X Factor is a wildly popular British singing-competition reality show similar to American Idol. Unlike Idol, the show features contestants getting one-on-one mentoring and even house visits from the judges, who have more of a say in who makes it to the next round than Idol judges do. One of this year’s most popular contestants was an 18-year-old woman named Gamu Nhengu. Now living in Scotland, Nhengu’s family originally hailed from Zimbabwe.
In what must be a contender for ‘worst week ever,’ Nhengu was eliminated from the show and was then told that she and her family needed to leave the country or face deportation. Judge Cheryl Cole was reportedly told not to select Nhengu for a slot in the finals because her citizenship status was unclear.
Fans of the show have spoken out in support of Nhengu. One group is calling for viewers to boycott the show’s finale in protest of Nhengu’s exclusion, and police had to clear out supporters who were blocking the road in front of the apartment where Nhengu lives with her family.
While it’s not clear what’s going to happen to Nhengu next, her story has become front-page news in Britain, where immigration is often a hot topic. Her story also bears some interesting parallels to the 2006 film Children of Men, set in a dystopian world where infertility plagues the world and the globe’s youngest person is 18 years old. In the film’s Britain, anti-immigration laws are strict and the police force hundred of people into cages where they are beaten and humiliated. A young woman named Kee, an African immigrant, somehow becomes pregnant, and Clive Owen’s character is tasked with helping her escape England. I won’t spoil the movie for you if you haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say I hope that Gamu Nhengu’s story ends happily. Either way, it’s an example of how pop culture – often dismissed as fluffy and meaningless – can force larger conversations in the public sphere. Does Nhengu deserve citizenship more than another immigrant because she can sing well on television? Or is she simply using her available resources to call attention to the plight of her family and enlist people to help her? Either way, her story has become much more interesting than X Factor, and the stakes for winning are much higher.