby. But for contenders like John, with serious hopes of stardom, there is the glimmer of hope that this might lead to their big break. And the viewers love it. 12.2 million people tuned in to the final in July. But has the triumphant winner still got stars in his eyes?

He is certainly recognised locally. 'Eee, isn't that, that Marti Pellow blooke from the TV?' murmurs a woman to her daughter as they share a cappucino in a spartan Wigan cafe. 'Good luck, son]'

John is surprised at being spotted. 'When I had all the make-up and wig on for the show all I could see was me,' he recalls. 'Other people kept saying 'God, you look like him.' I don't think I look anything like him . . . perhaps the smile. He's much better looking than me, and so is his bank balance.'

For the past five years, John, 26, has worked in a Wigan factory testing gas boiler circuit boards for pounds 165 a week, dreaming of recording contracts, stardom and adoration. 'I looked sad and I was sad because I would sit there and think 'what am I doing here?' I felt trapped in a dead end job. I want to sing and that's all I want to do. I haven't given in my notice but I really don't want to go back,' he explains.

His beginnings were modest in the extreme. 'When I was 18 I came home drunk one night and decided I wanted to be a singer. I had never sung in front of my parents, let alone in front of an audience. I was in a cover band called Dream into Action. It only lasted two years because the bass player was more in love with his girlfriend. We drifted apart.'

While pounding the cabaret circuit, covering songs by Queen, Spandau Ballet and Bobby Brown, people often remarked on the vocal similarity between John and his idol Marti Pellow. However, the decision to enter Stars in their Eyes as the great Wet one was engineered by his devoted mum and girlfriend, who sent in his application to Granada.

'I had the form lying around the house for about two series. I filled it in but never sent it off because I never thought I'd get an audition, let alone get on the show and win it outright,' he says modestly. His epic performance in fact gained him a record 150,255 telephone votes - as many as all the other acts put together. An Eddi Reader clone from Ireland scraped in second with a paltry 30,877 votes.

Competition for a place on the show is surprisingly stiff. Over 10,000 people apply each year, but only 45 end up on screen. This is serious stuff for wannabees and only the strong survive.

'I watched miles of Marti Pellow footage to get his actions right,' explains John. 'I had to listen to his voice very carefully. I had to sing exactly like him; every word, every phrase. When I knew that I'd got on the show I practised solidly for about a month. It takes a lot of bottle to get up there and sing live.'

But after all his hard work, John's victory isn't all sweet. He is certainly getting plenty of offers since the show - but all for performing John-as-Marti. 'I don't want to be a clone,' he says plaintively.

'The other winners from the past shows have gone into the career of copying someone else and making money from it. I could make a lot of money doing Marti Pellow, especially as he and the Wets have been at No 1 for so long. But I don't want to do that. I want to be me and have a recording contract as me.'

This ambition could make winning Stars in their Eyes look easy, especially as there is a brisk trade in soundalikes at bingo halls, discos and wedding parties up and down the

country.

For example, a mere pounds 400 will secure Martin Goodyear, alias Tom Jones, to belt out a selection of Welsh favourites, or for pounds 100 more you can hire Madonna (aka Lorelei Lee).

''People would ideally like to see the real star, but for a fraction of the price they can hear all the hits, and if the performance is good, imagine it's the real thing,' claims Cyril Myers, who runs the largest lookalike and soundalike agency in the country, Stars in Your Eyes (no connection with the programme, though many contestants end up on his books).

So fame and fortune without compromising artistic integrity is proving an elusive combination for John Finch. But he is still determined. 'I had a dream,' he says, twirling the teaspoon in his empty coffee cup. 'My Mum told me I was talking in my sleep and I shouted 'Good eeeevening Hammersmith]' I only hope it comes true.'

(Photograph omitted)

Secrets of the Wets' success, Sunday Review, page 22

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