Obviously the TikTok generation, and those who become stars there, know the unwritten rules and customs better than any of us ‘olds’; in ten years time, they’ll have created an entirely new media landscape to befuddle us, based on self-generating everything, especially your image.
Self-generation is why Claudia Conway has become such a phenomenon. In the face of absolutely staggering pressure and influence from her family, she still told the truth. Up to and including allegations at the end of last month that her own
monster mother, Kellyanne Conway, had released topless photos of her and then gaslit her about it. If there’s one thing Claudia Conway knows, it’s how to maintain her authenticity.
But does that still compute in the decidedly old-school world of American Idol, where she appears this season? Can you still be yourself when your image is now in the hands of a media corporation that needs, first and foremost, to remain relevant and eye-catching?
A lot of media outlets say no. Variety alleges that the Idol appearance “tries to put a happy face” on Claudia’s story, and that she, or ABC, are attempting to launder the reputation of her parents. I see that, inasmuch as the segments that feature Kellyanne (or George, for that matter) as supportive-ish parents are clearly pure fiction. I can see how, if you were a viewer on the fence about the whole scenario, you might be tempted to say, “well how bad can it be, her own parents are supporting her…” Apparently, there’s pressure on ABC to take the focus off her in subsequent episodes given that people think this is exploitative.
What they’re not saying is precisely why. The level of talent and auditions on these early episodes of American Idol is now absolutely flooring. The game is raised every year, to the point where I *know* there are professional musicians watching their backs when some 18-year-old kid blows the roof off an audition. Claudia doesn’t, and didn’t – her audition, at best, could be seen as ‘has potential’ (something Claudia herself acknowledges in a series of TikToks on Monday), yet they passed her on to the next round anyway.
If anything speaks to exploitation, it’s this – putting Conway in a scenario where she’s out of her depth, talent-wise, for the sake of yes, ratings. If she had a legitimate, undeniable Adele-sized voice, the online discourse would be much different, about how ‘God was looking out for her’, or something. As it is, people are reacting this way because it seems (and again, I get it) that there’s no ‘legitimate’ reason for her to be there, beyond ratings. Fair.
Except I think it might be worth it for Claudia anyway.
Nobody needs me to point out that the entertainment industry has a storied history of exploiting vulnerable children, who think they’re pursuing their dreams but wind up as also-ran footnotes deep in some Wiki or other. No arguments here.
My issue is trying to apply the same logic to Claudia, who was disabused years ago of the notion that the world, online or otherwise, might be a soft or forgiving place. She shouldn’t have to be this media savvy, but she is; she knows the only way to survive her family until she can escape is to be honest about her situation, warts and all, in order to give herself lifelines and contacts in the outside world.
To that end, she’s not stupid, guys! She already knows she’s not the best singer they saw, and knew going in that she’d get more attention because of her name. I don’t think she’s under any illusions on that front, based on things she’s said on her own videos – and while I know her brain is still 16 years old regardless of how much trauma she’s been through, I don’t think she expects to become a super-famous happily-ever-after singer at the end of all this.
Instead, I see this as a young woman, who’s been taking care of herself for a long time already, being incredibly pragmatic about one of the best ways a 16-year-old can acquire what she needs most: more contacts, more context, less isolation, even some perspective.
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t just recording star and AI judge Katy Perry who asked, in all earnestness, “…Are you okay?” It was Katy Perry, daughter of deeply, deeply religious Pentecostal parents, who labeled Katy as rebellious and difficult when she was a teen, and whose relationship with them remains tenuous. Someone who can actually understand, and speak to, what it’s like to feel like you’ll never get out from under your parents and their incessant disapproval – and is a living example of how to live your own truth anyway. How is that anything but a net gift? How can that not benefit Claudia, whether she’s cut in the next episode or goes all the way to the finals? Nobody knows better than she does how media narratives can be manipulated. Why would we take away her agency to meet new people, form potentially real relationships with other contestants, or learn things about herself that have nothing to do with being in ‘The Top 10’, especially when those are things nobody can take away from her?
I know Claudia’s not a grown woman, even though she’s had to deal with the injustice of being on the wrong side of power as though she is. I’m not trying to assign her an all-knowing wisdom. I just don’t think she’s under any illusions about what being included on the show is about, and I bristle at the idea that we think she can’t be savvy about her choice to appear just because she’s a very young woman – a point she’s been proving wrong since the very first day we learned her name.