Ten years ago, ‘Australian Idol’ was the most popular show on TV.
Millions would watch each week to see their favourite singers fight for a record deal with BMG.
Mouths dropped in awe when Anthony Callea nailed ‘The Prayer’ and viewers called for blood when favourite Ricki-Lee Coulter was eliminated in seventh place.
But in the end, it was Bankstown teenager Casey Donovan who walked away with the crown in a showdown that became one of the top ten most watched shows in the history of Australian television.
Our #TBT interviewer Brad chatted to Casey recently about the trials and tribulations she’s faced since she auditioned for the show way back in 2004.
And she begins by openly admitting that she didn’t think she had any hope of doing well on the show when she first auditioned.
“I didn’t really have a goal to be honest,” Casey reveals, “I was just kind of going through, taking each day as it came and having fun.”
Casey was an early standout, even getting one of Mark Holden’s infamous “touchdowns” in the top 30 semi-finals with her rendition of ‘Here’s Where I Stand’, a song from a little-known movie called ‘Camp’. She tells us how she discovered the song that would help catapult her to stardom.
“I was studying at Newtown Performing Arts High School and a bunch of my newfound school friends were very much into their musical theatre and they wanted to watch it. When I watched Tiffany Taylor’s story unfold… it really hit a nerve.” Casey admits.
“When she comes out in the end and sings ‘Here’s Where I Stand’, I was like ‘man, that’s a beautiful song’. I guess, like Tiffany’s character, all I wanted in life was to be on stage and to sing and to not let anyone deter me from doing that.”
Despite a rapidly growing fan base, Casey was still adamant that she wouldn’t win. “I thought Anthony and Ricki-Lee would be the final two! I just thought, ‘why would a 16 year old from Bankstown have any chance in hell of winning this?’”
Nevertheless, Casey soon found herself in the finals, relegated to the bottom three only once throughout the entire competition. The time quickly came to record her version of that year’s winners single, ‘Listen With Your Heart’. It was a song that impressed Casey from the beginning.
“I was excited to get into the studio and record it,” she tells us. “I just thought, ‘maybe they’ll give it to me as a present’, as a demo. I didn’t think I’d end up singing it and that would be the song that would change my life.
“It’s a beautiful song; it’s a journey song. I took it out of my set for a few years because I couldn’t deal with it; I had just sung it to death and had lost all emotional connection to it. But later I put it back in and changed it around a bit. I had to tell myself to stop being selfish because it wasn’t just my song, it was everyone’s song.”
However, that doesn’t stop ‘Listen With Your Heart’ from following her, sometimes when she least expects it.
“The other week I was in a café in Bankstown and it came on,” Casey tells us. “I kind of popped my head up like a dog does when they hear a really loud sound. I think the café were just trying to have a joke with me, because afterwards there was no more music. That was quite funny!”
With the advent of YouTube, many of Casey’s ‘Idol’ performances are still easily accessible. And she admits there’s been the temptation to watch some of them back.
“Sometimes I do. It was such a long time ago but I remember every thought that I was thinking when I watched them.”
However, there is one pivotal moment that Casey would rather not re-live.
“I can’t bring myself to watch the finale,” she reveals. “I go to play it and then I turn it off. I just get nervous for myself, and I don’t know why. All that anxiety and added pressure, I can’t do it!’”
A better experience for her was the recording of her debut album, ‘For You’.
“I could never forget that experience. It was definitely a very emotional album because I had to get it done in such a short amount of time. I had just come off three months of ‘Idol’ and it was just manic,” she says, adding that she had little to no input during its creation.
“I always felt that I didn’t have a voice or that it wasn’t being heard,” Casey admits. “I’ve just recently been working on a new track and I sent an email to my producer saying ‘thank you for not letting me just be a dull noise that gets seated in the background’ opinion wise.”
While second single ‘What’s Going On’ made the top 20, follow-up single ‘Flow’ missed the Top 50 and BMG, now merged with Sony Music, declined the option to release Casey’s second album. She was subsequently dropped from the roster.
