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Proud Welshman Rhydian Roberts will tonight be singing to win the X-Factor and that all-important pounds 1m recording contract. So how's he feeling? Catherine Jones meets a quietly confident performer on the biggest night of his life

FOLLOWERS of Rhydian Roberts on the X-Factor know how much he wants to win - and we are about to discover if he will take the main prize of a precious pounds 1m recording contract.

Every week, come sequined jacket or sailor suit, the 24-year-old classically-trained singer has stepped out on stage and given it his best shot.

Tonight he will compete for the X-Factor crown against Scottish performer Leon and Same Difference, the brother and sister duo, Sean and Sarah Smith, who Rhydian describes as "cheesy and lovely".

He will duet with Welsh mezzo soprano Katherine Jenkins - a dream double act that should have a favourable impact on ITV's viewing figures, for the power of Rhydian's belted anthems have astounded and moved with as great a force as his ability to divide the nation.

Has it ever before been the case that a reality show contestant has split opinion to such an extent as Rhydian, a fluent Welsh-speaker whose family lives near Brecon in Mid Wales?

Guest singer Celine Dion said he was "in another league". Judge Sharon Osborne said he was "the most nauseating individual I've met in years" (though in the face of living proof of the cliche that talent will out, she has since changed her tune quite dramatically).

Head honcho Simon Cowell called him barking mad, "a world-class singer" and, last week, just happened to mention Rhydian Roberts would make a fantastic world ambassador for Britain. (This seems a prescient statement when you see the near Messianic support on the web messages from the likes of India, America, Spain, Canada...)

And Rhydian would make a fabulous representative, standing ramrod straight as he does on stage, waiting with a touching watchful diligence for the judges' verdict, after he has brought the house down with another amazing performance.

At the start, level-pegging web campaigns such as "Rhydian Roberts to Win" and "Vote Rhydian Off X-Factor" showed that mentor Dannii Minogue may have been on to something when she called him the "Marmite contestant" in the X-Factor. You can choose to love him or hate him but, tonight, there will be no middle ground.

In the show's final, the winner will take all - the recording contract (which, says Rhydian, is all he has ever wanted) and the guarantee of being at the top of the charts this Christmas.

As 24-year-old Rhydian braces himself for the final show, he knows much of Wales is behind him.

His pride in being Welsh - and pledging to serenade 600 workers at Cardiff's Zurich Insurance call centre after they backed him at the start of the contest - has won him many fans.

It has been love all the way from Wales with contributions on the BBC website speaking volumes about the admiration and affection he inspired from Welsh viewers.

One was "brought close to tears" after hearing him sing Myfanwy. Another said he had "impeccable manners, extremely handsome and a captivating voice - the whole package".

Ross, an autistic child whose message was posted by his mother said, "I think you are a real dude and a wicked singer." Anne from Swansea was "very tearful" listening to Somewhere. Lisa from Lancashire had this to say: "Rhydian, I don't know what you have done to me but you are on my mind all of the time."

Rhydian's determination to do his best is matched by a philosophical approach to the publicity, good and bad, he has attracted by appearing on the X-Factor - not a natural platform for a high baritone trained by leading teacher Paul Farrington.

"I wasn't prepared for the way I can be manipulated in the show but that's how it is," he says.

"The programme is a great platform and springboard for me but what has worried me is the bad exposure as people might think 'Who's this idiot?'

"I can stand my ground with the judges when I am talking to them - for about six seconds - but I'm not there to be a celebrity. I am there to perform."

Rhydian, who grew up near Sennybridge, didn't anticipate the way his family would be drawn into the fray - with tabloid newspapers pursuing them for stories and articles appearing which suggest the family lives in a pounds 700,000 house (which he says is not true).

"My parents are just the most warm, lovely supportive parents you could have and they fully support me. They gave me financial support to pursue what I wanted. They supported me through my music studies.

"It took them a while to come round to the idea of the X-Factor. They were a bit sceptical - I know why now! Who would want what has happened to happen to their child?

"I was already in the classical world as a baritone singer. People in the classical world look down their noses at the X-Factor but the reason behind applying was simple.

"I had graduated from university. I had got my First (class degree) for my parents. I always wanted to be a recording artist. I just wanted to be at the top of anything I do.

"At 24 in opera you won't be at the top as a baritone because your voice doesn't mature until you are 40 - I'll have to wait 20 years for that. It's like running a marathon - it takes a long time.

"The X-Factor might seem like a shot in the dark but I saw the successes that people like G4 and more contemporary singers like Russell Watson have had. I am putting myself first."

Rhydian seems too clear-headed and calm to allow unpleasantness to blur his focus on singing though he admits some of the judges' comments, notably from Sharon Osborne, have taken him aback. Her initial reactions were shockingly harsh and critical. Simon Cowell called Rhyd's rendition of You Raise Me Up one of the best versions he had ever heard and Louis Walsh was complimentary too.

