Simon Cowell revelled in his title of Mr Nasty, building a media empire on the back of his biting reality TV comments, on shows such as Pop Idol, The X Factor and American Idol.

He and his music company Syco dominated the charts and the small screen for the best part of two decades, with the X Factor producing seven Christmas number ones between 2005 and 2014.

Cowell’s various televisual endeavours helped launch careers for the likes of Girls Aloud, One Direction and Kelly Clarkson but, much as with fellow TV juggernaut The Jeremy Kyle Show, recent years have seen a re-evaluation of what was a cultural phenomenon.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras referred to then contemporary reality TV shows as a modern day version of the Victorian freak show, where “we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multimillionaires”.

Even for those who weren’t simply dismissed with an eye-roll and a withering comment appearing on the X Factor could be a traumatic experience.

Scottish singer Storm Lee appeared in series seven and made it all the way to the live shows as part of the over-25s category.

Raised in what he describes as a “pretty grim” 1970s Edinburgh, he moved to New York at 18 to make a living as a session singer.

When he heard about X Factor he opted to return to Britain and chase his dream, but quickly found out all was not as it seemed.

Now living in Italy and using the name Storm di Scozia, he’s produced an opera, Ghost Singer: Genesis, based on his experiences on the singing show – with a villain inspired by Cowell.

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Explaining his decision to appear on the show, Storm says: “The truth of that is I did not do my research at all.

“First of all: I’ve never seen the show. Even to this day I’ve never watched a season of X Factor, so I wouldn’t have known what I was getting into.

“I just - really naively - thought it was a singing show for people who love to sing. American Idol, which I had worked on as a background singer, at 29 you’re a dinosaur and they cut you off.

“I remember hearing X Factor had no age limit, so I thought, ‘oh right it’ll be a little bit like American Idol’. Remember, I was living in America at the time where X Factor wasn’t on the telly.

“I was looking to come home, I was looking to be closer to my family since my dad was getting older.

HeraldScotland: Embargoed to 0001 Monday March 26..File photo dated 20/06/17 of Simon Cowell, whose entertainment company is to produce a new talent series, to be called The Greatest Dancer, for ITV's rival broadcaster - the BBC. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date:

“I actually thought, ‘what’s the most rock & roll thing you can do?’. I’d auditioned for every record company, every A&R person, I’d done everything I could do but by the time you’re in your mid-20s in the record business you’re a dinosaur, nobody will touch you.

“And if you sort of fall between chairs, so to speak, you’re rock & roll but you’re also really European. You might be gay but not gay enough – I was actually told once ‘you’re not gay enough’!

“When I did the X Factor I really thought – naively – ‘it’s a singing show, I expect it’ll be difficult, I expect it’ll be challenging’. I had no idea how traumatic and horrific it would be personally, emotionally and then, subsequently, totally destroying any career opportunities I would have had in the UK.

“It was just another audition, my dad always told me to keep knocking on the door, keep auditioning for things.

“I’d also read somewhere that Sting had said there would never be a real artist come out of X Factor, and I always thought ‘well, I’ve paid my dues. I’ve schlepped my guitar around in the snow in New York and Edinburgh, I’ve put my craft in and let’s see’. Of course, he was totally right.

“I had no concept of just how much Simon Cowell and X Factor f*****g HATES rock singers and rock music. Even though he claims to love David Bowie.

“That was the carrot they would dangle in front of me, ‘oh Simon loves David Bowie, he really thinks you’re like David Bowie. Play the game, don’t be a diva, don’t be difficult’.

“To me it was just another audition, and there was no age limit so that was intriguing to me because I thought maybe they were looking for older artists or mature artists.”

The film opens with Storm’s audition, in which Mr Cowell refuses to call him by his name – which he brands “stupid”.

The Herald did not receive a response for a request for comment from Mr Cowell.

The singer says: “What happens in these instances is by the time you get to the ‘judges’ – and I say judges in inverted commas because they’ve got zero qualifications, there’s not a singer among them who can carry a f*****g tune or would know who Joni Mitchell or Shirley Manson was.

“Before you come out the producers have wound you up backstage saying ‘you’re going to go out there, use the stage, you’re at Wembley, walk around’, they’re getting you amped up so when you go out and go to sing I thought ‘alright I’ll walk around’ then they shut me down, stopped the song and said ‘what are you doing? Why are you walking around?’.

“They also tell you that if the judges comment or criticise you, or interrupt you, don’t respond because your microphone will be off and you won’t be on camera, so don’t even think about it.

“So they’re basically saying you’ve got to stand there, be criticised, be ridiculed, be humiliated – ‘I’m not going to call you by your name because it’s a stupid name’.

