Perrie Edwards, Jesy Nelson, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirlwall were complete strangers to each other when they auditioned for the eighth season of The X Factor in 2011, each of them dreaming of solo stardom.
But the aspiring singers failed a bootcamp training them to be solo acts, and then also failed to impress as members of groups assembled by the production team – Leigh-Anne and Jade joined Orion, while Perrie and Jesy found themselves in Faux Pa. They were offered one more wildcard chance to progress, thanks to judge Kelly Rowland’s incredible foresight.
“We truly feel like the four of you could bring something very special to this competition,” Kelly told them on the show. “Do you think you guys could work together?”
This weekend, Little Mix will perform “The Last Show… For Now” at The O2, with the branding of the event keeping the door open for a reunion later down the line. The gig will close the chapter of eleven dazzling years of Little Mix, packed with consistent success: five No. 1 singles, sold out tours and three BRIT awards.
The Spice Girls – arguably the ultimate blueprint for a British girl group – burned like a supernova and started to come undone after just two years at the top. There were just 14 months between their 1996 debut album Spice and its follow up Spiceworld, and Geri Haliwell had left the group by May ‘98. The Spicey’s singular chemistry, loosely summed up by their famous “Girl Power!” slogan, saw them conquer the entire globe in a matter of months. Little Mix were never the same wildfire blaze, but they proved that a slow, controlled burn could be just as effective in building a long-lasting legacy.
Girl groups live and die by their interpersonal chemistry and, while Little Mix’s live performances on The X Factor showed great promise, it was the genuine bond they were forming behind the scenes that sincerely won over fans. Compilations of their “best bits” from this time capture them as silly, giggly teenagers, feeding themselves on cereal, talking to each other in terrible southern American accents and pulling harmless pranks like putting salt in Leigh-Anne’s tea. In more vulnerable moments, Jesy cries as she talks about reading comments on her body on social media and Jade curls into her, helping her to wipe tears without ruining her makeup. At the start of the series, Little Mix were the bookies’ favourite to be dumped off The X Factor in the first week. They became the first and only girl group to ever win it.
But winning The X Factor by no means guaranteed a fruitful career. It would have been easy for Little Mix to succumb to the pressures exerted on any girlband striving to exist in a male-dominated chart landscape. Instead, in the intervening period between their debut single proper, 2012’s No. 1 hit Wings, and their final performance at The O2 on May 14th 2022, the Little Mix brand has come to represent their unified work ethic. “We’re all from working-class backgrounds and this completely changed our life,” Jade told iNews in 2020. “We knew the way to get through it was to do it together.”
There were initial stumbles: efforts to give themselves shorthand identities like the Spice Girls (Perrie the flower child, Jade wearing bow ties) were ill-advised and the mixed reception to Salute, the difficult follow up to their first album DNA, was a case of maturing their sound and image faster than their audience could keep up with. The ’90s R&B influence and slightly edgier aesthetic of the Salute campaign was a marked difference from the brightly coloured bubblegum of DNA and, while the era was successful, there was a small sales drop off between the two records.
In reverting back to classic, major key pop for their triple platinum selling third album, Get Weird, they established an identity as funny, friendly, formidably talented women finessing their pure pop sound into a solid gold catalogue of hits – the living embodiment of girls’-toilets-on-a-night-out energy. Where the Spice Girls were pioneers, Destiny’s Child were phenomenal vocalists and dancers, Sugababes cultivated an air of aloof cool, Girls Aloud made the best music and the Pussycat Dolls traded on sex appeal, Little Mix presented as well balanced all-rounders. They sang beautifully, danced hard and co-wrote some of their songs.
It helped that, for the majority of their run, they seemingly had no desire to go solo. Despite any early misgivings they may have had about Kelly Rowland’s big idea (Jade in particular had dreaded the idea of joining a girl band, for fear that she wouldn’t fit in), once they had committed, they were all in. They understood the value in teamwork, the vocal advantage they had as a band (their acapella radio performances never failed to convert new fans) and the assurance there is to be found in the security of joining a pack.
Up until Jesy’s departure in 2020, they rarely, if ever, pursued solo projects and certainly not within music: they collaborated with other artists as a group, showed up to events together and interviewed as a team. Even when Sony ATV signed Leigh-Anne and Jade’s publishing rights in 2019, as they began to manoeuvre into position for solo launches, it was credited as a “Little Mix” signing, despite the fact they weren’t making the agreement with the whole band.
And right down to Leigh-Anne and Perrie’s synchronous pregnancies – the pair’s pregnancy announcements came within the same week and both gave birth in August 2021 – they certainly never let their personal lives interfere with their business. Perrie’s high profile 2013 engagement to and 2015 split from One Direction’s Zayn Malik primed her in the media to play out as a sort of Cheryl Cole-style distinguishing within the group, but they remained an impenetrable gang. Shout Out To My Ex, the lead single from their fourth album Glory Days, was the group’s tacit acknowledgement of the elephant in the room. It became their fourth No. 1 single.
The formula was a lucrative winner for nine years, until the pandemic-induced space and time to reflect led Jesy to exit the group at the end of 2020, citing mental health struggles. The rest of the band responded with a statement filled with characteristic love and support for Nelson’s decision, and an assurance to fans that they intended to see out their commitments, such as their postponed 28-date tour. The subsequent fallout from the launch of Jesy’s solo career the following October revealed that all had not been well behind the scenes prior to her exit. Yet the gracious and amiable front the two parties presented to the public when they first parted ways suggests that preserving the integrity of the legacy they had built together was still at the forefront of all their minds.
Certainly, as the remaining three girls have worked to wrap things up elegantly and leave on a high note, there is more of a sense of them putting an out of office on, rather than clearing out their desks. They have been keen to stress, in their final round of press, that they intend to co-ordinate their future solo releases – “we’re rooting for each other, not competing against each other,” Perrie told The Sun – and that they’re already planning for their comeback. Usually, when a pop band splits up, this kind of rhetoric proves to be fan soothing spin (One Direction, for instance, are still on “hiatus” seven years after their split), but given Little Mix’s managed approach to their careers so far, when they say it, it sounds believable.
And so, we move towards a new era of Little Mix: separate but united still, supporting each other as cheerleaders rather than teammates. Endings, with all the best intentions, are unpredictable, but Little Mix have spent eleven years watering the grass enough for their bond to be evergreen. Many girl groups that walked before them burned their gardens down eventually, and they could have fallen into the same trap. But if Little Mix have taught young women anything, it’s that it’s possible to buck any trend, if you work together.