- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007


She was an “amazing talent,” a young singer with a wonderful voice who wrote beautiful songs, but she was no beauty. Plus, she was flat-chested and overweight.

Remembering the aspiring star, music executive Jody Gerson still feels terrible about thinking, “She’s never going to get signed, even though she’s fabulous.”

Miss Gerson might feel even worse after Wednesday night’s exit of the matronly Melinda Doolittle from “American Idol.” In today’s music industry, Plain Janes need not apply. Sex appeal once was considered a bonus for a woman; now it’s practically a requirement.

Miss Doolittle and the heavyset, gap-toothed LaKisha Jones were widely considered this season’s most talented “Idol” contestants. Yet both were eliminated from the final four in favor of Blake Lewis, who makes the teen girls swoon, and the long-locked 17-year-old looker Jordin Sparks.

A quick check of the Billboard Top 40 turns up a list of candidates for “America’s Top Model”: Avril Lavigne, blond stunner Carrie Underwood, tomboyish but sexy Ciara, fashionista Gwen Stefani and hip-swiveling Shakira (on a song featuring bootylicious Beyonce).

The only two in the Top 40 who might not be considered perfect 10s are Pink, who is still svelte and appealing, and multiplatinum Grammy winner Kelly Clarkson, who got her break only by winning the democratically elected “American Idol.”

When asked whether a female with so-so looks and sex appeal could get a record deal, Gretchen Wilson quickly replies: “They can’t.

“I believe that very few will get through, and they better be amazing,” Miss Wilson says. “The music is not about just music anymore, it’s about the look, the ‘it’ factor if you will … it’s marketing.”

True, looks have always been part of the music business: Diana Ross played a model in the movie “Mahogany,” Marianne Faithfull was considered a beauty, Tina Turner’s legs were part of her sex appeal, Olivia Newton-John was the lovely girl next door, and Stevie Nicks rocked teenage boys with more than just her guitar.

Nevertheless, there also were stars such as wild-haired, pudgy Janis Joplin and Barbra Streisand, who challenged beauty standards with her protruding nose. Even curvy Aretha Franklin was known mainly for her one-of-a-kind voice.

Today, it’s hard to find a singer larger than a size 6 and without a sexy look — all of which are played up with sensuous videos, modeling spreads and provocative magazine covers.

The hit reality show “Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll” is a striking example. In finding a replacement for the current lead doll, stunner Nicole Scherzinger, the judging panel — which included the cosmetically enhanced rapper Lil’ Kim — did talk about vocal qualities. However, though a few contestants had strong voices, all were taut, toned and sexy, and the focus was more on their dancing and overall desirability. That’s to be expected from the group responsible for the anthem “Don’t Cha” (as in, “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”).

Even singers who are heralded for their talent are gorgeous — think Alicia Keys, Corinne Bailey Rae or Norah Jones. Then there’s critically acclaimed Amy Winehouse ; she may not win any beauty contests, but her songs have a raw sexuality that give her that “it” factor.

Dolly Parton, whose buxom figure sometimes overshadowed her talent as a songwriter and singer, says being “a good looking woman certainly can’t hurt you any if you’re trying to make it.”

“But I would like to believe that true and great and pure talent will rise above whatever else,” the country legend said in an interview.

Miss Gerson says the way female artists look reflects our society, in which women constantly are judged on their appearance and are oversexualized. She also says it reflects the way we listen to music these days — or don’t listen.

“They have to look hot and sexy in these videos,” says Miss Gerson, who is credited with helping discover Miss Keys, among others, and is executive vice president of the U.S. Creative division of EMI Music Publishing.

“In the days of Aretha Franklin, people saw Aretha maybe a couple of times a year,” she says, “but you listened to a record without a visual. You didn’t watch it. Everything today, you watch it.”

Miss Gerson also agrees with Miss Wilson about the marketing factor. With dwindling profits and budgets, record labels try to maximize artist exposure with clothing deals, cosmetic contracts, movie roles and modeling gigs.

“How many endorsements does Beyonce have? Do you think it’s because she’s the most talented person on earth, or do you think it’s because she’s gorgeous? I think she’s talented, but she’s also gorgeous,” Miss Gerson says. “I think you need the whole package.”

Miss Wilson finds that “totally” wrong.

“My favorite singers in the world were Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and Patsy was a large woman, and Loretta — she was never some kind of a supermodel, but they were the greatest female voices in country music, and they changed lives and they made a difference,” says Miss Wilson, who, although considered sexy, says she doesn’t think she fits today’s beauty standards.

With the devolution of today’s music industry, Miss Gerson says, small labels may be the best path to success for a woman who doesn’t look like a mold of a Barbie doll. So how would she advise the flat-chested, overweight, amazingly talented singer to chase her dream?

She should put out her own music and promote herself on the Web, Miss Gerson says.

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