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Idol Dreams

For days, all Kenyatta Walton could think about was his chance to become America's next big singer. The Davie resident spent numerous late nights fine-tuning his guitar skills, polishing his singing voice, and fighting through a cold, all for a shot at making it past the qualifying stages of The Next Pop Star — South Florida's own version of American Idol.

After schlepping out to Jazziz Lounge inside Seminole Hard Rock two Sundays ago to give it his all and filling out the necessary registration forms, Walton thought he was one step closer to having his musical dreams come true.

The only problem: Walton is 35 years old — a full decade older than what judges are looking for. While he obviously overlooked the age requirement for the show, from 13 to 25, the same anger and disappointment associated with televised talent shows like American Idol hit Walton full stride as he angrily walked out of Seminole Hard Rock, spouting nothing but expletives for the contest he had hoped to win.

Bitterness aside, if there's one thing that's unavoidable with competitions like this, it's heartbreak.

As I stood among hundreds of "potential winners" at Jazziz Lounge, all vying for a shot at stardom, it was a bit painful to watch faces of excitement turn into mugs of disappointment. Of the 250 or so aspiring singers who showed up in the pouring rain, hoping for a spot on the televised reality show, a good portion of the contestants were eliminated during the prescreening alone.

Catapulting off the success of other televised vocal competitions, The Next Pop Star is in its first year of production and in the early stages of auditions. The goal is to find 60 legitimate contestants, whittle that down to 30 over the next two months, and start taping episodes to run from January to March on a network yet to be named. The winner will take home either a $2,500 cash prize or a $100,000 recording contract. According to Becky Remmel, head of the Delray Beach-based Evolution Entertainment — which is producing the show in conjunction with Miami's Pop Starz Records — it's fitting that a talent show with national aspirations is getting its start in South Florida.

"There's so much talent here that's untapped," Remmel says as we stroll through the Hard Rock Casino. "There are so many different cultures, it's a really rich, cultural community, with Cubans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, and so on. There is so much talent. We feel like this is the best place in America to find the next pop star."

Although the show has some kinks to work out, the producers appear to be on the right path. Miami soul diva extraordinaire Betty Wright is one of the full-time celebrity judges, and that alone gives Next Pop Star local — and national — credibility. As I head up to Wright's suite in the hotel during a break in the action to ask her how she got involved in all this, I can't help but be a little nervous. Some of her greatest hits, such as "Clean Up Woman" and "Tonight Is the Night," have been staples inside of my head for years, and I can't help but wonder how such a big name in the soul world wound up judging a pop competition.

When I finally get a chance to ask her face to face, Wright — or Ms. B, as everyone calls her — was frank.

"Basically, what we're doing is trying to cut the crap and really do a show where it's about the raw talent," she says, flanked by a makeup crew and photographers, showing that she hasn't lost a touch of diva. "I'm not interested in how nice the hair looks, how cute the shoes are. We want to hear somebody that can really sing." She admits to not being the biggest fan of reality-based competitions, but as a longtime vocal coach, she knows talent when she sees it.

As she dips into a slightly standard response about her support for the show, a door opens and in walks illuminating singer/songwriter Joss Stone, one of Wright's former protégés. With curly purple hair and a gorgeous smile, Stone, aside from being hauntingly beautiful, is an award-winning triple-platinum artist, and she too is a celebrity judge for Next Pop Star. Aubrey O'Day of Danity Kane fame, not on hand at the moment, is the third big-name celebrity judge. Not bad for a local competition.

Of course, O'Day seems a natural for the show. The only reason she's in the public sphere is because she survived Diddy's Making the Band 3 competition and has become a pop star in the process. But Stone? She seems too much of a free spirit to really believe in reality-based vocal competitions, right?

"Yeah, I don't know if I believe in these competitions," she says coyly. "It's interesting. I would never have done it if it wasn't for Ms. B. Never in a million years. There's no way. But if she's behind it, I'm behind it."

As for the validity of the show?

"I believe that every now and again, a li'l gem will pop up," Stone says. "Every show doesn't find you a star. That's what people need to understand. But it can happen. And if not, then we'll stand up and say they were all shit and be honest."

It's yet to be determined how the local show will do in its initial year, but driving away from the competition, I heard Wright's anthemic 1988 hit "No Pain, No Gain" on the radio. Judging by some of the sad young faces I saw on contestants leaving Jazziz, it seemed like the song was playing just for them.

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Jonathan Cunningham