Tomboy Janet Devlin was ‘never the coolest kid’

Janet at her home outside Gortin, Co Tyrone
Janet at her home outside Gortin, Co Tyrone

She’s the schoolgirl singing sensation from Co Tyrone, with the voice that won the hearts of the nation on this year’s X Factor. But what now for the Girl from Gortin? LAURA MURPHY talks to Janet Devlin about makeovers, Christmas plans - and the Lorraine Kelly Show

HER language is typically teenage (“the makeover was, like, so predictable”) and every few sentences, she giggles a little nervously.

Each time I compliment her on her singing voice, and her achievement at coming fifth on The X Factor - which is, whether we love it or loathe it, the biggest talent competition on TV today - she shyly murmurs: “Aw, thank you.”

Despite her success, the slight 17-year-old with the voice that is anything but diminutive, still doesn’t really believe she’s that good.

Yet this is the same girl whose first audition on the hit show had judge and girl band star Kelly Rowland declaring herself to be “in a trance” after she delivered a beautiful, almost haunting rendition of Elton John’s classic hit Your Song.

From then on, her angelic, breathy tones had the nation hooked; she made it through to the live shows, underwent a visual transformation which saw her wavy, fair locks become a mane of rusty red, and performed a selection of hits every Saturday night, putting her own unique stamp on them.

She had already made a string of YouTube videos, in which she covered tracks by names such as Adele and Bob Dylan, but The X Factor propelled her to nationwide fame - and, of course, put Northern Ireland, and her home village of Gortin, firmly on the map.

“It’s weird, because people say, ‘you represented Northern Ireland really well’ and all that stuff, but I feel like I’ve let them down,” she says, unbelievably, adding that she feels she did “not portray the Irish particularly well, in my opinion - and I kind of feel bad about that.”

Is there no end to this teen’s modesty?

“I made you all look really dull and boring,” she continues.

“The thing I struggled with wasn’t even the music or anything, it was the fact that it was TV; I’m not good in front of TV cameras. I have trouble getting my personality across and stuff.

“I came across as really shy and I used to be kind of a shy kid but I grew out of it quite a bit, but before the audition I kind of went back to it - when I had to (perform) in front of a couple of hundred people and TV cameras.

“It was hard just to be yourself.”

But it’s clear that when she’s back home in her native Co Tyrone, this softly-spoken, sweet girl feels much more comfortable - although she admits seeing so many fans come to watch her turn on the Christmas tree lights in Omagh a few weeks ago was overwhelming.

“It didn’t feel real - it still doesn’t.”

Last week, Janet had another lights switch-on to prepare for, this time in Gortin itself.

Speaking from her home, she admits that this time last year, she never believed she would be in the position she finds herself in today.

“When you’re in it, (the show) you don’t realise how great an opportunity it is - I’m just grateful now.”

Of course, as Janet can testify, being on a reality pop show isn’t just about costume changes, red carpet appearances, and eyelash extensions; what goes on behind the scenes, she says, is sheer, unadulterated graft, on the part of everyone.

“What you see, all the glamorous stuff - what goes on backstage, there’s a lot of hard work. You don’t even see half the people who work hard to make the show work, you know? There’s a lot of people and a lot of stress.

“We (the contestants) had to travel two hours from the house (to the studios) - we’d have to be out of the house for half five, we’d arrive at 7am, and then from seven we’d be getting our make up done.

“By nine we’d be fully dressed and ready, and the show doesn’t start until 8pm.”

Those near-12 hours in between would be spent, Janet says, in dress rehearsals, doing sound checks and other bits of filming and re-takes.

I remark that it must have been difficult at times being away from home and family, but the Ulster girl has a remarkably practical attitude towards such a situation.

“It kind of was, but at the same time I already knew when I entered the show that if I got through, I was pretty much building my future. I knew it may be hard now, but it might potentially save me a lot of time later on in life.”

Not that the teenager truly expected that her audition for the show would even be successful in the first place.

In fact, she says she applied so she would “have proof” that she didn’t really possess the vocal talent people told her she had.

“The thing about X Factor is, like, when people used to say, ‘you’re a good singer’, I’d never believe them, I just thought they were being polite.

“You watch it every year and you see people in the auditions and Simon Cowell being just blatantly honest, and telling them if they can sing or not.

“I just thought I’d go on the stage and he’d be like, ‘don’t quit school.’

“And I wanted to have proof of that, you know?”

She eventually was persuaded to give the experience a go after she and her mum Patricia were sitting at the computer one day, and discovered that you could apply for the show’s auditions by video via their website.

“I’d already been doing YouTube videos and stuff, and my mum was like, ‘oh well, just give it a shot and the worst sort of thing you can get is a no.’

“So I got an email back about a month or two later and it meant that I pretty much had to book tickets for the next day (to travel) to England.

“I had to sing at wedding mass that morning, then I went home, got changed, a couple of suitcases filled up, and flew to Liverpool.”

Standing before a packed auditorium, and four famous faces from the world of pop, Janet was convinced they would “laugh at my silly accent and send me home.”

