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April 16, 2011, 3:26 am
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How Talent Shows Level the Playing Field
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By Keisha Allisse


When he walked into the audition room back in 2003, there was nary a raised eyebrow or lip curled into judgmental snicker, but when Clay Aiken finished singing 'Always and Forever,' he not only wowed the judges, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, but the viewing audience who assumed, based on looks, that he was a pale red-headed nerd who lacked enough friends to dissuade him from humiliating himself on national television. What's more, if you look at a clip of his initial tryout, he had the nerve to have confidence! (You're supposed to be really humble, even desperately insecure if you're an average Joe, right?)


We do it all the time; eye someone up and down and figure their looks give us a window to the depth of their talent. Thankfully, shows like American Idol and Britain's Got Talent have dispelled the myth of beauty being a precursor to ability. Aiken's success post show was due in great part to his vocal ability (which after weekly exposure, came across as more Broadway than Pop) and the amazing work of Idol's hair, makeup and wardrobe crew who took his look from drabby geek to heartthrob chic over the course of the season. At the height of his fame, Aiken even had an eponymous fan base, Claymates.


It's likely that without the show, Clay, no matter how talented, might have been relegated to playing small venues locally, never being given a chance to showcase his singing on a larger scale simply because of how he looked. Aiken's example proves that with the right entourage, looks can be inconsequential.  Record companies and A&R execs should take notice: pretty singers with paper thin voices can have careers that only go but so far (Britney Spears is an exception, not the rule), but a plain Jane/Joe with a makeover can make more money in the long run. Case in point, Paul Potts and Susan Boyle from Britain's Got Talent. These two have a story that's even more poignant because not only their looks incited bias, but their ages as well.


Paul, at the age of 36, and Susan, at 47, would have been considered wa-a-y over the hill for developmental record contracts, but fate and forte met at the right moment and afforded them monumental success. Teaching another lesson: looks AND age carry way too much precedence in the arts world where neither have much effect on creativity. Would it be interesting to see someone older than Madonna on MTV or Jay-Z on BET? Imagine how much we're missing out on because we figure that anyone over 30 is irrelevant.


It's a good thing that BGT had no age limits and while Potts' rise from cell phone salesman to pop opera sensation is inspiring, and considering his years in amateur productions, well deserved, Boyle's story is truly affecting. Having lived alone since her mother's death, Boyle never married and as she mentioned in her audition, 'never been kissed.' She made a demo and distributed it to record companies without success until that fateful day when she met Simon Cowell (again!), Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden. Like Aiken, she had confidence, which instead of eliciting admiration, was met with eye rolls, until she belted out, 'I Dreamed A Dream.'


Two years later, Boyle has two successful albums including 2009's best-selling album in THE WORLD.


When all of these former contestants, now stars, walked into the room everyone thought, 'punchline'…look who's laughing now.







Author: Keisha Allisse
Keisha is a freelance writer currently living in New York City. She formerly worked in the nonprofit sector for a walking/biking advocacy group and then later for a small theater company. She worked in the finance department of a NYC-midtown based theater organization before leaving to pursue writing full-time.
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