By Rebecca Hardy
There’s something special about Jahmene Douglas. Something you can’t quite put your finger on but everyone seems to sense it.
We’re sitting in The X Factor studio’s canteen, where the judges and contestants mill around before rehearsals.
Gary Barlow walks past. Stops. Places two hands on Jahmene’s shoulders. ‘Hello, you.’ His affection for this shy 21-year-old is writ large on his face. Louis Walsh, James Arthur (this year’s favourite) and several backstage crew are also drawn to Jahmene like teenage girls to a boy band.
Jahmene, you see, is different from the rest of us. He’s nicer, gentler. Take every Sunday’s live show when he hears he’s been voted through by the public. There’s no whooping or punching the air.
Instead, the former supermarket shelf-stacker, who happens to have a spine-tingling voice, looks as if he’s facing a life sentence. ‘I’m shocked, and I’m scared for everyone else,’ he says. ‘That’s why I’m not smiling.’
Hang on. Isn’t this the dog-eat-dog ITV talent show where you should be happy to see each rival struck out? Not Jahmene. He’s still upset by Ella Henderson’s exit three weeks ago - and regularly texts her.
‘She calls me her little chicken, and I call her my turkey,’ he says. ‘When I got my name called out, I couldn’t be happy because I knew James or Ella would be going home. It was shocking - for me they were the front-runners.’
Jahmene doesn’t have a nasty word to say about anyone. Not even (boo, hiss) Christopher Maloney. ‘He gets a lot of hate but he get a lot of votes, so it’s a balance.’
And James, who’s joining Chris and Jahmene in this weekend’s final, is ‘like a brother. He’s a mixed bag - either really confident or really quiet. He’s incredibly talented and has a lot of values, too. He agrees with a lot of the things I say.’
Indeed, Jahmene has a moral compass rarely found in the music industry today. But his values are bound up in the dreadful abuse he suffered as a child, which, he says, remains part of his DNA.
His father Eustace, who was eventually jailed, subjected the family to years of violence, including torturing Jahmene’s mother with a blowtorch. He beat Jahmene with a belt, strangled him and stuck a knife under his nails until they bled, to stop him biting them.
But the thing that’ll stay with him for ever are his mum’s screams while he was paralysed by fear. ‘When you hear your mother screaming for help you have to zone out and pray,’ he says. ‘It’s the only thing you can do when you can’t help.
‘I block it all out so it’s hard to remember stuff. But that last night, before my father was arrested for the blowtorch, that was the only time I thought: “I won’t see my mother in the morning.”
So, when you wake up - I didn’t wake up, actually, as I didn’t sleep - and your prayers have been answered because she’s alive, it shows no matter how bad things are, there’s always something to remind you that you can pull through.
‘But when you do go to the bottom of the bottom, you realise everything that is important. I’m not here for money and fame and all that stuff. I have my own priorities and try to keep myself grounded in what my mission is.’
Which is? ‘A lot of singers have forgotten they have a responsibility through influencing people - mainly the younger generation. So all these foul songs - they don’t realise how badly they’re poisoning children’s minds. I’m trying to bring back the class of the olden days and hopefully set some standards.’
In Ella’s last week, Jahmene, who doesn’t drink, refused to join the other contestants in performing Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night. He says: ‘The lyrics weren’t just about alcohol, they mentioned threesomes.
‘The first line was: “There’s a stranger in my bed.” I was thinking about Ella, who’s only 16, and how it would be for her to sing lyrics that open this whole world of ménage à trois, getting naked and drinking.
‘The contestants were 100 per cent behind me. So the production team changed the song. A song has to be something I feel deeply about. I’ve turned down a lot of songs because of the message.’
Jahmene is truly made of steel, despite appearing painfully nervous most of the time.
‘People who know me understand you can’t be a weak person to go through what I have,’ he says.
To get over stage nerves, he tells me, he goes into a bubble. ‘When I sing, I’m separating myself from everything else and trying to offer something else - a light or a beacon of some kind. That sort of cheesy line,’ he laughs in his self-conscious way.
‘It’s always been me trying to exude some kind of love, I suppose - just giving something to everyone else from here.’ He touches his heart.
Jahmene remembers singing from the age of eight. His mother, Mandy, whom he adores, says he sang as soon as he could speak, but Jahmene has blocked out much of his childhood.
‘When my dad used to leave the house, my sister and I would sing together and forget about everything. Everyone copes in different ways and you put up things to help yourself preconsciously.’
He is referring to memories of feelings that aren’t part of one’s immediate awareness but can be recalled through conscious effort. ‘Singing was my preconscious. It was important to have that sanctuary so you could focus on it when he was around, and block out what was happening.’
Jahmene’s older brother Daniel was unable to cope, and committed suicide four years ago. In his last note he urged Jahmene to ‘never stop singing’.
So Jahmene, then 17, posted a recording of His Eye Is On The Sparrow on YouTube.
When it was brought to the attention of X Factor producers, he was asked to audition.
‘I didn’t see past that audition,’ he says. ‘I just thought: “Go out there and sing and go home.” My eyes were closed for most of it. When I sing I always take myself to church and that bubble. It’s calm, a different plane.’
Without doubt, X Factor has given Jahmene untold confidence. ‘I think everything takes time,’ he says. ‘You can’t go from being in the depths straight to being strong - even now I’m learning.
When my father was around, you had to be a certain way. I wasn’t allowed to sing. I wasn’t allowed to do anything. He didn’t want us to go to church. He stopped us from going to Sunday school.
‘You get told what to do and how to act, so you don’t know how to act in public. I’m still growing. Before, I’d got this wall in the way, the wall of "you can’t" - but you can. And the other contestants care for you, they’re just there in that comforting, embracing way friends should be.
‘And I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor than Nicole [Scherzinger]. She phones me. She talks to me. She’s there, I think, more than any of the other judges are for their acts. She’s crazy in a good way. I’ve just fallen in love with her. She’s my big sister now.
‘Winning can mean a lot of things. There’s winning the competition, then there’s making an album and being successful - that’s the winning for me. If I’d left two weeks ago but made an album that was successful and made a difference, I would have won.
‘I’ve been asked by Women’s Aid (a domestic violence charity) to be an ambassador for children and young people - the first one they’ve had. That means a lot. It’s so exciting that I go to bed thinking about what I could do in that role. If I can inspire one person to have a lightbulb moment, to switch their life around and not disrespect themselves by doing things they shouldn’t . . .’
Then, throwing his arms wide open, he adds: ‘X Factor is just the pre-course. I’m waiting to step out onto the bridge of whatever is going to happen next.
‘When all hope was gone, I used to get on my knees and pray for the strength to change things. I think the fact I’m here now proves my prayers have been answered.
The X Factor is a massive platform to help change things for someone else.’
One last question: who do you want to win? ‘James,’ he says, without hesitation. And he genuinely means it.
The X Factor final is on ITV1 tomorrow at 8pm and Sunday at 7.40pm.
VIDEO: Nicole and the boys preview this weekend's X Factor final