The talent trap
Can Carrie Furman be a star if all she has is the best voice you've ever heard?
By SEAN DALY
Published October 1, 2006
[Times photos: Bob Croslin]
|Carrie Furman performs at O’Hara’s Jazz & Blues Cafe in Fort Lauderdale in July. She sings at clubs and weddings, waiting for a breakthrough.
In a dark, ritzy jazz joint, Lady Marmalade is being strangled.
The saucy LaBelle hit is proving too much for a pretty blond singer with more teeth than talent. So before she gets to the song's octave-spanning climax, she leaps off the stage and into the crowd, looking for a friend.
She stops at a small candlelit table and thrusts her microphone at a young woman who is just finishing her chocolate dessert. With knife and fork still in hand, the ambushed diner swallows her food and her surprise, rolls her blue eyes and leans into the mike. A spotlight illuminates her full face as she unloads a thunderous, blues-dripped roar - "CREOLE LADY MARMALAAADE!" - featuring a note that is not just held but rocket-launched into the night.
Jaws drop. Applause swells. The blond singer scampers back to the stage, grinning.
And with a comical air of nonchalance, Carrie Furman resumes eating her dessert as all too familiar whispers echo around her: Who is that girl?
* * *
For three straight years, Furman has made the final round of auditions for Nashville Star, the USA Network's boot-scootin' version of American Idol. Out of more than 20,000 amateurs, the Fort Lauderdale native has been one of the final 50 or so contestants in January 2004, 2005, 2006 - the only person to have that honor.
For three straight years, however, she has made it no further. Nashville Star liked her - it just didn't love her . . . over and over and over again.
She hasn't given up. Far from it. But in an age of prepackaged celebrity, is talent enough? Do TV-friendly charisma and sex appeal trump a truly awesome voice?
Carrie Furman may soon find out.
Last week, Furman, a plus-sized woman with auburn hair and an easy smile, joined hundreds of Nashville Star hopefuls at Stumps Supper Club in Tampa, which hosted the opening round of tryouts.
So here we go again: For her first-round performance, Furman opted for Maybe It Was Memphis, a song by Pam Tillis, the daughter of country icon Mel Tillis. The irony of this choice is soon apparent; Furman is the only contestant more nervous about saying her name than singing.
"Hi everybody, my name is C-c-c-c-." Her pretty face contorts into a pained mask. The crowd chatter quits. The place is silent.
She pauses and smiles: "I didn't forget my name. I just can't say it. I have a speech thing."
Furman developed her stutter around the age of 5, around the same time she realized her birth father was nowhere to be found. Furman stopped going to speech therapy in junior high, because "going to a special class was just another thing for kids to make fun of."
She decided to handle the problem herself, often spelling out, or tapping out, such problem words as "P-E-R-F-E-C-T" and "B-I-T-T-E-R" and "D-A-D."
When Furman sings, she never stutters. And when she finally uncorks Maybe It Was Memphis, especially the crescendoing chorus, the room goes quiet again for a whole different reason: She's the best singer at the Tampa tryouts. Sure enough, she survives the opening round and now has a chance to be a finalist - for the fourth consecutive time.
Her friends have begged her to stop trying out. Her husband, Jason, says the show's producers "should kiss her a--." Furman's mother thinks the repeated near-misses are unhealthy: "I told her I didn't want to see her get hurt again, but she's so stubborn."
But the 31-year-old wedding and casino singer just can't stomach the alternative: "I don't want to be 50 years old and performing at the Moskowitz wedding and singing At Last for the 80,000th time."
* * *
Furman is convinced that it's not her stutter, but her weight keeping her from making it onto Nashville Star. A former size 6 sorority girl at the University of Miami, the 5-foot-8 Furman says she has gained about 100 pounds over the last eight years as a result of hypothyroidism.
Country music, more than any other genre, likes its female singers pretty and thin and sexy as heck. Think Shania Twain. Or, better yet, think Miranda Lambert, the tan, blond spitfire who went from nobody to celebrity on Nashville Star a few years ago. The famously full-figured Wynonna - Furman's personal idol - is a rare exception.
"Image is everything these days," Furman says. "I hate that your body defines you so much. I hate that people look at an overweight person and automatically think they're lazy."
Of course, these are not the things most people say out loud. Nashville Star producers say neither her weight nor her speech impediment have been factors in their decisionmaking. "She's a tremendous talent, and her success in the competition reflects that," says supervising producer Don Lepore.
But during Furman's audition, Lepore watches her on a small video monitor. He is no longer listening. He is watching, seeing how she will fit within the confines of America's television sets.
Furman knows this. That's why she's on a diet these days. Ten pounds down, a lot of curves to go.
* * *
Furman didn't meet her father until she was 21. That was a decade ago.
The family drama is confusing, she says, but the basic plot goes like this: When she was born, her father was married, but not to Carrie's mother. He disappeared soon after Carrie's birth, and her mother and grandparents moved her around the country.
