It was 7:58 p.m. on Thursday night, and 700 screaming fans were gathered inside EarthLink Live, a hip concert venue in Midtown Atlanta. Outside, another 300 eager ticketholders lined the street. A young 20-something shrieked into her cell phone, taunting a jealous friend as she sauntered through the throngs into the sold-out event. In the lobby, those wearing coveted VIP passes around their necks skipped the line, loading up on food and drink before finding seats close to the stage. But no, this was no Beyoncé concert — this was a Hillel singing competition.
In a choreographed effort to revamp their image, Hillels of Georgia created “Campus SuperStar,” a decidedly low-budget attempt to mimic the wild success of Fox’s televised singing competition “American Idol.”
Since “Campus SuperStar” kicked off in February, more than 200 students from 19 Georgia schools have auditioned. And although the Jewish campus organization was behind it, the singers came in all stripes and colors. C’mon, how many Barbra Streisands can there be, anyway? The 11 finalists performing April 1 resembled something more akin to a United Nations parlor meeting than a Hillel event.
Sponsored by more than 200 corporations and local families, the singing contest wasn’t just for 15 minutes in the spotlight. The grand prize had been set at $5,000 and came with the opportunity to sing the national anthem at an Atlanta Falcons football game. But the financial windfall really went to Hillel. The campus organization estimates it made more than $100,000 after all was said and done.
Inside the auditorium, it was difficult from the get-go for some observers to overlook the cheesy vibe of the evening. A larger-than-life cardboard television set loomed on the stage. Inside the “screen” were a couch and chairs where the evening’s master of ceremonies, a C-list local radio disc jockey, chatted up contestants. Oversized plastic stars dotted the stage. A “Campus SuperStar” sign hung from the rafters, surrounded by flashing lights.
Hillel had even lined up four “celebrity” judges. The only problem was that nobody knew who they were. The most high-profile of the four judges on the bill was an out-of-work actor whose last significant role was on “Party of Five,” a show that’s been off the air for four years. And he was a no-show.
Stranger still was the audience. Hillel hosted a pre-“Campus SuperStar” affair honoring two long-standing Atlanta families, which brought out the older, more established members of the city’s Jewish community. But by the time the clock struck 8, this well-heeled audience had been joined by a few hundred college students who brought with them a frat-party vibe. The senior citizens squirmed in their seats.
The first singer to perform was Nicole Boddington, a Star Jones look-alike who burst onto the stage singing a Toni Braxton tune. The master of ceremonies looked bored. With overachiever smiles plastered across their cherubic faces, the performers strived to convey their uniqueness. Han Oh, whose mother was a Korean pop star in the 1970s, looked like the Asian Clay Aiken. Hakim Ziyad, a dreadlocked Lenny Kravitz wannabe, told the audience that his dreams went beyond singing; he’s shopping around his first screenplay. And the magnetic Brenton Brown, a dead ringer for a college-aged Chris Tucker, began with the high-pitched voice one usually associates with spotting a spider, but later wowed the crowd with his nuanced performance.
Between songs, local Jewish students spoke of how Hillel has radically changed their lives. “Hillel is awesome,” one said with the conviction of a doped-up Pauly Shore.
After two hours, the group was whittled down to five. It was time for the audience to vote on a winner. Andra London — who sang a powerful rendition of Celene Dion’s “I Surrender” — took home the grand prize.
Some audience members questioned whether the odds had somehow been stacked in London’s favor. The 19-year-old London was the only Jewish contestant, and the only participant active in Hillel.
“A lot of people asked me about it,” Jacob Schreiber, executive director of Hillels of Georgia, told the Forward. “But I don’t think there’s any merit to it. My dad thought she was Italian, and one person told me they voted for her because they thought she was hot.”
Yes, she was hot. And her abilities have been recognized repeatedly. Her talent has won her roles in more than 130 stage productions, including a production of “Pocahontas” at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“My religion never crossed my mind,” London said backstage just minutes after winning, grasping an oversized check for $5,000 with her name on it.
In the lobby, the remainder of the night’s contestants kept smiles on their faces, congratulating London for a job well-done. And the crowd, made up of mostly Jews, felt a sense of awkward pride that one of their own had won.
“If I knew this whole competition would be fixed, I wouldn’t have been so interested to begin with,” said Rina, a senior at Georgia State University who asked that her last name not be printed. “I don’t really think this made Hillel look any cooler. If anything, it had the opposite effect.”
Rina’s thoughts were echoed by many. “If this event was touted as a way to make Hillel more hip, it seems it may have actually made it appear devastatingly uncool,” said another disgruntled audience member. “It’s a sad, sad commentary.”
Benyamin Cohen is the editor of Jewsweek.com and is working on a book tentatively titled “How To Find a Wife in 100 Dates.”