Reginald Ainooson and Ishmael Hamid are not your average pop stars.
Ainooson, 29, used to be a night receptionist at the Premier Inn in Farnborough and was once training to be an accountant. Hamid, 31, lives in the quiet Cambridgeshire town of St Neots with his wife, stepson aged six, and nine-month-old daughter. They make unlikely divas. You can’t imagine them throwing TVs out of hotel windows or demanding bowls of blue M&Ms.
“We feel so grateful and privileged,” Ainooson says, when we meet in a central London private members’ club. “But we’re still at the beginning,” Hamid adds. “Because the moment you feel ‘I’ve made it’, you start to slow down.”
The duo, better known as Reggie N Bollie (Hamid’s nickname is an acronym which stands for “Best of Lyrics and Lines in Entertainment”), are currently celebrating the success of a top 10 single after they were voted runners-up in The X Factor last December.
They stood out on the show from the off. Amid the balladeers and boybands, Reggie N Bollie were the high-energy performers who won over the pubic with Afrobeats and unstoppable positivity. Their story, too, is not the usual reality-TV fodder. Both were born and raised in Accra, Ghana, and overcame difficult upbringings before finding success in Britain.
Hamid’s parents divorced when he was little and he was raised by his paternal grandparents. They died when he was 14 and he went to live with his other set of grandparents.
“It made me always over-cautious,” he says now. “I thought: if I don’t do things right for myself, I might end up in a situation where no one can help.”
Ainooson’s father left the family before he was born. His mother remarried but that relationship broke down when Ainooson was a teenager. She was a seamstress and struggled to make ends meet, and he remembers that there was never enough money for new shoes. When he went to his first Holy Communion, his mother “had to pray someone would bring her clothes for me to wear”.
Recently, Ainooson’s eight-year-old son had his first Holy Communion “and it made me so happy and proud driving my son to that: in a new suit, in a big posh car.
“At the moment, I’m saving money to get my mum in a nice house and to take care of her,” he says. “I want her to know that her only son has been able to make her smile after all that she did for me.”
Growing up, both Hamid and Ainooson had a love of music and won dance competitions as adolescents. But as adults they found it difficult to make a living as musicians in Ghana, despite Hamid releasing a single in 2003, You May Kiss Your Bride, which is still played at weddings across west Africa.
Separately, they decided to make the move to the UK. Ainooson’s wife was expecting his second child in 2010 and, he recalls, “I was thinking, ‘No, I have to give it up, forget music. I have to provide for my family.’”
Hamid’s managers thought he would stand more chance of professional success in Britain. The move was relatively smooth because Ghana is a Commonwealth country.
Still, those first few years of acclimatisation were hard. Hamid and Ainooson knew each other slightly in Ghana. In the UK they cemented their friendship over the phone. “We used to call ourselves and tease ourselves because we were so broke and [we’d] laugh about how broke we were,” says Ainooson. “We used to say ‘Have you ever been so broke you wish Barclays [bank] had a 50p limit of money transfer?’” He laughs. “It had got to that point! We really wanted to change our lives.”
Ainooson took on a series of odd jobs to make ends meet: night receptionist, food and beverage team leader. He briefly worked in a call centre chasing strangers for unpaid debt. “I stopped that after two weeks,” he says. “It wasn’t for me because I couldn’t be nice to people on the phone.” Every evening he would go to Farnborough College to study for his accountancy exams, often only getting four or five hours’ sleep a night.
“In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any need for migration,” he explains, “but for the two of us, who were actively doing music in Ghana, there wasn’t enough for us. In the UK, the systems and structures work: if you write a song, you will get money. If you’re a journalist, you get paid for what you write. When you’re doing so much for less money [in Ghana], you’re forced to find a way out.”
Partly because of this, Ainooson is strongly in favour of Britain remaining part of the EU. Somewhat unexpectedly, he also reveals himself to be a fan of the prime minister.
“I like David Cameron’s approach,” Ainooson says. “He goes in there and he debates his corner, he fights. [He says] ‘Well, we will be in the EU but we can’t be giving our benefits to anyone that’s coming. I would like it to be maybe you work here for three, four years before we can give you that. We will be in European Union but we need to keep our currency and all that.’
“So I think Cameron is doing amazing, and if he keeps on, that’s what I think the UK needs: be part of it but still be able to say, this is what works for me and that’s why I’m going to be part of it.”
They both agree Britain has been “welcoming”. Ainooson only experienced racism once “and it was a black guy like me!” He whoops with laughter.
After arriving in the UK, the pair still got together to make music as a hobby – for a while, they wanted to call themselves Fullish Men until their wives said it sounded too like “foolish”. Briefly they were known as Menn On Point and entered Britain’s Got Talent but didn’t make it past the audition stage. The X Factor was the last throw of the dice. Neither of them thought they would progress. “At the end of the day, we saw it as a way to showcase talent,” says Hamid. “We expected four Nos [from the judges], but then we got four Yeses.”
Reggie N Bollie went on to be mentored by Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and were eventually signed by Syco, Simon Cowell’s record label. They returned to Ghana earlier this year to shoot the video for their debut single, New Girl, and were overwhelmed by crowds who had gathered at the airport to greet them.
“It was amazing, honestly,” says Hamid. “We never thought, leaving and going back, we’d get that reception. To see people holding up banners and chanting our names, to tell us we were right to follow our dreams … It was really heartwarming.”