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Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

Pop CultureDecember 30, 2023

Remember when Natalia Kills and Willy Moon blew up X Factor NZ? 

Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

Summer reissue: In the first episode of our brand new nostalgia podcast Remember When, our hosts look back at the X Factor NZ moment that stopped the nation in its tracks. 

First published on August 10, 2023.

It’s Sunday, March 15, 2015. John Key is the prime minister, the number one song in the country is ‘fourfiveseconds’ by Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney. New Zealand is bracing for a nationwide weather bomb as Cyclone Pam rips through the Pacific. But what we don’t yet know is that a storm of a very different kind is brewing on a humble family-friendly singing show, and nothing will ever be the same again. 

The first New Zealand season of X Factor NZ in 2013 was a ratings juggernaut, making household names of Jackie Thomas (‘Skinny Love’) and Benny Tipene (Coke ad). NZ on Air had put $1.6 million into it, Ronan Keating had popped up as a guest, and prodigal son Daniel Bedingfield had returned to judge in a flurry of florals. The #xfactornz hashtag was the only place to be on Twitter, with comedians and normies alike battling to be the fastest and funniest couch commentator every Sunday and Monday night. 

When the franchise returned for its second season in 2015, it came with two fresh faces to the judging panel in Willy Moon and Natalia Kills. Wellington-born Moon had recently found fame after his single ‘Yeah Yeah’ was featured in an iPod ad and the trailer for geriatric comedy Last Vegas. Kills was an English pop star whose biggest commercial hit came with shutter-shade-wearing pop duo LMFAO’s ‘Champagne Showers’ in 2011. Crucially, they were married. Even more crucially, Willy Moon often wore a suit and slicked his hair back.

Willy Moon and Natalia Kills at the 2014 New Zealand Music Awards. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The second season of X Factor NZ was rife with controversy from the start. During the early audition rounds, the series issued an apology after featuring Shae Brider, who had been convicted of manslaughter in the late 2000s. A flurry of headlines followed Natalia Kills and Willy Moon around the country, including when a Rotorua hotel owner tried to sell their used bedsheets and Moon allegedly hissed at woman and called her a “c***” at a Kingsland bakery. But nothing would compare to the controversy that was coming next. 

On the Sunday night in question, the entire country and media alike hunkers down at home, prepared for a gnarly nationwide weather bomb as a result of Cyclone Pam tearing through the Pacific. All eyes are on the X Factor NZ live show on Three, where beloved, frequent-crier crooner Joe Irvine is set to close the show. He walks out in a suit and tie against a backdrop of Bond girl silhouettes, hair slicked back like Sinatra, and belts out a soaring, if extremely nervous, rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Cry Me a River’. 

After the performance, mentor Mel Blatt leaps out of her chair in a standing ovation. Stan Walker gushes that Irvine is “full of surprises”. Natalia Kills and Willy Moon, who had both been muttering throughout his performance, look less impressed. “Ladies and gentlemen I am just going to state the obvious: we have a doppelganger in our midst,” Kills begins, as the audience naively whoops. “As an artist who respects creative integrity and intellectual property, I am disgusted at how much you have copied my husband,” she continues.

“From the hair to the suit, do you not have any value or respect for originality? You’re a laughing stock. It’s cheesy, it’s disgusting, I personally found it absolutely artistically atrocious.” Despite an interjection from Stan Walker, who bravely suggests that Kills herself has copied the intellectual property of Cleopatra, she’s still not finished. “I am embarrassed to be sitting here in your presence having to even dignify you with an answer of my opinion.” By the end of the tirade, the audience is in uproar, and Joe Irvine is somehow still smiling. 

“Thank you Natalia, you’re beautiful,” he responds.

Joe Irvine, smiling through the pain

What’s since been lost in the outrage is the fact that what Willy Moon says next is even more extreme. “It’s like Norman Bates dressing up in his mother’s clothing,” he says. “It’s just a little bit creepy and I feel like you are going to stitch someone’s skin to your face and kill everybody in the audience.” Kills goes in for another barb – “you make me sick, you have no identity, I can’t stand it, I’m ashamed to be here” – and Irvine defends himself. “I think I look really good,” he beams. “I think you look good because you’re dressed as my husband!” bellows Kills.  

