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'Simon Cowell's like a Mafia boss - fall out of favour and you're doomed,' warns first X Factor winner Steve Brookstein (who now sings in coffee bars)

By Kathryn Knight

'This is it, it can't go wrong now': After Steve Brookstein won X Factor (above, pictured with Simon Cowell), a number one single and chart-topping album followed... but then nothing

Had history taken a different course, Steve Brookstein would have spent the evening of December 11, 2004 ­performing at Wembley Arena as a support act for Lionel Richie.

But that night instead saw him centre stage in a huge television studio nearby — being crowned winner of the first series of the X Factor.

A far bigger prize, you might think, and one that more than justified his decision to decline the overture from an internationally renowned singer.

After all, he had already committed ­himself to take part in the ITV series when the support request came to his agent.

But then, with six million phone votes and the might of the Simon Cowell music machine behind him, A-list celebrity status and multi-million pound record sales seemed a certainty. So to hell with Lionel.

As Brookstein puts it now: ‘I remember ­looking out into the audience after I won and thinking: “This is it, it can’t go wrong now. I’m going to make some great music, have a great career.” It was an amazing feeling.’

Except, of course, as we now know, he hadn’t made it — or not for very long anyway. After the inevitable number one winner’s single, a ­chart-topping album followed. But then... nothing.

Less than nine months after standing ­triumphant on that neon stage, Brookstein and Simon Cowell’s record company Syco quietly parted ways, never to be in contact again.

Today, six years on, Brookstein is still making music, but to much smaller audiences — more specifically, in the branches of coffee chain Caffé Nero, where he was pictured earlier this week playing to an audience of pretty much no one, at the very same time X Factor fever was once again sweeping the nation.

Certainly the days of being asked to be a ­support act for anyone, let alone Lionel Richie, seem ­lamentably far away — and make no ­mistake, Brookstein, now 42, is in no doubt who’s to blame.

That was then... Steve onstage at the Top Of The Pops Christmas party in 2004

... this is now: Brookstein performs in a Caffé Nero coffee bar last week (to a much smaller audience)

‘It’s amazing how many doors close when you part company with Cowell. It’s almost like leaving a mafia family,’ he says. ‘Simon Cowell has such an enormous ego, he believes that if he can’t make you a star, then no one will.

‘Because he’s so powerful, it’s virtually ­impossible to get any attention once he’s lost interest.

'When I look back on it all, I’ve no doubt I should have stuck with what I was doing before the X Factor — and I’d probably have been ­better off.’

Of course, some may detect more than a faint whiff of sour grapes in Brookstein’s ­comments. But, in the month that another male singer, Matt Cardle, has been crowned the ­winner of X Factor, Brookstein’s is certainly a cautionary tale.

For him, taking part in the show not only brought him little in the way of riches — for all the talk of a million pound recording deal, his earnings barely exceeded £100,000 — but also years of ridicule.

Little wonder that when he meet, he is quick to get in first with the self-deprecating ­comments. ‘I’ve let myself go a bit as you can see. Gone grey, need a shave, put on a bit of weight,’ he says.

And he has, although the once-trademark cheeky smile is still there. He arrives for our meeting with his wife of four years, Eileen Hunter, a pretty ­brunette who’s won acclaim as a jazz singer and who’s been at his side from the heady early days when he first auditioned for the show.

Taking part in the X Factor, he says, almost derailed that relationship, too. ‘Shortly after I won, I was told that it would be good publicity if we got engaged.

‘We weren’t anywhere near ­discussing that, but under pressure we agreed to do some stunt pictures looking in a jewellery shop window as a compromise.’

But, when he got there, the shop had got the engagement rings out and poured champagne. Steve and Eileen were engaged — ready or not.

Thankfully, the couple had their happy ending anyway, and now live with their two-year-old son Hamish in a three-bedroom semi-detached house in South London, while they continue to work on their music careers.

Has-bean: Steve, his hair now grey, performed at the coffee shop with his jazz-singer wife

It is, in fact, not a million miles from where Brookstein started. South London born and bred, he had carved out a reasonably respectable career in music before his decision in 2004 to audition for the first series.

He had supported soul singer Dionne Warwick on a UK tour, and had interest from a number of record companies, including a couple of labels who had flown him out to Los Angeles. Then, there was that ­invitation from Lionel’s ‘people’ — issued only weeks after he’d signed up for the X Factor.

‘It was a blow to say no, but I was committed to doing the show and at that time there was no reason to believe it would be anything other than an amazing platform,’ he says.

The public certainly seemed to love him, although Louis Walsh and ­Sharon Osbourne — both judges at the time — made their opposition clear, dubbing him a ‘pub singer’ and, in Sharon’s case, a ‘fake’.

No matter: on the big night he ­triumphed, although not, he says, as a result of Cowell’s mentoring. ‘He was pretty hands-off,’ he says. ‘He’d turn up on the day of the show, after you’d been rehearsing for a week, then ask you to do a different song or sing it differently. I appreciated he was a busy man, but it was irritating.’

On the night of the final, Simon’s ­mentoring allegedly took a bizarre turn. ‘About an hour before the show was going out live, I was summoned to Cowell’s dressing room where he was sitting with his former girlfriends Sinitta and Jackie St Clair,’ claims Brookstein.

‘They both came over and started flirting with me and stroking my face. To them it was a joke, but it made me uncomfortable. I said: “What are you doing?” Simon was just grinning, and said: “I thought you needed to relax”. It was really odd. I said “I don’t want this,” and walked out.’

