Worst ‘hell week’ in the history of SA Idols

SA Idols XI GroupSome Golden Ticket winners didn’t even see Sun City!

In Idols SA, the countrywide auditions are always followed by the Theatre Phase at Sun City, during which the Golden Ticket winners have to prove to the judges that they are ready for the demands of the competition and that they can deliver their best under the most strenuous of circumstances imaginable. This week of culling down contestants, surprises, tears and drama has become known in Idols circles as “Hell Week”, but nothing could prepare this year’s group of 78 Golden Ticket winners for the nightmare awaiting them.

After boarding the Idols buses the group of excited Golden Tickets were told that they were not on their way to Sun City. Instead, the Golden Ticket winners were dropped at Johannesburg’s glamorous Maslow Hotel in Sandton for for the first-ever Idols SA Masterclass workshop weekend, lead by Idols SA Musical Director RJ Benjamin. “We want to try to give you guys the tools to be the best that you can be,” RJ explained, as the contestants embarked on a series of workshops covering everything from mic technique to how to survive in the competitive music industry, with practical advice from two homegrown Idols who had been where they were now: Season 8 winner Khaya Mthethwa and SAMA nominee Graeme Watkins.

But unbeknownst to the contestants, as they were benefiting from Graeme and Khaya’s experience, the judges were also secretly arriving at the Maslow for their own little workshop, painstakingly reviewing every audition again on tape and secretly observing some of the vocal workshops. Their conclusion? Some of the singers who had received Golden Tickets did not deserve to be there.

So as the happy contestants concluded their Masterclass weekend, Randall Abrahams broke the news that not all of them would continue on to Sun City. “We feel that some of you should go home today,” he announced.

There are three buses waiting outside – two buses are going to drive some of you straight to Sun City. The other bus is going to drive you back to the airport, to go home,” Unathi Msengana explained.

The contestants were reduced to tears as the realisation sunk in that they didn’t even know which bus they were boarding. The true horror only became clear out on the highway, as one bus dramatically pulled away from the convoy to take the airport offramp.

And just like that, 30 Idols SA dreams were crushed for 2015.

Only 48 Golden Ticket winners had survived had the first cut, and Hell Week hadn’t even started yet. The jubilation on the other two buses quickly died down, though, as the surviving contestants remembered that they had the Groups phase waiting for them as soon as they arrived at Sun City. “The hard work starts now,” 20-year-old Emma Elllis from Port Ellizabeth noted somberly as silence fell over the contestants.

Eager to gain any advantage they could, the contestants immediately started conspiring to form groups so long, but Idols SA Season 11 had yet another shock in store for them. “In approximately 24 hours you will audition in groups, and this year we have decided that we will choose the groups for you,” Gareth announced as soon as they arrived at Sun City.

Each group had to appoint a group leader, who would be responsible for the song selection and the arrangement of their song. The producers had chosen exactly 16 songs, one for each group, so it would be first-come first-served for the group leaders, which lead to some frantic negotiation and swapping.

Fortunately this year the contestants had an outlet for their frustrations in the “Telkom Boom Booth”, where they could phone home and share their experiences with their loved ones. “It’s still egos right now,” 25-year-old Phila Madlingozi from Johannesburg confided in his mother. But he was happy to let egos have their moment, he told her. “I want a great show tomorrow because I don’t want to leave.”

And then the long, sleepless night of rehearsals started. “We have a lot of work to do, a lot of harmonies to do … we’re going to sleep very late, if we sleep at all,” said Analisa Motanung (24) from Cape Town, who was in a group with Emma Ellis and 21-year-old Amanda Anthony from Port Elizabeth.

But early the next morning the excitement took over and the contestants were filled with a fresh enthusiasm. “We’re better than we were,” said Phila, who was first up to perform Westlife’s “I Let You Go” with Winston Moonsamy (28) and 19-year-old Hayden Olivier, both from Durban.

But it seemed that Phila’s confidence was misplaced, as he become the only member of his group to survive Groups Round. “It was a spectacularly bad way to start the day,” Randall complained.

The first group’s terrible experience obviously weighed heavily on the second group, Cape Town’s Jaco Botha (23), the 16-year-old schoolboy from Uitenhage, Loyiso Gijana, and 20-year-old Sizwe Mthalane from Cato Ridge, who angered the judges when he mangled his lyrics and grinned over his mistake. “Sizwe, if I had a taxi here I would put you in that taxi and send you home. You’re wasting our time,” Somizi Mhlongo scolded, but they gave him another chance, along with young Loyiso.

And Somizi’s mood didn’t soon improve. “Guys, can you hear the track?” he demanded when the three P.E. girls, Emma Ellis, Anelisa Motaung (24), Amanda Antony (22) murdered All Saints’s “Pure Shores”. “That’s not harmony – it’s discord!” Randall proclaimed, and only Amanda survived that cut.

“The judges seem to be extremely harsh. I’m literally fearing for my life as I’m sitting here,” a terrified Shenay O’ Brien (24) from Johannesburg whispered in the audience.

And from there on in it only got worse as the groups forgot lyrics and mangled harmonies. “If I was the only judge I would make examples of all of you. This is not Idols Charity Cup,” Somizi raged after Elvira Standili (22) from Cape Town, Jo-Lene Slingers (24) from George, and 21-year-old Pearl Khwezi from Margate massacred The Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons”. Only Elvira survived.

“It was like a direct flight to New York. I couldn’t wait for it to be over,” Randall told the Cape Town group of Braxton Schoor (16), Marcha Lombard (19), and Arliya Peters (17) after their rendition of Brick & Lace’s “Love Is Wicked”. And he promptly sent all three of them home.

