The Dictionary Of Popular Opinion
1. False. Fake. Phoney.
2. Someone trying to sleep their way to the top.
3. Someone who’ll do absolutely anything to get famous.
I’m on my way to London’s Sanctum Soho Hotel where I’ll be spending the afternoon with the 25 year-old woman who, less than a year ago, was the most hated TV personality in Britain.
Katie Waissel finally crashed out of the X Factor last November after months of negative tabloid press, multiple ‘survival’ sing offs and public hostility perhaps best exemplified by the Facebook group ‘Katie Waissel is harder to get rid of than chlamydia’.
Since then she has decided to launch a new career as a rock star with her new band the Red Velvet Lovers. Unsurprisingly the decision – along with Katie’s public appearances suddenly done up like a Tim Burton bride – has been met with widespread derision.
So as I’m led by Katie’s leather jacket-clad new manager Mark Fuller downstairs to their exclusive recording room, I’m questioning my professional objectivity a bit. You hear rumours all the time about famous people being twats, but Katie was called a twat, every day, on the front page of newspapers, for weeks.
As soon as I walk in, she does a giant leap into the air and makes heavy metal horns with her fingers. She is dressed in her new ‘rocker’ uniform, and is surrounded by a few long-haired, young guys who I learn are her band. In real life she is strikingly beautiful, full of nervous energy and, as you’d probably expect, extremely friendly. But the real question, the reason why I am here, is to find out once and for all: is Katie Waissel for real?
Katie was born on 24 January 1986 in Harrow to Maurice Waissel, an antique toy dealer and Diana Waissel, a fashion boutique owner. Unlike many in music, she happily describes her upbringing as middle class. She went to a good school in North London, and was content until she turned 13. That was when – not for the last time, it would turn out – she began to be bullied.
“My best friend for years turned on me. It got to the point where I didn’t go on the bus or hang around in any of the usual areas because the girls who hated me carried knives in their pockets. So I left school when I was 16.”
So far, so (sadly) typical. But then she continues. “I saw her again when I was 19 and she apologised. We made up. A few weeks later she died of an asthma attack. I feel she’s with me all the time. I still love her. She was my best friend.”
By this point, Katie is sitting opposite me with her knees up to her chest, dropping them occasionally onto the back of the chair in front of her, chain smoking. It strikes me, not for the last time during our chat, how remarkably forgiving she sounds for someone who must have felt the whole world was against her 8 months ago.
Along with problems at school, Katie’s family hit hard times. When she was 14, they lost their family home. She found herself serving jam doughnuts in the local bakery, becoming what she calls ‘the leaning post’ for her family. A few years previous, she’d also lost her Grandfather, the man who turned her onto classic artists like Louie Prima. It was in tribute to him that she assumed the stage name Vogel, and began trying to make a name for herself in music.
“I was creating a new character that I could escape into. I left Katie Waissel behind for a stronger version of myself. Right up until the X Factor everyone knew me as Katie Vogel. But when I went to the auditions, my Dad asked me to go as Waissel, so I did,” she says.
Here is where I offer Katie the opportunity to address one of several ‘popular opinions’ on her.
1. You changed your name back to ‘Waissel’ to disguise your musical past from the producers.
“Absolute bollocks. I’m really proud of my musical past. Why would I want to hide it? I declared it all at the start, I didn’t hide anything. People didn’t know that [fellow contestant] Paige Richardson was in a Harry Potter film, or that Matt Cardle was already in a band and had management, or that Rebecca [Ferguson] had spent time in New York. But I took that hit for all of them for some reason. But anyway – why should people object to it? Why not think ‘this girl has been at it for a long time, she needs a break’?”
‘At if for a long time’ involved appearing in an ill-fated internet-based reality show sponsored by Coca-Cola called ‘Green Eyed World’. In it, Katie appears as Katie Vogel, an aspiring singer-songwriter trying to make it in New York. She falls in love with one of the show’s producers, something she claims was entirely authentic but later, would be used again to try and smear her.
2. You had sex with your producer to further your career
“Total rubbish. I wish it was scripted – it would have saved me a lot of heartache. He played a massive part in my life. We broke up a couple of years ago and it ended very badly. I’ve only now gotten over it.”
Katie made it onto the show in the first place by spending all her money and free time playing gigs and hanging around in the ‘right places’ across both London and LA.
