Over lunch in a deserted hotel restaurant, on a crisp spring day in central Scotland, Gamu Nhengu is reflecting on the rejection fiasco that never was and the deportation drama that shouldn’t have been. Yes, the singer was controversially kicked off the 2010 run of The X Factor, judge Cheryl Cole preferring to retain the less obviously talented Cher Lloyd and Katie Waissel. And for sure, the viewing public voted with their thumbs, tweeting and texting their support for the Zimbabwean-born, Scottish-raised, big-voiced, wide-eyed, tremble-lipped 18-year-old. Within days, 250,000 supporters had signed up to a Facebook group campaigning for her reinstatement.
But no, Nhengu shrugs now, failing to progress to the finals of the talent show was far from the end of her world. Armed with five Highers and a plan to study philosophy and English literature, she had only applied to The X Factor to try to raise the money for tuition fees at Edinburgh University. Plus, she would have been too shy, too private, to survive the Simon Cowell bear-pit much longer. “I thought I was going to get a little bit of attention. I didn’t really think it was gonna go that far,” says the petite 21-year-old.
If she had appeared, no matter how briefly, on TV, she could start gigging. “And I could be paid a bit more than what I would be paid if I was a randomer just wanting to sing in the pub to save up for my tuition fees – because they were a lot, and mum’s a single parent, and there’s no way I would have just felt OK saying, ‘Mum, I’m going to Edinburgh Uni, that’s 25 grand a year’.”
In any case, her mother had never been overly impressed with her only daughter’s musical dreams. In her mum’s opinion, says Nhengu with a laugh, “No respectable person who is bright becomes a musician. You only become a musician if you’re a bum or if you’re just really stupid.”
Nhengu leaving The X Factor also seemed set to precipitate another departure. During her run on the show, it emerged that she faced being sent back to Zimbabwe. That August, her mother’s request for a renewal of her visa had been declined, despite the family of four (Nhengu has two brothers) having been resident in the UK for five years. Accusations of benefit fraud would be lobbed at the family, only – eventually – to be struck down in minutes in court.
Despite the very harrowing and very human backdrop, the “deportation storm” over the “illegal immigrants” only amplified the drama of this latest reality-show stushie. Viewed through the wobble-vision of Saturday night TV, Gamu-gate warped the Cowell circus into unfair-funfair, with frightened rabbit Nhengu at the centre.
In her adopted home village, Tillicoultry, the locals showed their support. Hundreds turned up to protest her deportation, chanting her name and snapping their cameraphones. An X Factor producer moved into the family home to counsel Nhengu and her mother and control the press, while knocks on the front door were answered by a burly security man.
It would take more than a year and much legal to-ing and fro-ing for the issue to be resolved in the family’s favour. But 30 months on from those 15 minutes of reality show agit-fame, Nhengu downplays the trauma. “Well,” she reflects, forking through a Caesar salad, “it wasn’t really…” She stops. “What was portrayed was not really what was happening. It was definitely made to sound so much more harrowing and deceptive than it actually was.”
Who made it sound more harrowing and deceptive – The X Factor producers? “No, just how it was portrayed in the press. I am foreign and I do have a visa, and it needs renewal every couple of years. And it so happened that in the middle of the show our visa needed renewing. And that suddenly went into ‘illegal immigrant’ – which was not true.”
But those challenges were a long time ago. In 2013, Nhengu faces what is perhaps an even mightier struggle – to become a pop star under her own steam and with her own credibility. This month she releases her first single, the Motown-inspired bounce of Shake the Room. Her debut album, A Love Like This, released on Glasgow label GSound (‘G’ for Gorbals), follows this summer. When even The X Factor champs struggle to maintain careers (hello – and goodbye – Matt Cardle, who won in 2010), Nhengu is under no illusions. “If the album doesn’t do as amazingly as the team think it will do, it’s back to university for next year,” she says. “I already have the application sitting waiting.”
The Scottish hills that Nhengu now calls home didn’t initially appear so welcoming. For one thing, the Ochils were full of sheep. Coming from Zimbabwe, 13-year-old Nhengu had never seen sheep before.
Then there was the food. “It took a little bit of getting used to,” she remembers with a smile. “McDonald’s especially. Mum bought us burgers at the airport when we got in, because it was a long drive and the boys were hungry,” she says of her brothers, Milton and Mati, now 14 and 13 respectively. “But it tasted so weird, totally, totally different. But everything else was fine. I’ve tried vegetarian haggis, but I still haven’t had haggis haggis.”
The weather, too, wasn’t immediately embracing. It was December when the family arrived in Tillicoultry – a short drive from Stirling University, where her mum was studying nursing. “And it was freezing,” Nhengu says, almost shivering at the memory. “It was so cold. And the Scottish accent. My English was perfect, amazing – I spoke English as equally as I spoke Shona, my native language. So that was not a problem at all – it was just the Scottish accent. It took two weeks of going, ‘What?’”
