As Effie White in the new film version of Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson has been the focus of more media attention than her co-stars, Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and Grammy winner Beyoncé Knowles. That’s because, as the AP reported, Hudson’s ‘performance [is] sparking Oscar talk.’
Entertainment Weekly said ‘Hudson’s performance of [And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going] is an epiphany, as grandly shattering a piece of musical acting as the movies have seen since Judy Garland wailed about The Man That Got Away in 1954′s A Star Is Born.’ The New York Times said that ‘to see Ms. Hudson tear into it on screen nonetheless brings the goose-bumped thrill of witnessing something new, even historic.’
What’s truly historic is that the word ‘Oscar’ is being used in the same sentence as the name of a former finalist on American Idol – not because Hudson lacks talent, but because the show produced an actual star. Hudson’s talent on American Idol was undeniable, which is why her elimination from the competition was so shocking.
But this praise seems almost unbelievable for a person whose fame came from her appearance on a cheesy fox talent show. The last thing we expect to come from reality television is actual success.
Talent is the new trend in reality TV; it began a few years ago but was kicked into overdrive by Project Runway. Producers began formatting shows around people with actual talent, not just those who were desperate to put their talents for drinking and making out in front of a camera lens. The results, as Runway proved, were series that were often more compelling than first-generation competition shows such as The Bachelor or Survivor.
Yet talent-driven programs don’t seem to produce wild successes, even though that’s their aim. Jay McCarroll, Runway‘s first winner, rejected the show’s US$100,000 prize and mentorship with clothing retailer Banana Republic, and it took him almost two years after his season began airing to finally present a collection at Fashion Week. Although it was praised, it was easily overshadowed by the runway show for the third season of Runway.
This lack of results is largely the fault of the talent-driven shows themselves. America’s Next Top Model, for example, recruits young contestants who have to be taught how to model, and thus it’s unlikely that the winners will become a ‘top model’ immediately, if ever. Donald Trump fires the competent candidates on The Apprentice, generally by blaming them for their team’s failure. His most successful and qualified candidate hired to date, Randal Pinkett, didn’t exactly need to be an apprentice, as Pinkett already had a successful business and plenty of talent.
Kelly Clarkson is arguably American Idol‘s greatest success to date (although she may soon face competition for that title from Carrie Underwood, with her stack of Billboard awards and platinum album). While Clay Aiken, Fantasia, and others have earned niche followings, they have not become famous worldwide like Clarkson. She did, however, because she’s an incredibly talented performer, and one who – unlike Aiken and others – shed her Idol image and broke away from the pack. Her second album was even titled Breakaway to signify that she was moving into new territory, and it catapulted her to the top of the charts and pop radio stations worldwide.
She was essentially forced to move in a new direction because Idol is essentially a four-month string of karaoke performances, and the finalists are notoriously assigned pathetic, treacly, hard-to-sing songs that become their first singles.
Producers, it seems, do everything they can to ensure their winner can’t show their true talents, even if they stand to benefit financially. Actually, that investment in winners could be the problem: McCarroll, for example, has hinted he turned down Runway‘s prize because it came with too much legal baggage.
The real reality TV talent success stories, such as Hudson and Clarkson, will continue to be the exception. By casting people for drama and not talent, binding contestants in legal documents, and otherwise creating obstacles for success, producers handicap their talent, and cripple their own shows.