“I’d ring a record label and pretend to be my assistant, or fly over to America with the money I’d saved up and ring up the labels there and tell them to head to a certain bar to hear this amazing new talent. Then I’d just show up with my guitar and play a set.
“I’ve always been a networker. I’ve always believed that things don’t just fall in your lap. I wanted people to notice me, so I used to hang out in the Embassy club and try and get my face pictured. I’m a very determined person.”
So determined, in fact, that a few months after the end of Green Eyed World, she’d make it on the UK X Factor and endure becoming possibility the most vilified reality TV show contestant in history.
The tipping point, for anyone who cares to remember, was ‘Gamu-gate’, when Katie Waissel (along with Cher Lloyd) was put through to the final rounds by Cheryl Cole in place of Gamu Nhengu, the nation’s favourite. From there on in, Katie’s role of pantomime villain was cast – not that it felt much like a joke.
“There were moments I told the director of the show that I was scared for my life to walk on stage. There was a tweet saying ‘on Saturday night you’ll hear the sound of a crack which will be Katie Waissel’s lifeless, limp body falling to the floor because I’m going to shoot her’.
“My hair was falling out, I was losing weight, I couldn’t sleep. I had Google alerts sent to my phone telling me all the bullshit that was coming out in the press. I was finding out things about my life at the same time as 18 million people.”
3. You had sex with (eventual winner) Matt Cardle and deliberately told the press to raise your profile on the show
“That was ludicrous. I was sitting in his room watching Family Guy, that was it. Completely innocent. Do me a favour. If he was Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, of course I’d sell the story, but sorry, not Matt. He’s not my type!”
But even death threats and the accusation of sleeping with Matt ‘slightly-thinner-Johnny-Vegas’ Cardle was nothing compared to what was to follow.
“The lowest point was finding out, along with 80 other million people, that your grandmother at the age of 82 is a prostitute and a porn star. That’s not the easiest. And because I was still in the show at the time, I couldn’t protect my family. I just felt helpless.
“I walked straight into Simon’s office and was like: what the fuck? What upset me was that the X-Factor people knew about it a good few weeks before the story broke. They could have told me, prepared me for it but they didn’t. That was very upsetting.”
Speaking to former X Factor contestants, they all repeat the same mantras – ‘it’s a great show’, ‘it gave me a wonderful platform’, ‘I’d never criticise it (but I wish you’d stop asking me about it)’.
Katie is equally determined to demonstrate her gratitude to Simon and the show, but the picture she paints of how they were treated and felt at the time is disturbing.
“We were all stressed out, we were all nervous. We couldn’t even trust the sandwich we were eating. There may have been a moment where we all felt close and in it together, but when we were alone in our beds with our heads down, we were completely alone.
“I’m sure the publicity team of the X-Factor had a field day with us. But for me it got to the point where I walked into the director of the show’s office and to Simon and said: ‘You want to make me the fucking villain of the show, then you pay me or I’m out.’”
So in summation, was it all a complete and utter stitch-up? Katie stubs out another Marlboro, then says almost happily, “People just forget it’s a cleverly edited TV show. I feel sorry for the poor bastards in it this year.”
And you sense she probably does.
Throughout the interview, Katie pays warm tributes to her old friends, her band, the X Factor staff, Cher Lloyd, Gamu (with whom she is still in touch), Matt, Cheryl, Simon… even the journalists who dragged her name through the mud get off lightly (‘I know they were just doing their jobs so I was always nice to them, they knew I wasn’t the monster they’d made up’).
There is a sweetness and naivety to Katie, even after her X Factor nightmare, that suggests she still sees the best in absolutely everyone, no matter what story they sell, lie they print or blow they leave her exposed to. Although she’s a dreamer (and what is so wrong with that?), she is also far more down-to-earth than public opinion would have it.
It seems completely ridiculous, in other words, that while today the public rages against a tabloid press that has lost its moral compass and the politicians and police who allowed them, a few short months ago we were letting the same press tell us that Katie Waissel was someone actually worth hating.
Today, she is happy with her management and band, who sit by throughout our interview, pitching in with the odd helpful comment. You sense a loyalty from Mark and the others that will hopefully last if the Red Velvet Lovers don’t catapult them all to international stardom, as they genuinely seem to believe will happen.
Either way, for the rest of us, if there is a lesson to learn from the story of Katie Waissel, perhaps it is to remember to take the constructed narratives of reality TV with a pinch of salt.
Interviewed for AOL, August 2011