It hasn't been a banner year for The X Factor U.K. The series, whose performance show airs on Saturday nights, has been averaging eight million viewers, a significant drop from the 14 million of 2010 -- Simon Cowell's last year as a judge. As for the contestants, they're a largely generic lot, with the likely winner a former cruise-ship singer beloved by the natio'’s grandmothers.
But while the 2012 season may not have discovered many future hit-makers, it has unearthed a bright shining star: Nicole Scherzinger. The 34-year-old former Pussycat Doll is no stranger to American singing competitions -- two seasons on The Sing-Off, an unhappy one on the U.S. X Factor, not to mention her own start as a contestant on a star-searching reality show, 2001's Popstars -- but, in her first stint judging on a British panel and mentoring a trio of male singers, she's been nothing short of a revelation.
The version of Nicole Scherzinger on U.K.'s X Factor is, for one, funny -- repeatedly begging "humans and babies" for their votes, becoming fluent in the slang of Essex (England's New Jersey) and cryptically informing cruise singer Chris Maloney, "I'm more of a Cocoa Puffs girl and you're giving me vanilla skim milk on top of a Corn Flake." She's also an appealingly game participant in the series' real-lives-of-the-finalists video segments, happily wielding the price scanner in a British grocery store, the employer of one of her acts, and downing a full pint of beer in the pub frequented by another.
Something else Scherzinger brings to the, er, table: the mouth of a sailor. When host Dermot O'Leary innocently asks the standard pressure-on-the-contestants question, for example, Scherzinger drawled, "The competition is stiff, so everyone has to go hard." Complimenting her flamboyant protege, Rylan Clark, on a performance dominated by crotch-thrusting choreography, she lets loose her inner drag-queen, exulting, "You didn't just spread love on that stage, honey, you sprayed love!" And in a segment, aired on the show's looser, recap edition The Xtra Factor, Scherzinger and her charge James Arthur were depicted in rehearsal cheerfully improvising their way through a song called "Vagina and Hairy Balls."
Scherzinger's raucous, impassioned stewardship of her acts -- a couple of weeks ago she introduced Arthur as "James 'effin' Arthur" -- made her the first judge in the series' nine-year history to save all of her acts from elimination all the way up to the semi-final. And although Take That's Gary Barlow is the de facto head judge, when Scherzinger opens her mouth to speak, the people of the United Kingdom lean forward in their seats a little bit to listen.
In fact, the only thing the crowd-pleasing, scene-stealing Scherzinger of the U.K. X Factor has in common with the babbling, beaten-down one from the American version is her name. Granted, Scherzinger has an affinity with the U.K.: she dates Formula One star Lewis Hamilton and the British charts have given her solo efforts a warmer reception than her homeland ("Don't Hold Your Breath," a single from her 2011 album, Killer Love, went to No. 1).
But chart success isn't the only reason for the night-and-day difference between her performances on the two shows. In Britain, there's no one to make her feel bad, put her down, condescend to her and ignore her. In other words, there's no Simon Cowell -- or a Cowell-dominated panel where there are a few designated roles for a female: she can be a punching bag (Paula Abdul), a pet (Cheryl Cole), a tolerable irritant (Demi Lovato), a dancing monkey (Abdul again), a stunningly unspectacular elephant in the room (Britney Spears), or she can just be invisible (Kara DioGuardi, Ellen Degeneres).
The Nicole Scherzinger currently wowing the Brits was never given a chance to shine in the joyless U.S. iteration because her role was already cast in stone. If she didn't shower praise on female contestants, she was branded jealous and catty. If she attempted to defend herself in confrontations with Cowell -- admittedly not her strong point -- she was lambasted as spacey and inarticulate. Ultimately, the only impression Scherzinger left in her single season on the American show was that she made a child cry. Cowell showed enough foresight to ship her off to the U.K., but what a waste of a great national resource.
On the other hand, maybe Simon Cowell doesn't deserve all the blame. One of the shows beating Britain's X Factor in the Saturday night ratings (Saturday in the U.K. is like America's Thursday) is the long-running jungle endurance series I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. At this time, the favorite to win is Ashley Roberts. That's ex-Pussycat Doll Ashley Roberts, if the name isn't immediately familiar -- and she's well aware of that probability. "This is the first time anyone's ever heard me talk," she has said. "In the group, I wasn't allowed. Only Nicole was allowed to talk."
A curious coincidence? Two performers from the same group, both winning the hearts and minds of a nation not their own and both displaying previously unseen reserves of personality, spontaneity and charm. Perhaps the Pussycat Dolls might have survived longer than two albums if the individual members had not been treated as subservient to the brand. But then again, Britain's Saturday nights would be a lot less fun.