“That was, by the way, only one of the many personal attacks I was on the receiving end of from him, on camera.

“Then when you go off the stage the camera is on you, they want you to react to this sadistic behaviour, the decimation of your character on telly, and then it just compounds it even further because everyone starts to fall in line with what his opinion is of you. So they all hate you too.

“I was told that on more than one occasion: ‘people hate you, nobody likes you’. So you’re thinking ‘what am I f*****g doing here?’ but you also keep thinking ‘play the game’, especially when you’re reading the paper and it’s saying in the paper ‘oh people don’t like you’.

“I was probably reading the wrong papers because when I went back to Scotland people were actually really lovely and really proud but when I was reading it in the paper it was always ‘he’s shit, people are hating him’.”

Storm is far from the only former contestant with horror stories to tell about the X Factor.

Welsh singer Zoe Alexander entered the show in 2012 and went viral after her furious reaction to being rejected by judges Louis Walsh, Gary Barlow, Tulisa and Nicole Scherzinger.

Eight years later though she took to social media to give her side of the story, insisting producers had instructed her to sing a P!nk song – something the judges criticised her for – and that the clip had been edited to make her reaction appear more extreme.

Former contestant Misha B claimed she had the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype forced on her when she entered the contest in 2011, while Rebecca Ferguson, runner-up in 2010, accused “two major people” in the music business of seeking to control her in the wake of her participation.

An X Factor spokesperson said: “The duty of care to our contestants is of the utmost importance to us and we take the welfare of everyone involved very seriously.

"We have robust measures in place to ensure contestants are supported including a dedicated welfare team made up of psychologists, doctors, welfare producers and independent legal and management advisors with no time limit on aftercare once the show has aired.

“These measures are always under constant review and are adaptable to reflect the unique requirements for each series.”

Storm says: “It starts at the top, when you’ve got the boss feeling it’s OK to bully you, verbally assault you, it trickles down.

“The producers are all terrified to lose their jobs and it was a very, very toxic environment. There are almost 100 people coming out now talking about their abuse and they didn’t get past one round – I went the whole f*****g way – then once you get booted off you’re just kicked onto the street with no aftercare.

“It was the new age of social media too, and it’s one thing to be humiliated and s**t on when you’re on the telly, it’s another thing when you’re on the train after the audition and people are watching it on their phones laughing at you; you go to the gym and they’re all laughing at you and pointing at you going ‘there’s that f*****g reject’.

“Now we talk about mental health a lot, which I’m glad about, but at the time I was experiencing it but also observing it in how they were abusing other artists – younger people who were emotionally fragile and especially the under-privileged like myself, or didn’t have close relationships with their family.

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“X Factor preys on people like that to exploit them, and the more fragile you are it’s more seductive for them because they know they can lock you in to a horrific contract.

“You don’t learn that until you’re in it, and by that point you can’t get out of it. You’ve signed your contract, they threaten to sue you, and at the same time they’re pushing you to leave so they can get the headline: ‘Storm Storms off X Factor/Storm in a Teacup’. They just want the f*****g headlines, they don’t have any care or concern.

“I’m an artist so I’m empathetic, I’m caring. I love singers and music so much that I thought ‘a lot of these kids are just being exploited so much, relentlessly’.

“It’s not just that you go on the telly, you have a s**t audition or whatever and you get booted off and go back to your job, maybe go start a band, or a record company up in Glasgow liked you or whatever. No. They systematically destroy you, abuse you, tar and feather you, humiliate you to a point where you’re spoiled goods for everybody.

“Of course you’ve got the occasional Harry Styles, but of course that’s all planned – they already know who they like, who they want to promote, who they want to work with. But how many singers must be attacked and exploited for that to happen?

“We talk about bullying charities and stuff yet we’ve had a bully sitting in our own living rooms for over 10 f*****g years - and we invite him in.

“There’s talk about bringing X Factor back and I want to make sure I’m speaking loud and clear for anyone who’s considering it – just do something else, don’t be humiliated.”

Following his experience on the show, Mr Lee made a living providing ghost vocals in Hollywood - having first taken on that role in 2004 - but returned to Scotland at the beginning of the pandemic to care for his father.

He explains: “I became probably the most successful ghost singer in LA for a short period of time from 2015 through maybe last year. I still get jobs now and then but I decided to move on from that and come out from behind the microphone – that’s why the movie’s called Ghost Singer: Genesis.

“My forte, or the reason my area of expertise was rock music. I was doing Meat Loaf, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi… all the giants of rock & roll. They phoned me in for Tommy & Pam to do the Motley Crue stuff.

