Stacy Francis has an image problem. Like many problematic things, it began in the gossipsphere. First came a blind item full of loaded language like “playing victim,” “wailing” and “sobbing.” Then came a career dossier from Vote for the Worst, ironic big-uppers of the world’s Sanjayas and self-appointed hedge-clippers of reality show “plants” everywhere. Into the fray marched Perez. Twice. Again. Adam Lambert got involved, taking Francis’s side. The fracas got so heated–albeit the simmering sort of heat stoked by Twitter fights and comment sections–that Francis found it worth a response. It’s still going even now. Why wouldn’t it? It’s a scandal. There are allegations of fraud!
That fraud, for those whose self-preservation instincts have kept them from clicking those links or Googling those names, consists of the following: singing for Tom Cruise and thus being exposed to Scientology, singing in a few Broadway shows, her biggest role (Smokey Joe’s Cafe) being a revue, appearing on some bottom-tier reality TV shows and in a few films, being in C-list R&B group Ex-Girlfriend, knowing Adam Lambert. For comparison, American Idol‘s Corey Clark was disqualified for an undisclosed arrest record and was later accused of sleeping with judge Paula Abdul. Frenchie Davis and Antonella Barba had pornographic photos surface, and others’ criminal and debauchery records are just a search away. Stacy Francis’s record consists of having the resume of a jobbing entertainer in her forties.
Jobbing entertainers, mind you, are exactly what people don’t want The X Factor to unearth. There’s an obvious problem–not that it always stops people–with accusing someone on a TV competition like The X Factor wanting to be famous: making a singer famous is the point of the show. So people establish prerequisites. It’s only against The X Factor‘s rules for contestants to have current recording contracts, but popular opinion is more stringent. People want singing competitions to be democracies and meritocracies, free of those sullied by potential connections. So-called “plants,” they argue, have had their chance already. As the thinking goes, an ideal contestant on a singing show should be untouched by microphones or stages. They should have developed voice and poise while ensconced in their bedrooms, high schools and blue-collar jobs. Even taking singing lessons would drag them away from the Platonic ideal of a contestant. And these pristine flowers are apparently choked out by the weeds of people with connections who–lack of real evidence notwithstanding–ingratiate themselves via Bacon degrees to the judges and producers.
In the real world, talented, ambitious singers tend to leverage their talent any way they can, from self-recorded YouTube videos, odd gigs and small-press CDs all the way up to attempted or successful record deals. And considering that American Idol and its followers have drilled the country for talent for almost a decade and have become massive cultural institutions, of course inexperienced and experienced singers alike will audition. Some of those experienced singers are criticized, but not all. For every Joanna Pacitti, disqualified from Idol for prior teenpop ventures, there’s a Carly Hennessy, who went by Carly Smithson on the show and who advanced despite public outcry, and there are about a dozen contestants with mostly self-released albums, albums in process or current and pending record deal who avoid any hand-waving freakoutery. Kelly Clarkson was one. Carrie Underwood was another. By The Voice, it seemed like people had stopped caring altogether. Dia Frampton took what’s effectively second place despite being part of a duo, Meg & Dia, signed to Warner Bros. Records then dropped. Frampton admitted outright that she went on the show in part to promote the new Meg & Dia record. Nobody cared. Winner Javier Colon, meanwhile, released two records under Capitol, both of which charted more respectably than many R&B hopefuls’ albums. Nobody cared.
When The X Factor‘s U.S. season arrived, it looks like people had permanently stopped caring. This season’s slate of semifinalists, some eliminated and some who remain, include: Ike Turner’s ex-wife. The first child star signed to Disney Records, who called herself the prototype for Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The frontman of Xavion. Half of Bell and James. A contestant far enough on a debut single to shamelessly promote it in the same minute as her elimination. All these contestants have three things in common. They already “got their chance.” You could compile a damning dossier on any of them with multiple smoking guns and ample press clippings and YouTube videos. Yet, curiously, nobody has.
Why Francis, then? Her resume might have more bullets than any of the above contestants, but it’s certainly no more successful. She’s no less talented than any of them–in fact, she’s one of the best remaining singers. Clues are in the show’s editing. It’s nothing unprecedented; standard reality TV procedure takes piles of footage, culls them, then arranges the remaining clips to tell a complete story. Random events become plotted storylines, and people become characters. This is how the show informs us that Astro’s apparently still a brat, no matter how humble he acts and how much practicing he says he does. It’s how whatever friction came of Intensity and Lakoda Rayne’s respective formations is completely smoothed over in their introductory sections. It’s how the kids on the show seem so precocious thanks to cute quotes.
And it’s how the show subtly makes us think Stacy Francis desperate. The camera lingers on shots of her tears in extreme closeup, as gratuitously as other cameramen might linger on contestants’ legs. Her wonkier high notes get recapped endlessly, for the same length of most montage scenes. We hear the same snippet over and over: “I don’t want to die with this music in me.” What isn’t included are any clips of Francis acknowledging her past. They might have existed; they might not have. It doesn’t matter. If Francis’s past was really a big deal to the show, she’d have been eliminated at least once Simon and L.A. found out (they might have known earlier, but this is the earliest proof.) She has not been eliminated, despite multiple opportunities discreet and otherwise.
So when people call Francis a plant, what they’re really saying is that they don’t like what they’ve been shown of her personality; that she isn’t what they think an ideal contestant should be. She’s too effusive, too emotional, too much of a diva. These proceedings inevitably get ugly. Along with Smithson’s accusations came weight jokes and unprintable nicknames. Pacitti got innuendo about who she was dating on what networks. Both were called “famewhores” and the like, with all the uncomfortable implications of the word. Now, Francis’s marriages are already being dissected, and her statements about domestic violence are already being used in the exact way you wish they wouldn’t. None of this ever had anything to do with her singing voice, and it’s past the point of having anything to do with her career, with the show’s rules or with fraud. It’s just sniping disguised as concern, speculation disguised as deduction, judgments based on limited information. “Plant” has always been shorthand for “contestant you don’t like.” It’s fine to favor other contestants over Francis, but there’s a way to show this: voting for them. And when we make our votes, let’s be honest about why.