Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Belting for bucks

Singers are busting out their best tunes every week for a chance to compete in the World Series of Karaoke

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There's a scene in the 2001 film adaptation of Bridget Jones' Diary in which Bridget (Ren©e Zellweger) is drunkenly doing karaoke at a sad office Christmas party. Bridget, with a lit cigarette dangling in one hand and weird tinsel hat askew on her disheveled head, is drunkenly caterwauling Badfinger's Without You while the devastatingly handsome Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) looks on.

For many of us, that's a pretty accurate depiction of what karaoke is all about -- a chance to blow off some steam, have some fun and possibly embarrass yourself at the office Christmas party.

For as many others, however, karaoke is something bigger. It's a culture. It's not hard to understand why karaoke bars have proliferated at the same rate as strip-mall sushi joints -- that other Japanese export hungrily co-opted by North American culture. Karaoke offers a unique bonding experience. It's inclusive and unifying. It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what you sing or how well you sing it. Everyone claps and everyone gets to be the star.

Then, of course, there are those who are really, really good at it. And for those people, it's a chance to be in the spotlight. A chance to live out bright-lights, big-city dreams of singing in front of a live audience. A chance, for approximately three minutes and 30 seconds, to be someone else.

And a chance, perhaps, to win $10,000.

-- -- --

Karaoke contests -- and the big cash prizes that come with them -- have become just as popular as the bars that begat them, particularly south of the border. A cursory Google search reveals dozens of sing-offs and talent searches held at hotels and casinos across the continent.

The World Series of Karaoke, a North America-wide contest presented by the same team behind the popular World Series of Comedy, is just one such event. Singers compete by performing at preliminary qualifiers held at participating bars and nightclubs. Finalists will be invited to compete in the World Series of Karaoke Main Event in Las Vegas in November for the chance to win $10,000.

Every Thursday night since July, hopefuls from all over southeastern Manitoba have been strutting their stuff before a panel of judges at the The Edge Bar at the Frantz Inn in Steinbach.

Monique Cote Thomas, marketing and event manager for the Frantz Inn, has been impressed by the talent that has come out. "I don't envy the judges," she says. "We've had such a range. Some of these voices make you go, 'Wow, where did these people come from?' Some of them give you goosebumps."

Others, well, not so much. "We have people who know they aren't going to win but they can say they've competed," Cot© Thomas says. "We have some who are very serious and then we have others who are just here for fun."

This is how it works: every Thursday night, singers compete for a coveted spot in the finals, which take place Oct. 3. Whoever has the best score of the night advances to the finals. Those with lower scores are invited to try again the following week.

And every Thursday, the house is filled with supporters. "There are people here every week to cheer people on," Cot© Thomas says. "It takes a lot of guts to do what they do."

-- -- --

It's a drizzly Thursday night in September and, although it's just after 8 p.m., The Edge is already filling out. Strobe lights pulsate on a now-empty square in the centre of the room; soon, that square will be transformed into a battle ground for karaoke supremacy. Cot© Thomas, an enthusiastic, self-identified hugger with seemingly endless energy, is busy rounding up contestants and chatting with the regulars, including Marilyn, an older woman with bleached blond hair, a playful wink and a pack-a-day rumble of voice who is jokingly threatening to sing.

Mike Toews has already secured his place in the finals, but he's there to practise. The 33-year-old metalhead, born and raised in Steinbach, is a big, intimidating force of a guy with a sleeve of tattoos and a formidable red beard. He's been doing karaoke since he was old enough to get into bars.

"I play music and I enjoy singing," he says (turns out he's the gentle-giant type). He discovered his knack for karaoke by accident. "One night I had one too many drinks and I discovered I could sing," he says with laugh.

Now, he chooses songs that challenge him, favouring metal acts such as Iced Earth, Iron Maiden, Dio and Judas Priest. He's also been known to rock out Blue ñyster Cult and Alice Cooper. He appreciates both the gruffness of metal and the flamboyancy of classic rock.

The heavy metal suite that took him to the finals included Judas Priest's Electric Eye, Queensrøche's Silent Lucidity and Mtley Crºe's Home Sweet Home. Toews could easily front a prog-metal act with an umlaut in its name; he's what they call a natural.

Pat LeBlanc also has a place in the finals, but Thursday nights at The Edge have become ritual. The 53-year-old Rosenort resident figures he's been doing karaoke for 15 years. He, too, stumbled into it. "A friend of mine was quite into it and I thought it was a dumb thing, to be honest," he confesses.

And now? "It's an addiction. You get your three minutes of fame."

The unassuming middle-aged guy knows how to work a crowd. Word is he does a mean Mustang Sally and a raucous Sweet Transvestite from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Apparently he even got up on the pool table once.

Kristen Single, meanwhile, is competing at The Edge for the first time on this night. The 25-year-old drove in from Winnipeg after hearing about the contest from a friend of a friend who is friends with local country crooner Jason Kirkness, one of the night's judges.

Single has a great big voice and her soulful rendition of Etta James' At Last wowed the crowd. "It's for my husband," she says, later. "I like to do karaoke in the city when we can get a sitter and I sing that to him."

Although Single describes herself as a backroads-explorin', huntin'-and-fishin', jeans-and T-shirt wearin' country girl, tonight she's a diva ready for her close-up, clad in a curve-hugging black cocktail dress. For her, karaoke is a chance to live a dream she gave up long ago, but it's also a chance to let loose.

"I just like to sing and have fun. I've always been interested in performing. I'm an outgoing person, so I don't mind going out into the crowd and rubbing someone's bald head," she jokes.

Singing has long been an important part of Single's life. She's hearing-impaired and took up singing as a little girl to help improve her speech.

When she's onstage, it feels right. "I feel like I'm home. I don't do it for the applause. I don't do it for the recognition or the attention. I do it because I enjoy singing."

That night, Single made it to the finals.

-- -- --

Cot© Thomas is a proud mama bear when she talks about both the event and the contestants who have let it all out there. Happily, Thursday night will continue to be karaoke night at The Edge after the contest is over. Because for Cot© Thomas and those who entertained and were entertained, Thursday nights were about much more than a contest and a cash prize.

"It's become a karaoke family," Cot© Thomas says -- a family that includes many different people from all walks of life, people who might not ordinarily even talk to each other.

"Where else could that happen but at karaoke?"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 G1

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