The Steph Factor

Stars of the Future winners Tammy Wilcockson and Lee Lambert
Stars of the Future winners Tammy Wilcockson and Lee Lambert

SHE’S been called, depending on your generation, the female Hughie Green or Simon Cowell.

For the X-Factor, read the Steph Factor, the Sheffield woman who has auditioned more than 1,000 acts in the last decade.

Club songstress Stephanie King

Club songstress Stephanie King

The best find themselves in the heats of her annual Stars of the Future talent contest. They may not end up on the telly – yet – but the winners of this year’s final got a gig as special guests at a Christmas show last Tuesday at Crookes Social Club.

“Why do I do it?” asks Stephanie King from behind a desk in a subterranean room at the CeeBee Varieties agency on Queen’s Road, Sheffield. She started out in it as a hot talent with the agency 25 years ago and now she’s a director with Keith Chapman.

“I love singing and it’s an extension of what I do. And I am a massive kids’ fan. Before this I helped out at school teaching slow learners. Stars was created to combine both my passions, music and children.”

Steph, a feisty blonde and mother or two from Ridgeway, has had her successes.

Five years ago 11-year-old Lee Lambert turned up from Leeds (her catchment area runs from there to Nottingham and across to Hull) as “one big ball of personality”. In 2007 he won Brian Conley’s Let Me Entertain You.

Then there is Catherine Cooper, the SOTF 2009 winner, then a shy 14-year-old “who wouldn’t speak but loved to sing”, who is now lighting up the clubs.

Alongside the annual talent contest is the Stephanie King Stage Academy, where she grooms her young charges in stagecraft, personality and the perils of the business.

Stephanie has attracted the approving attentions of the Stage newspaper which knows only too well this is “a business where the wrong kind of people often surround precocious young talent like flies around a jam pot”.

Stephanie is also worried that Britain is currently afflicted by the wrong kind of talent show, where a youngster’s experience “can be quite devastating if done the wrong way”.

Her own experience of talent shows started early, when her parents entered her as a four-year-old singer while holidaying at the Maid Marion holiday camp at Chapel St Leonards. She won her heat.

“I was invited back for the final at the end of September and my parents got a free holiday. It happened every year until I was 16. We got 12 free holidays! I lived for that competition. Right after the final I’d be down to the shop for the sheet music for next year’s song.”

Others were equally impressed. She was the first to be auditioned by Uncle Bernie and Auntie Janet in the Junior Star talent contest at the Victoria Hall. “They said ‘We’ll use you as our yardstick.’ I thought what’s a yardstick?”

When parents bring their young talent along it can often be a relief for both parties. “The parents make new friends and the kids who have talent realise they are not in a minority. Sometimes they’ve been picked on at school.”

Stephanie can speak from experience. Her early success earned her a story in The Star and a beating up in the toilets at Hurlfield School. So how does she teach children to avoid that?

“Keep your mouth shut, don’t boast and just get on with it and do what you love to do.”

While she is a mentor to today’s showbiz hopefuls, there wasn’t really anyone to do it for her. Only 14, she became a vocalist for the local band The Mirror Cracked in the Eighties, supporting Martha Reeves and the Vandellas at Dingwalls in 1983.

Then she took to the clubs, winning the best female vocalist award in 1995 and again in 2005, plus one for her SOTF stage show the following year, as best all-round entertainment.

Stephanie is a kind but firm taskmaster with her young charges. Just as she won’t deal with pushy parents, she won’t put up with bolshy kids.

“The parents look at me and ask how I can get them to behave when they won’t do it for them?”

She is old-fashioned and proud of it. It’s not just singing she teaches but manners – how to deal with the public, club bosses and fellow professionals.

The Stage newspaper noticed a certain resemblance between Marti Caine and Stephanie, whom it described as a “formidable entertainer... with big songs and witty chat”.

Actually the similarity goes further than Sheffield, showbiz and female. Both were struck down by Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

It killed Marti. “I didn’t take any time off for it. The kids cured me. When you have children around, there is so much positive energy, “ she says.

A couple of female acts wander into the office, beneath Queen’s Social Club, along with showbusiness columnist Howard Copley. “These kids go into a tube at one end, some horrors, and come out the other end absolutely fabulous” he says of Stephanie’s charges.

Showbusiness is a family affair. Children Rosie, aged 15, and Charlie, aged 12 – “both better singers than I was” – are in her stage show. Her husband Gary, a plumber, is her sound engineer.

Stars of the Future began in 2002, a year before the X Factor, she likes to point out. One year she had a run-in with Simon Cowell, when voice coach to Abby Rowan, another of her winners. Cowell asked to meet Stephanie and complained Abby sounded “too cabaretish.” Stephanie answered him back.

“He just looked and said ‘You worry me’.” Abby got down to the last 48 on Boot Camp but not the telly.

Stars of the Future has only just come back after a one-year lay-off. She’d thought there were too many talent shows and wanted to give it a rest but was persuaded to do it again.

Naturally, she is enthusiastic about this year’s winners, Kyle Tomlinson, aged 10, from Shiregreen, in the under-16s and Alfie Ryan, a 27-year-old immigration officer from Sheffield who sounds “like a laid-back Matt Monro.”

“We signed him up straight away,” says Keith.

Alfie is not his real name. He was christened it by Stephanie after her pet black Labrador who snuggles down by her desk. The dog has also been on stage – in a sparkly collar.

After the new year, Stephanie and Keith will start planning Future for 2012. They don’t even charge an entry fee and try to defray costs by sponsorship.

“Some people look at me and say ‘I bet she’s earning a fortune’. I’m not. Every penny I earn is ploughed back into the kids. We all have a responsibility for the next generation and this is the only way I know how to do it,” says Stephanie.