In the criminally underrated film Mermaids (1990), Bob Hoskins invites the ethereal Cher into his attic and shows her his collection of paintings. When Cher is unimpressed, as Cher would be, he explains: “I said painting was my passion. I never said I was good at it.”
Hoskins’ painting mantra is not far off from how I feel about singing. In my perfect world, every day would be like a Glee episode. My friends, professors, and even my bus drivers would break out in song and dance at any given time to convey their heartaches, triumphs, and fears. In grand Glee tradition, we would also sing about the most minute parts of our days.
I was in the Divine Mercy Catholic Schools church choir throughout my formative years, but my singing confidence was shook during my short-lived stint as a theatre kid in junior high. My 15 seconds of fame was exactly that—one spoken line in a production of Once On This Island. I was never cast as a main part, much less given a singing solo, and I quit theatre thinking I just wasn’t a good enough singer to succeed. (As an adult, I now realize it was all about politics. The director’s daughter and her friends conveniently always got the lead parts…)
For many years, singing became something I did in the comfort of my shower and in the car. Aside from being snubbed by South Milwaukee Youth Theatre, being into something as stereotypically geeky as drama club wasn’t something my lost, insecure 14-year-old brain wanted to subject myself to in high school. As most people people do, I became less ashamed of my penchant for musical theatre. I matured and became more confident and self-aware, or whatever. (Doing Ladies Rock helped me a lot, too.)
A few months ago, Yokohama announced they would be organizing Milwaukee’s “first” karaoke league. (Many Milwaukee Magazine commenters quickly pointed out the league was, in fact, NOT Milwaukee’s first.) I immediately knew I had to do it, but I needed to assemble a team before signing up. I didn’t think my friends would be easily convinced, and I was surprised when they enthusiastically agreed to join. We aren’t the most outgoing people, but we do love popular music and know all of the words to more songs than I’d like to admit. We wouldn’t even need the lyrics screen!
After hours of deliberation and countless options, we finally settled our team’s name: Non-Binary Fieri. We wrongly assumed some people would understand the joke and didn’t anticipate our team name would be mispronounced every week for the rest of the season. It was, as Guy Fieri would say, butchered.
Each week, every team performed three rounds: solo, duet, and group. Because joining the league was my brilliant idea, I figured I would do the first solo. I stuck with my go-to karaoke song, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” a ballad I’ve been perfecting since I was, like, 18. My team and I were ready to win the $500 cash prize. It’s not like anyone else would put genuine effort into this, anyway.
When we showed up at Yokohama for the first night, five other teams were ready to sing. We were up against The Red Wedding Singers, Acalumni, Mojo Loco, Roll With It, and Riverwest Recklessness. We wondered who would be the team who always did terrible songs and which team was comprised of ex-theatre kids. After the other teams performed, we realized our competition was stiff. Once again, we wrongly assumed karaoke league would be a fun thing no one would take too seriously. We were easily the least vocally inclined team and realized right away we had to play to our strengths if we wanted to win.
The only problem was we didn’t have any real strengths…or so we thought.
Week two was our bye week, but we showed up the third week ready to dazzle the miniscule crowd. The night’s theme was movie soundtracks, so we naturally chose “All Star” for our group song. We assembled makeshift Shrek costumes and choreography. We may not be the best singers, but I can guarantee we are the best thrift shoppers. To our dismay and disappointment, we didn’t place that week, even with our costumes (including a giant Gingey suit!) and dance moves.
I had to work the following week and was bummed I would be missing out on Broadway week. (It’s a travesty that Yokohama doesn’t have ABBA in their karaoke roster. I guess I didn’t miss that much.) Non-Binary Fieri chose selections from Cabaret, High School Musical, and Annie and tied for two out of three rounds. During week four, we developed a sneaking suspicion that one of the judges hated our team simply because this person didn’t “get” our “humor.” Up to this point, we hadn’t won a single round and somehow lost the applause-based tiebreaker, which my teammates said they OBVIOUSLY won.
“Heartbreak” was week five’s theme, and sad songs seemed especially appropriate for our losing streak. We decided to get a little country with “Picture To Burn,” “Before He Cheats,” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Even though I didn’t think our performance was that great, we managed to snag our first category win with the help of Shania Twain’s misandry anthem. I assumed people were just giving us (much appreciated) sympathy votes at this point.
Whatever. We needed them.
The next round of karaoke league was on Halloween. Still riding the high of our first win (and still bitter about the Smash Mouth diss), we knew we had to bring our A-game (uh, K-game?) with costumes no one would expect. We spent seven straight days listening to “Shout It Out Loud” and “Rock And Roll All Night” on constant repeat as we scrounged Salvation Army and Value Village for clothing worthy of glam metal’s founding fathers, KISS.
We spent literally, and I mean literally, countless hours on our costumes, hair, and makeup. I stayed up until 3 a.m. perfecting my Ace Frehley attire using safety pins and duct tape. The reaction from Yokohama’s hostess alone was worth the effort, but we finally got a taste of sweet, sweet success when we took first place for the entire night. When we took a well-deserved victory lap at Vanguard, I kept wondering why everyone was staring at us. I then remembered we were in full-on KISS drag that I think Gene Simmons himself would applaud.
Remember that “team of ex-theatre kids” I mentioned earlier? My team realized we were those theatre kids who were taking this too seriously.
The last week before finals had an ’80s theme. Our team motto quickly became “Halloween is forever, bitch” after applying clown makeup with paint brushes for Halloween. Costumes suddenly seemed mandatory instead of optional. We claimed “Africa” by Toto weeks earlier and decided to gender-bend the kids from Stranger Things. The lone man on our team dressed in Eleven drag, and the three women and I donned our most tween boyish looks to recreate Will Byers and his friends’ signature style. For the third week in a row, we won with our group song and placed second with our duet, “Time After Time.”
For the first five weeks, we were in last place with no hope for a rebound. We were now one measly point away from being crowned third place winners. That $50 Yokohama gift card would be ours.
Knowing we would never top KISS, we mulled over some potential options. Our first choice was going as the Blue Man Group and singing songs about, um, blue. “Behind Blue Eyes”! “Baby Blue”! “Blue” (by Joni Mitchell)! Understandably, not everyone on the team was thrilled about more face paint and blue bald caps. We instead settled on “gospel choir with a grand reveal” and picked songs with choral-intense harmonies: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Somebody To Love,” and the Glee version of the Ike and Tina Turner version of “Proud Mary.”
We hunted down five graduation gowns in matching colors for the “gospel choir” aesthetic. My teammate’s boyfriend’s gown touched the floor on me, but I was too committed to the look to care. Our costume designer (teammate who goes to art school) sewed skirts and shorts using flame-printed fabric, a subtle nod to Mr. Fieri’s iconic style. The cherry on top was shirts that spelled out—you guessed it—FIERI.
We’d never looked better (excluding the time we were KISS).
Karaoke finals reminded me of childhood dance recitals, but with a lot less hairspray. Thank God. We had custom-made, hand-sewed costumes. We had perfectly planned choreography. We practiced not once, but TWICE to ensure our third-place win. We wanted that fucking $50 gift card. I don’t even like ramen! Most of all, we wanted to know our efforts meant something. We wanted to know we meant something.
We only competed against two other teams that night. One team only had two members, and the other missed a week and were far behind in last place. Feeling confident in our chances, we sang our hearts out one last time. My years of being ignored in youth theatre groups would at last be avenged. Third place, here we come.
The crowd went wild when we unzipped our graduation gowns and revealed our costumes. People from every other team told us we were their favorites, and one girl on AcaLumni said she would “burn this place down” if we didn’t win. We were feeling pretty good—great, actually. I wish the director of my 2009 production of Beauty And The Beast could see me now. I’m on fire(i).
In grand Glee tradition, we lost. The team that skipped two weeks and was in last place managed to come in third, snatching that gift card, our hopes, and our dreams away from us. We stormed out of the bar in a fit of rage, screaming about how our efforts were wasted and how we would never participate in competitive karaoke again—not at Yokohama, not anywhere.
Coming in fourth place out of six teams bruised our tender egos a bit. (Okay, it actually bruised our tender egos a lot.) I bet you’re wondering, dear reader, would I do it over again? Absolutely. Non-Binary Fieri learned the value of teamwork and made some talented new friends. Most importantly, I can now add “KISS makeup expert” to my LinkedIn page, with photos to prove it.