Cheryl Cole calls it a "magic stardust". Louis Walsh defines it as "stage presence". If you could define it, says Dannii Minogue, Simon Cowell "would bottle it and sell it". But there's only so much of it to go round, and this year, Cheryl seems to have it all.
As she wafts across our screens like a gentle zephyr, glistening with fragile tears, Cheryl is the epitome of X Factor, in spades. She materialised, fully-formed in doe-eyed brilliance, on 2002's Popstars: The Rivals. Pete Waterman said that anyone who didn't fancy her must be dead. She was young, sweet, poor, northern and left school with few qualifications. On her estate, "heroin was there for the taking". She was a perfect star in the making.
If we learn anything from reality TV it is that, technically speaking, the best man or woman doesn't always win. Rachel Stevens is a great dancer; but John Sergeant was the one with dazzle. Diana Vickers was a fine singer; Eoghan Quigg has that je ne sais quoi. Dannii Minogue is a pretty girl; Kylie has the moves. Cheryl, meanwhile, has been an X Factor winner twice. She just has the magic dust.
Studying the form, then, is there anything that makes the X Factor more likely? You bet. Modern celebrity is like a big Venn diagram of contributory factors, with Cheryl sitting right where the circles intersect. The trajectory of a shooting star follows a typical pattern, and it can be mapped. You can't bottle the X Factor, and you can't buy it (though you can bet Simon Cowell has tried). But maybe you can have your ducks in a row...
If you want to be rich and famous, you could do worse than a poor start in life. Jade Goody, Britney Spears, Wayne Rooney – names plucked at random from last week's celebrity news – were all brought up in relatively poor areas. Cheryl, she recalls, subsisted on baked beans, eggs, fishfingers and bread; for her 18th birthday, she went to an all-you-can-eat £5 Chinese buffet. And in the celebrity memoirs, poor backgrounds are a source of rich pickings. Michael Parkinson, for instance, was the son of generations of miners, and expected to head below ground. "I remember thinking it wouldn't bother me," he writes in Parky, "provided I could marry Ingrid Bergman and get a house much nearer the pit." An early brush with fame could help, however. Parky was inspired when one of his mother's knitting pattern designs was modelled by Roger Moore.
As a study published earlier this week showed, and Pink Floyd told us many years ago, celebrities don't need no education. Julie Walters's memoir, That's Another Story (the best-selling non-fiction book last week) recounts how she was asked to leave school during the sixth form because of her "high jinks". Jade Goody was repeatedly suspended. But you don't have to be poor to be naughty. Lily Allen was expelled from a number of public schools for drinking and smoking. Cheryl Cole's dad used to tell her: "Get your head out the fucking clouds and go to college." Fortunately for UK entertainment, she knew better.
Determination born of struggle
Dedication, as Cheryl may have learned from Roy Castle, is what you need. But grit doesn't grow on trees, and an early struggle with weight, bullying or ropey parenting seems to be one way to grow it. Call it an early immunisation against future trouble. Jade Goody only recently revealed the extent to which she had to look after her mother, who as well as being disabled contended with a drug addiction while Jade was a child. X Factor's Eoghan Quigg also had bullying to deal with – in his case from the Continuity IRA, who condemned him for making a CD for British soldiers. And he is a closet ginger – a true source of hidden reserves.
Beauty – at least in the hair
All things being equal, some people are more equal than others. And the last taboo is looks. The novelist Helen Walsh examined this in her latest book, Once Upon a Time in England, and says about it: "Feminists place enormous stress on determinants that inform life chances, such as social circumstances, gender, sexuality, race... And the thing that they always omit is physicality; it's aesthetics; it's beauty." Her looks, she joked, "overrode the fact that I was a Paki". Certainly, if you can't be beautiful, at least have good hair. Parky has it. Quigg has it. Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Cheryl Cole have both (you might argue).
Bad behaviour made good
Celebrity is more than a factor; as Madonna and Kylie know, fame is a process – a journey. If that road is a little bumpy – well, the public loves a human being. When Cheryl Cole was found guilty of assaulting a nightclub toilet attendant weeks after Girls Aloud were formed, she said, she didn't know "if this was the beginning and the end of my career". But Cheryl atoned for her crime and found new respect from her fans. So did Jade Goody, Britney Spears, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and even Fern Britton, if gastric banding can be considered a crime.
In Britain, nobody loves a tryer. The modern success story must be talented, beautiful, determined and lucky, and so much the better if they came from nothing. But it's curtains for anyone who looks ambitious. Just ask John Sergeant about trying too hard. Or ask all the other Strictly Come Dancing contestants who lost out against his laissez-faire technique.
A love rat
Behind every successful woman there's a total rotter. And don't we just hate Ashley Cole for putting that look in Cheryl's hurt, brown eyes? It's the same story with Jade Goody – a baddy, for a while, until the cad Jack let her down. If you want to get the male vote, be pretty, but women's sympathy is a more complicated matter. We even felt sisterly with Victoria Beckham after David had his fling with the posh pig masturbator in Spain..
Weight loss secrets of the stars
A celebrity's role is to be just like us, but richer, prettier and, essentially, thinner. Cheryl's rehabilitation coincided with the love rat behaviour of footballer husband Ashley, and her subsequent loss of about half her body weight. If you want to make it big, make yourself smaller; as Jade, Fern, Lily and Oprah – on and off – all know.
If in doubt, start at the top
In the great Venn diagram of fame and success, one circle has very little overlap with the others. If you can't grow up poor, neglected or underachieving; if you are ugly, chronically fat or your hair fails to behave; if you try too hard, never go wrong or fail to atone, what can you do? You can be the child of a superstar. In her autobiography Carrie Fisher calls it "Hollywood inbreeding. When two celebrities mate, something like me is the result." You won't be popular. You won't be loved. You won't make a nation melt when your doe-eyes come over all weepy on The X Factor final. But if you want to be big, one-name recognition at birth is one short cut. Try Wainwright, Jagger, Presley, Best, Osbourne, Fox, Redgrave, Windsor....
Now then: is The X Factor winner making notes? We'll see if they're still winning this time next year.Reuse content