Rebecca Ferguson on her music industry nightmare: ‘I’m still locked into a contract for life’

'Simon Cowell has apologised for what happened to me': Rebecca Ferguson, photographed at Danesfield House Hotel in November 2023
'Simon Cowell has apologised for what happened to me': Rebecca Ferguson, photographed at Danesfield House Hotel in November 2023 - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

The article was originally published in December 2023.

Rebecca Ferguson still has the same softly spoken, sweet nature she had when she gingerly walked onto the X Factor audition stage in 2010. The Liverpudlian legal secretary and single mother was 23 when she unveiled her unique crushed-velvet vocals to the world – though was too nervous to lift her eyes from the floor during much of her performance of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. Even now, sitting in a Buckinghamshire hotel nursing a hot chocolate, she concludes the answer to every single question with a tentative “yeah”.

But the high-powered men who mistook this shyness for weakness have long since realised the error of their ways. Ferguson is – not unlike her voice and lyrics – equal parts vulnerability and defiance. She is about to release her fifth album, Heaven, Part II. It comes 12 years to the day since launching the first instalment, her double-platinum debut, which received a rapturous five-star review from the Telegraph.

Ferguson is also an accomplished songwriter, who insisted on co-authoring every track on her first record. Nothing in this article will match the succinct perfection of a verse in her new song, Found My Voice: “In this game of Simon Says / Anyone can be removed for even drawing breath / And the quiet was normalised / And it’s haunted me for years / I need to speak my mind / ‘Cause I won’t stay / I won’t stay silent / I won’t stay silent now…”

Rebecca Ferguson performing on The X Factor, October 2010
Rebecca Ferguson performing on The X Factor, October 2010 - Ken McKay/Talkback Thames/Shutterstock

She is referencing contestants being forced into contracts without independent legal advice and threats that they would be kicked off shows if they did not sign up to specific managers and accountants. She has said she was chased into a toilet in an attempt to persuade her to sign one contract and, she tells me, there is one to which she is “locked in for life”.

There is no £1 million recording deal for guessing which Simon she is talking about in the song. But her criticisms of the way she has been treated since coming second (ahead of One Direction) on Simon Cowell’s talent show are levelled at many people she vaguely refers to as “industry executives”.

Since taking to Twitter in 2021 to call out those who “blackmailed me, bullied me, robbed me”, she has become an influential campaigner against misogyny and coercion in the music industry. She gave evidence to Parliament, met then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, teamed up with Zelda Perkins, who broke her non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to expose Harvey Weinstein, and has been a driving force behind the formation of the Creative Industries Independent Standards Authority.

Since the 37-year-old put her head above the parapet, other contestants have followed. For example, Lucy Spraggan revealed in July that she received no “rehabilitation or ongoing mental health treatment” after she was raped by a hotel porter during the making of the show in 2012. Cowell and producers Fremantle apologised.

Ferguson holds my gaze throughout and gives direct and fluent answers. But when I ask if Cowell has contacted her, she displays a rare moment of hesitancy: “I’m, like, thinking of the NDAs I have and what I’m allowed to say. But I think there would be no problem in me saying this: Yes, I have had a direct apology for what has happened to me.” When I press, she clarifies that it came “not too long ago”, “from him personally” and “face to face”, and that he apologised for “not being across it and not stepping in sooner to protect me”.

She says she understands NDAs are needed to protect commercially sensitive information, such as patents. But, she told Parliament, “when it comes to how somebody has personally treated someone... they are using the British court system as a blackmail tool”. She tells me: “Too often NDAs are used to cover foul play, and from my understanding of the law they don’t stand where there’s been criminality.”

Ferguson – who has performed with Lionel Richie and Nile Rodgers – had spent years complaining behind the scenes but it was during the pandemic that she decided to raise many of her complaints on Twitter. The revelation came while watching her audition tape. “I felt sorrow for the girl I used to be. It was like, God, I just wanted to hug old me, and be like, wow, they really hurt you. And it broke me. I missed the innocence of that Rebecca that I’ll never get back. And that’s what made me go, right, I’m just calling yous all out now, I’ve had enough.”

Rebecca Ferguson, photographed at Danesfield House Hotel in November 2023
Rebecca Ferguson, photographed at Danesfield House Hotel in November 2023 - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

In her evidence to the Women and Equalities Commons Select Committee earlier this year, she said she was told she did not have time in her work schedule to have pre-cancerous cells removed and her consultant was “very concerned that six months had passed and he wasn’t getting any response from my team”.

“Staff were told to ignore calls from my children,” she said in her evidence to Parliament. “Security staff were told to infiltrate and purposefully ruin my romantic relationships.” Her second album – ironically titled Freedom – was “completely blocked internationally” in retribution for “disobeying orders”.

She claims she was “told by senior male executives that I was not allowed the day off” following a miscarriage, and that one “senior mogul” forced his way into her home and sat on her sofa talking to her child while she was in the shower. “When asked to leave he refused until I said I would call the police. I have crime reference numbers and correspondence to confirm.”

Rebecca Ferguson with Simon Cowell in 2010
Rebecca Ferguson with Simon Cowell in 2010 - Ken McKay/Shutterstock

Since then she has heard “disgusting” stories from other musicians and tells me: “One echoed mine. That was bad because they threatened to ruin her career and they did, and she’s very talented. There was another one that was pregnant by a producer, who raped her.”

Ferguson ultimately felt “quite suicidal”. She says that when other bosses got involved and said the perpetrators needed to leave her alone, she was told she would first need “to place two pages of advertisements in Music Week praising certain executives in the music industry, saying lovely amazing quotes about them. That is just pure abuse.”

It is easy to believe those “senior males” underestimated her because of her age, race, sex and class. “I think maybe they thought, working-class girl, come from nothing, she’s just going to be stupid, we can do what we want with her.”

However, she says: “I think before you go to war with someone, know their family history. I come from a long line of people who’ve been through terrible atrocities and come out and survived and I think that spirit doesn’t leave you. We’ve survived so much crap.” (Ferguson has previously spoken of being abandoned by her father as a child and being abused in a children’s home, aged eight.)

Ferguson, who had her heart set on becoming a human rights lawyer pre-X Factor, says her campaigning gives her more pride even than her music. The “beyond toxic” industry left her convinced this would be her final album. But having put it together independently, and now promoting it single-handedly – apart from the help of her husband, ex-cricketer and sports agent Jonny Hughes – she is reconsidering. “Although, I am spinning a lot of plates – as you can see,” she says as her nine-month-old cries from his pushchair.

Her real ambition, however, is “to save enough money, and I would like to adopt some children actually,” says the mother of four. “There’s a lot going on in the world – my long-term goal is just to try and help people.”

What would she say to that young Rebecca with, in her words, the “wide Bambi eyes”? “Ohhh. Don’t trust anyone. Manage your own business and finances. Sack them all!” she urges with a bitter laugh. “And I would just say, continue to be true to yourself – even if it does get you in hot water, yeah.”

Heaven, Part II is released on December 5. Rebecca Ferguson’s UK tour starts on May 17 2024; details here