She says that she “didn’t really focus too much” on the fact that she was singing in front of stars like Gary Barlow and Kelly Rowland.

“I just felt weird to be performing in front of people who were famous, you know what I mean? I just tried not to over think that part.”

As the weeks went by, the Gortin girl says she kept expecting to be on the receiving end of negative comments on her performance from the judges.

“Whenever I got positive ones, it was a shock, and then when I got negative comments I just expected them, so it didn’t really bother me.”

Of her relationship with her mentor, Kelly Rowland, she says they “got on pretty well”, adding: “I know there’s been a lot of stuff in the papers about that but none of it was true.”

The teen also had to get used to living with the other contestants in their shared house in Hertfordshire.

“Everyone was really cool,” she says.

“I probably got on best with Marcus and Craig, and then Sammi and Johnny earlier on in the show. I was either with them or in my room.

“I didn’t really talk much to the girls - obviously if you grow up in a house with three brothers you get on better with boys than you do with girls.

“I don’t really have that many friends who are girls.”

As younger sister to her three brothers Jason, Gavin and Aaron, it’s not surprising that Janet is a bit of a tomboy at heart.

And she says her preference for non ‘feminine’ attire meant she was “the uncoolest kid.”

She laughs: “Obviously I was never, like, the coolest kid in school - I never had any idea of how to dress nicely, I dressed like an absolute boy in tracksuit bottoms.”

It was therefore something of a culture shock for the now-redhead (although she reveals she’s currently “thinking of going red with a hint of purple - I don’t even know, I’m just messing about with my hair nowadays!”) when she was performing on the live shows and had to be coiffed, preened and made-up to perfection on a weekly basis.

“Me and the make-up artist got on terribly well, but it was so weird, I went from wearing three products on my face - literally, foundation, mascara and eyeliner - to having a full face of stage make-up,” she says.

Another, somewhat more serious trapping of fame, as Janet has found out first hand, is dealing with the media, and she’s keen to set the record straight about a recent appearance on the Lorraine Kelly Show, where she reportedly said, whilst talking about her performances on The X Factor, that it had got to the point where she felt like a ‘karaoke artist’.

“See that was the thing, she didn’t let me finish my sentence,” says Janet now.

“What I was going to say was that I felt like a bit of a karaoke artist in the sense that you have to pick (a song) - it’s the same as a karaoke machine, you have number one songs and top 40 hits and stuff, and you have to pick a famous, well-known song.”

She also addresses the notorious episode in which it appeared that she had forgotten the words to the song she was performing, Hanson’s MMMBop. It was later revealed that she had in fact, felt as though she was about to be sick onstage.

“I had been asked if I wanted to do the performance that night, because I had been sitting in a room all day wanting to throw up,” she says.

She adds: “I never really was (on top form, health wise) during the show, because you’re always so busy and it’s hard to get food on the go if you’re a vegararian.”

Getting back to the subject of the “karaoke” issue, I ask Janet if she thinks she might have gone further in the show if she had been allowed to showcase the style of music she prefers?

“It could have gone either way,” she replies.

“My songwriting and the music I like to play is definitely not anything which The X Factor would really appreciate, I don’t believe.”

But she feels that perhaps there should be room on the show for more creativity on the part of the contestants.

“I just think that a nice idea would be, like when you arrive at the very beginning, when you get to the house, you have a few weeks before the show actually starts, and in that period of time, everyone sits down and writes a song - and that can be the winner’s single.”

A self-confessed fan of more “unknown” musicians, Janet feels that appearing on The X Factor may have possibly ‘tainted’ how such singers themselves may see her on a professional level.

“It doesn’t really bother me if people don’t respect me at all, but it’s kind of saddening that I can’t appeal to the audience that I would like to have appealed to if I never went on The X Factor. It’s like a Catch 22 situation really.”

And she adds: “I would recommend The X Factor if the person wants to be a pop singer or is a fan of pop music - don’t do what I did and try and twist the system around because it won’t work, much as I tried, it’s not the best idea.”

However, she knows that the show has been a platform that will hopefully launch her career in music.

And once Christmas is over, that’s the direction she’ll be taking.

“I think the plan is that after Christmas, I’ll be in the recording studio recording my music and talking to people, and then obviously doing the (X Factor) tour and then after that I’ll hopefully get a music video done.

“Oh - and I’m going to the NME Music Awards in February,” she adds with a grin.

And she confirms that 2012 will also mean a move to the mainland: “I will be living in London after the tour. It’s a lot of money to be flying back and forth so much, and anyway, you’re more accessible (in terms of doing) things if you’re living in London - and it’s not hard to fly home.”

Will her boyfriend Brendan Sally be relocating with her?

“I have no idea,” she says.

What about the rumour that she’s been offered a recording contract by a record company partly owned by Dragon’s Den star Duncan Bannatyne?

“I can’t really say,” she replies.

For now, what is certain is that the Gortin girl is looking forward to a well deserved rest and some “family time” over the festive holidays.

“I don’t even like Christmas, but it’s an excuse to sit in my jammies and wear no make-up,” she says with a laugh, and once again, proving that she’s just a typical teenager at heart.