She had grown up in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Her father, a diplomat who had been posted to Japan, died of cancer when she was three. Her mother’s job, in the import/export business, hit the skids in the economic chaos wrought by Robert Mugabe’s misrule. Nhengu remembers the “ridiculous” inflation, “when a loaf of bread becomes $5,000. It was a difficult time for everyone. Zimbabwe was once considered the bread-basket of Africa. That was the biggest industry – cotton, tobacco, general food produce… And that got the biggest hit.”
Sensing the writing was on the wall, and wanting to provide for her three children, Nhengu’s mother, Nokuthula Ngazana, decided to go to Scotland, where she had an aunt, to study. “It was a very difficult decision for her. And I remember while she was away I cried for two weeks straight, I missed her so much,” says Nhengu, who was only nine at the time.
“It was alien to not have your mum around. And my littlest brother was so young that when she came back to visit at Christmas he didn’t know who she was. That was hard for her. Even now she talks about it.”
Now she’s older, Nhengu can see that, for many reasons, her mum had no choice. She had remarried, but two years after Nhengu’s father died, her grandmother died, leaving Ngazana to look after her own school-age siblings. “As a kid, you don’t get to know much,” she reflects in an accent that is mostly Scottish but has the odd Americanised twang. “But I think it was a bit rocky between her and my stepdad. So it just seemed better for her to stay here, study, get a job as a nurse, then she would be able to save up, send us to school.”
Reunited with her mother after almost four years, Nhengu joined Alva Academy in the second year. Her intelligence and her singing voice quickly marked her out. As did her bright red braids. No, she laughs, it wasn’t about being African and proud. “I was just so experimental, until I was 18. When I was 16 I had short spiky hair and I used to wear colourful tights. And my mum was always like, ‘Can you not just wear something decent, please.’”
But racism, she insists, never entered the picture. “Everyone was so lovely. They found out I could sing so they just used me for every-thing.” She recalls happy times in the school choir and singing at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. “I was, like, the singer. I didn’t really have any bother – apart from the odd weird question. ‘Did you ride an elephant to school?’ ‘Did you have chocolate in Africa?’ Um, yeah, that’s where cocoa comes from.”
The warm welcome stood in stark contrast to what seemed like a concerted campaign by the Home Office to kick out the family. It accused Ngazana of wrongly claiming working tax credits, which the family denied. Local MSP Keith Brown took up their case, and at his urging the Scottish minister for culture and external affairs contacted home secretary Theresa May. “Since 2008,” wrote Fiona Hyslop, “Ms Ngazana has been working in Scotland on a Fresh Talent visa, a Home Office scheme which the Scottish Government has been keen to promote as a means of attracting and retaining individuals with valuable skills. As such, she has supported her family and contributed economically.
“As you will also no doubt be aware, Ms Ngazana’s daughter, Gamu Nhengu, has been participating in The X Factor television show. Gamu has demonstrated that she is a hugely talented singer, and potentially a great asset to Scotland’s cultural community.”
Finally, in November 2011, the Home Office lost its case and the family was allowed to remain in the UK. “When you’re in the media you’re an easy target,” Nhengu shrugs, clearly keen both to play down the episode and put it behind her. But still, her experience gives an inkling of the nightmarish tangles in which immigrants can become embroiled, regardless of their residency status. “If you’re foreign, anyone goes through things – you sign things, something’s not signed, it’s sent back, it needs to be fixed; things have changed, you need to do this now… It’s just the way that it is.”
Now, though, it’s all about music. She spent 15 months working on A Love Like This in Glasgow. It’s bright, soulful, 1960s-flavoured pop music. On radio, the extraordinary voice she showcased on her X Factor audition song, Walking On Sunshine, should take her far. In the flesh, her maturity and bright personality are equally refreshing.
What, though, if she had progressed in – or even won – The X Factor? She thinks for a second. “I would have been a character in a play, and I would have had to produce the music that the character would have done. You are put in a certain position – Cher was the attitude-y, swag, hip-hop one. And I was the vulnerable young pop one. Which is what I’m not. But I would have had to produce that music. I couldn’t have gone and done the Motown thing, or indie or rock. I wouldn’t have been doing what I wanted.
“It could have been a very interesting, fun ride,” she admits. “I would have learnt a lot, and it would have gone massive for two, three years. But doing this gives me the chance to do it a bit more slowly and get what I want from it, and maybe I’ll last a bit longer than three years.”
And if not, like she says, there’s always university in her adopted homeland. Does she feel Zimbabwean or Scottish? “A bit of both, definitely. I miss it here when I’m away.”
Nhengu smiles, looking out the windows at the snow-covered Ochils. “If I go to London and I come back and I see the hills, I’m like, ‘Phew, I’m home’. I feel like I’ve been moulded into who I am, who I knew I could always be, by Scotland. And I’m still being moulded here. But the basis of who I am is Zimbabwean. But I was a baby then. I’m growing into a woman now.”
So, Zimbabwean baby, Scottish woman? “Yeah,” she beams. “Yeah, I like that. That’s what I am.”
• Shake the Room is released on GSound Records today