Many times as a kid I watched contestants as they were harshly critiqued on shows like "American Idol" or "America's Got Talent," and told myself, "I would probably kill myself if that was me." This past Tuesday, it was me.
Growing up in a Persian-American, single-parent home I learned early on that fitting in to the small, conservative, Southern town where I grew up just wasn't in the deck for me. I ran to New York City and found a haven in this beautiful, gender non-conforming, queer, art, nightlife scene where everyone was a kid feeling like they fit into something for the first time. Nightlife really was kind to me as it allowed me a paycheck, artistic learning grounds, a place to explore my sexuality and learn about celebrating queer culture. Quickly I rose from performer to scene king to event producer and was starting to get opportunities to be in magazines, including Paper, Interview and Italian Vanity Fair, as well as appearing in commercials. I was like, "Wow, it's true, just be yourself and fight for your individuality and life can be rewarding" -- which it still is, by the way!
Not only was I able to be celebrated for choosing to be myself, I got the chance to share my story with great platforms such as The Huffington Post, where I partook in a queer art's weekly column written by JamesMichael Nichols. After our interview was published, James wrote me that a producer from "America's Got Talent" was interested in having me "audition" for the show.
I had been asked to be on the show a year earlier by a former producer, but graciously declined; I had fears because a couple artists from my community, Narcisister and Leonid The Magnificent, had been on the show and were not treated so nicely. This time around I decided to speak up to the producer about my concern. I thought someone finding me through a series about queer nightlife definitely had to be somewhat open minded to the issues. I had a great conversation with the producer who assured me the show was not about bullying any longer and that was not what America wanted to see. I felt good and decided to be a contestant on "America's Got Talent."
For the next year, I had great emails with this very polite producer and was asked to film for the show's intros as well as the producer auditions, which are a preliminary round of auditions to decide which acts will go before the judges. Everyone was being super cool and I was feeling really good about this move.
The day came for my audition on the first televised round in front of a live audience and the judges in all their glory. My mom and sister flew in, and my fiancee coordinated the dancers and joined me on stage. It was a chance to share my artistry with the world and prove to my loved ones that I could take my art to the next level, even if I didn't pass this round.
In full, amazing looking and amazingly uncomfortable stage look, I waited through 10 hours on set. During interviews, I was really excited to share my story and struggles with growing up and self acceptance but the producer wouldn't let me be serious. When she said to keep it fun, I felt for the first time that this could be a trap. The producers kept me for the last performance of the day, it was all or nothing at this point.
My first act was never televised. Howard Stern and Howie Mandel really liked me, and although I complimented Heidi Klum on her NYC Halloween parties, she felt my voice was not there. Mel B was on the fence. At this point, jokes started about my hair and outfit, which I can take. But when I mentioned that one of the dancers, Anna, was my fiancee, Howie started making fun of our relationship and asked if her parents had met me. Anna replied that her parents had met me, love me and are very proud of me. The audience quit laughing and applauded, which was a great moment.
During the vote, Heidi said no. Howie said yes, he thought what I do is "funny and weird in a Tiny Tim kind of way, which isn't bad." Howard said YES, he wants to see me in bigger and crazier outfits, and swing vote Mel B said yes. It was awesome! After putting so much effort and really having to defend myself on stage it was a victory.
Receiving a "yes" from the majority of the judges does not mean that you will make it to the next round. It is really up to the producers. I was told I would be notified in a couple of months. After much anticipation I was sent a generalized email explaining that I would not be sent to the next round. I was disappointed but at least felt good for having made it so far.
A week later, I receive an email from a producer asking if I was still available for the Judgement Week cuts. I dropped everything I had going on and said YES, I would make it work. By the time production approved a song, I only had one week to prepare. I reached out to my friend Lily Maase and she was able to get a tight band together. After finding talented dancers and of course looks for everyone, I quit panicking and thought okay, we can do this! NYC is an amazing place among artists and the kids had my back, as they say.
To arrive on set by 9 a.m., my fiancee began doing hair for the dancers and band 14 hours earlier while I traveled back and forth from set filming interviews with the team. (Major props to Anna!) We left our home at 7 a.m. in full looks to travel the long distance to set on no sleep. I was grateful that this time, "AGT" sent a van because for the first round, I paid $500 out of pocket to transport myself, the dancers, our props, and my family to and from set in New Jersey during a blizzard. ("AGT" compensates performers solely in exposure.)
