In 2010, the nation was absolutely hooked on The X Factor.
The seventh series of the ITV talent show saw an average of over 14 million people tuning in to each episode – a record that is unbeaten to this day.
But the series also has a bolder claim than that: it also birthed One Direction, widely believed to be the biggest boy band since The Beatles.
“There was something about that year, and not just because I was in it,” laughs Mary Byrne, the contestant who became affectionately known as ‘Tesco Mary’ thanks to her previous job with the supermarket.
“When I met Simon recently he said, ‘Mary, it was the best year ever.’”
If you look at all of us we were such a bunch of misfits”Contestant Mary Byrne
Perhaps its record ratings were in response to the loveable contestants that made it onto the show that year – individuals who represented a huge cross section of society.
“If you look at all of us we were such a bunch of misfits,” Mary says.
“There weren’t any you thought could be big stars, Wagner for instance, but he was a character.”
Brazilian-born singer Wagner charmed viewers with his offbeat performances and flamboyant outfits.
“I would need to write a whole book telling what it was like to be in what was the biggest television show in the United Kingdom: we were being watched by nearly a third of the UK population,” Wagner tells HuffPost.
“It was like being in a fantastic party, surrounded by lots and lots of beautiful and interesting people,” adds Wagner, who also still performs professionally and makes extra cash by recording personalised birthday greetings for fans.
Those “beautiful and interesting” people may have included judges Simon Cowell, Dannii Minogue, Cheryl Cole and Louis Walsh and the rest of the contestants, like husky-toned Katie Waissel, belter Paije Richardson, indie pin up Aiden Grimshaw and girl band Belle Amie, who critics believe were given a back seat by mentor Simon while he focused on 1D.
Then of course there was One Direction, whose innocent faces can still be seen in the video diaries the band shot from the house the contestants shared during filming.
Mary has many fond memories of living and working alongside the band.
“Every morning the lads would come down, every one of them, and they would always give me a kiss in the morning and say ‘good morning mummy Mary,’” she recalls.
“They’d all do it and then Harry, little cheeky Harry would go around the island in the kitchen and come back and he would moon me. Drop the trousers and show me his bum, so I’d slap him on the bum.
“He was only a little thing for God’s sake, I was old enough to be his grandmother, never mind his mother.”
Wagner, who was in the Overs category alongside Mary, Storm Lee and John Adeleye, says Harry always stood out to him.
“Although Liam was very mature for his age, Harry always had true star quality,” he says.
“Niall was a gentleman, Zayn was very nice and Louis very business minded. They were kids and every green room we had during the tour would become a mess!”
Mary also recalls a time when she was feeling lonely and missing her family in Ireland when One Direction surprised her with a hand-written note.
“I came back to the house that evening and One Direction and Storm [another contestant] had written out a beautiful letter and a big box of After Eights and left them on my bed. I still have that letter,” she says.
“Some of the stuff they said on it was beautiful. ‘C’mon mummy Mary we know you can do it, we don’t want you to give up.’”
None of them were great singers and I told them this to their facesMary Byrne on One Direction
They may have been good roommates but Mary – who finished fifth on the show and these days is still a professional touring artist, mainly in her native Ireland and on cruise ships – insists they still had work to do on their vocals.
“None of them were great singers and I told them this to their faces,” she says. “But they had what they call the X Factor: it just wasn’t being seen on the actual show because there were so many other big characters overflowing them.
“But I knew Simon Cowell would make something big of them and I’m so proud of each and every one of them. The fact that I know them, and that they were so kind to me and so good makes me even more proud. I feel like a proud mum to be honest with you.”
Mary reveals she knew Simon had high hopes for them when the band’s schedule would be more packed than the other contestants’.
She explains: “They were getting up early in the morning, going out doing photoshoots and I remember they were saying ‘what’s all this about?’ I remember saying, ‘look, lads, Simon has you marked out for something.’”
Wagner believes the success of the boy band was well orchestrated.
“They were all of the same height and age, and all had two syllables names: Harry, Liam, Niall, Zayn and Louis,” he says.
“The X Factor bosses knew that young girls fall in love with boy bands and buy all their merchandise, so they knew that if they made them in the UK, it would be easy to conquer America. Once they made it there, the whole of Europe and then Australia and New Zealand, and most of Asia would welcome them.”
The creation of One Direction was a brilliant plan to take money from every family on the planet who had a teenage girlWagner, X Factor 2010 contestant
Wagner adds: “The creation of One Direction was a brilliant plan to take money from every family on the planet who had a teenage girl.
“Even the name of the band was planned: the name “One Direction” was a subliminal message to get all the teenage girls ‘directed’,” believes Wagner. “They did really well at the end, they grew up touring the world and became true professional singers and entertainers, fair play to them.”
Despite the acclaim that followed, One Direction were not the most popular act on The X Factor that year.
In the live final in December 2010, the lads had to settle for third place. Matt Cardle was crowned the winner after coming top of the vote for nine out of 10 live shows during the course of the series.
After their exit, Zayn vowed to host Dermot O’Leary that One Direction would carry on as a band. They went on to sell 200 million records worldwide and bag seven Brit Awards and six Billboard Music Awards, among a plethora of other accolades.
Rebecca shares a huge sense of pride in the lads’ achievements – both as a band and in their endeavours as solo artists.
“I am very proud of us all, but most especially of Harry. His latest album is amazing and he has found his individual artistry,” she says.
“It is so great to watch him grow as an artist and he has always remained humble.”
She adds: “X Factor 2010 was undoubtedly a great year for the show in terms of ratings and artist’s success.”
Following the 2010 series, Simon and Cheryl left the show to launch the ill-fated US version, while Dannii also vacated her judges’ seat.
Ratings took a slight hit when a new line-up of long-term judge Louis, Gary Barlow, Kelly Rowland and Tulisa Contostavlos took over, but over the course of the following eight years, viewing figures fell consistently.
Not even 1D’s Louis Tomlinson joining the judging panel in 2018 alongside Cowell (who returned in 2014), Robbie Williams and his wife Ayda Field could return the show to its former glory, with ratings sinking to a record low of 6.7m viewers an episode.
But there was further embarrassment for Simon when spin-off X Factor: The Band failed to attract more than 3m for a single episode over the series.
With the show decommissioned for 2020 owing to the coronavirus pandemic (although it is contracted to return for another series, which has yet to be announced), Mary agrees it feels right to rest it.
There was something about 2010, and not just because I was in it. When I met Simon recently he said, ‘Mary, it was the best year ever.’”Mary Byrne
“It needed to pull away for a bit, the market was flooded with new stars coming in. It was overflowing and I think they just needed to stop, rethink it, look back at 2010 because that was the most popular one,” reflects Mary.
While fans await news of another series, and the format that may take, there’s never been a better time to bed in and catch up with old episodes from the magical 2010 series, which is all on YouTube.