by Jeff Hutter
Gamu Nhengu is a 19-year-old Zimbabwean-born Scottish resident who captivated millions in the U.K. a year ago when she appeared on the British version of the television program, The X Factor. After just her first audition, Facebook fan pages began popping up with odds makers already tapping her to win the competition, even though the live phase of the singing competition was still weeks away. The captivating and inspirational story, however, had a shocking conclusion that infuriated the nation.
While her name could have become synonymous in the U.K. with undeniable talent and triumph over adversity, mention of Nhengu now triggers discussion of reality television fixing conspiracies, immigration issues, and asylum-seekers.
After battling deportation orders from the U.K.’s Home Office (roughly comparable to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as it covers, among many functions, immigration control) for more than a year, courts overturned the decision this week. They granted Nhengu and her family visa renewals allowing them to stay in the U.K. The decision comes as a relief to the former contestant on The X Factor, but the circumstances surrounding her citizenship and participation in the show generated substantial controversy during the last 16 months.
Nhengu displayed undeniable talent in early auditions, but it was her unique history that touched viewers. During her second audition, she tearfully shared that her family fled Zimbabwe five years prior due to deteriorating conditions in the country and sought asylum in the U.K. When asked why she wanted to win the competition, she broke down in front of the judges before answering that she just wanted to give back to her mom for all that she has done. Nhengu’s talent coupled with her background produced an underdog storyline line only fiction writers can assemble and something to dream about for reality television producers. Then why, in a move that shocked the country, was Nhengu cut in the penultimate stage of the competition?
The X Factor judge and mentor, Cheryl Cole, cut Nhengu in favor of advancing another contestant to the live shows, despite the fact that she notoriously forgot lyrics during numerous performances. (For more background on Cole, please see: “Hitting a Sour Note: Cheryl Cole’s Accent Silenced on The X Factor.”) Immediately following Nhengu’s departure, hundreds of viewers filed complaints with Ofcom, the UK’s independent communications regulator, expressing their outrage and claiming that the results were orchestrated with the intent of increasing ratings. In the U.S., the 1960 Amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 prohibits producers of programs like The X Factor from altering the outcome, though it has been argued that the law’s language and terminology are too antiquated to be applicable today.
Viewers and journalists speculated that the soon-to-expire visa of Nhengu’s family prompted show producers to advise Cole to eliminate the Zimbabwean contestant so as to avoid complications during the live shows if she were to be deported. Regardless of the rationale for her dismissal, Nhengu expressed concern that if forced to return to Zimbabwe, her fame would expose her family to negative attention and danger. One would hope that such ramifications would weigh heavily in consideration for the visa renewal process.
But, let’s assume for a moment that producers of The X Factor did provoke Nhengu’s elimination to circumvent potential hang-ups later in the series. Is such a preemptive move morally corrupt? And does the alleged lack of transparency discredit the reality genre of which many are already skeptical? Surely, record and television executives could have intervened had visa issues developed later in the show? I’m not an expert on immigration law, but I imagine there must be some way the program’s Executive Producer Simon Cowell could have sponsored a work visa for her. (He did lend his lawyers to her family throughout the deportation battle.)
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Cole simply didn’t see star potential in Nhengu. It’s also not out of the question that Gamu-gate is just another example of an orchestrated stunt to increase ratings. It wouldn’t be the first time that a television network has commodified the asylum-seekers’ experience to create a provocative and controversial program that gets viewers talking. Dutch public broadcaster VPRO announced plans earlier this fall to launch a quiz show pitting rejected-asylum seekers against one another in a game of Dutch trivia. (Think of it as an Are You Smarter Than a Deportee take on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.)
(The photo of Gamu Nhengu is from her SoundCloud account and is used for promotional purposes. To see a video of her singing at Glasgow’s Praise Gathering in 2009, please check below. Also, check below for a track she has shared on SoundCloud.)