I Was A Reality TV Judge: 5 Secrets I Shouldn't Tell You
As you can probably guess, guys like Simon Cowell don't personally sit through all of the tens of thousands of auditions that come in for network singing competitions. To get to him, you have to go through people like me.
For several years, I worked on The X-Factor in artist development, auditioning thousands of everyday people all over the country and filtering them down to the ones who are actually ready for prime time. To the average viewer, singing competitions like our show or American Idol are pretty straightforward: People show up, they sing, most are terrible but a few are good enough to be on TV, someone wins, and their album bombs just in time for the next season. But the reality is, well, a little more complicated.
We're Not Looking For The Best Singers; We're Looking For "Characters"
So many people have sung for us, hoping to fulfill years of hard work and obsessive dedication, only to be shut down in 30 seconds flat. Once that happens, it's easy to blame others ("What do these clowns know about talent? My Mom says I sound amazing!") or yourself ("Mom's a liar! I knew I should've stayed at DeVry!"). But one thing many contestants might not realize is that it's entirely possible that they got rejected simply because we'd already found someone who looks or sounds exactly like them.
It's not that having a nice voice doesn't matter; it's that thousands of applicants have nice voices, and first and foremost we're trying to cast a TV show. That means we need variety -- we can only have so many blonde divas or acceptably-edgy rockers, for the same reason Friends wouldn't have worked with five Joeys (that would be Entourage). Others don't make it in because they don't fit any of the roles we're looking for. For instance, if my team and I decided to cast, say, a male Taylor Swift, we'd ignore dozens of talented hopefuls in favor of the first person who even remotely resembled what we were looking for.
Unfortunately, Drake was already signed.
Otherwise, it helps to have a gimmick. Jessica Whitely auditioned for American Idol in 2012, right after Simon Cowell left for greener, less Steven-Tyler-filled pastures. According to her, she and any other contestant silly enough to think a strong singing voice was enough to make the cut were in for an extremely rude awakening:
"The first round of auditions, you enter a tent the size of one you'd see at a typical football tailgate, and you go in with a few other people. Each of you sings a couple lines of a song and ... out of about 9,000 people, maybe 200 were allowed to go to the second round. I was one of them. Their decisions are almost completely arbitrary. I have an identical twin sister who sounds almost exactly like me. I made it and she didn't."
Even Two-Face wouldn't be so cold as to split up Sugar and Spice.
That's how every singing show audition goes, whether you're William Hung or One Direction. You sing for 15 seconds in front of a bunch of strangers, and hope that was enough to impress them. But even if your audition blew everyone away, it might not matter if the person next to you in Round Two is more interesting. "They interviewed my family, really tried to play up the whole angle of me having a twin ... Even though I bombed my second round audition, I was still permitted to move on to Round Three because they were already plotting my story."
Here they are as the Brunette Barbies, telling the completely implausible story of actually winning a carnival game.
But despite that ...
It's Not As Fake As You Think
Despite what many may think (especially after watching virtually any other reality show), X-Factor, American Idol, and the others aren't faked, or even all that creatively edited. Nor do we rig the votes. The reason for that is simple: We don't want to get sued. When tallying the votes before a results show, a team of lawyers reviews the stats with a fine-tooth comb, making damn sure that each vote is recorded exactly the way it was cast. There's no quicker way to sink a vote-driven show than to game the votes, so we simply don't do it. But there are ways to make sure the viewers vote the "right" way.
"WE'RE STANDING! THAT MEANS VOTE! VOTE NOW, YOU SEALS!"
For instance, you may wonder how future megastars One Direction could place third on X-Factor, while Tate Stevens -- somebody so obscure that Google has to Google his name -- wins it all. You can thank some old, out-of-touch executives using the magic of emotional manipulation. For example, one week, they crafted a bullshit fluff piece about how decent and down-to-Earth good ol' Stevens was, because some higher-up decided that he was what the world wanted.
The way they presented it, voting for anyone else meant that you hated children and probably ate live puppies.
Meanwhile, Fifth Harmony (who were way more talented and wound up becoming famous anyway) were portrayed as five ditzy girls who couldn't believe they were still in the competition.
