BGT AND ME
Let the path be open to talent.
Every now and then, opportunity knocks on your door in strange and mysterious ways. The trick is to distinguish which is nonsense and which is your personal road to nirvana. Sadly, I have never had that knack. If you ask me to do just about anything that won’t put me in traction or murder an innocent bystander, I’ll give it a go.
I was cracking rude one-liners in Edinburgh for my one woman show last August when a young, unbelievably enthusiastic girl named Louise smiled at me and said, “How would you like to try out for Britain’s Got Talent?”
“But I’m not British. I am from San Francisco,” I said.
Her enthusiasm did not diminish. She positively bounced with delight when she said, “That doesn’t make any difference to us.”
“When do you want me?” I said.
It was that devil-may-care attitude that took me back to the Edinburgh Conference Center in Edinburgh for the first round of try-outs in October. I was not a novice at this “I’ve Got Talent” business. Four years ago, I managed to get to the third day in Las Vegas before America’s Got Talent told me I was hopeless. That was why I had a bit more perspective on the whole procedure for BGT last October. I realized that the process was a bit of a soap opera and the purpose was to create a balanced TV show with a pre-decided proportion of singers, dancers, novelty acts and several “tear your heart out” stories. I understood that even though the viewers blamed Peers Morgan in America and Simon Cowell in London for their unsympathetic and arbitrary dismissal of the candidates, both men were actually doing what they were told by faceless producers who had decided well before we tried out the second time who was in and who was rubbish. I also figured out that being on the program would in no way “make my career.” In America, a touchingly hopeful man named Paul impersonated Frank Sinatra right down to the skinny tie and blue contact lenses. “This is going to catapult me into the big time, darling,“ he said and I believed him.
I have never heard or seen him since.
That said, the initial weeding out process is not done by the stars we see pushing buzzers on our TV screen. The film crew create two minute clips to give to the producers who are designing the show. It is these people who spend several months deciding who they want for each sequence of the show. That first audition is a heady experience. Every hopeful believes that he is a cut above the rest and not afraid to prove it. In Edinburgh, I met a business man who insisted he was destined for Glyndebourne. He hummed arias to prove it not quite under his breath as we stood in endless lines waiting to be processed for the filming to come. There was a lad of 13 whose mother swore he was the best country singer this side of the universe. She never stopped coaching him while we waited our turns. She stood outside the door when he went into the filming room, certain she had mothered an international star soon to pay her way into early retirement. Neither the man or the boy made the grade.
I found Britain’s Got Talent far more humane and caring than America’s. That exciting day in Edinburgh, I was treated like I was already a star by the delightful group of young people who make it all happen. They check applications, organize the thousands of applicants with undiminished graciousness, escort each performer to a comfortable waiting area until they are filmed and assign the more interesting applicants to the camera crew for extra filming. That day, I was taken to the station and filmed as if I had arrived on the bus even though I had taken the overnight train from London. It is all part of the pretence that this is a reality show instead of the staged, pre-arranged event it has become.
The film crew who do the initial screening are endlessly patient and very sensitive to the talent performing their hearts out for the two minutes they are allowed to strut their stuff. The best part is that no one knows that day if they made the grade. That way, the decision comes on your computer where you can absorb it in your own way. In America they loved to film you dissolved in tears, distraught because you lost your chance to be a star.
It is not so for the second phase. I found out in late January that I had made the first cut and was asked to return to Edinburgh February 11 for an exceptionally long day at he Festival theatre to meet the judges. In that session, only water is provided for a day that lasts well into the evening. We were allowed to bring 4 friends to cheer us on and give away as many tickets as we liked for our performance before a live audience. I am from another country and of a certain age. The few friends I have here are in their dotage and do not have the stamina for a 10-12 hour day. I do have a smattering of young ones who can endure and one brought me a sandwich to sustain me. Her reward was Simon Cowell’s autograph when he entered the building about 3 pm that afternoon.
This phase of the elimination process is filled with electric anticipation. We meet the people whom the producers think might make the grade. This group of performers are whittled down to the top 20 or so in each city where the try-outs took place. My day at The Festival Theatre was filled with endless conversation and networking. I hobnobbed with a band of Glaswegians in kilts with brilliant red, green and blue hair and a fantastic attitude, three girls who thought they were the second millennium version of The Andrew Sisters and Stuart Crout who invented a combination ukulele, guitar, piano and banjo all in one and had practiced his craft on the streets of Edinburgh since he was 11 years old. We were all filmed talking to one another, waiting, drinking, fidgeting and hoping. The highlight of the afternoon for me was meeting Stephen Mulhern. We bantered back and forth and I agreed to be his gran. We decided if I actually won I would buy him a house and you know? I would have done it. He is charming. I never felt judged or scrutinized (although all of us were) when I spoke with him. I didn’t feel that I was performing either even though I knew I was being filmed.
