Fit to be a star
Is stardom for the talented only a phone call away? Reem Nafie tunes in StarMaker
"I want to be someone important. I want to prove to everyone and to myself that I can be a star," exclaimed Mona Hassan, a 30-year-old Lebanese woman. StarMaker: Samaana Soutak (Let us hear your voice) is the entertainment show with the selling pitch that is difficult for the likes of Hassan to resist; the programme claims to be the magic wand that aspiring singers can now use for instant celebrity status. With one wave of the wand, the wannabes of today can become the household names of tomorrow. Or so the show's pitch claims.
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From top-left: Hassan being made up; Karara; Roba strutting her stuff; El Reiss giving it his all
And while some people argue that to get on the show you need to know someone on the inside, the fact remains that in only a few days, Shahinaz, last season's winner and singer of the hit song "Olly Olly" (Tell me, Tell me) will have her first solo tape out on the market.
StarMaker is currently in its second season after being launched in May 2002. Shot in Studio Misr Al-Haram, the show is the Arabic version of the US-produced American Idol. Several private sector companies, including Tarek Nour and Alam El-Phan, provide corporate sponsorship.
This is the way the programme works: An announcement is made on television and in the major newspapers asking people who think they have what it takes to be a star to audition at the Tarek Nour Company, or else to call a certain phone number and sing. Only 27 of the thousands that apply are chosen, contacted and become contestants in the StarMaker race. Songs are composed especially for them and in every episode three contestants perform. The judges and the viewers separately vote for a winner (the judges and viewers could choose similar or different contestants) -- the two winners proceed to the finals while the remaining contestants qualify for the second chance show, a consolation bracket of sorts. Four winners are chosen by the judges in the second chance show and they move on to the final with the original six, amounting to a total of 10 finalists. One star is chosen in the StarMaker final show.
Those that made it this month filled the back stage of Studio Misr. The place is a beehive of activity, teeming with contestants, programme crew and make-up artists all scurrying around frantically preparing for the shooting. Some contestants hurriedly put finishing touches on their make- up as others sat in the hallways humming their songs and waiting for their turn.
"I've been singing in hotels for the past 10 years and then I met Ahmed El-Gebaly [StarMaker's main song producer] and he encouraged me to participate. I auditioned and I got accepted and here I am, hopefully close to making it to the finals," Hassan said as she sat relaxed on a sofa with no makeup on, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
Although Hassan could at last be on her way to stardom, pursuing her lifetime dream has not been an easy task. "Trying to choose relatively respectable hotels to perform in is not easy. I thought I would become a star in no time, but it is very difficult. Famous singers are criticised on stage, so you can imagine what happens to people just starting their career," she explained.
Just then a younger woman dressed up in an elegant black dress, with full make- up and a posh hairstyle jumped into the conversation. "Hi! I'm Nermeen, a 22- year-old Jordanian graphic design student," she said. "Did you know that when Abdel-Halim Hafez first performed, the audience threw tomatoes at him? Can you imagine the kind of criticism we get?"
Nermeen (who preferred not to disclose her last name) and Hassan attempted to explained the reason behind StarMaker's attractiveness as a venue for self- perceived diamonds in the rough. "Nobody believes in new talents. That is why a programme like this one is a chance for us," Hassan explained. Since the programme is produced in Cairo, it has been easier for Egyptians to attract producers' attention. "Stars are only recognised if they start in Egypt. Nancy Agram had been singing for a few years but did not become a hit until she sought publicity in Egypt. She was lucky though, because she didn't have to go through a contest, she just found a producer that believed in her and promoted her songs," Nermeen said.
Ahmed Hatem, senior account executive of the programme, came in to call Nermeen up for her shoot and Hassan for her make-up session.
"These people have a dream and they are here to pursue it, we help them become what they aspire to be," Hatem said. In his line of work, Hatem sees all kinds of ambitious crooners. One contestant applied without her parents' consent, changing her name from Motee'a to Maya. "Some parents think a singing career is indecent. I'm sure her parents will see her on TV but maybe they will change their minds when they see she has become a real star."
Coming out of the make-up room, Hassan looked like a different person. She had changed into black pants and a tiger-print top; her hair was brushed into a fancy style and make-up had hidden the dark circles once visible under her eyes.
As Bahaaeddin Mohamed, poet and one of the StarMaker judges, told Al Ahram Weekly, "Not anyone is fit to become a star. You don't only have to be able to sing, you have to look right and act right on stage. We make stars."
Shereen Hegazi, professional model, is in charge of the styling process. "I am responsible for the performers' look on stage. Even if they have suggestions on what they want to wear, it has to work with me or it won't pass. I go shopping with them for clothes and the programme pays for what we choose. It's a total makeover process," Hegazi explained.
After the contestants are ready, they follow Hatem to the platform where the episode is shot and sing in front of the judges and an audience. In the centre of the stage the spotlights shine on Amir Karrara, StarMaker host and former volleyball champion. As the contestants tensely waited backstage, Milad Abi Raad, the Lebanese director, shouted "4,3,2,1, clap." On cue, the audience applauds and Karrara breaks in: "We are back from the break and the next contestant in this episode is..."
As the contestants start to sweat, nervous and suffering from the lack of air conditioning backstage, Hegazi busily applies her final touches before they are hauled on stage and screen. If a contestant is lucky, he or she will perform well and the often-acerbic judges will be lenient. On the day the Weekly attended, one contestant struggled throughout her performance, and judges Helmy Bakr and Mohamed bluntly announced "she is not a star." In a previous episode, Bakr dismissed a male contestant as "too fat", telling him before a live and televised audience that he needed to lose weight before he could be a star.
While some viewers regard the judges' comments to be too harsh at times, Mohamed thinks it is their job to be frank. "If a person isn't fit, he or she should be told. Investor companies are not expected to spend money on someone that is doomed to fail."
Furthermore, judges and producers are particular about their choices because of the money spent on the 10 finalists and later the winner. They are all issued a tape, upon which each one of them is singing one or two songs. "Even if we are unfair in the way we dismiss the contestants, do you think it's fair to spend all this money on them if they are no good?" Mohamed argued.
Of course this is not a non-profit operation, but according to Tarek Nour, production is very expensive. "When we first started producing the programme, each episode cost LE300,000, including the costs of lights, sound, decor, musical composition and training. In the initial plan we thought we could promote the programme to Arab channels, but we couldn't fulfill our plan." He told the Weekly "an episode now costs us LE200,000. We have just started to make a profit off of the programme."