I arrived to the more intimate set and noticed the stage was awesomely designed. The audience was a bit smaller than the first taping, but really looked excited. The producers agreed on "You Spin Me Right Round" and I was ready to spin on that stage! Between makeup and costume time before we had to arrive on set, plus me having been to this set to tape the day before, it already felt like the day was over though it was really just beginning.
In the first audition, they had me meet with a vocal coach and had a tech rehearsal before my performance. This time, the team said they did not have time for it. My fear started to kick in because playing with a live band and dancers, singing live and wearing long cape, I knew that a performance without a tech rehearsal would be a disaster. I put my foot down. I was not going to step on that stage unless they at least gave us a tech rehearsal. The producers made 10 minutes for me to get the band with equipment, dancers, instruments and myself in place.
After this we were sent back to holding to be extras in B roll shots for other performers. My nerves were definitely kicking in. I had this gut feeling that it really didn't at this point matter to the producers if I did well or not although I was still very much so grateful for the opportunity to be part of the show.
Being a NYC performer, I'm used to things falling, instruments not working, etc., so I knew I could make this work. As I came down the steep glass stairs everyone was clapping strongly; the "clap signs" I am told by my friends were on at this point. What an entrance, what a welcome. But one thing was wrong. Howard kept calling me by a name other than my own. The first time I thought this was a joke; after the third time I realized something was off. Also Howie kept saying this guy is really funny, wait till you see. After telling Howard that my name is Kayvon, he asked production what sheet they were on and boom, papers ruffle and it felt like one of those Disney movies where a curse is put on a kingdom and the mood changes.
I'm asked a couple questions, I cue my crew and get to it. We were full on and I gave it my all! At the end of the performance I noticed three X's which I did not hear during my performance. At the first audition I was X-ed, it was so loud I could hear it, but with the live band and not having proper monitor placement, levels and sounds were all over the place. I could barely hear myself let alone the three buzzers. I had a feeling at this point it was going to take a turn for the worst as the surprise guest judge for the night was Piers Morgan.
The judges critiqued and they were definitely out for blood. I knew this was a part of the competition and the producer with whom I'd been working told me before I went on to defend myself to the judges and fight to go to lives no matter what happened. When Howie told me I was a horrible pianist, I did this very thing and played. I knew my piano skills were something I could prove, as vocal timbre, genre and performance style are all subjective. Although the audience loved it, Howie insisted I was merely a comedy act and smashed the fourth buzzer, ending the competition for me.
After mean and petty banter I thanked the judges and decided to walk off and Howard asked me to come back. Howard told me he thought I was like Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson, although he thinks they're talented and I am not. The conversation shifted to Howie again insisting I can't possibly take myself seriously. I referenced artists including Madonna and Lady Gaga, whom I believe are talented artists who don't take themselves too seriously, and said I am similar in that regard. Anything I had said at this point would have been booed, it was clear. The audience is taught ahead of time to cheer or boo.
I tried to get some constructive criticism from the judges. I told Mel specifically I had always felt the need to work on my voice and took six years of lessons. I asked her what she didn't like about my voice; I asked her if it was my pitch, my tone, if I was sharp or flat. Howie challenged us to a sing off. Everyone laughed but she didn't reply. I told Mel that I thought she was talented, and ha a great career, but that she was no Whitney Houston. I do not feel that Mel is one of the best singers in the world, nor do I feel this way about myself.
At this point, Piers called me a little brat. It all felt like school yard bullying. I realized everything the producers promised me in the beginning wasn't a reality. My mic was cut off so I couldn't defend myself any more, and I just walked off the stage with my head still high. As soon as I got off the stage a woman approached me saying she was the in house psychiatrist and she is worried about me. I'm not sure why, but this hit me so hard. Was it exhaustion? Was it that I had been ganged up on by a live studio audience whose behavior was instructed by judges and producers? I started crying like I hadn't in years except when I lost my dog. I felt so used and manipulated. I tried so hard to be respectful yet everything coming out of my mouth was treated like I had no right to speak. Cameras are still rolling although I asked them kindly to let me be as I was hurting. This is actually normal of reality television; I have seen many shows were cameras just won't leave unless you are heading for the rest room. After about an hour with the psychiatrist and with the producer I realize it is time to put on my big boy underwear and just head home and thank my team for standing with me.
