It’s been seven years since “The X Factor” runner-up Rebecca Ferguson last put out a record. Despite her hiatus from the industry, Ferguson never walked away from music, instead using her downtime to craft songs in a more spontaneous way.
“It was me organically calling up people saying, ‘Should we do a session?’ over seven years, very sporadically,” Ferguson tells Variety. “I got to the point where I was like, I do need to get an album out. Then I thought, ‘But I’ve got an album.’”
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The result is “Heaven Part II,” which, according to the accompanying press release, is an exploration of “love, family, joy, liberation and Rebecca’s journey to happiness.” Over the past seven years, Ferguson has experienced a number of ups and downs, from personal and professional break-ups (including with her former management company) as well as a new marriage and a new baby, but she was still able to relate to some of the earliest – and most heartbreaking – tracks on the record.
“’You Don’t Have to Leave’ is actually my favourite song I’ve ever written,” Ferguson says. “When I initially wrote that song I was so sad, I was in such a dark place. When I listened back to the original recording, you could just really sense the sadness in my voice.”
The record is significant in other ways too. For a start, she’s releasing it without the backing of a major record label, affording her an independence that she credits with allowing her to remain in the industry. “I always felt like I needed like this big company or someone to do it for me in a way,” she says. When she realized “I can be an independent person, an independent woman” it gave her the confidence to release the album through her own label, Minerva Oto, and distribute it herself too. “I can make music and love it and I can be in control of it all,” she says.
The timing of the record, out now, is also significant. It comes almost exactly 13 years since the soul singer first took Britain by storm on Simon Cowell’s once ubiquitous competition show, which was broadcast on U.K. network ITV and produced by Cowell’s company Syco and Fremantle subsidiary Thames. “Heaven Part II” also drops 12 years to the day since she released her debut album, “Heaven.”
Ferguson has been vocal about her experience in the music industry over the last decade. Earlier this year she gave evidence at a Parliamentary inquiry into misogyny in the industry. Her testimony was damning, describing a system of exploitative contracts and controlling men.
“I would say that I was most certainly a victim of abuse,” she says, explaining that it was only during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when the world shut down, that she was able to see her experience for what it was. “It was a bit normalized. It almost felt like this is part of the package, which is so toxic not just for me, but for many women working in the creative industry.”
The abuse, as she relays it, was predominantly psychological. People around her (she’s reluctant to name them) controlled who she was allowed to speak to, including her children. Minders and drivers would feed information about her to those who controlled her career. She was forced to participate in tabloid articles she didn’t want to do and expected to remain “obedient” if she wanted to continue working. “It really makes me sad that I had to endure that,” she says, looking back.
Inevitably, her experience brings to mind Britney Spears, whose powerlessness in the industry has also been widely documented. “It was fascinating to read Britney’s story because I did see some similarities,” she says. “I was shocked and it made me go ‘Wow.’ She’s a superstar and that was happening to her and we didn’t know.”
“It made me realize just how many women in music are secretly…” Ferguson trails off. “It is a very real experience for a lot of [female] artists.”
Ferguson has also been critical of “The X Factor” itself, saying she was “forced into contracts” with managers, accountants and lawyers since contestants were not free to choose their own. “You are given contracts the size of a Bible,” Ferguson recalls. “Some of them are lifelong. There’s one contract I’m bound to that I’ll be bound to forever. And that, to me, is unacceptable.” (A Fremantle source says contestants were able to choose from a selection of legal advisers while a management company was nominated to represent those who made it through to the live shows).
Ferguson says at one point she reached out to ITV boss Carolyn McCall (who joined the network in 2018) to try and ensure better welfare for reality TV contestants, but the response she got back from ITV amounted to: “That was many years ago and things have changed.” Ferguson had also hoped there might be an investigation into the show’s culture but has come to terms with the fact that’s unlikely to happen. “There has not been any willingness to investigate,” she says.
(A spokesperson for ITV tells Variety: “‘The X Factor’ was produced by Thames and Syco, who were responsible for duty of care and welfare towards contestants on the show. In our correspondence with Rebecca we stressed that the welfare of participants is of the highest priority at ITV as reflected in our duty of care charter.”
A spokesperson for Fremantle says: “During the 2010 series of ‘The X Factor,’ there were robust measures in place to ensure everyone involved in the making of the programme was supported throughout their experience and beyond including a dedicated welfare team.”)
It’s been more than a decade since a 24-year-old Ferguson came second to Matt Cardle on the show (One Direction came third), and there are conflicting accounts about who the singer signed with in the flurry of excitement and publicity that followed. One source told Variety that after the competition ended Ferguson opted to sign with Sony subsidiary RCA Records instead of Syco, effectively ending her official relationship with Cowell, but a rep for Ferguson points out the CD version of “Heaven” is stamped with both RCA and Syco’s logos. Either way, it is clear Ferguson sees Cowell, who conceived “The X Factor” format and was a long-time judge on the show, as bearing some responsibility for what she has since experienced in the music industry at large.
Which is why, a few years ago, she took the opportunity to meet with the music mogul and explain it to him directly. Ferguson says she was “visibly shaking” while recounting her story. “He paused me and said, ‘Rebecca I can see you’re actually shaking. Your breathing’s changed. You’re shaking recollecting it,’” she says. “And he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry and I wish I had stepped in to help you.’”
Cowell’s apology, Ferguson clarifies, was “not for his actions, but for the way other people in the industry had treated me.” And while it was welcome, Ferguson says she’s disappointed the Syco boss chose to do it privately rather than publicly. “I don’t have a deep hatred towards him in any way,” Ferguson explains. “[But] it would have taken him nothing to say, ‘I confirm what Rebecca’s saying and I’m deeply sorry that that ended up being her lived experience.’” (When contacted by Variety, a rep for Cowell declined to comment on the private meeting).
At some point, after her last album, 2015’s “Superwoman,” the singer says she considered quitting music altogether — hence the hiatus. “I’ve kind of resolved that now,” Ferguson says. “I don’t hate music; I love music. I just didn’t like the industry too much.”
“The past seven years, I’ve just been on a journey of self-love, which sounds really cheesy, but I have,” she says of making “Heaven Part II.” “I needed to learn to love myself, to start to own who I am. I think you go through your 20s trying to figure out what life is and then you get to your 30s and it’s like, ‘No, this is me.’”
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