A transgender singer tells the Advocate how he believes American Idol producers tried to manipulate him to tell a version of his personal story that fit an agenda, rather than his actual truth.
Colorado singer, Collin Eagen auditioned in front of the judges, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr, and by his own admission, was rejected. Leaving the audition without a golden ticket is not why the experience left him “devastated,” however.
“I was faced with a cruel decision: Be a singer and lie about my identity, or give up the chance to finally pursue the career I’ve always wanted,” wrote Collin. “Ultimately, I refused to relinquish my reality for the one producers wanted to portray. I left the audition devastated — not because I was eliminated from the show, but because I was disappointed in the dishonest, damaging treatment of me, my partner, my story, and my community.”
Idol producers didn’t expect Collin to hide he was transgender. What they wanted, Collin claimed, was a fictionalized account of his story that would be digested easily by the American public.
“I knew going in that producers would be interested in exploiting my identity for the advantage of their show’s ratings,” explained Collin. “While I was OK with the idea of my identity being an interesting feature of my story that could be highlighted on the show, I was concerned about it upstaging my voice.”
“I lost count of how many times Idol producers attempted to pressure me into discussing my family history, even after I directly told them that subject was off-limits.” Collin’s relationship with his family was strained. He wasn’t going to lie and say they were 100% supportive, but by the same token, he didn’t want to bad mouth them either. “I wasn’t willing to play into the current trend of televised trans stories featuring supportive families and warm-fuzzy endings,” wrote Collin, “But at the same time, I wasn’t interested in bad-mouthing my family or making them feel guilty about their experiences and feelings surrounding my transition.”
The attempt to manipulate wasn’t subtle: “Each time I answered a question about my identity or how I discovered and molded that central part of who I am, a producer would stop me and attempt to revise my answer with the response they apparently wanted on film.”
He goes on to explain that his transgender story is complicated, and doesn’t fit into what has become the common narrative.
“I do not identify with either side of the male/female gender binary, I have never felt like I was in the wrong body, and I never “suffered” when I was presenting as female,” Collin explained, “But that was not the story these producers were interested in hearing. Throughout the interview, producers tried to “script” my story, asking me to say that I always knew I was a boy, and every moment that I was not living as a boy was torturous. While this may be true for many of my fellow transgender people, it is not true for me.”
“Ultimately, I was censored to the point that I was not allowed to use specific terms that validate my life, love, and identity,” said Collin. “I was told that I could not refer to my partner as my partner. Instead, I was told I must refer to her as my wife (we are legally married) or girlfriend.”
“American Idol was only interested in presenting the story of a transgender person as they understood it should be told,” he added.
Collin claims the producers coached him on when and how to “out” himself to Ryan and the judges. And they had him practice beforehand! “I was instructed to casually out myself to the host of the show, Ryan Seacrest, and the celebrity judges,” explained Collin, “The producers made me repeatedly practice outing myself before I was sent in for my audition.”
The reactions from the judges were predictable. Jennifer said she never would have known. Keith and Harry called him “courageous.”
“I walked away from the show feeling used and cheated,” said Collin, “This was supposed to be an opportunity for me to chase after my dreams — instead, it became an opportunity for the show to bait my community and disrespect my story.”
What I find interesting about Collin’s story is how it sheds light into the producer manipulation of contestants, and just how scripted and fake these backstories are. The producers were happy to feature a transgender singer on the show, but only with a familiar, and uncomplicated story American Idol viewers were already familiar with. And I would say, the media as a whole are guilty of offering up only the most dramatic and narrow experience of what it means to be trans.
Also, Collin’s story reinforces the thing we already knew–that any singing show backstory should be taken as scripted narrative, built for our amusement, and may or may not share any resemblance to the truth.
Collin is a classical singer–which would be a problem right off the bat–and only an average one at that. But if he had offered up an “acceptable” backstory, they may have advanced him to Hollywood anyway.
If you’ll remember, Collin isn’t the first trans singer to come away disappointed from their Idol experience. There was Youtube singer, Ryan Cassata, whom Idol reached out to after the Caitlyn Jenner story broke in March. Ryan wanted to be considered for his voice, rather than backstory. He also felt some of the characterizations of the transgender community were “ignorant.”
Idol seems to be actively looking to cast a transgender singer. I wonder if they finally found someone willing and able to go through the gauntlet for them, all the way to Hollywood…
Read more at The Advocate