The last time I interviewed Gamu Nhengu she was a broken 18-year-old, fearful of being deported from Britain to Zimbabwe to potentially face jail, or worse punishment, under President Robert Mugabe’s regime.
Report by By Dan Wootton, Dailymail online
It was October 2010 and the sobbing teenager was at the centre of a national controversy, quickly dubbed Gamugate, following her appearance on The X Factor.
She had sailed through to the judges’ houses round, only to be booted off the talent show by Cheryl Cole.
There was public outcry — her performance was far superior to that of two successful contestants, Katie Waissel and Cher Lloyd, who had failed to even complete their songs.
As 250 000 people signed a petition demanding she be reinstated, it certainly seemed there was more to the rejection.
Gamu’s perfomance on X Factor
Within 24 hours, a possible explanation had emerged. Gamu’s new found fame had alerted authorities to the fact that the family’s UK visa had expired and her mother, Nokuthula Ngazana, may have been illegally living in the country.
To compound matters, Gamu’s mother was being investigated for benefit fraud after claiming up to £16 000 in working tax credits.
If they did not leave the country voluntarily, they would be deported.
When I met her, it was at a safe house, miles from their modest home in the tiny Scottish village of Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire.
I walked away from the interview feeling overwhelming sadness. It was hard to believe there was a case to send them home, five years after seamlessly integrating into the community. But the Home Office was apparently determined to make an example of them.
What a difference two-and-a-half years makes. When I walk into the central London nightclub where our photo-shoot is taking place Gamu is dressed in a figure-hugging, sequined silver dress.
With a debut single about to be released, Gamu is smiling and positive — but she feels ready to express her outrage at what happened. Gamu grew up in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, but her father died of cancer when she was three.
Her mother wanted a better life in the UK for herself and her children. The youngsters were allowed to join her as her dependants because she was at a British university.
But when she became a nurse, she was advised by her accountant to claim working tax credits.
It was this claim that wrongly led her to be accused of benefit fraud.
‘I long to go home’
Gamu has not returned to Zimbabwe since the controversy. But she longs for the day when she feels safe to go back because “half of my family is there”.
She is at pains to point out she is proud of her heritage. “I was scared to go back because it had been made out that I had been embarrassed to be Zimbabwean. But at no point did I deny it. I could have changed my name, but I never did.”
But in other ways, the stress of the immigration fight was too much. She cut ties with the management company X Factor had provided for her and moved back to Scotland.
Unlike many X Factor pop puppets, Gamu insisted on writing her own music.
“It was very important to me that I was not going into the studio and sing someone else’s song.
“I had enough to sing about after what I’d been through and, besides, I’d been writing songs since I was four. It was quite therapeutic because I got to get a lot off my chest.”
Her 1960s Motown-inspired debut single Shake The Room, which references inspirations such as Aretha Franklin and James Brown in the lyrics, shows how important it is to her that she’s distanced from the X Factor sausage factory.
She has found love, too, with 24-year-old blues guitarist Jamie Rintoul, with whom she has been writing songs.
Gamu’s single, Shake the Room, will be released on May 6.