My clammy fingers wringed the fringe of my shirt, searching for something to hold on to. Whenever I dreamed (or had nightmares about) of this moment, I had always imagined myself with a microphone in hand. Then again, I had also thought I would be meeting the judges’ gaze with confidence and poise, and that wasn’t happening either.
Feeling the three pairs of expectant eyes boring through me, I slowly drew in a breath, fixing my eyes on the thirty-some judge with a wind-swept haircut, taking comfort in the gentle furrow of sympathy in his brow as I sang stiffly into the microphone.
My eyes fluttered close for a moment, and between my pounding heart and the uninspiring blankness of my mind, I could hear… a faint rumble. I could see a harsh flare of light. I could feel my heels against the hard stage.
A smile playing at my lips, I broke into song. Tuning into an imaginary energetic harmony of whistling piano accented by rhythmic drums, I saw the drab audition room fall away, and even as I gazed into the dreary expressions of the judges, I swore I could hear the cheers of an audience gone wild.
I was crazy.
Let it go!
Today I want to do things my way.
Today I'm going to show you...
But I didn’t want it to end.
I'm the only me in the world.
Far too soon, I caught sight of an elderly judge, raising his hand and signaling for me to stop. Reluctantly, I let the lights dim. Sadly I imagined myself thanking my fans and, waving a final goodbye, sank back to reality.
As I surveyed the panel before me, my chest tightened. The sleepy looks the four judges had cast upon me when I first set foot in the audition room seemed utterly unchanged. Holding my breath, I waited for the verdict.
“Well… you certainly can sing.” The judge on the far left, sporting a trendy wind-swept haircut began a tad too cautiously, and glanced at the more elderly, bald judge beside him.
“Nice vocals… yes. You have potential. Probably one of the better ones we’ve seen today, I would say.” He paused. For all their praise, I noticed the guarded tone they both carried. “one of the best… vocally, at least.” The balding man cleared his throat, and I shifted my gaze to the third and final judge, who seemed like the youngest of the three, with highlighted hair and eyes hidden behind mysterious shades.
“How many auditions have you been to?” Mr. Shades asked tersely.
“Well… none like this. I guess this is my first.” I answered slowly.
“You probably won’t get far in this business.”
I felt the tiny smile that had began that pulled at my cheeks freeze. Mr. Shades seemed to consider his words for a moment. Perhaps he was trying to find the most tactful way to crush my dream.
“Listen. I really do think you have talent. And potential. And all that crap. I know I’m repeating what’s already been said…” he sighed, pulling his slouched figure straighter up in his chair. “But I feel like you need to know that. You have talent, but talent alone isn’t enough to make it in this business. And you won’t make it.” He traced a circle in the air. “Not with that face.”
I frowned for a moment, trying to arrange his words in a comprehensible order. Were they really going to reject me because I wasn’t… pretty enough? My hand went automatically to my cheek. My mouth fell open, but Mr. Shades wasn’t finished.
“I’m not saying you’re ugly. In fact, you’re rather pretty.” He said in the same dry, calm voice, leaning back once more as he spoke as if to inspect me. It wasn’t exactly reassuring. “You’re just not-” he frowned, searching for the right word. “…striking. Not celebrity material. Not when everyone else looks like this.” Picking up a crumpled magazine on the edge of his desk, he held it up to me, showing me the glamorous photo of Lee Hyori, paparazzi-ready in designer clothes as she strode confidently down the street.
“See this? This woman is striking. I’m not looking for beautiful. I’m looking for- we’re looking for striking.” He gestured to the rest of the panel as an afterthought, and dropped the book back on his desk.
“So you’re saying… I don’t look like a celebrity.” I repeated back to him slowly. He nodded, and, as if reading the glimmer of hope that must of flashed in my eyes, pulled out a form.
“But we could make you look like a celebrity.” He pushed the thin stack of forms towards the end of the table, glancing at my ID tag. “You’re seventeen, right? You’ll have to talk it over with your parents, but you don’t need that much work.” He glanced up from the forms, as if to examine my face again. “That’s why I’m offering.”
I stared at the forms, a tingle running through my fingertips. Thoughts rushed through my mind, indecipherable. As I stared at the clean, white sheets, I felt as if I was standing on a cliff, staring into the roaring white depths of a rushing river. Should I jump?
“We don’t have time for hesitations. You can’t waver about things like this.” Mr. Shades interrupted my thoughts, sliding the forms back over to his side of the desk. “We don’t have many auditionees left.” He glanced at the stapled pile of papers at his left. “Only about a dozen or so. We’re set to accept about ten today, so I’ll give you the offer. You go see if you can find any better offers out there, and if you don’t come back to us. We’ll be waiting.” His final words seemed to speak a million meanings, but the loudest of them all was: you need us. We don’t need you, though. Biting my lip, I backed away, mustering a defiant look onto my face.
