By Rebecca Hardy

Clockwise from above left: Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jesy Nelson and Perrie Edwards

Three months ago, the four girls in Little Mix had no idea each other existed. But thanks to X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos’s canny intuition, Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock andJesy Nelson became the show’s surprise package.

In what has surely been the best call of the series, she plucked them from the hundreds of tearful also-rans at the auditions stage to turn them into the competition’s best girl group ever, and they haven’t looked back since.

They’ve barely had time to draw breath either. So much so that there are days they have struggled to cope. Today, Perrie is ‘sick as a dog’ with a cold, while her bandmates Jade and Leigh-Anne are exhausted. In fact, only the irrepressible Jesy – yes, that’s right, the one who was horribly bullied on Twitter for her weight – is firing on all cylinders.

‘I’m loving every minute of this,’ she says, ‘Did you know I’ve only just started singing?’ Er, no, and it comes as something of a surprise given that X Factor is a singing competition. She giggles. All the girls giggle a lot. They yawn a lot too. They were up until goodness knows what hour the night before we meet, still working, and deepvoiced Perrie in particular needs her sleep.

‘I’m right lazy,’ she says. ‘I’ve loved every second of X Factor but I’m always the last one up, so it does get stressful.’ I’m sure. Earlier in the competition we saw the adorable Jesy in f loods of tears after a particularly nasty spat of cyber-bullying about her appearance. For the record, she’s a size 10-12, with the sort of dewy skin and va-va-voom most size zero models can only dream of.

‘Some of the things people said were just really nasty,’ she says, still clearly hurt. ‘I thought, “I’m

not a horrible person. They don’t even know me.” When I was younger I got bullied about the way I looked and I thought once I was older it would stop.

Living the dream: Little Mix with their mentor Tulisa on the show

‘I hated going to school, but didn’t know who to talk to about it. It knocked my confidence a lot. I always wanted to be a singer but didn’t think I was good enough so I danced instead. I only went on X Factor after a friend made me realise I had nothing to lose. And now I think, “Oh, I must be all right then.”

‘A lot of bullying goes on in schools and it’s not talked about enough. Since I mentioned it on the show, so many young girls have tweeted me saying they’re going through the same things.’ Jesy’s frank confession to 12 million viewers seems to have been something of a turning point for Little Mix.

When judge Louis Walsh told her live on-air not to pay any attention to people who were just jealous of her talent, it seemed to galvanise the girls and give them fresh confidence, so much so they went on to clearly prove themselves as the show’s most successful girl group. Indeed, Simon Cowell himself was said to be backing them. He recently claimed a new girl band is exactly what the music industry is missing right now.

‘Everything in pop music goes around in a circle,’ he said. ‘There isn’t a Spice Girls or a Destiny’s Child around now, so it’s time for a group like that again. As a record company person – forget the show for a minute – there’s a huge opportunity for a group of girls.’

Jade says, ‘He spoke to us when there were seven acts left. We were standing at the back and he said, “Don’t stand there like losers. Believe you can win. Don’t be afraid to be who you want to be.” This was my third attempt at X Factor and Simon’s the reason I kept coming back. When I didn’t get through before he came out and said to me, “Come back next year. Never give up.” Having Tulisa as a mentor has been great too. She’s like a big sister. She’s so supportive and fair.’

So what did Jade make of her mentor’s earlier criticisms of fellow contestant Misha B, who Tulisa accused of bullying. Fair or unfair? ‘There was truth in what she said, but it all got resolved,’ Jade says. ‘Things did get a little bit heated so we kept ourselves to ourselves a lot more as the show went on. We’d rather go out and sing well than spend the week arguing with everybody else.’

When we meet shortly before the semifinals, Little Mix are still favourites to win.

But what will actually happen is anybody’s guess. ‘It’s certainly emotional,’ says Perrie. ‘Words can’t describe the scary, sickly feeling on the results show. You’re performing with all that adrenaline and loving it on Saturday, and then on Sunday it’s like somebody’s died. But we feel so lucky to have been there.’

There’s a chorus of ‘Oh my Gods!’ when the girls see the glamorous dresses they’re about to pull on for our photoshoot. They’ve created their own edgy street style for the show, but jump at the chance to dress up for the cameras. ‘I feel like a princess,’ shrieks Jade, while Leigh-Anne begs, ‘Please can I keep mine for when I get married.’

Perrie has begun to perk up as the make-up artist works her wizardry. She’s particularly delighted her freckles are no longer on show. All the girls have something about themselves they’d change. Jesy would like to be skinnier. Jade wants to be curvier. ‘We all have insecurities, like every other girl,’ she says, ‘but being with each other gives us all confidence. We’ve just gelled so well.’

There does seem such a close bond between these girls. After being thrown together they discovered they had many similar life experiences. For a start, they all come from broken homes. Perrie says she ‘always wanted to be a singer but I never had the confidence to do it. I was always the one at school nobody fancied and I’ve only ever had one proper relationship.’ She says it was her mother, a hairdresser, who encouraged her.

Similarly, Jesy’s mother Jan, a policewoman, has been her biggest support . ‘I haven’t been in touch with my dad for years,’ she says. ‘I haven’t fallen out with him, I just don’t see him. But my mum’s amazing. She always said, “Do whatever you want to do but remember, it won’t come to you. You have to go and get it.” I remember standing in the X Factor queue with the thousands who’d been there from 6am. I was saying, “Please Mum. Let’s go home. I’m never going to get through.” She said, “We’re in the queue now. We’re doing it.” We all really look up to our mums.’

Jade, who like Perrie is from South Shields in Tyneside, had just achieved A grades in her three A-levels when she auditioned. ‘This isn’t about fame for me. I’ve just always wanted to sing. At school I was the swot who had rubbers thrown at her in class until I stood up in assembly and sang. There was this cheering and suddenly I began to be cool. I thought, “OK, so maybe I do have a talent.”

‘I won’t lie. This was a chance to help my family too. I’d like to get my mum and dad a better home, particularly my dad because he lives in a tiny flat since they separated.’ With so much of a fan base behind them, they’re certain to get signed up and stay together as the ‘well-gelled’ group they have become. ‘If all this was to end, we’d be gutted because we’re so close,’ Jade says.

The girls’ excitement is palpable. ‘It’s every girl’s dream, performing in front of millions every week,’ says Perrie. ‘We’ve been living the dream.’ They have, and long may it continue.

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