The next day I collected my thoughts and I sent an email to the producers:
Yesterday definitely ranks in one of the most hurtful experiences in my adulthood. When I was contacted by Brian Updyke initially, reminder I didn't reach out to you guys, I was very vocal about how "AGT" was not the kind of show that I wanted to part take in as I dealt with a lot of bullying growing up. Brian reassured me that the show was no longer mean spirited as that was not what America wanted to see any longer. He mentioned the voice, which you guys should really learn from as they make amazing tv without having to hurt ppl and bully them. To know I was setup to fail, ppll being told to clap, and boo on command, knowing that obviously my storyline was to be humiliated and made a mockery of. To see me in tears as I was told to leave the stage and having cameras follow me as I ask them kindly to let me be was horrible. I still can't fathom how this company puts their head to rest at night. I put so much effort and the little money I had into this hoping it could be a platform, but instead my efforts, hopes, and hard work were scripted to be used in a way to make me appear as I have no talent. Why target eccentric ppl like myself in the LGBT community to appear as clowns and bully them with forced crowd response and scripted hate? Why not have someone like myself or from the community be shown in a positive light, bc clearly you guys think it's more profitable to laugh at ppl who struggle to remain true to themselves than to encourage and embrace their spirit. Not really sure what there is to stay in touch about. You know how I feel, u saw a grown man and his partner in tears last night. I think it's apparent how I feel.
I reached out again after a week because I hadn't gotten any response, and the producer reiterated to me that "AGT" is not about ruining people's lives. After a few weeks, the season finally premiered, but my first (more positive) audition was nowhere to be found. The producer promised I'd be happy with the edit of my second performance; that I had performed and come across great in the episode. Every week, the social media team emailed reminding all performers never to say anything negative about the judges.
On Tuesday night, I was very nervous, excited and kind of sad but I really hoped that it was going to be good for me. Finally my segment started, "Vogue" by Madonna is playing. Like any queer artist, I love Madonna. I thought awesome, my theatrics and fun are really coming through! Then I heard the band and my vocals. I knew here that it was going to go left. My performance was edited down, my piano volume was brought down and edited to just a couple of scales. The response of my eyes to the buzzer was faked; I never even heard it, but they had edited everything so amazingly that I was starting to doubt my own vision.
I watched the judges' deliberations and kept being that person who is on a reality show and telling myself, "Wait, I never said that when this person said that to me." Mel never said that here, Howie never commented on that, Howard said that later. Lastly, Piers calls me #obnoxiouslittlebrat and the hashtag is shared on TV. Immediately the hate starts. I am receiving death threats, harassment, being told how ugly I am, how much I suck -- you name it. (My social media is still full of hate as I write this.) Then I received an email from their social media person, "Your video is up"! I click and the title is "Obnoxious musician Kayvon Zand ..." I am in shock. What happened to the whole we are not about bullying anymore, we want to help people, you will be happy with your edit? I could not believe how gullible I had been. With the "AGT" staff, including on air personalities pushing this bullying hashtag, it's been made out that I deserve all this hate.
In the long run, my career and ego don't matter. What really hurts is the message America sends with shows of this nature: if you are weird, if you're not a celebrity or person of privilege, your opinion holds no value next to theirs. Why scout a person from a minority group that's already second class citizens in America? The question is really about what someone like myself represents in our society. Many hate comments have questioned why I even got this far in the competition, and the ugly truth is that as long as others can celebrate their lives by laughing at me, I have value. The producers knew from the beginning that I don't live my life by the gender norm and I cannot take this off when I leave the stage to blend in and be a normal person and that life in general is a struggle because of this.
Yesterday I received a phone call from the head of social media giving me what he arrogantly referred to as a "hand out." I was told that if I made a video apologizing to Mel B, mentioning that she was in one of the greatest girl groups of all time that they would put the video up as a way to redeem myself. A producer has confirmed to me that the show is scripted, and told me not to think of is as a talent show, but a game show. I didn't go in with the intention of playing games. I decided not to film their apology video, and instead come to the Huffington Post as a new blogger to tell my story! I also recorded a response track this morning called "U Ain't Better Than Whitney" in which I say I'm gonna stand up. I would rather stand as a freak than be a heartless celebrity judge or producer on a "game show" called "America's Got Talent."