And then 23-year-old Ron Minor from Moreletta Park, Cape Town’s Matthew Kent (22), and 20-year-old Rhema Vairrie from Alberton, presented an unwise arrangement of the Beatles classic “She Loves You”, which was probably the low point of Randall’s day. “Dismal! Dismal!” he complained. And yet, miraculously Matthew and Rhema survived to try again another day. “I’m thankful for the opportunity that was given to me and I will not make the same mistake again,” said a humbled Rhema.

And it didn’t get better after that. “Guys, it’s a song, it’s not E=MC Squared,” Randall sighed as he sent Ora Kola (22) from Winterveld home after his dispirited performance of The Wanted’s “Glad You Came” with Thami Shobede (26) from Johannesburg and John Niel (24) from Pretoria.

Daniel Minnie (19) from P.E. and Josh Webber (21) and Tebogo Louw (23) from Stellenbosch did a rendition of  “My Girl” by The Temptations that would have sent Smokey Robinson to an early grave if he’d heard it. “You sounded like you’re a bunch of weenies, like you’re singing in a pub somewhere. This is not a pub somewhere,” Randall grumbled, but at least Daniel and Tebogo survived his ire.

Eventually the judges decided to step in to save the day. “You’re not performing as if you deserve to be here, let alone want to be here, let along fighting for that title,” Unathi scolded the contestants. “This stuff that we’re getting on stage, South Africa does not deserve”.

Speaking for the vocal coaches who had spent two days working with these contestants in the Masterclass workshops, RJ Benjamin said they were stunned. “I think the coaches are feeling a bit betrayed,” he admitted.

But the intervention paid off as 29-year-old Dr Mandla Bacela from Butterworth, 24-year-old Lungisa Xhamela from Cape Town, and 23-year-old Karabo Mogane from Nelspruit flawlessly performed The Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me”. “Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!” a delighted Somizi exclaimed. “A perfect example of what teamwork is. You’ve set a benchmark,” he told them, and all three of them made it through to the next round.

And the effect of the scolding continued for the next group of Shenay O’ Brien, 21-year-old Dineo Moseki from Vryburg, and Paarl beauty queen Nadia Herbst (20), who drew the Spice Girls’ “Who Do You Think You Are”. “It was messy as hell,” Gareth admitted, “but the sum was greater than the parts.” Randall, needless to say, did not agree. “Diabolical, Disastrous, and Demonic,” he moaned, but they still put all three of the girls through.

“Sledgehammer” by Fifth Harmony did the trick for Dr Lihle Buthelezi (27) from Ladysmith, 17-year-old Nina Terblanche from Nelspruit, and 18-year-old Bridgitt Leahy from Creighton, 21-year-old Ndumiso Mahlangu from Carolina, and Amy Lombard (29) and Chrystal Worship (26) from Cape Town all survived Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor”.

But only Capetonian Ruan Grobbelaar (24) survived his and the 16-year-old James Janse Van Rensburg from Carltonville and Karabo Mashele from Bedfordview’s mangling of the 5 Seconds of Summer hit,  “She Looks So Perfect”.

And that only left the final girl group of Mmatema Moremi (22) from Pretoria, Busisiwe Mthembu (22) from Springs, and Nonhle Mhlongo (29) from Durban, who took a risk in performing the close harmonies of TLC’s “Creep” completely a capella.

But the risk paid off. “That is a Masterclass in how to do the Group stage,” said Gareth, who lead the judges in a standing ovation. “Best performance of the day!” Somizi agreed, and all three ladies were added to the group of only 29 contestants who had survived the day.

Now they had to start preparing for the biggest audition of their lives: their big solo performance with professional accompaniment, in front of a live audience of fans. “Don’t let us down,” Gareth warned them. “The pressure is on, there is no space for mistakes.”

And the stakes were high, as there was only space for 16 of them to go through to perform for viewers’ votes at the State Theatre in Pretoria this August.

Idols SA Season 11 is screened in HD on M-Net, channel 101, and Mzansi Magic, channel 161, on Dstv. And as always all the auditions will once again be played on the Idols SA Extra channel, channel 199 on DStv, from the time the show’s end credits roll.

You can follow all the Idols SA conversations on the official Idols SA Facebook page, on Twitter by following @IdolsSA, or on Instagram by following @IdolsSA. You can also find us on WeChat on the ID “idolssa”, where you can test your knowledge by using the keyword “Quiz”.

29 Contestants through to individual performances:

Amanda Antony (21) from Port Elizabeth

Amy Lombard (29) from Cape Town

Bridgitt Leahy (18) from Creighton

Busisiwe Mthembu (22) from Springs

Chrystal Worship (26) from Cape Town

Daniel Minnie (19) from Port Elizabeth

Dineo Moseki (21) from Vryburg

Elwira Standili (22) from Cape Town

John Niel (24) from Pretoria

Karabo Mogane (23) from Nelspruit

Lihle Buthelezi (27) from Ladysmith

Loyiso Gijana (16) from Uitenhage

Lungisa Xhamela (24) from Cape Town

Mandla Bacela (29) from Butterworth

Matthew Kent (22) from Cape Town

Mlondi Mkhize (25) from Illovo

Mmatema Moremi (22) from Pretoria

Nadia Herbst (20) from Paarl

Ndumiso Mahlangu (21) from Carolina

Nina Terblanche (17) from Nelspruit

Nonhle Mhlongo (29) from Durban

Phila Madlingozi (25) from Johannesburg

Rhema Vairrie (20) from Alberton

Ruan Grobbelaar (24) from Cape Town

Shenay O’ Brien (24) from Johannesburg

Siphelele Ngcobo (24) from Durban

Sizwe Mthalane (20) from Cato Ridge

Tebogo Louw (23) from Stellenbosch

Thami Shobede (26) from Johannesburg

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