"I have complete confidence in my talent. I trained for seven years. I'm not nervous because I am a performer. I am extremely confident but I wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardise the show when I'm in front of the panel.

"I have just stood my ground. There's no point taking the bait."

Of Simon Cowell he says, "We get on really well. He has that front he puts on for the telly, as does Louis, who is a little bit more the bad cop this year. He has that air of being an important man but, one-to-one, he's just an ordinary guy who says what he thinks."

For a while, thanks to Sharon, there was talk of his arrogance, which seems a little unfair - but perhaps typical in a nation that feels uneasy when the clearly talented are confident in their skills. (In the US, Rhydian would no doubt be lauded for his honest acknowledgement of his voice).

"I think at the start that's the way the show wanted to portray me, in this villainous role," he says graciously of the criticisms.

"They created me into someone I am totally not.

"Also I am completely different from the others on the show. I am classically trained and secure in my ability to do that. However if you want me to sing an R 'n' B song I wouldn't necessarily be so confident on stage.

"Maybe I just come across in interviews as being confident. I think it's all about communication with an audience. There's the talent of your voice, your stage presence, your ability to perform.

"With male voice choirs, we in Wales are brought up with that. I am so grateful to be able to use what I learnt from the Eisteddfodau. I think the Eisteddfod is a fantastic thing and we should be extremely proud of it. The Urdd Eisteddfod for young people... we should hold it close to our hearts.

"I have performed at the Eisteddfod on stage in front of 2,000 people. It's amazing to prepare for live performing, to give you that confidence. It's about being competitive and it's also about quality. I remember it was a huge deal to go to the stage at the Eisteddfod."

Of Sharon he says, "We get on really well off camera. When I saw what she had said, I thought it was quite incredible coming from the panel and I felt 'Well, thanks for that'.

"But she told me it was all telly and she's got a contract she has to follow, not that it's scripted. But she's eccentric - what do you expect living with Ozzy Osborne?

"I have now become friends with her daughter, Kelly, and I've seen that they are a really nice family, just a little bit bizarre. But that's the world of entertainment.

"But the things she said on the panel? She says weird things to try and stump me now because she can't slag me off anymore."

He describes Dannii, his mentor, as "very hands-on, really caring, a really good friend".

Rhydian - who is 25 next Valentine's Day - seems fairly philosophical about the attention, good and bad, he has attracted during his time on the X-Factor and takes compliments from Louis Walsh and Simon Cowell (who has taken to giving standing ovations after Rhydian's performances) in his stride.

"To be honest I do take it with a pinch of salt, not in a disrespectful way, but a standing ovation is a little bit overwhelming but it's nice to have positive comments from the likes of Louis and Simon."

He says he originally applied with the aim of bringing his style of singing to a wider audience.

"I just feel very, very lucky to be in this position and to have the opportunity to sing in my own voice. I still don't think I've shown what I have to offer."

As for the Marmite thing? "That was pretty strong. I don't want to be hated by anybody but I would like to be liked by many," says Rhydian, who attracted headlines suggesting he was threatening to quit the show because he felt his image was being manipulated.

To sing Go West he appeared on stage in a military uniform with 20 male dancers. For I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) he was in a sparkly black tuxedo jacket.

There are upsides to all this. He says sharing a smart house in Hampstead has been "okay" - he has a room with Leon, and Sean from Same Difference - and says it is not bitchy.

"We get on really well. The girls from Hope were really sweet to me. I wouldn't go on holiday with these people because none of us have much in common but they let me be myself. I am extremely meticulous. I have my routines - do my (signing) practice and gym routines."

Rhydian says it's also nice to be driven everywhere, get your hair done by someone like celebrity stylist Nicky Clarke, have a make-up artist on hand, get your teeth whitened, have your tea made for you and be offered manicures. ("Even the boys," he says of the latter, "though I think there probably is a line and that crosses it!")

This final week, in the run-up to the big night, the usual heavy schedule of publicity shots, choreography, costume fittings, has been ratcheted up several notches.

But Rhydian has gone with the flow.

"It's lovely. It's really easy to get carried away and become a bit full of yourself as some people in the house have done. But I am trying to stay true to myself."

Rhydian, a former head boy of Llandovery College, comes from a loving family who are supporting his reality show bid for stardom.

His mother, Angela, is the 56-year-old director of Crossroads Caring for Carers charity in Cardiff, and says there are no special preparations for the final, though it must be exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure.

"We'll bowl up there as we usually do every week," she says. "Rhydian has been so busy this week that we tend to leave messages on his mobile and he speaks to us when he can.