When our big moment arrived, we sat in a long, airless hall behind the stage and waited to meet the judges. We heard one performer after another buzzed off the stage and I realized how the people in Paris during their revolution felt as they waited in line at the guillotine. The buzzer is incredibly loud and my big worry was that I would be so started if it sounded that I would faint or scream. We were told that no matter how many times we were buzzed we should continue as if nothing had happened. If that doesn’t test your endurance, nothing will. The three girls I had met earlier went on stage and were buzzed off immediately. I could hear the audience cheering them and adoring them and then a pause. The judges decided to let them try once more. All of us in the back room smiled and started breathing again but alas! Within seconds they were buzzed again by all four judges.
I thought, “I will never get through this. Why on earth did I set myself up for this kind of public rejection?”
I was ushered into the area just behind the curtain and I met Anthony of Ant and Deck. He showed me how I was to enter the stage and explained where I must stand. And then I was on stage and the four judges were smiling at me. I did my two minutes and to my amazement, no one buzzed me. However, Simon Cowell told me in no uncertain terms that I bored him and I told him I was very sorry I did. Was he acting? Did he mean it? I will never know. The others were uncommonly kind and Alesha Dickson pointed out that it was unusual to have a performer my age on the program. That she said was working in my favour. The three, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dickson and David Walliams voted for me and I got through!!!
I literally floated through the labyrinth of hallways to the vestibule, and was filmed saying I how amazed I was and then ushered back to see Stephen Mulhern to tell him he was one step closer to having a home of his own.
When I returned for some extra filming I met one of the young ladies in the group who had performed before me and she was awash in tears. That was when I realized the inhumanity of the procedure. Here she was convinced she was a failure even though the audience had clapped, stomped and cheered her group without reservation.
Stuart didn’t get into the next phase either, even though the staff had found him on You Tube and invited him to the second phase without enduring that first weeding out at The Conference Center. No one helps these hopeful, optimistic and very sensitive performers to understand that getting on this program neither makes or breaks them and that life offers endless opportunities. This was just one.
The next phase took place at the end of February in London and the day began at 7:30 in the morning. This is the phase where Britain’s Got Talent pays all your expenses and everyone you meet is certain they are stars. There were about 100 acts from all over the country, the top winners from all the previous try-outs. I absolutely adored everyone I met. There was a singer who had been rejected in another reality program and mustered the courage to try again. There was a group of middle aged guys from Manchester totally out of shape and bursting with hope. There was a tranny named James who took me under his/her wing. We all chatted and traded stories all day while we waited to see if we would go on to the next phase. While I was there I saw a group of the oldest human beings I have ever seen still breathing and I asked them where they were from. One of them managed to gasp, “London.”
And that was when I knew I had not gotten in. Alesha Dickson had said BGT didn’t have a good representation of people my age and here was my competition. They were older and they were really British. I didn’t have a chance. At 5:30 that day, I was ushered into a room with the four judges and Amanda Holden told us we were eliminated. She was very gracious and kind but for the other two in that room with me she could have just as well thrust a knife into their hearts. The effect was the same. The young girl with me was devastated and sobbed for the next hour as we waited to be processed and dismissed. I tried to console her but there was no way to stop those tears. I looked at this child barely 17 years old who labelled herself as a failure and I knew then that despite the entertainment value of the program, its cost was far too high to those who lose and even higher for those who make it to the top only to realize that the top goes nowhere.
I left London and retuned home, ready to get on with my life and my comedy career. The experience was wonderful and the people I met unforgettable. For me, the adventure was over. But I was wrong. April 14, while I was dancing my heart out at the Texas Burlesque Festival I received a barrage of e mails. BGT had shown my segment on television and all the world got to see me!!! It was a heady experience…but since I knew the outcome, I knew the thrill was momentary.
Wrong again. I am in Brighton now and I cannot count the number of people who have stopped me on the street to ask, “Are you the lady I saw on Britain’s Got Talent.” The truth is that I am wallowing in even more fame than I expected without getting anywhere near the top. What can be better than that?
Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.