What will the future hold? This year's X Factor winner, Matt Cardle, with Dannii Minogue and Cowell

Even the post-victory celebrations weren’t all they could have been, he says, and with the benefit of ­hindsight now seem rather symbolic. Offered only two tickets to the aftershow party, Brookstein elected instead to celebrate with his family and friends at a small local restaurant.

‘I had ten or 12 of them supporting me, so what was I going to do?’ he says. ‘So while everyone was ­celebrating in the studios, I was in a restaurant across the road.’

Nonetheless, optimism reigned at first. While Brookstein’s winner’s song was kept off the Christmas number one slot by Band Aid’s ­charity single, it got there in the New Year — although Brookstein made nothing from it.

‘Simon phoned me around ­December 27, after the Boxing day tsunami, and said: “Look, we’re going to go to number one, but it looks bad ­bumping a charity record off the top spot, so we’re going to give our ­proceeds to the tsunami appeal. How do you feel about that?” I actually was totally fine with it, but I ­remember Simon saying: “Don’t worry, Steve, we’ll look after you”.’

But the cracks were already ­forming. By early 2005, Cowell and ­Brookstein were locked in disagreement over the format of his forthcoming album.

‘Simon wanted it to be covers, I wanted a couple of my own tracks on it. But he wouldn’t even have a ­discussion. In one meeting, he just looked at me and said: “Listen. I know what I’m doing. Don’t argue.” And that was that.’

The album did go to number one, despite being released in June 2005 with no accompanying single and ­little in the way of publicity.

By ­contrast, G4, the all-male classical quartet who were runners-up in the competition and who were also signed to Cowell’s label, had already released a double-platinum selling album three months earlier.

‘Contractually, my album should have come out first — but that didn’t happen,’ says Brookstein. ‘To be honest, it was like Cowell had given up on me before we even started. There was no real plan.

‘When I’d released the album, I had nothing else going on — no gigs, appearances; nothing. I was sitting at home doing nothing. It was really frustrating.’

And the writing, it seemed, was on the wall. Shortly after his album was released, Brookstein and Eileen attended an industry party. ‘Simon was there and we had a chat,’ says Brookstein.

‘He said “You’re so lucky you didn’t enter this year — the standard’s so much better. Last year was a bit of a joke.” It was unnecessary. I’d just had a number one album.’

It was to be the last contact he ever had with Cowell. By the end of August, Brookstein was dropped from Syco with a severance offer of just £12,500. ‘I asked for £50,000 but that’s what they offered me,’ he says.

‘The next day, Simon was quoted everywhere saying I just couldn’t sell records. I felt ­completely done over. I emailed him asking him for an explanation, but I got a message back from his ­lawyers asking me not to contact him directly.’

Worse was to come: as Brookstein quickly discovered, Cowell’s door wasn’t the only one that had shut in his face.

Attempts to release a ­second album of his own material via a smaller record label were doomed due to his fading public profile. Less than a year after winning, he was performing at pub gigs — right back where he started.

‘Overnight I went from cheeky chappie to churlish failure,’ he says. ‘No one wanted to know.’

Of course, in showbusiness, you take your chances and the alchemy of success is tricky to define. Brookstein himself admits that he made errors of judgement, partly as a result of his anger.

‘I could have done a lot of things better. I can see that now. I should have taken more time before trying to release a second album and re-grouped a bit, it was all too rushed,’ he says.

‘But it was difficult at first. There was bitterness, of course, although more than that, I had this anger. I hate unfairness and I felt that I had been misrepresented.’

Certainly, he has struggled to achieve commercial success ever since, although he has continued to make a living from his music — ­playing the odd corporate gig here and pub there (he even made an appearance on the Portsmouth-­Bilbao ferry).

Which brings us, of course, to those Caffé Nero performances, part of a nationwide tour for which he isn’t even being paid — surely the final ignominy?

Brookstein is keen to offer another ­explanation, insisting the appearances are part of a tie-in to ­promote not only the release of his wife’s forthcoming jazz album, but also of their own ­single, a duet of the Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel single Don’t Give Up. (The title could scarcely be more apt).

‘We’ve agreed a deal in which they play our single every hour in all their shops nationwide over the next few months and we also get promoted on leaflets. It’s actually very effective,’ he insists.

‘We’re just trying to do things a bit differently and remain true to ourselves.’ Still, crooning in a coffee shop in a shopping centre is an awful long way from the bright lights and vast audiences of the X Factor — and is a timely lesson in the fleeting nature of modern celebrity. In ­fairness, Steve is sanguine.

‘People say it’s a comedown but I don’t see it that way,’ he says. ‘I’m used to doing pub gigs with one man and his dog, so I don’t worry about it. It doesn’t make you a worse singer if you’ve only got one man listening. I’m realistic.

‘I’m 42. I’m not going to be the next big thing — but I don’t really want that. I just want to make a good, honest living from being a recording artist.’

It’s little surprise that it has taken him years to be able to tune into the X Factor again. ‘For a long time, I couldn’t even bear the theme tune,’ he says wryly.

He did watch the latest series though, and has his own theories as to winner Matt Cardle’s fate.

‘The winning is irrelevant. From what I experienced, there’s actually little point voting because the only real winners are the ones that Simon’s record company actually wants to work with — which wasn’t me.

‘I should probably never have entered — but Matt’s got a great voice and seems like his own man so I hope he bucks the trend.

‘I wish him luck, because if Simon’s not 100 per cent behind him, he’s going to need it.’