Reclining in the arms of her fiancee in a glamorous emerald gown, showing off their cute, matching side-shaved hairstyles, X Factor contestant Saara Aalto looks the picture of happiness in her OK! shoot this week.
The rising star reveals all about her engagement in the accompanying interview – including how her wife-to-be popped the question.
‘It was our two-year anniversary,’ she explains. ‘We got back home from a day at the spa and a nice meal. I washed off my make-up, put on my pyjamas and sat on the sofa.
‘[Meri] said: “Oh, we had a lovely day…” then “Will you marry me?” I was like, “You can’t do it when I look like this!”’
Clearly, Saara is a woman proud to be in a lesbian relationship. Indeed, she sometimes posts loved-up messages about Meri on social media. It’s amazing to see. It would’ve been unthinkable for someone in her position to be so casually out of the closet not so long ago.
So why hasn’t her sexuality been addressed on-screen? Is it a coincidence? Or is it by design?
Of course, there’s an argument that it doesn’t matter. The X Factor’s a singing show. And Saara’s epic talent speaks for itself. (Have you heard her version of Enough Is Enough?!).
Head judge Simon Cowell put it well when dismissing rumours around his own sexuality in 2014. ‘The question of whether someone is or is not gay is antiquated.’
I wish I agreed with him, but I don’t. Are we really at the stage where sexuality is so incidental? Where it’s so accepted that acknowledgment of it is by-the-by? I don’t think so.
Only a tiny number of contestants across The X Factor’s 13-year history have been open about their LGBTI identities while on the show.
Joe McElderry, for example, revealed he was gay in a newspaper interview months after winning in 2009. Meanwhile Will Young was smoked out after winning Pop Idol in 2002.
We’ve come a long way since then. Now we have Rylan, in all his fabulous turbo-charged camp glory, presenting The Xtra Factor. He’s even made on-screen jokes with Simon about gay sex.
But let’s not overstate it. We’re still massively under-represented on TV, and in popular culture. Especially lesbians and bisexuals. Therefore, Saara’s screen-time deserves scrutiny.
Perhaps there’s nothing in it. Indeed, an X Factor source has told us: ‘Saara is totally comfortable with her sexuality and has been very open about it in interviews and on social media but it isn’t a defining factor for her in The X Factor.
‘As with any other contestant, Saara’s sexuality isn’t relevant to her performances which are the main focus in show.’
But playing devil’s advocate, what if Saara is in a glass closet? Is that OK if it’s her choice? Or Meri’s?
Or is it all down to controlling producers trying to muzzle her? If so, that’s not OK.
Sure, the idea seems far-fetched in 2016. We can’t imagine Saara’s mentor Sharon Osbourne standing for it. The fierce LGBTI campaigner has spoken openly about her bi-curiosity, after all. Plus, she designed GSN’s 2016 tote bag.
But what if Saara is being suppressed? That would be outrageous – not to mention unfair.
Historically, other (heterosexual) acts have gotten to introduce their partners to the general public through their VTs. (Although only a small minority of this year’s 18 finalists have). And those VTs are as crucial to an act’s survival as the performances themselves. The more personal and intimate the performer’s relationship with their fans, the more votes they’ll receive.
But perhaps the fear is those rules don’t apply in Saara’s case. Perhaps she’s being presented in a certain way for her own good. And that idea is even more concerning.
If her sexuality is underlined, might she, and therefore the show, lose votes? She’s been in the bottom three times already. It’s possible.
Indeed, Sara’s fiance has a butch look, which I love. But I can imagine how it would go down with Middle England, in the current political climate – especially given the fact that Meri, like Saara, is from Finland. Imagine if they were shown kissing; the vile, homophobic tweets write themselves, don’t they?
This is a complicated situation, and I’m not looking to trash a show that I’ve enjoyed for 13 years. But I want to make my disappointment clear.
Saara needs the space to be herself. (Her performance of the lesbian subtext-heavy Let It Go not withstanding.)
Given her openness about her sexuality elsewhere, I would hope she’d jump at the chance to talk about it on TV. And I think The X Factor has a responsibility to at least offer her that opportunity. For better or for worse.
Either way, though, we’re backing you to the end, Saara. Because you’re amazing exactly as you are!
Gay Star News has approached Saara and The X Factor for comment. The X Factor is on ITV on Saturday 26 November at 8pm.