Behind the Scenes: TLC’s “Born To Diva”

Luciana Williams was having a diva moment.

The Atlanta-based contestant on VH1’s new talent show/reality series “Born to Diva” was trying to describe her outfit to the reporter. But ultimately she decided that the flesh-baring maroon bra/miniskirt combo could not be captured in print.

“I don’t think you have enough paper to write about this,” Williams said during the March taping for the show’s Atlanta episode, which airs tonight.

The 26-year-old brown-skinned head-turner moved on to discuss the other attributes that she believed gave her an edge over the four other diva wannabes. She described herself as a flawless pairing of Whitney Houston’s sound and Janet Jackson’s body.

“Look at these six-pack abs,” she said, slapping her taut belly. “And I just had a baby 10 months ago. Make sure you write that.”

The other contestants had a nickname for Williams: Hootchy-ana.

These are exactly the types of characters and moments that VH1, MTV’s grown-up sister network, is hoping will get viewers hooked on the new show. Though a latecomer to the revived TV talent show genre, following the behemoth “American Idol” and lesser siblings “Star Search” and “Nashville Star,” VH1’s offering has a number of unique things going for it.

First, it’s produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, the team behind “The Real World” and the strangely addictive “Making the Band.” And second, it has music-industry credibility because it’s being overseen by Tommy Mottola, the recently ousted head of Sony Music, whose track record of grooming superstars like Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez still commands respect.

But most importantly, the show is banking on drawing viewers through the elusively alluring concept of “the diva,” a selling point that has worked for the network in the past. Indeed the winner of the series gets to perform on this year’s edition of VH1’s big-ratings franchise “Divas Live.” They will share lipstick-stained mic time with Beyonce Knowles, Lisa Marie Presley, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan and Jewel on the program airing Thursday, May 22.

But little of this was on the minds of Atlanta’s five competing songbirds when they showed up at EarthLink Live for the performance that would decide who got to go up against picks from London, New York, Philadelphia and Miami. The show came at the end of a week where they were successfully weeded out from hundreds who showed up at the initial casting call. And many of them just wanted the process to end.

“I’m ready to get it over with,” said Brandi Martin, 23, a short, toffee-colored woman in a floral dress patterned after the gown Halle Berry wore during her Oscar win. “It’s been exciting, but tiring.”

Two others, Kim Leachman and Melanie Denard, needed to get back to their day jobs. Leachman, 22, who was dressed in velvety gold, is office manager at a corporation she wouldn’t name. And 30-year-old Denard, the only white contestant, toils in customer service at IBM. “I haven’t been at work since last Monday,” she said nervously, in a dark brown off-the-shoulder number.

Tarralyn Ramsey, a 23-year-old gospel singer who drove to Atlanta from her home in Jacksonville, had even more pressing concerns. “I have no more clothes,” she said, laughing, in a ruffled pink floor-length frock. “No panties. No bras.  Every day I’ve been calling my daddy for more money.”

Ramsey had the cheeriest demeanor of the bunch. But even she wasn’t afraid to make a diva-esque complaint when told that her audition number had to be “I Wanna Love Forever,” a sappy ballad by corny pop princess Jessica Simpson. “Why you got me singing the white girl song?” she said to one of the show’s producers.

A few minutes later, the contest began with celebrity judges TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. It was clear from the start just how different “Divas” will be from “American Idol.” All the talent can actually sing.

Plus, you’ll never see scenes like this on “Idol.” While the scantily-clad Williams was sassily belting out Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” her husband, a brawny professional boxer, dramatically dropped to his knees in front of the stage.

And after Ramsey finished her number, her mom, also a gospel singer, burst into sobs. “I had tears in my eyes,” said Ramsey’s mother. “And that was a song by Jessica Simpson.”

Once all the singers finished, there was a break while the judges deliberated. Opinions spread throughout the venue. Many were especially impressed with Denard’s soulful take on Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’.”

“Oh my god, my heart explodes every time she sets foot on the stage,” said Adam Bird, one of Denard’s IBM co-workers.”She always sings motivational songs for us at work. It’s been very stressful with all the layoffs.”

Others were more taken by Williams’ mix of body and bravura. “Can’t none of them touch that girl,” said a man in the men’s room. “It’s not VH1’s ‘Born to Sing,’ it’s VH1’s ‘Born to Diva.’ “

When the winner was announced, many of the contestants broke into a strange mix of forced smiles and unstoppable tears. (VH1 requested that the press not report the winners until after the show airs.) The chosen crooner thanked her family and God, and fittingly, had a closing diva moment.

The prize flowers she was presented with just happened to match her dress.


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