Reality Rocks - Archive

Irish Idol: Smithson’s Secret Past

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

American Idol is supposed to be all about giving undiscovered talent a chance. Please note I used the word "undiscovered." As in, artists who have not had record deals yet. Artists who need a show like this to GET a record deal in the first place. Artists who have not already had major labels waste millions of dollars unsuccessfully trying to mold them into next big things.

What's my point? Well, last night the visa-challenged Irish artist formerly known as Carly Hennessy--but now conveniently going under her new married name, Carly Smithson--made it into American Idol's top 24, despite having had a flop album out on MCA Records nearly seven years ago. An album that sold only hundreds of copies, despite the fact that MCA spent millions of dollars trying to promote it.

No, I am not making this up. Here's Carly's biography from AMG (note the sections I have highlighted in bold to emphasize my point):

"Irish singer Carly Hennessy, despite having slowly and steadily building a resume that included modeling and acting, became a cautionary tale when she entered the highly competitive teen pop market. Born in Dublin, Hennessy, whose mother was a known fashion model in Ireland, was appearing in print ads as a young child. Her family briefly relocated to South Africa, but upon their return to Dublin, Hennessey chose to pursue more artistic endeavors. At the age of nine, she beat out a large number of hopefuls to land a role in the international production of Les Miserables. She also continued to model, raising her profile in her native Ireland as the featured model in a national ad campaign for a sausage company. There was also the release of an album of holiday songs in Ireland and the U.K., as well as a small role in the movie Fools Of Fortune. However, a music career was the goal of the young singer and, with her father, she went to Los Angeles to peddle a demo. Her demo landed in the hands of MCA's president, who signed Hennessy on the spot to a contract, with the label setting her up to record a debut album. The initial results apparently pleased neither the label or the singer and former New Radical Gregg Alexander came aboard to salvage the project. The resulting album, Ultimate High, finally was issued in late 2001 and received solid reviews. Unfortunately, and despite MCA having reportedly spent in excess of two million dollars on the effort, it failed to dent the exhausted teen market with none of the singles taking off and the album selling in the hundreds as opposed to the hundreds of thousands which would have been necessary for all involved to recoup on their investment."

And here are some excerpts from a 2002 Wall Street Journal story (again, bolded for emphasis) titled "Pop Singer Fails To Strike A Chord," all about the catastrophic failure of Carly's ironically titled low-selling album, Ultimate High:

"Ultimate High was released in stores nationwide three months ago. So far, it has sold only 378 copies--amounting to about $4,900 at its suggested retail price....The story of MCA and Ms. Hennessy shows the dysfunctional economics of the music industry at work. MCA, one of Universal Music's major labels, initially hooked up with the spunky teenager three years ago because it was trying to get a piece of the great success competitors enjoyed with young pop artists like Britney Spears and 'N Sync. Ms. Hennessy, a native of Dublin, had released her debut musical effort, Carly's Christmas Album, in Ireland at age 10, after performing all over Europe as Little Cosette in Les Miserables. At 13, she was named the Irish national spokesmodel for the Denny sausage brand. Soon, she and her family began hoping for much more, and Ms. Hennessy dropped out of high school....

"Unfortunately [after she recorded her MCA album], neither Ms. Hennessy nor MCA were happy with the results....MCA decided to rerecord Ms. Hennessy's album from scratch...In April 2001, with the album still unfinished, MCA decided to try to get Ms. Hennessy some notice by releasing her first single, a bouncy tune called 'I'm Gonna Blow Your Mind'....MCA spent $250,000 on a video that showed Ms. Hennessy dancing in a disco and jumping around with pals in their sleepwear. On a call-in show, Nickelodeon asked viewers to rate 30 seconds of the video, but the audience was unresponsive. The video was quickly shelved."

The article goes on for many paragraphs after that. But I think you get the picture.

Now, I'm not saying that Carly isn't talented. Sure, she is. The girl can sing. But she's already had a shot--more than one shot, actually, if you count her stints in musical theater, modeling, film, and, um, sausage promotion. Meanwhile, some of the popular fan favorites on Idol this season who didn't make it--like Josiah Leming and Kyle Ensley--are still unproven newbies, still waiting for a label to spend millions of dollars on them. So why waste a spot in the Idol top 24 on someone like Carly, who's already tried and failed at the major-label level? And furthermore, is it really fair to pit an experienced professional like Carly against true undiscovered amateurs who've never made a $250K music video or worked with Gregg Alexander?

It makes me wonder if Carly is a pre-arranged plant, someone whose relationship with 19 Management and Simon Cowell and Clive Davis dates back all the way to 2001. I even wonder if the whole Idol competition is fixed this season, to ensure that a real seasoned pro prevails and no Taylor Hickses or Sanjaya Malakars make it through.

Let the conspiracy theorizing begin!

Oh, and by the way, do you think it's a coincidence that Carly's suddenly using a different surname now? Or that the bio video pieces on American Idol--which went into deep personal detail about Kyle's political goals, Josiah's homelessness, or Asia'h's father's pre-audition death--failed to mention Carly's MCA deal and failed album? That's a sad story itself--a saga of a naive and hopeful young talent, only 18 at the time, being chewed up and spit out by the fickle music business. This story could have even garnered viewer sympathy and made Carly a more interesting underdog character. But American Idol neatly erased that entire MCA chapter from Carly's story, because then potential fans/voters would know that they'd already had an opportunity to buy a Carly album and make Carly a star--and they didn't.

Anyway, check out this video from Carly's past (sorry, no disco dancing or pajama parties in this version) and judge for yourself if Hennessy/Smithson deserves to have a few more million dollars spent on her, this time courtesy of Clive Davis:

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