X marks the shot at stardom

Well heeled: Christchurch wannabe songstress Siobhan Sadgrove waits her turn at the X-Factor pre-auditions at Addington Raceway.
Well heeled: Christchurch wannabe songstress Siobhan Sadgrove waits her turn at the X-Factor pre-auditions at Addington Raceway.

My thighs are getting the best work out they've had in two years. Who knew singing relied so much on leg muscles?

"You're not mean enough," says my singing teacher and X-Factor mentor Virginia Humphrey-Taylor. "I can't really believe you mean the words."

I'm in the middle of rehearsing a song about either an obsessed lover with stalker tendencies or a hungry werewolf. There's a lot of teeth gnashing, fist clenching, finger curling, and general writhing as I act out the lyrics. Sometimes I wonder if I'm overdoing it, but performance is all about drama.

Lights, camera, action: Francesca Lee has the look and the songs - now it's just down to the judges.
Lights, camera, action: Francesca Lee has the look and the songs - now it's just down to the judges.

The problem is whether I could replicate this - being performed at present in a quiet living room overlooking neat gardens in a suburb in Christchurch - in the CBS Arena, where the first round of talent picking for the show is to take place.

This is the first year of X-Factor New Zealand and the producers are seeking singers for the Kiwi version of a show which has been a smash hit in Britain and the United States; although I suspect it is the judges' caustic comments - the meaner the better - that have given the show such a huge following.

My decision to go to the initial talent selection was a challenge to myself. Ever since I was a child - my first foray into performance was singing church hymns in the school toilets - people have told me I had a good voice. They were probably just being nice.

My training begins only a month before the try-outs.

"Your voice is better than I expected it to be," Humphrey-Taylor says to me on our first lesson. "You're very operatic in style."

Not exactly what I wanted as my choices are two non-operatic songs, Howl by Florence + The Machine and Storm the Sorrow by dutch band Epica.

"Storm the Sorrow will show off your range," she says, "but you do Howl so well."

She suggests I start off with Howl and, if I get the chance, to perform Storm the Sorrow as my second song.

From second-hand information, the judges often prefer songs which do not gel with the singer's image. Gentlemen belting out Britney Spears often do well.

I add Chasing the Dragon by Epica (about substance abuse) and Bedroom Hymns by Florence + The Machine (raunchy) to complete the repertoire of four songs I'm supposed to submit.

Humphrey-Taylor makes me practise singing while keeping my jaw almost completely still to help me reduce the tension in my neck and throat. "Keep your tongue touching the back of your bottom teeth. You need to open up your resonation chambers," she tells me.

The quickest way to warm up, I discover, is to blow raspberries, or lip bubbles, as professional singers call them. We go up to the top to my vocal range and then back down again, leaving my lips and face tingling. Virginia keeps telling me to relax and not to "turtle neck". Somehow, I keep on tilting my head back so far that my vocal cords end up strained.

My performance will have to incorporate sound and vision so, while Humphrey-Taylor trains my voice, I seek help from stylist and hairdresser Lisa Humphrey of Solace Hair and Beauty.

We decide on a femme fatale look with Cruella de Ville hair - half white, half black - and an overall tone suggesting darkness and blood. To fit the bill we choose black ankle boots and a tight black halter neck jersey dress that's easy to move in and won't wrinkle - we match my lipstick to my nails, painting them both in the same shade as dried blood.

"The piece de resistance is the black eye shadow. The trick to transforming into a rockstar is the drama," she says.

THE BIG day. I've set my alarm for 5.30am to give me enough time to put on enough hairspray to melt a new hole in the ozone layer. I'm a little nervous, but not too much. Reality hasn't kicked in yet. I warm up in the car, not that it isn't already very warm. It's turning out to be another surprising Canterbury scorcher, which will be brilliant for lining up.

The size of the queue surprises me. It's several hundred metres long by the time I get to Addington Raceway at 9am, and winding halfway around the car park. People have brought their umbrellas and camping chairs.

"I want to become a famous singer-slash-actress," says Jannaya Paratene, 14, who's been in the line since 8am.

Her friend Lehi Ruki, 14, says he was inspired by singer Astro who was in last year's X-Factor in the United States.

"I had confidence issues," says Whare Mihinui, 32, of Hornby. "I never could sing at all. People say Maori can sing but I couldn't.

"But I turned 32 last year and thought I'd got to fix it, so I joined a karaoke group and got confidence. This is just like my graduation.

"My friends said I should go and do it. They said they would do it too. Three or four of them pulled out."

He's excited about the audition, as is fellow contestant Ronelle Bianchet, a 44-year-old mum-of-two from Avonhead.

"I have given birth twice," she says. "I can do this. It's such a great opportunity. Let's go for it. Life's too short."

And that's where we'll have to leave it for a while. Because I'm a contestant, I'm bound by the confidentiality agreement not to say anything about the pre-audition process so the producers of the show can keep some of the show's mystery. Instead, we'll leap ahead to the reactions. . .

"I'm so very excited," says Mihinui when he comes out of his audition. "Instead of being scared, I was really excited. I'd love to do it all over again. I'd go home and cry if it had been a year ago. I feel like my fear is going away."

Bianchet says the pre-audition didn't put her off singing. "I'm really proud of myself that I have done it. It was an intense experience. I'm really proud to give it a go and it won't stop me from singing. It's a pity I can't do it twice."

Lesa Filimaua and Cullen Simpson auditioned with a group of friends and relatives.

"We're here to support each other," she says. "Even though they said no to me, it was all good."

The X-Factor pre-auditions will travel up the country over the next couple of weeks ending in Kaitaia on Waitangi Day. Anyone who makes it through the first round will head to Auckland some time in February for another round.

Sunday Star Times