When Jesy Nelson won The X Factor as a member of Little Mix in 2011, it was meant to be the best day of her life. Instead, it was the worst: her self-esteem was at an all-time low. “I wasn’t known as just one of the singers in Little Mix,” she tells us. “I was known as the fat, ugly one.” Winning a record deal barely mattered when she was constantly scrutinised for her appearance. “How have I just won The X Factor, and all I want to do is just go back to my normal life?”
In this documentary, Nelson revisits the comments she received about her looks and explains the extent of their impact on her, including body dysmorphia, extreme dieting, a spell of severe depression and a suicide attempt. Nelson, 28, is still unhappy with her appearance, cringing at old photographs and, on the set of a recent music video shoot, calling herself “a fat, ugly rat”. Her boyfriend says he never sees her without make-up. On Instagram, she posts a constant stream of flawless pictures and watches the likes roll in. “If I could have back my Jess as she was before, I’d change it like that,” her mum says bluntly, admitting she wishes her daughter had never been on X Factor at all. Band-mate Jade Thirlwall says, “We had to watch this amazing, funny girl become a broken doll.”
There are segments where Nelson meets with anti-bullying groups, body image experts and, in a particularly upsetting scene, the parents of a teenager who killed herself after being tormented for her looks. But this is not a wide-reaching or forensic look at modern beauty ideals, social media and what is often discriminatory hate speech. Instead, its power is as a personal story of insecurity and shame that will resonate with the thousands of teenage girls that look up to her – and many more, too.
This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace