Singing competitions are a dime a dozen these days, between big hitters like "American Idol" and "The Voice" to more modest entries like "X Factor" and ABC's "Duets." On Thursday, August 16 at 9 p.m. ET, The CW gets into the game with "The Next," a more intimate contest that sees the celebrity mentors -- Joe Jonas, Gloria Estefan, Nelly and John Rich -- moving into their chosen contestant's life for 72 hours in order to groom them for a shot at stardom.
The show will visit six cities -- Orlando, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Dallas and LA -- and rather than soliciting random auditionees as the other shows do, "The Next" seeks out four homegrown artists who may have already established themselves in small clubs around town, or built a following on social media, but failed to get a record deal.
"[My producing partner, Shakim Compere, and I] thought, 'Well, what about those people who live right next door, who you knew all your life, or you knew for a few years, or so-and-so’s niece who sings amazing and has a great following?" executive producer Queen Latifah explained when she sat down with HuffPost TV earlier this week. "As music lovers, there’s always those people who are right there and you’ve heard ‘em sing and you're like, ‘You know, Kim is singing tonight at the club. We’re going.’ But Kim has no deal; Kim may have performed or opened up for someone, she might’ve sung in the choir, she has a great demo, but she never got that big break. So we said, 'OK, what if we made up something called ‘The Star Next Door’? They are a star in the making and they live right next door to you, but they just need that one little thing that pushes them over the top."
The concept evolved from there, and Latifah turned to friends such as Gloria Estefan and hip-hop artist Nelly to help mentor the contestants in a supportive, yet honest, way. "[We don’t want to] make buffoonery of artists and bring on people who can’t really sing at all and you know can’t sing," Latifah insisted. "They make good TV, but they’re terrible ... I wanna be satisfied when I’m watching a show. I just hate it when you poke too much fun, and it’s almost like being a bully."
Latifah pointed to artists like Chris Daughtry as inspiration -- someone who kept a clear sense of his own identity even while being pushed through the reality TV machine.
"There’s a lot of people like that; maybe they just need that exposure, or maybe it was a parent who told you you’re never gonna amount to something or a boyfriend or girlfriend that was holding you back. Maybe you think you have to look a certain way or be a certain way," Latifah said. "So we said, 'Well, what if we put mentors who’ve made it with people who are trying to get there -- maybe they can spot something in them that can help them get to that point. And then [the contestants] have their built in audiences; they’ve worked; they’ve played these clubs; the promoters know who they are; their fans know who they are; they’re working social media -- what if we just put someone with them to bring out the best in them in their own hometown, and let them compete against several other people from their hometown with the same thing?"
The show is structured so that the hometown fans -- the live audience inside the chosen venue during the city visits -- votes on the winner from that city. After a winner is chosen from each location (plus a fan favorite to be selected by the audience watching at home), the show will progress to live rounds that see the final seven whittled down to one, and that overall champion will receive a contract with Atlantic Records.
Though country star John Rich was rehearsing for the night's taping and unavailable for interview, HuffPost TV did sit down with Joe Jonas, Gloria Estefan and Nelly to learn more about the show and what the three bring to the table as mentors.
The show is designed to be the anti-"Idol"
Estefan: "They’ve invited me many times on other competition shows and other than the commitment of having to move to the other coast, I also do not like criticizing or judging or having to choose. We went the other day to 'The Voice' to watch the taping and they have to make some very tough decisions, and I don’t know if I would be happy doing that, let’s put it that way ... I don’t like to be critical, and any critique that I do have is always gonna be tempered with a lot of positive ways for them to be able to overcome. That’s just me, although I loved watching Simon [Cowell] when he was on 'Idol,' particularly for that. That’s Simon, he’s not an artist so he doesn’t know what that’s like, and that’s what made the show, quite honestly -- that’s why I tuned in, in the beginning. It’s a different style completely."
Nelly: "When I heard you were getting the chance to mentor and not judge, I thought that was dope, I thought that was a cool concept. And when I found out that it was helping artists that have already laid down a foundation of work for themselves, I thought that was great. Because here you have these artists who probably have been working for years, basically doing everything that they should be doing and had accumulated a nice following for themselves, but just haven’t got that break. It’s about doing something with people that deserve it a little more. It’s kind of like, we’re not rewarding the ones who need rewarding in this business, because they’ve worked hard, and they deserve a shot like everybody else. I think that’s what we’re providing and I think that’s what’s more intriguing about it."
Jonas: "What made me want to do it was the fact that people didn’t get the chance they deserved -- these are people that have gone day in and day out trying, failing, getting dropped by record labels, and it was really time for them to get the opportunity they had [on the show]. It’s fun; we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we have a good time with it and I think that was something that I wanted to be a part of."
They all have different mentoring styles
Estefan: "My mentoring style is probably also my parenting style, and my style of being with everybody. I’m not overbearing, I don’t like to push the envelope, I understand where they’re coming from because I’m an artist so I know; I would never be critical or harsh. I try to find a way into their psyche, analogies I can make to them that are going to stick with them. We’re there for 72 hours, so when they get up on that stage, you revert a lot to habit, so it’s just trying to figure out a way to get through to them so that they remember this for this performance, because obviously we’re trying to deal with things that I think are going to hinder them in that moment."
Nelly: "My mentoring style is ... I think we all try to be honest, so I don’t want to say that, but I also try to relate a little more. I say, 'Let me try to put myself in their position; if I was doing this, how would I feel? What would I want Nelly to tell me, and how would I want him to tell me so that I’m not feeling self-conscious about it?' This business is a hard business and this business doesn’t really care, it steps on you, and it is brutally honest sometimes. But I just try to give them whatever they need."
