The Geek Factor: Reality TV wimps

They can't sing, can't dance and have rubbish hair. Still, they annoy Simon Cowell. Is that why so many vote for them?

The hair-styling talents of Dublin's barbers have been unexpectedly put to the test in recent days. Though they are more used to fielding requests from fresh-faced youngsters seeking the floppy-fringe Zac Efron look, it seems a new style is in town. The image – part Eraserhead, part Morrissey – is being pioneered by John and Edward Grimes, teenage twins who grew up in the city's commuter hinterland and whose continued participation in the sixth series of The X Factor has provoked one of the most extraordinary public backlashes of the reality TV age.

For Hughie McAllister, owner of the city's famous Grafton Street barbers, however, the popularity of their outlandish platinum quiffs is good business. "We've had John and Edward in here a couple of times. Now the style is getting fairly popular in the salons. It has really snowballed," he said. "The average age is 15, but we had one fellow in who was 33. It is all down to the [hair] product and a little bit of patience."

Unfortunately for the Grimeses, not everyone is quite so pleased with their new-found celebrity. Their performances on the Saturday-night TV phenomenon, currently garnering audiences of 14 million in Britain, have defied normal benchmarks of musical quality. Their red-leather clad rendition of Britney Spears's "Oops!... I Did it Again" was positively comedic. The show's creator, Simon Cowell, perhaps aware that his fierce invective against their apparent cockiness, driving ambition and pseudo-American accents might be garnering the twins votes, has dropped the personal attacks and instead focused on rubbishing their limited singing ability.

Yet the brothers are both popular and unpopular. Despite Cowell's protestations that they are the worst act ever to grace his show, the Grimeses have avoided elimination in the public vote twice so far. On the internet, however, it's a different story. There are more than 400 Facebook sites dedicated to them, most entitled along the lines of "Get John and Edward Off X Factor". Among the 100,000 comments posted so far, some stray dangerously close to incitement. A milder one reads: "I always thought X Factor was a music competition, not a comedy contest. Butlins would turn down these sperm of Satan."

Much of the opprobrium seems to be inspired by the notion that genuinely talented singers are being sent home to make way for the duo who seem to be benefiting from the public's growing taste for post-ironic humour of the sort that propelled Scotland's egregiously ungifted MacDonald brothers to short-lived fame three years ago on the same show.

According to one Irish newspaper last week: "John and Edward are so spectacularly awful they now seem to have transcended cultural norms and are being kept in the game because they have reached such a level of magnetic terribleness they have become compulsively entertaining, in a twisted sort of a way."

For their part, the 18-year-olds are currently cocooned in the safety of the boot camp where they are being supported by fellow Irishman Louis Walsh. They admit they have been hurt by the things said about them. "We are not just two guys who sing and have this annoying personality but we can actually do it," they insisted last week.

Should they go all the way – still a 50/1 outside bet even in Ireland – it would, admits Cowell, be a "disaster" for his lucrative brand, which has spawned stars such as Leona Lewis and Shayne Ward. For the Grimes twins, however, it would be a fiercely desired wish come true. Growing up in a middle-class family in the village of Lucan just outside Dublin, the boys developed an early taste for singing through the local church, entering a talent contest at 14. Edward came first, while John managed third.

Their other love was running. Earlier this year they narrowly missed out on winning the Irish Schools Mountain Running Championship. Both their running coach and their headmaster insist that the boys' arrogant image belies an altogether more likeable reality, and they are simply playing up for the camera. Their father John says his lads are misunderstood. "The boys aren't brats and certainly not arrogant. They are much more down to earth than people think. They are inseparable and they would do anything for each other."

The X Factor presenter Dermot O'Leary has also ridden to their defence, while Robbie Williams, who mentored the twins in week two, urged his fans at the Electric Prom in London to vote for them. Judges Dannii Minogue and Cheryl Cole have also warmed to them.

Melanie Finn, showbusiness editor of Dublin's Evening Herald newspaper, which has chronicled the unexpected rise of the Grimeses, believes the Irish are doing the traditional thing and rallying round the underdog. "People who meet them say they are really lovely. The problem is they can't sing, and this is supposed to be a talent contest," she said.

John and Edward

The X Factor 2009

They can't sing and look like a cloning experiment on the young Elvis gone wrong, but, says Louis Walsh, they have that indefinable something. Simon Cowell refused to mentor them, calling them 'vile little creatures', but Walsh, either a genius or an idiot, has ignored all the criticism to champion the so-called Brothers Grim. Despite the brickbats, the twins, 18, are having the time of their lives.

Same Difference

The X Factor 2007

There's something a bit creepy about a brother and sister singing love songs to each other. Not that it stopped Portsmouth siblings Sean and Sarah Smith from finishing third, despite Simon Cowell describing them as 'potentially two of the most annoying people I've ever met'. They are planning a tour of Butlin's holiday parks.

Gareth Gates

Pop Idol

Gareth won the nation's hearts when he could hardly get a word out at his audition for 2001's precursor to The X Factor because of his stutter. When he sang, he knocked everyone out. He lost to Will Young in the final but was still signed up. The 25-year-old is still plugging away, and has reported earnings of £6.5m.

Eoghan Quigg

The X Factor 2008

The 16-year-old from Northern Ireland would stare into the camera like a lost puppy after every performance to garner the sympathy vote. He came third. One reviewer called his album 'the worst in the history of recorded sound'.

Scott Bruton

The X Factor 2008

Bruton graduated from pub karaoke to Pontin's before his number came up on The X Factor lottery for the gifted and not so gifted. He was eliminated in week three. Currently in a West End musical.

The MacDonald Brothers

The X Factor 2006

Another sibling duo that got Mr Cowell's goat, thus raising all of Scotland against him. With their identical kilts, Brian and Craig from Ayrshire won the granny vote and finished fourth. They still sell lots of records north of the border.