Nelly, Joe Jonas help Chicago singers shine on ‘The Next'
Nelly visited Jabari and his girlfriend at Navy Pier. Gloria Estefan invaded Iliana’s performance at Olivia’s Ristorante. Joe Jonas grabbed Julian some extra tips at the Potbelly Sandwich Shop at Madison and Clinton. John Rich sang impromptu verses with Janelle under an L stop.
Needless to say, some Chicago singers found themselves in unexpectedly heady company.
A new series on the CW, “The Next: Fame Is on Your Doorstep” (8 p.m. Thursdays, WGN-Channel 9) brings a different twist to the saturated talent-search market. The singing competition ambushed four local artists with the opportunity for one to represent the Windy City.
“I’m out on a date with my girlfriend at Navy Pier, and Nelly’s at the bottom of the Ferris wheel. It’s like, ‘OK, I need to get down,’ ” said Jabari Rayford, 22, running his hand through his naturally twisted hair. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, just jump down.’ And I think that may not be the best idea.
“I had to have a talk with [my girlfriend] that night because — I won’t say she ran over me to get to Nelly, but there was definitely a little nudge to get to Nelly. She was definitely excited.”
The “Next” constestants think they have made it to final interviews but do not know they already have been chosen. Out of nowhere, a celebrity mentor surprises the artist at a random Chicago spot.
“I’m in a cowboy hat leaning against a steel beam underneath the L train. People were recognizing me going, ‘Why is he standing there with dollar bills in his guitar case in it singing a blues song?’ ” said John Rich. “She sees me. Her eyes bug out of her head.”
There is no open casting call like on “American Idol” or “The Voice.” The contestants have been handpicked based on local popularity in six musical hot-spot cities.
Host Allison Hagendorf, formerly of “Top 20 Countdown” on the Fuse channel, used to sign new talent when she worked in A&R for Sony.
“I’ve done my research. I’ve watched all their videos online. I know how many hits they have,” said Hagendorf, who notes the contestants’ “big online presence.”
“When they post a new video they’re already getting thousands and thousands of hits online,” Hagendorf said. “They’re all artists that have that do-it-yourself work ethic. In today’s day and age it’s as important as their talent.”
After meeting the contestants, celebrity mentors work with them and visit their families, which leads to fun moments like Estefan gardening with her contestant and Jonas grabbing tips at the Potbelly.
“We’re basically engulfed in their lives for about 72 hours,” said Nelly, Jabari’s mentor. “If they go to work we go to work. If they go by Granny’s house we go by Granny’s house. If they’re cutting grass, we’re cutting grass — well, we might be watching while they’re cutting grass, but it’s along that line.”
The big names become fish out of water, says executive producer Dave Broome. “We let them see what our contestants are going through. Bring them back to their own roots.”
The Chicago episode (airing Sept. 6) culminates in a competition at the Vic Theatre, taped July 30. In the days before, mentors advised contestants on how to take their talent to the next level.
“We’re not untouchable,” Rich said. “Some of the shows out there are all about being a little untouchable — the judges or whoever. They’re sitting up there on a throne basically and making their judgment calls. Those are cool shows; this show is almost the antithesis of that.”
The contestants can use their mentors’ advice or shrug it off. “We’re not really making the decision if this person should be a star,” Nelly said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. It’s not up for us to decide.”
Illiana Incandela graduated from Dominican University and started her own free-lance design business in Spain. During her last day there, she noticed a woman sitting next to her at McDonald’s.
“We hear a voice behind us and my sister goes, ‘That lady sounds just like Gloria Estefan.’ We turned around and it was her with her daughter, her husband and whole entourage,” she said. “I didn’t talk to her. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, if it’s meant to be, we’ll meet again.’ ”
Later Illiana, 23, was singing at Olivia’s Ristorante in Highland Park when she realized it was meant to be.
“I see the fence to the alley open up and a waitress comes out of there. I recognized that it was Gloria, and I started to laugh hysterically because she was wearing a waitress uniform,” Illiana said. “But then I started to cry because you wait all your life. You have so many signs that lead to something like this, and then she was actually there.
“It was meant to be,” she said, moments before being miked to sing at the Vic.
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