Jonas: "My mentoring style would probably be described as fun. I like to have fun with the artists, but I've gotta be honest, and sometimes we disagree. I always try to find something positive in each artist and try to say something good about them and then obviously you’ve got to say something that might be critiquing or constructive criticism."
Teaching others has taught them something new about themselves
Estefan: "I learned that there’s a lot that I can share with these kids and these people that are in this process. I came into it probably concerned that I wouldn’t have as much to tell them because these people are already great, but I found there’s always something helpful I can bring to the table, because I’ve been through practically anything that could possibly happen on stage and off."
Nelly: "I think it’s taught me patience a little bit more, because I’m dealing with artists that wanna be where I’ve been. It’s kind of like looking at yourself in the mirror, because I was in that position once before, so it teaches you to be a little bit more patient and understand how they’re feeling about this situation, how nervous and how scared they really are. I just try to break that, 'I know you’re nervous, I know you’re shaken, I know you really want this, and I want you to have this that bad with you. So I wanna do whatever it takes to first help you give the best performance that you can do -- because you only get one shot -- and feel good about doing it.'"
Jonas: "I was surprised because you can’t just go with the flow always -- you’ve got to be honest. If Nelly, John and Gloria liked the artist and you didn’t really love them, you can say, 'Listen, man, I think you need to work on this.' That’s what I learned about myself."
They all think that competition shows have affected the industry -- for better and worse.
Estefan: "It’s given people a platform, because they weren’t the cause of what took down the music business, the business part of it. It’s kind of like the Industrial Revolution but in technology, and when we think back, a lot of businesses went under with the Industrial Revolution and a lot of businesses are going under with this. The business of music has really taken a hit -- intellectual property -- it’s not gonna be just music, it’s gonna be book writers and movies and anything that can be digitally taken without being paid for. But, is that going to stop people from making music? I think not. Artists are always gonna do what we feel we need to do. You’re always gonna have the live performances that I think people are always gonna want to go to, just like people still want to go to the movies even though the movies have taken a big hit too from people having home theaters and all that. But artists are always going to make art and I think musicians will continue to do so, and these shows at least have given a platform to be able to to hear musicians, to see them, because everything’s a visual medium now, and if you don’t have that, where are you going to become known? It’s very tough."
Nelly: "I think [these shows have] changed it. I think like with any change there’s good and bad. I’m not here to say it’s changed it for the bad when there’s so many people getting the opportunity to do certain things in their life that they wouldn’t have been able to do; I’m not gonna say it changed for the good because I’m not sure that those people are the right people who should’ve gotten that chance. I can’t say that, but I can say that I feel good about what we’re doing on our show, because of the people that have earned the right. That’s the cool thing about it, it’s not like someone just started singing yesterday and they’re on the stage tomorrow, and you’re like, 'Really?' when there’s someone who’s been doing this for two, three, four years who has just as strong a voice, great presence, just hasn’t been at the right place at the right time or who has probably been working their butts off and trying to support their family. So it’s a little tough to say, but I do feel good about what we’re doing."
Jonas: "It’s good and there are negative points to it. Some people win the competition shows and they don’t realize that that’s when the hard work comes into play. You kind of have to understand that once that all starts up, that’s when you really have to focus in and say, 'OK, now I’m going to work hard.' Some people, I think, don’t understand that when you win, it’s not like you won a Grammy; you gotta go and do your record and really power through."
Click through our gallery for more fun tidbits from the mentors, including their embarrassing pre-fame jobs, whether Gloria Estefan will return to "Glee" and more!
"The Next" premieres Thurs., Aug. 16 at 9 p.m. ET on The CW. Will you watch?
"I had one job before I joined the band, and that was as an interpreter for English, French and Spanish at the airport in immigration and customs. It was hairy. I had to go in and tell people to strip naked; I had to take a sausage off of a nun that she had on a rope between her legs that she was trying to smuggle into the country. This was the late '70s, so we had some interesting drug busts in the airport -- I once caught a little old lady in her 80s who looked like the most innocent thing with a hairdryer full of cocaine. It was never a dull moment, I can tell you that!"
"I worked at McDonalds, I worked at UPS -- those were the biggest jobs I had for the longest period. I worked at McDonalds since I was a junior in high school to a couple of years out of high school, then I worked at UPS up until a year or two before 'Country Grammar' came out ... [This] is a little different!"
"I remember sweeping a little deli near my house for a few months, like a summer job. Luckily I started pretty young!"
"I would love to return to 'Glee,' we talked about it very much, Ryan Murphy and I. The plan was that I was going to spend two or three shows, and then things happened like Whitney passing and they had to change that season. But we're still planning to; I would love to have it out with that grandma. I would not let that happen with my mother and my daughter, I could not let that lie like that. We have interesting thoughts about the characters, both mine and the grandmother character, so I would love to come and resolve some of that. I think she deserves better, Santana, than where the grandma left it, I think the grandma deserves to evolve and grow."
"After so long, it's about keeping yourself competitive, keeping your drive going, trying to keep yourself as relevant as possible with the music. That's the trickiest thing, because music changes so fast now -- it's always a new sound somewhere, and with the internet, you can hear that new sound tomorrow, or you can pick which music you like to listen to and only listen to that ... The album is great, I'm excited about it because it's my seventh joint, 13 years later and I got some great collaborations and great producers on there."
"It's something you never really get used to; fame is something you've got to learn about yourself and how to deal with it and your comfort levels, but when it comes to paparazzi and crazy fans, you take it day by day. My fans are awesome, I love my fans, so I don't mind spending time with them."