Not shockingly, the voting public often runs with who they've been told is best. But word-of-mouth is the true measure of popularity, which is why One Direction and Fifth Harmony survived, while Tate Stevens is probably punching a time card at Subway somewhere.
That was the last can of Pepsi he could afford.
Our severe litigationphobia also explains why any time you hear a former contestant claim that their auditions were tampered with to make them look or sound stupid for the sake of TV, it's probably not true. Remember Jessica Whitley from earlier? Her Idol audition ... didn't go so hot:
It's like a jump scare for your eardrums.
Shortly after this aired, she claimed that Idol "manipulated" her, editing her audition to make her look worse, and possibly even altering her voice to make her sound like Kermit the Frog being tortured by Jack Bauer. She backed up her claim by citing a waiver she had to sign which gave Idol the legal right to do anything they wanted to her appearance and voice. She further backed herself up by singing again and sounding much, much better:
But even with that waiver, show lawyers aren't willing to risk even the threat of a lawsuit (or bad publicity) by T-Paining contestants just to laugh at them. After auditioning thousands of people, I can honestly say that if somebody sounds off-key, it's because they were. It doesn't make them bad singers (Jessica, for example, clearly has a powerful voice); it simply makes them not ready for prime time.
Some Contestants Are Incredibly Creepy
One time, we rejected an off-putting dude during Stage One auditions. After we turned him down, the man said, "you know ... when I told my friends I was coming out to audition, they told me to go out with a bang." At that moment, he reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a fucking World War II grenade, stuck it in his mouth, and pulled the pin. Luckily for us, the grenade was deactivated, but security still enthusiastically removed him from the premises. Despite the admittedly memorable stunt, he didn't get a callback. Though I'm sure TLC could find a spot for him.
Note to future contestants: This is the kind of Grenade we prefer.
Then there was the time a contestant tried to seduce me. I asked for her name and any interests or talents she might have, to which she responded, "Oh, I have many ..." making sure I knew what she meant. Knowing this was only about to get weirder, I said "Okay ... uh, well, what are you going to sing today?" She then jumped right into a slow version of Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" while awkwardly trying to grind on me like a tired stripper. As you might imagine, any physical contact with the contestants is a huge legal issue, so I had to cut her audition short and let her know that, although we appreciated her time, everything she had done wasn't really what we were looking for on a family show.
Not that we successfully filter out all of the creeps beforehand. We once had a contestant who was both a fan favorite and had a solid voice. But what the voters didn't see was how scary he was. He would grope the wardrobe team, text producers that he wanted a "taste" of them, and would even try to make them stop by his room for some "extra rehearsal." Unfortunately, because he was so popular and obviously talented, the producers had to continue portraying him as a good guy, despite us praying for the day he got voted off.
"To vote for him, simply smash your phone against a rock and never buy another one."
But while some slimeballs make it through ...
Some Auditions Do Break Your Heart
Seeing dreamer after dreamer get a huge bucket of rejection dumped all over them on stage isn't the happiest part of my job by any stretch. But it's still part of the job, and I got used to it quickly. Even so, some auditions still manage to make you feel pity for the sad, broken humans up there pouring their hearts out. For me, the one that hurt the most was Don Philip. "Who the hell is Don Philip?" you rightfully ask. Well, he's this guy:
She was asking that same question even while singing with him.
He was signed around the same time as Britney Spears, the plan being for him to be her male equivalent. Except Britney soared in popularity and Don ... didn't. And in pop music, if you're not an immediate success, then you're immediately dropped. (See: Justin Guarini).
Ten years later, Don Philip's name came up in an X-Factor production meeting. We got the idea to find this guy, a former pop star who'd had it all and lost it, and give him a chance to audition. Even better, Britney Spears was one of our judges that season. That sounds like great TV, right? So we found him, and obviously he made it through the first round of auditions to Simon, Britney, and friends. He walked on stage and Britney was "shocked" to see him (she already knew he was going to be there, of course, because this is a reality show).
