The keyword for the third season of “X Factor” is fun. You could tell from the flood of smiles and laughs in the opening montage, where we were re-introduced to boss Simon Cowell, sole returning judge Demi Lovato and newbies Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio.
Wednesday night’s season premiere also reminded us (or told us for the first time?) that “X Factor” has minted more stars than any other reality singing show in the world. Of course, the montage highlighted such British household names as Cher Lloyd, Leona Lewis, Olly Murs and, the biggest of all, One Direction.
But with the exception of last season’s third-place finishers Fifth Harmony, it was noticeably light on American finds, of which the American “Factor” has minted a grand total of zero so far.
With the focus on the talent, the one-hour kick-off was heavy on major talents, including a late blooming gospel belter and an inspiring teen mini-diva. It also quickly established that this year’s mix of judges is big on personality and easy chemistry.
First auditioner Carlito Olivero, the “Latino Chris Brown,” made nice right away with Rubio by speaking her language and doing a credible job on Rihanna’s “Stay.” Showing off a strong, supple falsetto, he earned the first unanimous vote of the evening.
Annoyingly adorkable couple Alex and Sierra won the crowd over with their unplugged acoustic folk take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” which also pleasantly surprised the panel. Even Cowell, who was sure at first that they were going to be corny, couldn’t help but smile at the duo, who Lovato said gave her the chills. “Not only are you talented but you’re so down-to Earth,” she said. “I believe in you guys, I believe in love. I’m a believer,” added Rubio.
A bit “peachy,” dawg
Unlike last season’s one-and-done judge Spears, it was clear Rubio and Rowland weren’t uncomfortable saying no to the lesser talents, which were mostly from the Over 25 and group category early on. And Cowell was in his lane again, cracking jokes about dogs howling, people screaming and airport noise blocking out bum notes in dismissing the duds.
He also wasn’t above tweaking Rubio when she said a singer was a bit “peachy,” dawg. “Could be a Spanish thing,” he joked of her accented take on former “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson’s go-to catchphrase. The fruit-flavored put-down became a running joke during the episode, a sign that this year’s panel can laugh with and at each other.
Later on, Rubio gave a resounding yes to a contestant in Spanish and Rowland concurred, in her own unique made-up Latin language, setting up what is clearly going to be a running gag about Paulina’s thick accent.
No more clouds
Orlando’s Lillie McCloud, 54, mother of three (and grandmother of seven!), came to win. Dressed in a skintight black vinyl catsuit, she took the show to church with a stirring rendition of CeCe Winans’ gospel anthem “Alabaster Box,” drawing a “wow” from Rowland, who silently sang along in awe. “That was unbelievable,” Rubio raved of the voice that reminded Lovato of the late, great Whitney Houston. Rowland asked, “Where you been? Where you been hiding?”
Rion blows them away
The night’s other inspiring story was from Rion Paige, 13, a Jacksonville singer with a congenital disorder that affects her hands. She brought tears to the crowd’s eyes with her powerful rendition of Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away.” Paige earned one of the night’s only other standing ovations as well as props from the panel for her determination.
“I think you’re literally extraordinary,” said Cowell, who recalled the first day he met Underwood and how he knew right away she was special. “And I’m going to say the same thing about you, Rion. I’m going to remember this audition for a long, long time. In every single way, Rion, you are a beautiful person.”
It was a promising start for the talent show that has had trouble gaining traction in the U.S. so far.