Making of a VJ
It's Thursday night, March 31st, and the anticipation is tangible. The 10 finalists in the MTV/Kenvelo VJ search are all on a makeshift stage at Joe Cafe in Palác Koruna, putting on their most-confident faces, with big smiles all around. But a restless fidgeting gives away what they hope the audience can't see: they're nervous - and rightly so, they've survived an initial selection and two rounds of castings to make it through to tonight.
At stake is a one-year contract to host a new lifestyle magazine program called "Switched On," which will begin airing on MTV Europe in mid-May. Produced partly on location and partly at MTV studios in London, the program will take viewers around the world to explore the latest in music, fashion, art, culture, bars, clubs and parties. Although the initial contract is for only a year, it's clear that both MTV and the contestants are hoping for more.
The finalists on stage, six guys and four girls - two each from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Israel, are the cream of the crop. They've survived the cut from thousands of applicants who answered the call and filled out applications in Kenvelo shops in their respective countries. Over a period of five months those applications were submitted, screened and then hundreds of potential VJs were called in to audition. Ten to fifteen semi-finalists and then two finalists were selected from each country.
Approximately 2,000 applications were submitted in the Czech Republic and the initial round of interviews was held in Prague. A diverse selection of contestants showed up, ranging from the enthusiastic, to the locally famous, to the bold and the beautiful.
Ten semi-finalists were chosen from the Czech Republic, and during this second round of auditions the selection criteria begin to emerge, as well as the quality of the competition. Ócko TV presenter and Prague resident Lenny Trcková is already a VJ, albeit for a Czech language music show. She knows music, she's hip and she has an exotic allure, her sole worry is that her English won't be up to par. Tomá Novácek is a guitarist in "Rain Down", a local rock and roll band. He has a magnetic personality and looks that have the girls gawking. But my money is on Sara, an attractive Brno native who enters the audition room wearing a white fur coat with matching fur boots and wild curly blond hair. Her funky sense of fashion, bubbly personality, slick presentation and perfect English seem to make her a shoe in.
The finals are co-moderated by MTV VJ Tim Cash along with the famous Czech model Simona Krainová. Cash tells us that the choice of the ten finalists was based on what is described as "the MTV sparkle." While looks obviously count - there's not a homely face in the lot - the main criteria is something far less tangible. "We want a good presenter, someone who lights up the screen, someone the audience relates to, the cool kid at school you've always admired, someone who is your best friend." The type of personality who is all those things "lives and breathes MTV, is knowledgeable and passionate about music," he adds. Among the Czech semi-finalists we talked to, neither Sara nor Lenny made it to the finals, but Tomá did.
Of course a presenter must also have talent, primarily the ability to improvise. And talent is abundant in this group, as evidenced by the trial interviews that have been part of the evening's competition. Teamed up by country of origin, in groups of twos, the contestants are called on-stage for two-minute impromptu interviews with surprise guests ranging from master hairstylists such as Gary Wright of Toni & Guy to top-model Kristina Chrastekova, to Kenvelo head fashion designer Sharon Shizman. While some of the prospective VJs made minor mistakes - for example, some questions were too broad for effective answers - the overall level of ability is high.
I've written off a couple and made a personal short list of who I think has the best chance. Aside from the interviews, I'm trying to judge that elusive intangible, a sense of fashion. After all, Kenvelo is sponsoring the search and Kenvelo has a significant market presence in all of the participating countries. Fashion, like music, must constantly evolve and it's a big part of defining 'hip'. Both are ways of expressing individuality and a dynamic presence, and both are largely the domain of youth, which is MTV's market.
My favorite of the VJ wannabes is Oana Darie, 19, from Romania. Partly it's her funky style of dress, but she also has a smile that would put perky original MTV VJ Martha Quinn to shame. She has a confident demeanor, but also a shy quality that makes her endearing. Another strong contender is the second Czech finalist, Yemi Akinyemi, a 24-year-old half-Czech, half-Nigerian dancer who seems completely at ease in front of the crowd. I'd almost considered him a shoe-in until the interview, when he and rival Czech candidate Tomá, 23, were more competitive than cooperative during their two minutes. The end result made them both look somewhat unprofessional. I've also discounted Slovak candidate Bruno Ciberej, 26, because, although he is instantly likeable, he seems a bit too far off center to fit the MTV sense of cool.
Of course, my opinion isn't the issue. The vice president and managing director of MTV Europe, Dean Possenniskie, has the final say. Nonetheless, I'm surprised when the winner is announced, although he obviously isn't. The "he" in question, Israel's Jason Danino Holt, 18, steps forward when his name is announced as if the whole event were a mere formality. Though he had an air of confidence throughout the evening, he was more subdued than the others and never seemed to stand out with the requisite charisma.
But after the announcement, Jason does begin to stand out more. Suddenly I begin to see a strong resemblance between Holt and Cash, who is also an Israeli, and I hear someone in the audience suggest that they look like brothers. Meanwhile, Oana is in tears. The other contestants also seem a bit let down but manage to stay upbeat. Backstage at the after-party, Yemi says he was glad to be able to be there. "The best thing," he says, "was meeting my competitors because they are really, really good people." Tomá concurs: "It was an amazing experience for Yemi and me. We're so glad the finals took place in Prague."
Romanian candidate Marius Grancea said he thought
his chances had been pretty good: "I felt really good [before the
winner was announced]," he says. He modestly adds, "MTV is very
nice, but I'm not hip enough -- and you should see the people who were
at the auditions." He laughs, and it's obvious why he was chosen
as a finalist.
Though I never get the chance to ask Mr. Possenniskie how he made his decision, I'm lucky enough to come across Simona Krainová. Asked her opinion on the results, she confesses, "I had another person who I thought could be the winner." When pressed she reveals her favorite to be Bruno.
Asked who she would have chosen, Kristina Chrastekova replies, "I should say Bruno, because he's a good friend of mine, but I liked the girl who cried at the end. I think she would be a natural."
Of course, all the finalists had talent. But in the end Jason ended up the one with the most "MTV sparkle." Does he really have what it takes? We'll see in May. Meanwhile, let's hope the rest of the talent finds a way to stay in the spotlight. We'll all be better off - and better entertained. And, if I pay attention, I might even be better dressed.