As my feet carried me out to the waiting room, I noticed that the crowds that had been brimming the room earlier had thinned visibly. A glance down a couple hallways revealed that several agencies were even wrapping up for the day, pulling audition signs off their doors, with judges strolling out of their stuffy rooms, striking up some mindless banter with each other and loosening their ties. It looks like I joined the party too late. Feeling a pang of regret, I sank into the nearest empty seat.
Maybe this was what mom was talking about. This “wasn’t the life for me,” huh? Maybe mine was the kind of beauty only a mother could see. My vision blurred, and I felt tears welling in my eyes. I never thought of myself as “beautiful”, but… somewhere in the back of my mind, I clung to the belief that maybe beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Maybe, talent mattered more than looks. I guess not.
The sight of those sickly white forms flashed in my mind again, and I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the images out of my mind. Lots of celebs do it, I thought. Lots of them make sacrifices like this. They were probably the key to my dreams. So why do I have to be afraid? Why do I have to be such a coward? I wiped my reddening eyes, and looked over to the door I had backed out of not too long ago. He did say I only need some minor changes, I reminded myself. My fingers traced the contours of my cheeks, my small nose, my lips, my single lidded eyes. Which one of these imperfections needed to go?
“Miss, are you going to audition or not? We’re going to close up.” I looked up, jumping slightly. A middle-aged, suited man stared down at me, an impatience written all over his face. I glanced over his shoulder, seeing one of the few audition rooms that had yet to be dismantled. Biting my lip, I got up. Part of me was fighting to pull me down into the seat again- I could just imagine this playing out exactly as my first audition had- being sent home because I wasn’t “striking” enough. But somehow, an irrational part of my brain told me, what did I have to lose? MK was the only agency that I had auditioned for so far, having arrived at the talent fair way later than expected and missed the ones I had scheduled earlier. Might as well give this one last shot. This might be my final chance to do sing for a live audience, I thought cynically to myself.
“Yeah, I am. I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
The man shook his head, muttering something incomprehensible- something vaguely familiar, yet strangely foreign. I frowned, but followed him into the audition room.
There were also three judges on this panel. However, by the ragged looks they shot at me, I would have an even harder time convincing them of my worthiness than I did with the MK judges. It’s okay, I told myself. Just enjoy your last performance.
Closing my eyes and riding on a sudden adrenaline rush, I burst out into song, propelled by a strange desperation rising in my chest. Even to my ears, my melody sounded more frenetic, more ravenous, overflowing with a strange passionate energy.
Today I'm going to show you
I’m the only me in the world.
When I opened my eyes once more, I saw a slight shift in the judges’ features. Or at least, all three pairs of eyes were staring wide-eyed, their jaws slack. A pen rolled off the side of the desk. It seemed to break the spell.
“Wow.” The long-haired, bespectacled judge breathed, shaking her bangs out of her eyes. A slightly more composed, older judge on her left leaned forward, propping his chin up with intertwined hands, leaning on his elbows.
“You know, when you first started to sing in Korean… I was going to stop you right there. But you know what? I think you’ve got enough talent to override that.” I frowned at him.
“What language was I supposed to sing in?” I asked, puzzled. He widened his eyes at me for a moment.
“Don’t you know who you’re auditioning for?” Well, obviously not. I glanced back at the door. The Japanese Katakana letters clued me in.
“Oh. You’re a Japanese agency.” I said dully.
“Right. I feel like I should be offended.” The older judge said with a playful smile. He reached under his desk, pulling out an envelope.
“But, I have a good feeling about you. Call it stupid, but I have faith in you already.” He pushed the envelope towards me.
“You’re not opposed to learning Japanese?” I thought of the Japanese dramas I marathoned at every spare moment, and shook my head.
“Well then. Welcome aboard.” he too, took a look at my ID tag before adding, “with parental consent, of course.”
I frowned again, letting his words sink in.
“You mean, you’re accepting me? You’re letting me into the agency?”
“Is my Korean that bad?”
There were nods and smiles across the panel.
“What about…” I was going to say, “my plain looks,” but shut myself up. This was it. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. Was I really going to ruin this by bringing my low self-esteem into the equation? This was the agency for me, the one that looked past my looks- or at least, appreciated them for their own merit. Mom and dad would approve of this. I hope.
“Arigatou Gozaimasu!” I thanked the panel of judges in their native tongue (finally putting all that drama-watching to good use), bowing deeply to each as I tried to hide the tears that sprung to my eyes.
The elderly judge laughed, his eyes twinkling with humor.
“Now, reach into that envelope. The biggest issue you’ll probably have to talk about with your parents is probably-”
But before he could finish his sentence, I had already ripped open the envelope. My fingers closed on a smaller slip of paper. It was a plane ticket. A one-way plane ticket to Tokyo, Japan.
I stared at the slip of paper, numb. Never would I have dreamed that the moment I fulfill my dreams would also be the moment I would have to leave everything I have ever known.