Scott James: The "X-Factor" and Beyond
Imagine that you had a tremendous gift, one that could inspire a nation, raise autism awareness, and bring you the kind of press and media attention most people can only dream of. Now imagine that you're terrified to share that gift, because you've spent years of your life bullied and living in fear. You're 22 years old, you have Asperger Syndrome, and you're about to have millions of people watching as you sing.
Now, imagine overcoming all of those things to bring an audience of thousands to their feet. What you've imagined here is the real story of Scott James, “X-Factor” contestant and adult with Asperger’s syndrome.
Recently, Autism After 16 spoke with Scott James about singing, the “X-Factor” experience, autism, and what life looks like now.
AA16: Scott, it's an honor to be speaking with you today; your "X-Factor" performances moved millions of people, myself included. But let's go back a bit further; can you tell us a bit about your history. How and when you were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome?
SJ: I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 13. I was diagnosed after an incident regarding an older gentleman who lived in my street. I became best friends with his grandson. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s after he died; I went a little insane. I set fire to his house! I was very upset. I don't remember much of that time in my life. My mother told me that I spent a lot of time as a child being in these psychiatric centers, I can't remember it at all.
[After the diagnosis], I was still at school, nothing much changed. At the time, my school didn't have the ability or knowledge or people to cope with an autistic person. They put me with a support worker, but I don't believe the worker was up to speed and knowledgeable.
AA16: When did you begin singing? Did you always have a sense that singing was a special gift of yours?
SJ: I first started singing at about the age of 11 or 12. It was a silly thing—I was on holiday with my parents, and my mother thought it would be fun to take me along to a karaoke night. She threw me up on stage and had me sing, “Mamma Mia” by Abba … I hate that song!
Really, I taught myself to sing with Celine Dion songs, starting with the Titanic classic “My Heart Will Go On.” Soon after that, I expressed that I wanted to be part of the school choir. I was playing the violin in the choir, and I expressed a want to sing to the music teacher, and he said, “What else can you do?” and had me continue playing the violin.
So I didn't really pick it up again until a couple years after, until the time when I was about 17 or 18—when I was recording a few tracks at home, just for fun. My mother heard them, subsequently burst into tears, and dragged me to a local recording studio, and that was that!
Singing changes my personality. Normally, I'm very withdrawn … I'm not very keen talking face-to-face with people, as are most people with Asperger's. Singing takes me from that, to being the life of the party. People have said that it brings out drastic changes in my personality.
AA16: At what point did you start to think, “I wonder if I could take this further … to sing in public, perhaps?”
SJ: When I was at the recording studio, it was there I met my vocal shooter, and I started doing shows with her and her other singing students, every three to four months, in a local establishment. In addition to that, she would take me to the clubs that she performed to, and that's where I got all my experience from.
AA16: Can you tell me a bit about the people who support your singing—your mom, your singing coach, and others? How did they help you develop your singing ability?
SJ: I once said that if it wasn't for my mother and my singing teacher, I wouldn't be doing it, that's all. It was my mother who originally pushed me into doing it, and my singing teacher nurtured it. Without that, I probably wouldn't have even thought of doing [“X-Factor”], so their support and pushing was invaluable. To walk down that path, which would usually be unheard of for someone like me …
AA16: What prompted you to take the big leap and audition for “X-Factor”?
SJ: As I said, I went to these clubs and I was doing these shows with my teacher, and people would come up to me and say, “You've got a really good voice, why don't you audition for shows like “Britain's Got Talent” or “X-Factor”? And I thought, “No thanks!” But this continued on for about a year, and we were getting pretty good work, we were getting pretty well-known for being a talented group. People kept telling me I was good; it just kept coming and coming, and I thought one day, why don't I just give it a shot?
I first auditioned for “Britain's Got Talent,” and didn't get through that. I wasn't so much nervous for “Britain's Got Talent,” though, because of the way it's set up. [By contrast], the first “X-Factor” audition, they pack you in … standing in queue with thousands of people for hours, you stand around like an idiot … that was probably the worst part about it.
AA16: How did you choose the music that you performed on the show?
SJ: The “X-Factor” audition song that I sang in the first few stages was Journey's “Don't Stop Believing.” After that, I switched; in fact, I was forced to switch. They turned round and said, “We like you singing this song, but we feel the British public won't know what it is. Do you have anything else?” And I said, “'You Raise Me Up." It's the one I sang at clubs for a year or so, so I had a little bit of practice.”