Then came Don's actual audition. Viewers only saw a mercifully edited version of it:
He butchered Beyonce's "Halo," got rejected by all four judges, and ran off crying. The uncut version is somehow even more uncomfortable to watch:
You can actually pinpoint the 15 minutes when his heart rips in half.
I ran backstage to find Don, but he was already out the door, sobbing the whole way. I said to one of the producers, "Oh, my god, that was horrible! I feel sick watching him go through that." To which the producer replied, "Are you kidding? That was fucking brilliant! Genius!"
If he ever returns as an insane supervillain called The Duetter, call Batman and blame us.
But even when the applicants succeed ...
Many People Can't Handle The Lifestyle (Even If They Think They Can)
I've dealt with countless auditions from people who don't want to be singers so much as they want to be famous. Or at least, they think they do, because everything the media shows us about being famous looks great. It's all private jets and screaming fans. The reality is that if you're not ready for it -- like if, for instance, you are suddenly thrust into fame thanks to winning a reality show -- the industry can chew you to pieces.
Ruben Studdard did so well on The Biggest Loser because getting yelled at nonstop has been his life for 12 damn years.
X-Factor's first season featured an incredible talent named Melanie Amaro. We really saw her as a new benchmark in singing show talent. As the competition wore on, though, the stress took a huge toll on her. It got to the point where she stopped caring about her health or appearance, showing sudden weight gain over the course of the competition. Before live performances, she'd burst with anxiety, tearfully demanding last-minute changes to her production and song choices. Then she received some terrible news:
She had won.
Her smile says "Blessed" but her eyes say "Help me."
This victory netted her a $5 million recording contract, though we might as well have handed it to her in Toys "R" Us Geoffrey Bucks, for all she cared. Actually recording her own album, which a few months earlier was her dream come true, was suddenly very low on her priority list.
In movies, the only hard part about fame is partying too hard. The downfall comes from snorting too much cocaine off a groupie's nipples, so it's easy for the mechanic sitting at home to say, "You know what? I'd be willing to risk it." What they don't tell you is that you're becoming a cog in a massive corporate machine, and that this is first and foremost a job.
Every successful artist has a group of people working to keep them established via radio promotion, collaborations with other artists, showcases, marketing events, etc. It takes a lot of hands to keep the stardom wheels turning ... and for the artist, an inhuman schedule. You know how pop stars keep cancelling shows due to "exhaustion"? That's not always code for "secret drug rehab." Lady Gaga was probably telling the truth when she said in an interview that she hadn't slept in three days. People are constantly making demands on your time, 24 hours a day.
The rap break in "Just Dance" is often the only chance she has to catnap.
As for the creative part: Again, you're merely one member of a corporate team. You're not going to get to carry out some great vision. Nowadays, labels don't have three to five years to develop a hot new pop act, so it becomes an all-hands-on-deck deal, with everybody trying to get it right immediately. A song might be drafted by the artist and producer, only for the label to insist on tweaking it via outside writers. Then, if it's still not right (note: there is no definition for what makes a song "right"), a few more writers might take a pass after that. Before you know it, eight to 10 people have had a hand in shaping "your" song.
Add in the endless travel and always having to be energetic and friendly to press and fans ... it takes a certain type of person to not regard that as torture. And that's for people who've had years to adjust by starting small; reality show winners are immediately thrown into the deep end.
To the point where even adorable stuffed puppies can't stop the tears.
After Melanie's singles flopped, her label dropped her and shelved her album "indefinitely," which is industry speak for "Axl Rose will release a Chinese Democracy sequel before she finishes one record." I don't think she cared. Her dream became to open up a nail salon, because she figured obnoxious customers and acetone fumes are still easier to deal with than all that. Fame simply wasn't for her -- as it likely isn't for many singing show hopefuls who dream of gigantic mansions, but not the 130-hour work week required to live in one. Not that this will change anyone's mind. Every year, more than 100,000 people still audition for American Idol alone.
That's a lot of "Halo" butchering.
Adults aren't the only ones that have to fake reality. For proof, look no further than 5 Ways You Don't Realize Reality Shows Lie. And also check out 4 Lies Reality Shows Rely On (That Are Worse Than You Think).
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