"We've had the home visits but, aside from that, he's been living in a bubble though we try to print out some of the website comments that show what support he has."

Known as "Mrs Rhydian" by X-Factor host Dermot O'Leary, she jumps up and down, screaming, wearing a T-shirt with her son's picture on it at every show - an endearingly enthusiastic turn that was honed hopping about on the touchlines of Pontypridd Rugby Club, for whom her father was the doctor.

"As Ponty supporters we are not renowned for being silent in our support," she says. "And I do love my son to bits. We are there as a family to offer support, not just to Rhydian but all the contestants."

Angela has also become used to contact with celebrities. On one occasion Jerry Springer (though she didn't know who he was) hugged her and after every show Dannii Minogue meets up with Rhydian's parents with an update on how their son is getting on.

"The journey through X-Factor has been very interesting and a very steep learning curve," says Angela who has learnt to deal with prying journalists, negative publicity and the nearby friendly cameraman who films her weekly support of her son.

"We were totally unprepared for it. We didn't know what a massive following X-Factor had. We've learnt an awful lot. Some things have hurt but we've put those behind us - they are feathers in the wind and blow away."

For the past three Mondays, she has played host to a film crew from the show, weekends are taken up with travelling to and from London to see Rhydian perform live and she has also been working for the charity which offers respite breaks and support services for family carers.

"It's been nice that people from the classical world have been so supportive and I've discovered all sorts of people watch the show. We've also become very friendly with the other parents and hope there will be a reunion of all of us when the live X-Factor show comes to Cardiff on March 11.

"Today it's back up to London, like we normally do. Nothing special.

"My husband's from a large family so we've been trying to make sure everyone has had a ticket over the past few weeks because we get an allocation. Rhydian staying in the show has meant just about everyone has been in the audience now."

Rhydian - who is focused on going out tonight to give his best (and winning) performance - is clearly grateful for the support of his family.

"We have always been a unit but I have become closer to my parents. I didn't really think how it would affect my family in so far as the Press getting hold of them and coming to the house.

"They have to take a lot. They are extremely proud. It's great to have them as a rock."

Rhydian has never used his family as an excuse for his bid for success.

"I find it a complete bore when watching TV shows to see all these stories people saying 'I am doing it for my mum or my granny because she is dying'. I am doing it for my mum but I am also doing it for myself."

He takes the view that X-Factor is a talent show and should be about talent and perhaps it is such honesty that has won him less favour from those who regard X-Factor as an opportunity to indulge in jingoistic schmaltz.

When spin-off show Xtra Factor paid a surprise visit home with Rhydian, they filmed his grandmother, Edna Lewis, 86, who lives in Lisvane, Cardiff, and his great aunt Lucy Barnes, 95, from Taffs Well.

"We had a home visit when they whisked me away to Wales," says Rhydian. "I went through the door. My parents, aunty... to see her break down in tears... it means the world to them. They have been pressing redial when it comes to voting! My great aunt needs to get herself an agent. She is just the queen of sound bites!"

He sees his parents for half-an-hour after the show for a quick hug and a chat and they give him his post.

Angela comes from Cardiff but lives in Trallong, near Sennybridge, with Rhydian's father, Malcolm, a self-employed electrical contractor.

Rhydian's brother, Gareth, 26, is a solicitor in London.

Singing has always been important to Rhydian who feels grateful to his school and parents for encouraging his passion.

He studied at Llandovery College where he was head boy and captain of the rugby and cricket teams and says they were his best years.

"I was there for seven years and it was an incredible part of my life. That's what's given me self confidence. The school gave me the opportunity to be an all-rounder. I was allowed to pursue my passions for rugby alongside learning more about singing."

He got four A-grades at A-level before getting a First in drama. He was then offered a scholarship to study vocal studies and opera at the Birmingham Conservatoire after the music academy heard him sing.

He spent a gap year in South Africa at St Albans College in Pretoria. "I was teaching sport to youngsters and helping out with the boarding side as deputy house master and general gofer. It was a great experience and allowed me to travel through southern Africa."

The plan then was to do a post-graduate course in London but Rhydian asked himself if he really wanted to continue studying, with his parents' support. Then X-Factor came along, and introduced Rhydian to a world away from classical opera.

On blogs he has variously been called "freaky albino" or a Max Headroom look-a-like.

His songs have included I Would Do Anything, Phantom of the Opera, Get the Party Started, You Raise Me Up, Go West and West Side Story's Somewhere - billed by some as a "glorious comeback" after the previous week's "lacklustre" performance.

In an online poll for "Who is the greatest Welsh singer?" the scores suggest Rhydian is a popular performer. (Rhydian 61%, James Dean Bradfield 16%, Tom Jones 11%, Shirley Bassey 8%, Bonnie Tyler 2%, Max Boyce 2% (Cerys Matthews who got 0%).

