Windy City Gay Idol is kicking off its 10th year of searching for the best amateur LGBT singer in the Chicago area. This highly anticipated annual contest has made a definite impact in both the LGBT and performing communities over the last decade, inspiring careers and bringing performers together.
"It's been a really cool breeding ground for local talent to come together, get exposure, to support each other and just to have fun doing it," said three-time Windy City Gay Idol finalist Michael McBride.
McBride is originally from Maryland, but came to Chicago to do his undergraduate studies in music at Wheaton University, going on to receive his Masters and Doctorate from Northwestern. In 2009 McBride was teaching music at North Park University and spending a lot of time behind the scenes and in the classroom. He hadn't been on stage since high school and decided to use Windy City Gay Idol to reawaken the performer within.
"Gay Idol was a fantastic way of getting that performance experience and that exposure in a really low-key, friendly environment," McBride said. "I found that all the other contestants and the judges were just so supportive and so nice."
What is now the largest annual competition in Chicago's LGBT community started out as a bar promotion by Windy City Media Group
(WCMG). It was 2002 and American Idol had just premiered, instantly becoming a national phenomenon. That's when then-Promotions Director Kathleen Ulm and current host of Windy City Queercast Amy Matheny decided to create a similar competition to find great amateur singers in Chicago's gay bars.
"We had no idea it would be such a success and that we would still be doing Windy City Gay Idol 10 years later," Matheny told ChicagoPride.com. "It was a hit from the beginning."
The competition structure consists of nine one-night-only preliminary rounds held at LGBT bars and clubs across Chicago. Anyone regardless of sexual orientation is invited to audition, but contestants must be at least 21 years of age and pay a $10 signup fee. Auditions are conducted karaoke-style and contestants are critiqued by a panel of three judges. The judges include performers, DJs, casting agents, past winners and others familiar with the performance community in Chicago. Jerry Nunn
, an entertainment editor for ChicagoPride.com and regular contributor for WCMG, has been judging the competition since its beginning ten years ago.
"I always bring my own little prizes to award special performers," Nunn told the crowd at this year's second preliminary round, held at the Closet on April 12, where he handed out a guide to female self-satisfaction guide and an adult DVD to the performer he dubbed the evening's sexiest.
The judges also offer constructive criticism, but a popular vote by the bar patrons determines the actual winners. The audience members pay $5 to vote for the two contestants they liked the best. The singer with the most votes wins $100 and the top two advance to the semi-final round. This voting can mean that whoever brings the most friends out to the bar wins, which has lead some to call the competition a popularity contest.
"I think that while there are a lot of very talented singers and talented performers who have been a part of it, the determining factor of who wins is not solely dependent upon one's ability to perform and to sing." McBride told ChicagoPride.com. "As someone who's a trained musician, sometimes it was a little frustrating."
To combat this popularity bias, there is a Wild Card night. Several contestants from other preliminaries who did not already secure a place in the semi-finals are be invited to Roscoe's
to compete again at no cost. This year the competition is also introducing three rainbow tickets, which allow the judges to advance three contestants from any of the preliminary rounds directly to the semi-finals.
"[The rainbow tickets] are to be used when the judges feel strongly that the audience vote missed some talent that night," said Cynthia Holmes, the Business Manager at Windy City Times. Holmes first volunteered for Windy City Gay Idol in 2006 and started producing and organizing the event the following year. "We believe very strongly in the talent, so we want to make sure the contest is legitimate."
Amy Kelly, who was crowned Windy City Gay Idol in 2009, joined Nunn and Angelique Monroe as a judge April 12. She recalls having a lot of support, but being nervous at her final round. Her spirits were lifted, however, when a group of gay men told her 83-year-old mother that they had no idea who Kelly was, but that after hearing her sing Aretha Franklin's "Respect" they knew she would win.
"I think what's most important is really capturing the audience and finding a way to connect with them," Kelly told ChicagoPride.com.
The highly anticipated semi-final and final rounds are held each year at Sidetrack
. There's a whirlwind of activity as the regular crowd at this popular Boystown bar mixes with the family and friends come to support the performers.
"Whole offices come out to cheer and vote for their colleague competing. Families all come to support a son or daughter. Softball teams all attend," Matheny said. "The audiences are so diverse in age, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. For some it is the first time they may be have been in a gay bar."