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“I was Tom Cruise’s… we’ll say background singer, but ghost singer really, for the film Rock Of Ages where I sang two songs with Tom Cruise and then ended up singing another 16 on the film which I’m credited for.

“My dad wasn’t doing so well, and I thought ‘I’ll go and take care of my dad for a year’.

“I thought I was only going to be there for a few months to hang out with my dad then go back to America but it turns out he ended up dying and that entire experience, working with the nurses at the hospitals, the caregivers that were coming up to the flat to take care of him – I just really fell in love with Scotland again. I thought ‘Scotland is different now to how it was when I left’.

“So decided, ‘f**k it, I’m not going to go back to America I’m just going to stay in Edinburgh’. I started volunteering at a lot of senior citizens’ homes, I was singing jazz and Frank Sinatra songs.

“Then I decided with my partner to buy a wee farm, a tiny wee house in Southern Italy and just walk away from the business.

“The Will Smith slap at the Oscars last year, when I was watching that… I’ve sung at the Oscars, I’ve been on those stages and I thought: ‘do you know what? I am so f*****g over this’.

“I moved to Italy and I decided not to sing, I was so burned out and had so much grief over the death of my dad, I was grieving the loss of my career, I was grieving the bullying – when somebody dies it brings up grief in all different areas you never thought of.”

After some time to readjust though Storm began to write what would eventually become Ghost Singer: Genesis which tells the tale of Indigo Luna, who must protect the key of destiny from the evil Count Oscuro – played by Massimo McQueen and who appears in one scene behind a table marked “sing or die” – and save the life of a young boy.

He’s already exhibited the film at the Salerno International Film Festival, as well as festivals in Croatia and London, and hopes to be able to show it at the the Scottish International Short film festival in April.

HeraldScotland: Storm Di Scozia seen here accepting his 2 awards “ Best Music” & “Best Trailer” at the Apulia Web fest in Lecce, Italy sept 2022Storm Di Scozia seen here accepting his 2 awards “ Best Music” & “Best Trailer” at the Apulia Web fest in Lecce, Italy sept 2022 (Image: Storm Di Scozia)

The writer and director explains: “I would sit around writing stuff down and then the music just came out of me so clean, so free, so pure. Really the music is the script.

“I wanted to do a Scottish opera. I would love to see this on the stage with full arias and lots of under-privileged opera stars and give them a chance to sing some impossible music.

“My background is in burlesque, when I moved to New York as a teenager I fell in with the burlesque scene there so I knew how to put together a show for like £50 with some tape and high heels.

“I worked with a phenomenal cinematographer named Fabrizio Convertini, who gave it that Italian eye, we shot it all in Puglia and as I was developing it I started realising that this was so close to my own experience – being humiliated and exploited for no f*****g reason at all.

“There’s no reason that somebody would go in on you like that apart from they take some sort of pleasure from hurting people and shaming them. It’s not like you’re doing anything bad or you’re a horrible person, and that’s when I thought ‘imagine if the future of these shows where no singer worth their salt is ever going to sign up again, I don’t think’.

“You asked me why I did X Factor: truthfully I thought I had no option. Record companies are not interested, there are no other shows I could do – I think Jools Holland is the absolute best but if you’re unsigned and you’re not touring you’re not going to get any coverage.

“It all just fit perfectly and I’m a massive fan of Star Wars, Blade Runner, androids, AI and holograms.

“So I just wanted to create a character that is just so vile, so evil, so dark and so narcissistic and I think we did. I think it’s a terrifying character.

“When I was shooting it I was the character just to the right of Oscuro called Paura – which means fear – and I was in a black mask and when the actor started really going in on the wee boy, Francesco, who plays Indigo I remember turning to him and being like, ‘f*****g calm doon on the evil!’.

“I feel vindicated that our film has been so well-received, especially in Italy. We were in London a few days before I went to Salerno to premiere it down there and we had some of the other X Factor survivors, people that had been through that experience.

“When we finalised the film and we were able to screen it for the first time, I suppose it would be called reclaiming your narrative.

“That started to inspire other X Factor survivors, and that’s ultimately what I would love people to know: if you’ve been through any traumatising experience, especially if you’re an artist, you’ve got to turn it into art. You can’t just let it eat you inside, shut you down. You can’t let the bullies win.

“Then I started hearing that they really didn’t want people to see this film. I did an interview which they ultimately didn’t run and they were saying they’d asked Simon Cowell for comment and he didn’t want to comment, which made me think ‘yeah he wouldn’t want you to see this film’.

“Because he doesn’t want the wee boy to win.”