Mary Jess
Mary-Jess Leaverland made world headlines for being the British student who won the Chinese version of X-Factor. She was voted the winner by an audience of 70 million who watched the programme, called 'I Want To Sing To The Stars.' The prize money was not the grand million pound record deal it is here in the UK, but a treasured trophy and the equivalent of £1,000. Unfortunately she was not able to accept the rest of the prize - to record a song written especially for her, because that would have required a working visa and as a student studying Chinese as part of a language degree, she only possessed a student visa.

She soared to victory singing Sarah Brightman's 'Time to Say Goodbye' and Mariah Carey's 'When You Believe', making them both her own; her voice sounding both pure and wise at the same time. It's an extraordinary voice. Mary-Jess comes from a long line of singers: her grandmother a semi-professional classical singer and her mother who sings in cover bands. Singing was always Mary-Jess' dream but feeling she needed to have an interesting alternative, she decided to study Chinese at the age of 12; her school offered it as an extracurricular course. "I was awful at French so I was surprised that Chinese was great fun. It caught my attention with all the different tones. Each word had its own tune. So in a way, my musical background helped. "

Mary-Jess is 21, has a delicate fresh-faced complexion, wisdom beyond her years, looks gorgeous, speaks fluent Chinese and is happy to demonstrate the different tones of Mandarin on demand, as she did when asked to sing live on BBC Breakfast TV, looking completely undaunted by the sudden storm of media attention. She had been studying music and Chinese at the University of Sheffield, a four-year course. In the second year, students go to China to study. She went to Nanjing. It was quite a culture shock. "The idea of spending a year somewhere different and somewhere so far away was daunting. The tutors didn't speak English to me. Turtles and frogs were on the menus in restaurants. I was living in student accommodation. Two squat toilets for 40 girls-even when you go out to somewhere swish and modern the toilets are squat with no doors. "

Now as if this wasn't scary enough, she heard about the competition and immediately wanted to enter. "First of all I went into a foreigner's only competition. I'd gone with a friend who was taking part in another TV show and walked past a studio where there was this guy singing with a 1950s style microphone. I got excited and asked how I could get on the show. I was introduced to the producer and had to sing for him on the spot. Two weeks later they called me but by that time I was properly ill with the flu. "They wanted me to come in straight away but I could hardly speak. I was gutted. I thought I'd lost my only chance but the next day, at the university, I saw a poster for an open mic night. I thought it wouldn't matter if I wasn't that great and I wouldn't have to go anywhere, but then I realised it was on TV and the same show I said I was too ill to do! "I felt it was like a higher power telling me, 'you're doing this.' So instead of thinking, 'I don't want to be croaky on Chinese TV', I thought, 'this might be the only opportunity to realise my dream, I should do it.'

The first producer had said there was no way they were going to let me sing with Chinese people, but that's how it ended up. "Mary-Jess went in to sing against the winner of the foreigner's competition, she won that, and was called back to the next stage. . And through various heats she sang a variety of different songs to show the different colours and ranges of her voice. The show goes on over 2½ weeks and you have to sing every day. "There were no mentors, no singing teachers, you were on your own but for the Chinese stylist who always wanted to curl my hair and make me look a bit whiter. Chinese people love white skin and see the West as exotic. Maybe that worked for me, although, I really thought they would want a Chinese person to win.

I couldn't believe it when it was me. "Mary-Jess doesn't take anything for granted. She did not grow up with a sense of entitlement. Yet she does have incredible determination and a core of self-esteem. She comes from a background where the women in her family are strong and super capable. Her mother, as well as singing in a cover band, is a seamstress and leather worker; probably the only person in the world who has made a ball gown and a couch in the same day. "My parents split when I was two, so she's been a single parent for 18 years. I didn't see much of my father growing up and we've only recently made contact again ... And my younger sister, Sheriden, is now working as his apprentice - he's a carpenter.

"My grandmother was a florist and a hairdresser as well as a singer because she always believed in having second strings to a bow, which is why I thought Chinese would be a good business option. She passed away when I was 13 but she was a remarkable woman. She was only in her early fifties and it was her third bout of cancer. Her twin sister had it first, and then she got it. They both recovered, and then her twin got it again and passed away. By the third time she had cancer, it had affected her throat so badly she couldn't sing anymore so she started to learn the viola because she wanted still to play a musical instrument. "

It was her grandmother who got her singing started with typical determination and flare. "She got me an audition at the youth choir of Gloucester Cathedral. They were looking for people eleven and above and I was nine. She said she wanted me to have the experience of the audition and not to worry if I didn't get in. But they wanted me! So I got free singing lessons. I think I've inherited my grandmother's determination, the idea that you should be extremely positive and not let anything stop you". "I have a treble clef necklace, which reminds me of my grandmother and all the things we might have been doing together. "That's why Mary-Jess' voice seems to reach so high, as if it's trying to touch her.

The songs on the album are all a swirl of emotions. They seem familiar, catchy, yet at the same time exotic and beautiful. The album was recorded in China. "We recorded there with Chinese instruments; a Chinese flute, and a Mongolian horse-hair fiddle which is played like a cello and has the same timbre as a fiddle. We wanted to get native players, they all sound brilliant. We had great Chinese war drums to make it more filmic and epic and a Chinese harp. You pluck it and push it down to bend the note.

After winning the competition Mary-Jess decided not to go back to her studies at the Chinese university but went back just to collect her belongings with her boyfriend, who is a world class rollerblader, and had been invited to compete at the Asian X games. They first met at Silverstone race track when he was doing a demo for Team Extreme and she was working at an after school job in a rock climbing centre. "They had a mobile climbing wall. I remember thinking I wasn't going to go that day and Richard wasn't going either, but somehow we both ended up there. "Once again she felt a higher force governing her destiny. She was used to a long distance relationship as she lived in Gloucester, then Sheffield and he lived in Glastonbury and trained in Birmingham.

"It made it easier to get used to the separation that we had been through that before. "Feeling homesick or lovesick was not the reason she didn't complete her course in China. "I never suspected the huge media storm that would happen after I won the competition. It was a whirlwind. I know people use that expression but I don't think you really know what it is until you've had that. "She felt that force of nature sweeping her towards her dream. "I never wanted anything my whole life but to be a recording artist. The only reason I took Chinese was because the music business is fickle and I wanted a plan B. But, incredibly, my plan B lead to plan A."