"What is the fucking point? To make an interesting TV show." Gareth Cliff flashes one of his signature narcissistic smiles and comes in close. He's sitting down, but looks taller than ever, toned, with his hair short, smart and preppy atop a downward smudge of a face. "That's my motivation. I'm not interested in creating an artist, I am looking for the potential; for factors like credibility, viability, a recording artist of some longevity, somebody who has appeal, someone who has a hunger for making music, for doing some songwriting perhaps, or performing their own stuff. We're not looking for attention seekers.
Cliff makes up one-third of the judges panel on Idols South Africa, which is now in its eighth go-round. This month he, along with Unathi Msengana and Randall Abrahams, will lay waste the dreams of hopefuls looking to get their tunes stacked on a retail rack. Most will be belittled, some told where to get off, and others strangled of all hope. There will be ritual letdowns, emotional falsities, and the jiggling of tits and tonsils. But, in the end, there will be one winner, one person driven, thick-skinned and talented enough, one person desperately wanting to be recognised, face slapped on the cover of a music mag, adored by thousands, swimming in money. In other words: an attention seeker. But this is as it should be, for Idols has always been about Look At Me, with hand-waving gigs sung at an accelerated pace, packaged in hysteria, broadcast in showy shorthand...
It's a few weeks before the launch and the judges, along with Idols host ProVerb, are posing for pictures at a studio on a grey day in Illovo, Johannesburg. The room is one big square whitewash, with cement flooring entangled in camera cables fastened with sticky tape and festooned with tripods, the ceiling dripping with soft box umbrellas, and a group of people applying clothes, make-up and ersatz veneration. Cliff is next in line for a touch-up, but for now he sits contemplating, gazing into his coffee cup as though it were a fishbowl full of gobies mating. "You know, Idols was kind of whitey in the past, but that was because of the channel. We're way more inclusive now that we're simulcasting on Mzansi, and this year is going to be different. The talent we've found... I mean, just on merit we've got a vast black female demographic. This bodes well, not only for the show, but because there's more chance of a black winner, or at least something slightly different from the usual singer-songwriter we've had in the past."
There have been rumours doing the rounds of a mandate to find a black star. When I bring it up with Msengana in-between shoots, she slaps my knee and says, "Can I be honest with you? I grew up outside of South Africa, I spent my years in Namibia and the following eight years in the U.K., so I don't have a lot of the racial hang-ups that a lot of my peers have. So, for me, I honestly don't care who wins, it must be the best person. If it's a black person voted to win because they're black, then that's going to piss me off, angel."
This is an excerpt of the cover story from the June 2012 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. To read the rest of this story, subscribe to the magazine here.