She’s a lesbian, middle-aged and overweight, with a snub nose, jowls, an accent waiting for a cleaver, and enunciation problems. But she has a diva’s full chest tones and soaring notes, bigger-than-life gestures and the ebullient charm of one who lives to serve and love. And she has given “Beautiful” a whole new spin.
On Tuesday (Wednesday morning in Manila), Israel poured love back on Filipino caregiver Rose Fostanes, crowning her the country’s first X-Factor winner.
Fostanes won the contest in pure Pinoy melodrama style, singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, a somewhat dangerous sing-a-long staple in videoke-crazy Asia. The theme song of every rebel, with or without a cause, the exclamation point to a season’s repertoire that had plumbed every facet of her life struggles.
Some awkward adlibs, the trademark “p” for “f” — all easily overlooked in a powerful performance that scorched past the lush orchestra sound and filled every corner of the arena.
“My Way” is dangerous not just because impatient singers or displeased listeners have been known to shoot hapless performers. It’s a compressed biography of every person’s life, alluding to a string of slights and sorrows.
It’s also that great aspirational song: Paul Anka penned it for Frank Sinatra, the baadest of the Rat Pack, those rowdy, brilliant, troubled singers who scandalized America as much as they bedazzled.
For almost three minutes, “My Way” allows every downtrodden soul the ultimate dream — giving the a cruel world the dirty finger and getting away with it. And, if one is good enough, getting applause for it.
Life is a soap opera. It’s too easy for “My Way” to degenerate into cheap melodrama. Rose — like most Filipinos, she sports a nickname; Osang, a word made famous by another defiant woman — is 47 years old and has spent 20 years working as a caregiver around the Middle East.
Salt of the earth, sentimental like so many of her people, yet always ready to straighten the shoulders and march on with every disaster. Her life’s dream was hobbled early on because she lacked a star’s looks. Like millions of Filipinos, she took care of the family by working long hours in strange lands. She gifted every note of “My Way” with a rock-solid dignity. Instead of sneering anger, she turned it into a hallelujah chorus.
Osang waddled into her X-Factor audition in jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt, belly almost dwarfing the bust.
With her first song, she set her terms.
“This Is My Life” is a torch singer’s favorite, where every stanza can be punctuated by little sobs.
Osang did not prowl the stage. She has always rooted herself on that private space, a stocky tree with surprisingly graceful arms. She gave no sobs. She growled at times but for the most part told the story straight, the perfect strategy for a singer whose voice needs no adornment save for that exceptionally expressive face.
By the second round, X-Factor Israel viewers knew Osang was no stereotype, that she would always serve up surprises.
With a heart “going doog, doog,” she ditched standards and sizzled with a country-blues cover of Lady Gaga’s “You and I”. Big Mama, hot goddess at 4’11 and god knows how many pounds, hitting the loins dead on. All the way to that rhythmic spoken afterglow, “You have to move, you have to fight; you have to make your best.”
Now, that’s a line that belongs to a song. Even with slightly fractured English, Osang has the gift of gab. Short sentences suffused with unintentional irony, or long riffs with perfectly timed pauses; when not singing, she dishes out sidewalk poetry.
Baby doll. That was a signal. Auditioning, Rose said she was alone. Eventually, despite fearing a backlash over identity, she came out to the Associated Press as a lesbian with a butch partner of 30 years. “We have the same dreams, we share property and a bank account,” she says. “She is my soulmate.” Mel seems to be as gentle and dignified as Osang and got to see her baby doll become a star.
I’m a big fan of musical reality shows. But I haven’t yet seen a singer turn a season into an autobiography. This was what Osang did, making her performances the distillation of those little tales.
She barely reached the armpits of her gorgeous groupmates in the preliminary rounds but she stalked out like a queen in the slow-rock anthem, “Purple Rain”. That must have been a nightmare for her rivals.
Osang squeaked through the judges house, emerging from that cocoon as a star.
The producers must have really loved her because with the first live show they had transformed her into a chic dynamo in silver lame and a black overcoat.
The makeover was just enough to highlight Rose’s world-weary, kind face as she sang of transcending insecurities. That almost spoken word in the last chorus of Christina Aguillera’s “Beautiful” was a statement of self and a call to arms for everyone — woman, man, transexual — who has ever faced rejection.
A judged said she’d just used up her finale number. He was wrong, just barely.
There was no way she could lose with “Bohemian Rhapsody” — with a voice like the wind itself, one moment plaintive, the next keening, the next lashing out with rage. The little grammatical and pronunciation lapses gave the anthem of sob a gritty, authentic touch, as did her open-leg stance. I don’t know how much Rose was responsible for the arrangements of her songs. “Bohemian Rhapsody was perfectly edited to showcase her emotional depth (something Susan Boyle lacked) and versatility of tone.
I was least impressed with her semi-final cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You” — probably her most one-dimensional performance, all birit, no nuance, and with a song that exposed her diction problems. By then, however, she was Israel’s quirky sweetheart and that’s what viewers wanted.
The whole season, Osang was mentored brilliantly by the sympathetic Shiri Maimon. At the finals, she stood tall beside the svelte Shiri, flawlessly harmonising in “If I Ain’t Got You” and then bursting out in soul glory, a joyful and effervescent performance of a song easily ruined by overwrought divas.
I love musical reality shows because they bring up hidden gems. The growth of a raw talent is almost like a life pilgrimage and the outcomes are often time capsules of a society. Too many times, the cute pop stars trounce the more talented mavericks.
Israel, with its grit and its kibbutz memories, may have been the perfect place for Rose to try her luck. “My Way” and Rose. Music and back story a perfect match — for singer and host country.