Duncan Greive was intrigued by Joe Irvine's story from the start of X Factor but never more so than when he met him.

The most surprising thing on X Factor last night wasn't the bullying tirade by husband and wife judges Natalia Kills and Willy Moon. No, it was the response of the man they had targeted.

Joe Irvine, 25, of Invercargill, smiled calmly throughout those mad, brutal words. And he showed dignity and humour in his response on social media. It was astonishing, because until 9.25pm, March 14, 2015, had been known for one thing and one thing only: the fearful strength of his emotions.

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Indeed, if Moon - who, along with Kills, was sacked this afternoon after the incident - is famed for the mask of cool indifference he wears at all times, Irvine is his opposite. Irvine's been seen openly weeping at his every success. Bellowing songs to perfect strangers at markets in Thailand. Adopting a Christ-like pose in an unsuspecting fountain. And, most joyously, making a ragged run to the ocean after finding out Mel Blatt had selected him for the live shows.

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That emotion seems to come from the stark contrast it bears with much of his life prior to this extraordinary moment. I, like so many others, adored him for the way he handled himself, for his bravery and how free he appeared from the shame reflex which keeps us small and ordinary. I was intensely curious about him, and wanted to know more about where all that feeling came from.

My opportunity came last week, when I was invited to a meet-and-greet with the contestants ahead of the first live shows. It was for bloggers, which meant around eight people from The Spinoff, Throng, The Wireless and NZ Girl were scattered around a Sky City Grand conference room while dozens of contestants milled around us.

Their energy was overwhelming, as you'd imagine. These people were in their last moments of something like freedom, before the work and the wave of fame which accompanies the live shows overtook them. The selfies, the autographs, the endless public scrutiny. They could sense it was coming, and were high off the sensation. That and a bunch of lollies and disgusting bubblegum-flavoured muffins.

One figure stood apart from the melee. Joe Irvine had come into the room and shaken my hand, his palm limp and bathed in sweat. When the more socially assertive likes of Fare Thee Well and Nofo Lameko loomed, he vanished to a far corner of the terrace, looking like he wanted the session to end very quickly.

Time was short. We only had a half hour - eventually cut down to a little over 20 minutes - but I wanted my Irvine time. I pressed Chris Henry, one of X Factor's sweet and attentive publicists, to get me some Joe, and he found him.

We sat outside, in the baking heat, while a neighbouring table full of young, attractive kids laughed loudly and easily. Joe wore a navy print shirt - thankfully, not a style Willy would go for - and I asked him about the struggles he's referred to in various segments of X Factor.

"Some things I'm not going to say," he said - but then said so much.

"When I was younger I was more of a hyper child. A lot of people didn't understand me, so I was a bit of an outcast. Family didn't really understand me either, so I was kind of alone in my head. So I went through everything by myself."

He said this within seconds of our sitting down, uttering these painful, open words while all around was fun and frivolous. It was exactly as I'd have imagined him to be, only more so. The loneliness, the isolation hung in the air.

"I moved out of home when I was 15," he continued. "I lived my life. Or tried to. A lot of people used me, because I'm really nice. I'm a really good fella. A lot of things happened to me. I used to drink just to cover my pain."

That lasted for five years, during which he lived in caravan parks or his car.

"Then I decided one day that I needed to stop," he says. "I sang every day, and started going to church and living my life right."

I ask him how he got the courage to go through the X Factor process, given what he'd been through.

"I was told that I couldn't do anything like this," he replies. "A lot of people. People that I really, really looked up to. Who I wanted to be like. A lot of people after that told me I could, but I'd been damaged so much."

In the background Stevie Tonks, the bug-eyed Woody Harrelson lookalike who has been christened "hatbeard", starts making an insane racket. I turned around expecting to see an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw. Instead I saw Tonks, his head thrown back, doing his impression of a tyrannosaurus rex for my colleague, Alex Casey.

This is life for most everyone else on X Factor - exuberant, full of possibility, a summer camp for grown-ups.

It's not like that for Joe, who seemed oblivious to all that. "It took me a long time to really believe in myself," he went on.

"When I was younger I actually thought about suicide quite a lot. Because I didn't know how to handle life. I really wanted to push through that, because I knew that I'd be destroying my family.

"So I got animals to ground me. A dog and two cats. I love my animals so much."

A runner comes and tells him there's two minutes to go, and we must wrap up our interview. It has been running for a little over four minutes, but is already one of the most emotionally intense encounters I've had in over a decade interviewing musicians. I ask him weakly if he's enjoying life up in Auckland, in the midst of this maelstrom.

"It's quite fun," he says. "I love it here. I love all the people here. They're all really nice."

Later that night I spoke to him at the launch party. He was relaxed, smiling, enjoying the room's energy and happy chaos. He had his photo taken with Hilary Barry and later tweeted excitably about it.

Behind him, off on their own, sat Natalia and Willy. They looked bored, and gloomy, and were days away from two minutes of astonishing cruelty which would turn them into pariahs, and sweet, affable Joe Irvine into a folk hero.

• Duncan Greive is editor of TV website The Spinoff and writes a weekly X Factor Power Ranking column, which you can read here.

- nzherald.co.nz

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