Ten years ago, Furman's mother, Molly Thompson, met a private investigator online; the PI asked if he could find anyone for her.
"A week later, my father got on a plane from Philadelphia to West Palm Beach . . . and drove down to Miami," Furman says. "I was sitting at a restaurant on campus waiting for them" - she starts crying, waving her hand in front of her face - "and I see my parents walking toward me for the first time."
She now has a good relationship with her father; he's also a musician, it turns out, and once buddied around with Don "American Pie" McLean.
"Last year, my D-A-D came with me to the Nashville Star regionals," she says with a smile. "That was nice."
Nashville Star, sensing a juicy story, followed father and daughter around with cameras, nosing into a relationship still on the mend. The show was now treating her as more than just a voice; it was turning her into a personality, a plot line, a watercooler topic. Maybe she could fit the TV image.
"I figured I had finally made the show," Furman says.
* * *
If you want to hear Furman at her rafter-raising best, spend a Friday night in the pool bar at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
This is when the singer, playing to drunk but energetic revelers, will stack the set list with songs by Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, pretty divas all in a row. She'll then knock down the hits with that strong, sexy, juke-joint-angel voice. Furman may sell herself as country, but there's a lot of big, bossy blues in her as well.
In order to pay for their cramped, crumbling apartment, Furman and her husband he plays the drums in her various bands perform five or six nights a week, mostly doing cover songs. Eight years into the circuit, she despises I Will Survive and Respect more than you'll ever know. But the work has fortified her voice to carry over clinking glasses, clouds of smoke and chirping, burping slot machines.
Not all of her gigs are as esteem-boosting as the Hard Rock. To watch her halfheartedly sing to chain-smoking retirees there for the video poker, go to the Coconut Creek Casino on most Thursday nights.
On a balmy July evening there, Furman sits at a rickety table in front of a makeshift stage, waiting for the band to warm up. She pulls a microphone out of her purse.
"I'm always prepared," she says.
At Coconut Creek, where Furman performs just a few feet from a greasy snack bar, she can't help but get discouraged. "I admit to zoning out sometimes," says the singer, dressed for work in jeans, T-shirt and flip-flops that reveal chipped toenail polish. "Sometimes I watch that TV right over there."
No matter how uninspired she might feel, Furman will usually deliver a little something to wow about, be it a fiery rendition of Tracy Chapman's Give Me One Reason or an over-the-top cover of Gretchen Wilson's Redneck Woman, attacking the high notes like a preacher hollerin' scripture.
When she has time, Furman will teach voice lessons for some extra cash. She will also pick up occasional studio work, singing backing vocals. She could make a decent living helping other people become famous, but she's not ready for that. For now she wants to concentrate on singing and songwriting - and making Nashville Star.
"If you have something to fall back on," she says, "it's just too easy to fall back on it."
* * *
Lovely in a black cocktail dress, Furman is gazing over the seawall behind the majestic Breakers in Palm Beach. It's Saturday night, wedding night. Furman just had to crash-learn Christina Aguilera's Ain't No Other Man; she picked up the vocal workout after just one reading. "What I do as a singer comes so easily to me." She shrugs. "I never practice singing anymore."
After performing at hundreds of weddings - her biggest weekly moneymaker at $400 per gig - Furman considers herself a decent judge of who's in love and who should have a solid prenup. "When the couple's only thinking about the wedding being perfect, that's when you know the marriage isn't going to work," she says.
All these receptions later, "The one thing that still gets to me is the father-daughter dance."
When a dad reaches out for his little girl, Furman always cries.
Soon Furman is inside one of the Breakers' spectacular ballrooms, performing for a wedding party barely old enough to vote. The singer's ruddy cheeks are kissed by the glow of candle flame as she breaks into the bride and groom's "first dance" song.
Their request? At Last.
In two weeks, Furman will find out if she has made Nashville Star's regional tryouts. She'll get another chance to find out if talent trumps all.
If she doesn't make it onto the show this year, she isn't sure what she'll do. She only has so many At Lasts left in her.
But on this night, Carrie Furman is not bitter. She does not zone out. She does not let thoughts of Nashville Star cloud her head.
Instead, she smiles and throws her head back and sings, just sings, her voice rising, soaring, daring anyone to actually answer the question that follows her everywhere:
Who is that girl?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.
What's next for Carrie Furman?
In two weeks, Furman will find out whether she made Nashville Star's regional tryouts for the fourth consecutive year.
If she does make regionals, which take place in November at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon, she would compete against 50 or so other contestants vying for 10 final slots - that is, the people who get on television. Regionals include not just singing competitions but extensive interviewing and camera tests.
If Furman makes the final 10 chosen for the show - which uses a viewer-based voting system similar to American Idol - she will appear on the fifth season of Nashville Star, premiering in January.
- SEAN DALY, Times pop music critic
[Last modified September 30, 2006, 08:19:37]
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