AA16: What was the best part of the “X-Factor” experience for you? The most challenging?
SJ: The initial audition was somewhat private; you sang behind a screen. But the later audition ... one of the best parts was going into the actual televised stages. Standing in front of the judges, Simon Cowell, etc. … the support from the crowd was fantastic. I could hear people saying, “Go on Scott!” Such messages of support—the clapping, the standing up half way through, when usually people wait until the end to stand—it was a fantastic experience.That was probably the best bit.
Going through to boot camp, though … boot camp was a really huge challenge. They put auditionees in groups, and I don't work well in groups. Having to work with two other people was a huge challenge; specifically, having to sing a Katy Perry song. It was, “Hot N Cold”. [Sings] “You're hot then you're cold, you're yes then you're no”—no thanks! After I sang that I thought, “That's it.” I couldn't do it very well, because it was a Katy Perry song.
Simon Cowell asked me, “Did you choose that song?” And I said, “No.” [He asked], “Were you comfortable with that song?” And I said, “No.” I had to be honest. At the end of the day I wasn't really comfortable, but it was either do that or go home so I did it, and he put me through on the strength of that.
At boot camp we were up at 7:00 a.m. and in bed at 2:00 a.m. You were filmed all the time, rehearsing all the time, under the lights—and those lights were really hot! I'm not used to this, I thought, I'll get a suntan at this rate! It's not as glamorous as it looks on TV; people don't understand the blood, sweat and tears they wring from the contestants.
It was the final [“X-Factor”] stage that I was in, going in to the final performance before the judges stage. I remember it very clearly. It was raining, so they were making alternate plans. They were forced to relocate us to this small area, this tunnel. I was in there, and it was filled with screaming, shouting, crying, rehearsing people, and it was too much for me. I had a panic attack basically. I asked to leave the tunnel, and my performance wasn't long after, and I was a bit jittery. They said, basically, you either sing or you don't, but if you don't you go home. So I ended up singing and completely floffing it and being booted off the day after.
But, at least in the UK, it raised a lot of [autism] awareness; I was very thankful for that at least. It was worth it; the people I met through it. Bloody, sweaty, full of tears, but a fantastic experience.
AA16: What's been your experience of the media attention that's come with your “X-Factor” appearances? Has it changed your life in a significant way?
SJ: At the time and for a period after, we got a lot of press attention—before the show even aired, my appearance had been leaked in a London newspaper, and we ended up with cars on either side of the house, people sending letters, and I thought, “What is this?!”
The press attention was fantastic, I loved every second, though [initially] I couldn't speak, because I was bound by the “X-Factor” not to talk. I met loads of new people and loads of new friends, people who worked with autism, met someone who asked me to sing a song that she'd written, an autism awareness song called, “Through My Eyes”. We released it in 2011. It did really well. It was a charity single, played on TV and radio, downloaded and bought worldwide. It raised quite a bit of money as well.
AA16: What are you up to nowadays? Are you still singing?
SJ: I do sing now and again, but I'm starting university courses here, so I'll have to cut that down a bit. I've done a good bit of charity work, Help for Heroes, cancer research, autism support and charities. I don't really enjoy doing professional work, I don't really get much out of it. I get a sense of accomplishment out of [charity work], knowing that what you're doing is helping people. The past three years have been a fantastic experience. The people I've met, and the people I've gotten to help.
In university, I'll be studying computing and IT. It's nice to have a fall back in computing. Because I was housebound as a teenager, computing and gaming was my first love.
AA16: What are some of your hopes and dreams for the future?
SJ: Well, I hate you for this one! To be honest, I haven't really thought too much about it. I'd like to continue doing charity work, helping autism support groups, raising awareness. [I'd like to] finish university, and I'd love to do more work in autism.
I recently mentored a university teen from Australia, making a video game based around the autistic spectrum, called “Aspergion.” It's a world based on me, what I wanted to see in a world. It looks really awesome, and the whole point is to help people understand about autism, and also for autistic people.
AA16: If you had to give young adults on the autism spectrum one piece of advice or encouragement, what would it be?
SJ: As a kid, I spent a lot of my time hiding away from people, from the children at school who attacked me. They drove me to a point where I wouldn't leave my house for seven years. It caused me a lot of physical and mental trauma. So I'd say, “If you're being bullied, tell someone.”
And my advice would be, “Don't waste what you've got. Don't hide away from life. You may be different to those around you, but that difference is what makes you special. Everyone out there has something to give, so give it!”