And now he has entered the world of popular music, his personal preferences are the stuff of trivia sound bites.

We know his nickname is Rhydler or Rhyd.

His biggest phobia is getting fat. He has a lucky pair of socks. He owns a cuddly toy called Tinkle Bear.

He jokes that he would describe himself as "good-looking, talented and modest" and declares the best thing that ever happened to him was "becoming a Christian".

He would love to sing the National Anthem at the Millennium Stadium before a rugby game. His claim to fame is that his grandfather was Tom Jones's doctor and he used to have pictures of Dannii Minogue hanging on his wall. (It also turns out that, in his younger days, he was the junior Welsh bench press champion, and fifth best in the UK.)

Celebrities he has a crush on? Why, Sharon Osborne, of course, as well as Keira Knightley. First song he bought? I'm Too Sexy by Right Said Fred.

Oh, and does he even like Marmite? "I think I'm in line for a sponsorship deal," he says drily, "so I better say I do like it. But it gives me mouth ulcers for some reason."

He has been described as polite and good-natured, and his patience with the costume choices suggests this is somewhere near the truth. Perhaps the antagonism was started as a reaction not simply to his powerful performances but also to his well-educated, well-spoken, persona and his unequivocal ambition.

Whereas the likes of Leon have suggested they miss going out with their friends at the weekend, Rhydian appears far more contained.

"I am very determined and focused. Although I have got friends I am not a big party animal. I know Leon has many friends with whom he goes out on weekends and he misses that. What I want to do is be the best I can be in singing and performing."

His singing has brought a tear to Dannii's eye but his moving stage presence also sparks the most inventive of blogging.

If Rhydian was a chocolate bar, asks one, which would he be and why? Not a Yorkie - too camp for that, says one respondent. A Double Decker - so many layers and different sides, says another. An older and taller Milky Bar kid, says someone else. Turkish Delight? They're disgusting, chips in another. A Milky Bar - eccentric and strangely tasty, extra more-ish and enjoyable. The list goes on.

His appearance has been likened to a cross between Eraserhead and Billy Idol.

One blogger said, "He sends chills through me when he sings and not in a good way. Ergh. He's sooo bloody vile and I didn't know the song he was singing either."

Perhaps Dannii Minogue got closer to the real Rhyd when she told More magazine, "Rhydian Roberts is very handsome in real life. He's great. He's perfectly well proportioned and a real gentleman, and I love that.

"People love to hate him but when they meet him they change their minds and say 'I love this guy'. He's cool."

Every week his parents receive a raft of e-mails from well-wishers.

"There's no internet in the house but I'd love to see the comments," says Rhydian. "It's really cut off, a bit like the Big Brother house." (His MySpace entries are written for him after he holds forth on a Dictaphone).

So Rhydian's seven years of vocal training have now led him to a position where he may take the popular opera road as travelled by Russell Watson and Il Divo.

He hopes that if he released an album the "whole of Wales would buy it" and says he wants to be the male equivalent of chart-topper Katherine Jenkins - "she is an inspiration to me. She's also Welsh and has amazing record sales.

"My ambition has always been to get a record contract, do an album in my own style, high baritone in English and Welsh. There are so many great songs and I would love to have the chance to write my own stuff."

His exposure to a more populist brand of music has its benefits.

"I have met so many people - Celine Dion, Girls Aloud, Amanda Holden, Jermaine Jackson - I had a cup of tea with him."

He also met David Walliams (the result being he will appear in Little Britain - "hopefully in a show with him, hopefully not as Daffyd's partner!") as well as Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman at the premiere of the film, The Golden Compass.

The winner's single has already been recorded.

It's called When You Believe, previously sung by Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

But, before then, he has to get through the final.

"It's just beginning," says Rhydian. "It's hard work. It brings huge rewards. To win the X-Factor would mean the world because that gives you a record

"It's tense. It's out of my control. I'm pretty confident and I can try. I think perhaps some of the big producers believe I might win.

"Nobody knows the percentage of the votes apart from one guy - the head of entertainment at ITV. There doesn't seem to be a clear favourite like last year with Leona Lewis."

Rhydian will soon be out of the shared Hampstead house, whatever happens.

"I tell you what I miss. I miss my gym back home and the Body Pump classes twice a week. I miss my own bed but this is my life. I am very good at adapting.

"I do miss Wales. It's so idyllic near Trallong, two miles from Sennybridge. I love it. What a great place to grow up in.

"I am, at heart, a country boy - although I have lived in cities like Pretoria and Birmingham and I am quite happy living in London, I do miss the beauty in Wales."

The X Factor final is on tonight from 7.10pm on ITV1 Wales
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 15, 2007
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