It’s been a year since Jackie Thomas and Whenua Patuwai stood on The X Factor New Zealand stage, eagerly waiting to hear which one of the talented singers would be crowned the inaugural winner of the Kiwi reality TV show.
Since filming wrapped last July, the once-close contestants have been separated by distance and work commitments, barely given a moment to catch their breath or see each other.
But seeing the pair reunited for our Weekly photoshoot, you’d never guess 12 months has gone by, as Whenua and Jackie slip easily into good-natured banter and laughter.
“This is the first time we have seen each other in ages – I just wanted to give him a big hug,” says Jackie (23), unable to contain her trademark smile as the 19-year-old enters the room.
“It’s so good to see her again. She’s an awesome chick,” Whenua enthuses.
For the show’s top two, the past year feels like a blur after whirlwind success has taken them on different paths.
Jackie released her self-titled debut album a month after winning series one of The X Factor, entering the charts at number one, while Whenua joined judge Stan Walker on his nationwide tour.
They both played a number of summer concerts and Christmas events, and have had the opportunity to accompany international artists – Jackie opened for British singer and former The X Factor UK runner-up Olly Murs and Whenua ushered in Guy Sebastian’s summer tour.
Since the show wrapped, they’ve turned their passion into a career and a normal day can vary between going into the studio or meeting with their label to sitting down, guitar in hand, to write original music.
But despite their budding careers, it’s clear the friendships fostered through the singing contest have lasted.
“We’re all very tight,”says Whenua, who splits his time between home in Christchurch and his dad’s place in Wellington. “We’re still like one big family.”
“I still hang out with Tom Batchelor and Anna Wilson a lot,” Auckland-based Jackie explains.“Anna is like an older sister-figure and I never had that growing up, so it’s great that we can just hang out.”
When questioned about her close friendship with Tom, whom she was rumoured to be dating during The X Factor eliminations, Jackie pauses, saying, “He’s a cool dude… I think that might be another story for another time. I’m playing coy,” flashing that smile again.
Former contestants are not the only ones keeping in touch – both Whenua and Jackie have been overwhelmed by the continuing support from their loyal fan base, although getting stopped in the street is still a strange feeling.
“It is weird, but it makes people happy when they ask for a picture or an autograph,” Whenua says.
“It did shock me because I thought at some point it would stop happening,” laughs Jackie. “But it’s really nice. I went home to Greymouth to do Christmas in the Park and they had to get a bigger venue because so many people turned up.
“When I finished singing It’s Worth It, my last song, about 100 kids rushed the stage to give me a hug.”
With time to finally reflect on what the young performers have achieved in a small amount of time, both say that having gone through a crash course in the industry, they’re now forging their future – perhaps a little older and wiser.
“I want to be a really good songwriter,” Jackie explains.
“It’s very freeing and creative, but I’m still learning. I try to write every day. It’s funny, I have very little confidence in my singing voice – I know, I won a national competition, it doesn’t make sense – but songwriting is one of the few things I am confident I can be good at.
“I’ve grown up so much [over the year]. I used to be so scared of everything and never wanted to leave home, but now I have gained the independence to deal with things on my own.”
Whenua echoes Jackie’s sentiments. He’s just released his debut album, The Soul Sessions, which he recorded between his tours last year. The 11-track record features covers of powerful classics.
“I found out who I am [through music]. It made me stronger, and I hope to put that into my own words,” he explains. “I feel like I have learnt so much – I can open myself up in a way I never used to. The show definitely changed me.”