This week it was make or break for the 29 Idols SA contestants who survived the long queues at the nationwide auditions as well as the ruthless cuts at this season’s harder-than-ever-before Theatre Week.
To secure their place in the coveted Idols Top 16, they had to give their all with a solo performance in front of the harshest critics imaginable – the four Idols judges, the media and the biggest Idols fans from across the country, who were brought to Sun City courtesy of Telkom.
Elwira Standili (22) from Worcester, who judge Somizi Mhlongo had loved so much at the Cape Town auditions, opened the day with an impressive, confident performance of Jennifer Hudson’s Giving Myself, with piano and percussion accompaniment.
“You gave me the first goosebumps of the season,” Mhlongo told her. “You nearly gave me an Unathi moment.” And even the toughest judge Randall Abrahams was impressed. “This was a very considered performance,” he noted happily. “Just enough soulfulness, just enough feeling where necessary.”
Standili had set the bar high for the rest of the contestants and it would be a while before Abrahams would be that generous again. “I get the sense that you think it will be all right, you don’t have to do too much,” he told 25-year-old Phila Madlingozi from Johannesburg. “I felt that you were cruising.”
“I will take the notes and I will do better when I get to the Top 16,” the unflappable Madlingozi joked afterwards backstage.
During the Masterclass workshop, Gareth Cliff had predicted that 20-year-old Nadia Herbst from Paarl would never make it all the way through Hell Week, because of how she fell apart after her Cape Town audition. But after working on her song with vocal coach Malie Kelly, Herbst felt confident that she could prove him wrong. “Everything is just perfect for me,” she said happily. The 20-year-old beauty queen crushed her performance of the Shakira hit Can’t Remember To Forget You, and even Cliff had to concede that she had “pulled it off really well”. “I also enjoyed it,” said Unathi Msengana, but Mhlongo had a little warning for Herbst to “be careful, my child, that the key and you don’t go divorce”.
“When I came to Idols I said to myself I am achieving my destiny,” said 24-year-old Siphelele Ngcobo from Durban, who gave a lovely jazzy swing to Zahara’s mega-hit, Loliwe, much to the delight of the judges and the fans, who rewarded him with a standing ovation – Mhlongo even standing on his chair. “To think that you were this close to not making it to this round,” he exclaimed. “You murdered it.”
But not all of the solo singers came off stage in triumph. The judges were scathing about 18-year-old Bridgitt Leahy from Creighton, who sang Lorde’s Team. “Visually you look amazing,” Mhlongo praised her, but “unfortunately this is not America’s Next Top Model. It’s about singing“. “I don’t think you have the legs for a competition like this,” said Abrahams, reducing the 18-year-old to tears backstage. “I let myself down,” she sobbed.
And even the usually supportive Mhlongo thought 29-year-old Amy Lombard from Cape Town’s performance of CharliXCX’s Boom Clap was “so karaoke, like a bar in Bronkhorstspruit”. “We’re looking for an original talent that ultimately is going to become a recording artist, and this, this was not it,” said Abrahams. “Not by a long shot.”
But Lombard still got off relatively easy compared to fellow Capetonian Matthew Kent (22). “I think you’ll be embarrassed to watch it,” Cliff told him. And Mhlongo chided poor Mlondi Mkhize (25) from Illovo that he sounded like “a speaking, singing cat being strangled”, in the falsetto bits in Maxwell’s Bad Habits.
Johannesburg’s 25-year-old Shenay O’Brien was confident before her performance, noting that her rehearsals had gone “immensely well”. She performed David Guetta’s Lovers On The Sun with just some acoustic guitar and percussion accompaniment, and left the judges divided. Msengana loved it unreservedly. “You killed it. I love your vocal control,” she raved.
But Cliff was more careful. “You, more than anybody else, have to be so careful not to stray into cabaret or pastiche territory,” he cautioned O’Brien. “Please stay on this track. The minute you do something too flamboyant they’re going to say it’s a comedy show. You deserve to be taken seriously,” he said. But Mhlongo disagreed. “Be you, a hundred percent,” he encouraged O’Brien. “If you don’t make it to the ‘Top Whatever’, you will have been yourself. Trust me – there is a market for you. You slayed.”
But O’Brien was only one standout in some of the best individual auditions in Idols SA history. The judges and fans were blown away by the assured, mature performance of 16-year-old Loyiso Gijana from Uitenhage, singing Usher’s Good Kisser.
Nonhle Mhlongo (29) from Chesterville in Durban sang Alicia Keys’ epic Empire State of Mind Pt 2 and Abrahams was uncharacteristically enthused. “You brought the street, you brought the Brooklyn,” he raved. “And I think that you got the feel of the song right. It wasn’t perfect,” he noted. “But doesn’t have to perfect.”
But he was soon scowling again after Sizwe Mthalane (20) from Cato Ridge’s rendition of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. “It’s a bit overwrought,” Abrahams told him. “And I think that’s the problem with all of your performances. It’s too much drama.”
And Tebogo Louw (23) from Stellenbosch, who Msengana said delivered a “perfect audition” in Cape Town, stumbled at the final hurdle. “I haven’t seen any change on what you’ve done between last year and this year,” said Abrahams. “You sing one-dimensionally,” he complained. “After about two or three weeks people will be tired of you.”
Karabo Mogane (24) from Nelspruit had an opposite reversal of fortune with his performance of Maxwell’s Pretty Wings. After calling him “depressing” at the Pretoria auditions, “with a dishwashing-water personality”, this time Mhlongo declared that he was Karabo’s new Number One fan. “You sound so seasoned,” he said. “You have a tone that people would do anything to have. In my books you’re probably one of the best male vocalists in the competition.”
And after ticking all the boxes for a perfect Idols SA contestant in the regional auditions, and getting rave reviews in the Groups phase, 24-year-old Lungisa Xhamela from Cape Town continued on his winning streak with his individual performance of Michael Jackson’s Love Never Felt So Good, earning a standing ovation from the judges. “It’s my favourite performance so far of the whole day – you left everybody in the dust,” said Cliff. “You did a great song do the work for you. It was perfect because it was simple, and we could hear how good your voice is.”
23-year-old Mmatema Moremi from Zebediela in Limpopo was part of the group that blew the judges away with their performance of TLC’s Creep. And with her performance of Demi Lovato’s Scyscraper as the final solo performer of the day, she proved that that was no fluke. Mhlongo was literally jumping up-and-down with joy and hugging himself.
“Who are you?” he exclaimed in wonder. “Where are you from? How did you make it here before we noticed you? Your gods are with you, my sister, your ancestors are with you. You scyscraped.”
Msengana was reduced to tears. “You reminded the 28 people who sang before you that they had one chance,” she sobbed, “and for a lot of them that once chance wasn’t enough because you came, and you shut it down”.
But despite that triumph, Moremi still had to wait an agonising 24 hours, along with all of the other contestants, to find out if she would survive the final cut to the Top 16, and get to perform for the fans’ votes at the State Theatre in Pretoria this August.
That result will be broadcast next week, Sunday, 23 August, on M-Net, channel 101, and Mzansi Magic, channel 161 on Dstv. And as always, all the performances are still being played on the Idols SA Extra channel, channel 199 on DStv.