How I finally accepted my X Factor humiliation

My name is Emily, I’m a standup comedian and when I was 15 I was on The X Factor US. But if you had told me then that I would readily tell you that, let alone delight audiences – while on tour – about the experience, I’d tell you you’re in the wrong multiverse, idiot! I couldn’t be!

I auditioned for The X Factor in 2011 with my best friend Austin. We went in confident that we not only had the talent for stardom, but also the Branding: Who would not Love an adolescent boy-girl duet with a name as brilliantly funny as AusEm?

We were only half wrong. The judges loved Austin but hated me. The direct quote from Nicole Scherzinger is: “Sorry, but for AusEm, no. But I believe in you, Austin.” It was brutal. What was probably my worst fear at the time came true in front of millions of people. Not to mention Nicole, who both looked alike and had the same name as my middle school bully. Who did I kill in a past life to deserve this?

They sent AusEm through anyway and we ended up making it to the finals in Hollywood. But at the end of the eight-month rollercoaster ride (spoiler: we didn’t win), all I was left with was extreme shame, embarrassment, and two Nicoles on my shit list. After some wallowing, I was determined to completely redefine myself and bury The X Factor in the past.

Cut to 10 years later: Summer 2021. Not much had changed – in my attitude, I mean. The world had gone through a full decade (Trump, global pandemic, Despicable Me 2, etc.).

I was 25 now and returned to standup comedy after 15 months due to Covid. I haven’t really made a lot of observations during the pandemic because I was too busy making brownies but ate all the batter before cooking them. And my pre-Covid jokes seemed so unfunny to me. What’s funny about “You know how life rocks and we’ll always be able to hang out and kiss our friends without fear of catching a terminal illness”? First I walked around New York looking for inspiration. I’ve come up with quite acrid material. Stuff like, “Rollerbladers are pretty weird.”

Then, one weekend in August, I was in New Jersey with my boyfriend. We were talking about one of my newest jokes (“Skateboarders are weird, aren’t they?”) when his younger brother, then 15, asked me about The X Factor. I gave him the usual “yeah, it was crazy” and tried to change the subject to something else that would interest a teenager, like geometry.

He kept asking questions and I gave in. Our conversation led to the inevitable YouTube search for the audition. He turned his phone aside and the three of us started watching.

Despite the 10-year break, I couldn’t physically take it. I walked a few meters away and covered my ears. “You can keep watching, I really can’t watch this,” I told them. I remember thinking how fucked up it was that my boyfriend’s brother, who I love and respect, had seen proof that I’m not normal and cool at my core, but rather a pathetic, sad failure. But to my surprise, he didn’t say, “Oops! Emily, you’re actually so weird and I’ve lost all respect for you.” More than anything, he just couldn’t believe that this had happened to me.

Almost immediately, my friend insisted that I write material about it. This wasn’t the first time he or anyone had proposed this idea. Over the years, people who found out about my disastrous stint on the X Factor have often suggested that I speak about it on stage. “That would be so funny!” Denen?

But my friend saw more than just the funny in it. He saw how much the experience was still affecting me, which he believed made it source material that could take me to the next level, both as a comedian and as a person.

Maybe it was something in the thick, garbage-filled New Jersey air, but this time I kind of saw it. It’s a funny story. It’s crazy and sad and humiliating but funny. To see my 15-year-old self on stage, to be told by no one but me that I can’t sing well, my only dream Justin Bieber’s producer!? For the first time, the absurdity made me laugh. I had my doubts, but decided it was better to write about it than what I’m assuming my next “joke” would have been “Cyclists are absolutely crazy – right, everyone?”

A week later, I tried a 10-minute set about auditioning. To this day, it’s the greatest fear I’ve ever felt upon waking up. But it was invigorating. As I let go of the shame, I began to see the humor and catharsis that could be found in confronting my embarrassing past. And to my surprise, people also had something to do with my story.

Since doing that show, Fixed, I’ve seen the principle behind my decision to do this permeate my life beyond the stage. I worry less about things like, “Was I weird about so-and-so last night?” because it doesn’t make sense: I was definitely weird. But chances are they’re dithering at home about how weird they were.

And instead of holding my breath when opening old journals, I’ve learned to appreciate the insane level of detail I’ve provided about my endless fears, and often learn a thing or two about myself in the retrospective process.

Deciding to talk about The X Factor showed me that embarrassment is never worth it. Facing him, while terrifying, is far more exciting.

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