"Séphora, you have a lot of personality and composure for someone so young. There are lot of people who sing as well as you, but who don't project anything. You are lucky enough to be a natural performer and that's why we love you." The eyes of the young Séphora, 17 years old, light up with her teacher's flattering words. Not everyone has the luxury of a session of private tuition from Jasmine Roy, a vocal coach made famous by the singing classes she has delivered on reality TV programmes. We are in her home, a duplex in the Parisian district of Montparnasse.
Séphora clasps the microphone, ready to seduce. She is preparing the song "You will be", by Emma Daumas, to perform at the audition for the sixth series of the television programme Star Academy. Jasmine Roy films the rehearsal with a camcorder. Beside her, Nicolas Pélacy, a mentor to promising youngsters, offers some practical advice: "Look at the camera, but don't forget the judges. Don't take your mouth too far away from the microphone. Don't pull funny faces if you go off key; nobody has noticed." Jasmine and Nicolas have just published a practical guide to performing at auditions, aimed at people with no experience like Séphora.
"I have a lot of faith in this girl, because she still has fun when she sings", assures her teacher, "and I really want to lend her a helping hand." Between 10,000 and 19,000 candidates will audition, and only 16 will be selected. Jasmine Roy is on the decision panel, but she insists that her pupil won't have an unfair advantage, since the final decision is the responsibility of 27 people.
"They'll ask you a lot of questions to see if you're strong enough psychologically. For example, they could ask you if you see yourself being able to lose weight" fires the teacher. The full-figured blonde doesn't think twice before answering enthusiastically: "yes, definitely. I'd already thought about it." Her tutor remains prudent: "the only reason I've encouraged Séphora to try her luck at the Star Academy auditions is that it won't be the end of the world for her if she is rejected. The audition might motivate her to start taking proper classes."
Taking Europe by fire
The format of the televised competition, where a group of young people receive classes to transform themselves into singers, has become all the rage throughout Europe and beaten a string of ratings records. The popularity of these programmes has triggered the proliferation of singing teachers, some more professional than others, responding to the hopes of a new generation of budding performers who dream of becoming singers and hitting the big time. In order to control the market, singing teachers in France are obliged to obtain a diploma before they can teach in state schools. The private sector, on the other hand, is not regulated and anybody can call themselves a singing coach. Jasmine Roy believes it is pointless to impose the obligation to have a diploma: "I have 20 years of experience on stage, but there are many teachers who have never sung. On the other hand, how can you expect me to be able to teach beginners like Séphora how to read music?"
The fever for the performing arts is having an effect on parents and younger children too. Themed summer camps for children between 8 and 12 do exist, where the children can produce their own record. A stay of 15 days costs 949 euros. Meanwhile, the auditions for Star Academy are attracting ever younger candidates. "A 12-year old child is not sufficiently prepared, mentally or physically. We recommend that parents wait. You have to remember that the majority of child actors or singers do not go on to have careers because they burn themselves out" states Jasmine Roy.
Unfortunately, alongside the legal industry, there is a fraudulent market full of people who have no links with show business and are just looking for a way to get rich. The Stop Arnak Casting association has been supporting victims of phoney castings in France and Belgium since 1999 and in Italy since the end of last year. The association calculates that between 15,000 and 20,000 people are swindled in this way each year. Its president, James D Chabert, thinks that "in a few years time, these young people will form a generation of disappointed hopefuls". The Internet is an endless source of fraudulent casting agencies. One of France's most scandalous cases of fraud on a massive scale was that of arenacasting.com, which cheated 13,000 people out of 200 euros, handed over to pay for a portfolio, after which the company disappeared.
Boris wanted to become an actor and tore a telephone number from an advert he found stuck to a lamppost. He paid 600 euros to the media agency to put together a portfolio and have access to casting adverts. "An amateur took our photos and messed them up. There were loads of us. I was expecting a more professional deal that would allow me to meet casting directors. Over the course of a year, they only got me roles as an extra that I could have found on my own. Afterwards, the agency vanished into thin air" he angrily remembers.
What lengths would you go for success?
Dreams of greatness can lead people down dark alleys. The Stop Arnak Casting association claims that 10% of fraudulent cases are linked to cases of prostitution, paedophilia or sex. The president of the association, James D. Chabert, states that "the victims are willing to do anything for fame. They usually have a lot of financial problems." He adds that "later they feel ashamed and prefer to forget."
In France, there have even been some cases of paedophilia with the consent of the parents. Mentioning no names, Chabert accuses "a famous person from the music world of promising to make stars of young men in return for sexual favours." The saddest thing about it is that the alleged victims have all ended up making a name for themselves. "The popularity of the accused, the artistic success of the victims and the complicity of the parents all make it difficult to find witnesses and evidence" says Chabert.