My name is Emily, I’m a standup comedian and when I was 15, I was on The X Factor US. But if you’d told me back then that I’d be willingly telling you that, let alone regaling audiences – while touring a show – about the experience, I’d tell you that you were in the wrong multiverse, dumbass! Couldn’t be me!
I auditioned for The X Factor with my best friend, Austin, in 2011. We went in with full confidence that we not only had the raw talent for stardom, but also the branding: who wouldn’t love a pubescent boy-girl duet with a name as brilliantly punny as AusEm?
We were only half wrong. The judges loved Austin but hated me. The direct Nicole Scherzinger quote is: “I’m sorry, but for AusEm, no. But I believe in you, Austin.” It was brutal. What was probably my worst fear at the time was coming true in front of millions of people. Not to mention Nicole both looked like and had the same name as my middle-school bully. Who did I kill in a past life to deserve this?
They still sent AusEm through, and we eventually got to the finals in Hollywood. But after the eight-month rollercoaster ended (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 became determined to completely redefine myself and bury The X Factor in the past.
Cut to 10 years later: the summer of 2021. Not much had changed – with my attitude, I mean. The world had had quite the decade (Trump, global pandemic, Despicable Me 2, etc).
I was now 25, and I was returning to standup comedy after 15 months off because of Covid. Throughout the pandemic, I didn’t really jot down many observations because I was too busy trying to make brownies but eating all the batter before I cooked them. And my pre-Covid jokes felt 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 the fear of contracting a deadly disease”? At first, I walked around New York for inspiration. I came up with some pretty biting 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 new jokes (“Skateboarders are odd, right?”), 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 caved. Our conversation led to the inevitable YouTube search for the audition. He turned his phone sideways and the three of us began to watch.
Despite the 10-year gap, I physically could not bear it. I walked a few feet away, plugging my ears. “You can keep watching, I just truly cannot look at that,” I told them. I remember thinking how it sucked that my boyfriend’s brother, who I love and respect, had seen the evidence that at my core I am not normal and cool, but rather a pathetic, sad-sack loser. But to my surprise, he didn’t say, “Yikes! Emily, you’re actually so weird and I’ve lost all respect for you.” More than anything, he just couldn’t believe that had happened to me.
Almost immediately, my boyfriend insisted I write material about it. This was not the first time he, or anyone, had suggested the idea. Over the years, people who found out about my disastrous X Factor stint would often suggest I talk about it on stage. “That would be so funny!” To whom?
But my boyfriend was seeing more than just the funny in it. He saw how much the experience was still clearly affecting me, which made it, in his eyes, the source material that could take me to the next level, both as a comedian and a person.
Maybe it was something in the thick, garbage-filled New Jersey air but, this time, I kinda saw it. It’s a funny story. It’s crazy and sad and humiliating, but funny. Seeing my 15-year-old self on stage, being told that I wasn’t good at singing, my one dream, by none other than Justin Bieber’s producer!? For the first time, the absurdity of it made me laugh. I had my doubts, but I decided that writing about this was better than what I’m assuming my next “joke” would’ve been: “Bicyclists are absolutely insane – right, everyone?”
A week later, I tried a 10-minute set about the audition. It is, to this day, the most scared I’ve ever felt while doing standup. But it was invigorating. In letting go of the shame, I started to see the humour and catharsis that could be found in facing my embarrassing past. And to my surprise, people also related to my story.
Since making this show, Fixed, I’ve seen the principle behind my decision to do so permeate my life beyond the stage. I now worry less about things like, “Was I weird to so-and-so last night?” because there’s no point: I definitely was weird. But odds are, they’re at home reeling about how weird they were too.
And instead of holding my breath when I open old diaries, I’ve come to appreciate the insane level of detail I provided about my endless anxieties, and often learn a thing or two about myself in the retrospective process.
Choosing to talk about The X Factor showed me that harbouring embarrassment is never worth it. Facing it, while terrifying, is much more exciting.
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