The Windy City Gay Idol Finals also feature special guest performances. In 2008, Matheny spent an hour getting ready with one burgeoning star, a girl from New York who hot glued her own props and talked about her dreams for her upcoming CD.
"I think she is a cross between Madonna, David Bowie and Grace Jones. You may not have heard of her, but I think one day she may just be bigger than Madonna," Matheny remembers telling the audience when introducing her. "Put your hands together for Lady Gaga!"
The winner of Windy City Gay Idol will receive a host of prizes, including Smirnoff premium gifts, theater and concert tickets, a dream vacation and $1,000 cash. He or she is also exposed to a variety of singing opportunities over the coming year.
Windy City Gay Idol has been launching point for many of its contestant's careers. Winners have gone on to sing at Cubs games and charity events, at Soldier Field for the Gay Games opening ceremony in 2005 and at Toronto's Halloweek festival.
Those crowned are not the only ones who have benefited professionally from their experience with Windy City Gay Idol. Adam LeBlanc, a two-time participant who placed second in 2005, recently performed at Rosie O'Donnell's 50th birthday and is the lead singer of Sixteen Candles, an 80's cover band that remains a staple of Chicago summer street fairs. McBride, who finished third last year, also sees the competition as a catapult for his current success. He's since released an EP, became music director of the Chicago Cabaret Project and has performed at Pridefest twice, last year opening for Crystal Waters.
"It was an awesome awesome privilege because she was pulling thousands and thousands of people and I got to be right there," McBride said. "As far as I could see in every direction there were people packed shoulder to shoulder. Just to have that energy and people who are so excited and prepared to hear me was such a cool experience."
As much as Windy City Gay Idol is a competition, it is also about community. Kelly and McBride, who competed the same year and remain friends, both told ChicagoPride.com that even more than the performance experience, what they value most about the competition was connecting with other local talent. Windy City Gay Idol alum have gone on to collaborate in performances throughout Chicago. McBride had a monthly show in Andersonville with fellow-alum Mark Ortega and credits the competition with connecting him to the performance and drag communities in Chicago.
Holmes and Matheny agree that the success of the competition is due to its roots in community, but Matheny also points to the obvious wish fulfillment component of Windy City Gay Idol.
"Everyone wants to be a pop or rock star for a few minutes. We provide the stage for that," Matheny said. "The audience supports that by singing along, dancing, cheering, holding signs and hopefully voting them the winner."
Think you have what it takes to win? Head out to one of this year's remaining preliminary rounds to audition for your chance to be named the tenth Windy City Gay Idol.2012 Schedule:Wednesday, April 4: The Glenwood, 6962 N Glenwood, 8 p.m. sign up, 9 p.m. start.
Thursday April 12: The Closet, 3325 N Broadway, 8 p.m. sign up, 9 p.m. start.
Tuesday, April 17: Jackhammer, 6406 N. Clark, 9 p.m. sign up, 10 p.m. start.
Thursday, April 19: Crew, 4804 N. Broadway, 8 p.m. sign up, 9 p.m. start.
Sunday, April 29: T's bar, 5025 N. Clark, 5 p.m. sign up, 6 p.m. start.
Wednesday, May 2: Touche, 6412 N. Clark, 9 p.m. sign up, 10 p.m. start.
Thursday, May 10: DS Tequila, 3352 N. Halsted, 9 p.m. sign up, 10 p.m. start.
Monday, May 14: Spin, 800 W. Belmont, 9 p.m. sign up, 10 p.m. start.
Thursday, May 17: The Call, 1547 W Bryn Mawr, 7 p.m. sign up, 8 p.m. start.
Monday, May 21: WILD CARD, Roscoe's
, 3356 N. Halsted, 8 p.m. door opens, 9 p.m. start. Invited guests plus open slots for new singers.
Sat., June 2: SEMI-FINALS, Sidetrack
, 3349 N. Halsted, 2 p.m. door opens, 3 p.m. start.
Sat., June 16: FINALS, Sidetrack
, 3349 N. Halsted, 2 p.m. door, 3 p.m. start.
For more information and contest rules and regulations, please visit www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Windy-City-Gay-Idol-kicks-off-10th-year-/36745.html