“ACTUALLY, ACTUALLY, ACTUALLY…” mentor Mel Blatt interjects, preparing an invisible microphone for a gorgeous wee drop. “YOU’RE DRESSED BETTER THAN HER HUSBAND!”

The judges face off.

The crowd goes crazy and Dominic Bowden, also bravely wearing a suit, comes out to wrap up the show. “Keep it together man,” he murmurs to Joe Irvine while patting him on the back. Irvine appears to be keeping it together, but social media is not. The #xfactornz hashtag blows up with former contestants and celebrities alike ripping into Kills and Moon. “I HATE HATE HATE bullies!!!,” wrote Jackie Thomas. “If you are paid to mentor young musicians you should learn what constructive criticism is @xfactornz.”

“Oh man gutted I went back on the show now eh,” tweeted Benny Tipene. “Especially with someone so heartless.” Mel Blatt tweeted: “I’ve tried to keep my cool and stay professional but really @nataliakills? Sorry love, you’re a twat.” Mother of the nation Hilary Barry issued a not mad, just disappointed verdict: “Shame on you Natalia. Shame on you.” Less than 24 hours later, X Factor NZ had issued a statement condemning bullying, a petition calling for Moon and Kills to be fired had 77,000 signatures, and Lorde had sent Joe Irvine cupcakes.

During Monday’s elimination show, Kills and Moon were nowhere to be found. Guy Williams, who warmed up audiences for the live shows and hosted an X Factor NZ chat show, recalls walking past the judges’ dressing rooms. “Their abandoned changing cottages were almost entirely empty, clothes hangers and the occasional sparkly fashion accessory lying all over the floor,” he says, likening it to a scene from a war zone. Blatt and Walker appeared as a judging duo that night and, as I’m sure you remember, Sarah Spicer was sadly eliminated

By Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours since The Moment, Kills and Moon had left the country. In this thrilling on-the-ground account by Don Rowe for The Spinoff at the time, he describes catching a glimpse of the disgraced pair at Auckland Airport as they fled, her in high heeled boots and he in tight black skinny jeans. “Heads forward they strode briskly down the terminal like Mr and Mrs Severus Snape. Deaf to my questions, they stopped for nothing. After arriving in a blaze of publicity all those months ago, they were slinking off in the dead of night.” 

They may not have any answered questions then, but Kills later issued a public statement: “A lot goes on behind the scenes of a reality TV show and you see isn’t always the whole story. The show brought me on to bring my passion, dramatic expression and perspective. I was encouraged to be outspoken and things got out of hand… Joe, I hope you can forgive me and I wish you all the best!” Before the pair had likely even touched down at LAX, their X Factor NZ replacements had already been announced in Shelton Woolright from Blindspott and Natalie Bassingthwaighte from Rogue Traders and Neighbours. 

Despite the strong public support, Joe Irvine was eliminated two weeks later. He told The New Zealand Herald that he couldn’t bring himself to rewatch anything from the “awful” X Factor NZ chapter. “When it happened I was mad but I was aware kids would be watching so I fought back the urge to have a go at Willy and Natalia.” Irvine gigged around the country after his time on the show, and penned a song about his experience on X Factor NZ called ‘Addiction’. He also released both a summer and winter mix of his Christmas song ‘The Heart of Christmas’ at the end of 2015. 

As for Kills and Moon, she changed her name to Teddy Sinclair in 2015 and started her own band, Cruel Youth, with Moon the following year. She continued to write songs for the likes of Rihanna and Madonna, and in 2017 received a Grammy nomination for Rihanna’s ‘Kiss It Better’, which Pitchfork ranked in the top 10 Rihanna singles of all time. In 2021, it was reported that the couple lost everything in a devastating house fire in New York, to which Joe Irvine’s manager publicly and perhaps needlessly responded, “what goes around comes around”.

Although the moment defined the season in many ways, it was beatboxer Beau Monga who won X Factor NZ that year and was joined on stage to perform ‘King and Queen’ with rambunctious runner-ups Brendon Thomas and the Vibes. Alas, the vibes were not quite strong enough, and the glitz and glamour of X Factor NZ never returned to our shores again. Not to worry, because attention soon turned to TV3’s next big reality swing, The Bachelor NZ, in which a chiseled young entrepreneur named Art Green would date 21 women vying to win his heart. 

And thankfully, with Kills and Moon safely on the other side of the world, he could even wear a suit while doing so. 

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