“I was a little bit sad back then, but everything happens for a reason and there’s always a brighter side of life.” Casey philosophises. “I was a little bit taken aback but I think that without that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I do still have the recorded second album. Who knows, maybe something may still come out of it.”
After losing her record deal, Casey initially resigned herself to a life away from the music industry.
“I threw my hands up in the air and said, ‘alright, I’m going to get a job’. I worked in medical reception for about six months and realised I wasn’t a ‘9 to 5’ girl. People would come in and ask, ‘why are you sitting behind a desk?’, but that’s life. When things aren’t working, you’ve got to go out there and change it up a little bit. It made me realise that music was my one true love and my passion.”
Casey was once again motivated to record music, releasing an independent EP ‘Eye 2 Eye’ back in 2008 and the single ‘Big, Beautiful & Sexy’ in 2010. She tells us that the independent game is a world away from the major label beast.
“One has a lot of money and a lot of people doing lots of different things (at the labels). You’d have this whole team around you pushing. But when it comes to life as an independent artist, you try to create that team around you. It’s a lot harsher on the pocket, but at the end of the day, as an independent artist, that’s your blood sweat and tears, it’s your product and you own that product. I love being an independent artist.”
Casey has also found support in the musical theatre scene, performing in ‘The Sapphires’ and ‘Flowerchildren’ amongst other productions. She tells us that she has been greeted with (mostly) open arms.
“The directors have given me an opportunity to branch out and open other doors which has been a beautiful experience and I’ve learnt some lessons that I can take with me and use for the rest of my life. Yes, some people may go ‘Casey Donovan? Why is she on our bill?’, but the directors I’ve worked with have guided me and put me in a better place and I can’t thank them enough.”
Musical theatre is one thing, but what about making a return to a reality TV singing competition show as a number of her ‘Idol’ contemporaries have?
“Noooooo, definitely not! I see a lot of my friends on these things and I take my hat off to them, because it would be a difficult thing going back onto something that you’ve fallen from. You’ve got to do everything! If you’re not seen on television, you’re dead. It’s a sad realisation.”
We cheekily suggested that Casey might want to promote herself on a non-singing reality show such as ‘Dancing With The Stars’. She bursts out laughing.
“I’m not going to say ‘no’, I’m not going to say ‘yes’. Whatever arises, there will be an executive decision made and whether it’s right for my career at the time or not, we’ll just have to wait until that day comes. Could you imagine me in lycra? Or in some spandex and some little dancing heels? That would be hilarious!”
In the meantime, Casey is working with Oxygen Music on new material, describing it as “a touch of pop and a bit of ambience. I’m just really excited to get back out there; it’s been a long while between drinks.”
A lot has been made about the controversy surrounding Casey’s autobiography and her story of being catfished for six years. She tells us that that experience has been a source of inspiration for the new material.
“Definitely. For a while there I looked at life and thought ‘why bother?’. Now I feel that from everything you can take away a learning experience. From your darkest days to your happiest days, there’s always a memory and something to spark up when you put your pen to paper. Maybe through my pain I can help someone else out and put a smile on their face. That’s all I really wanted out of music, for people to listen and smile and remember.”
One of our standard questions in these interviews is whether our subject has any interesting fan stories. Naturally, Casey had already beaten us to the punch by releasing the book. As such, we were curious as to whether she made any non-catfish friends from her fan base.
“All stalkers aside, my fans have been there with me from day one ’til now and I can’t thank them enough for sticking by me and supporting me,” Casey enthuses.
“I think fans deserve personal time. If I’m coming out from a gig and see them stick around, I am more than happy to go and have a chat with them, have a beer with them, or sign anything they want because they’re the ones who keep me where I am and they’re the ones that keep pushing for me to get better and to be better.”
Unlike her gothic ‘Idol’ portrayal, Casey is now all for seeing the positives in life and, with ten years in the industry, can see the silver linings throughout all of her struggles.
“I’m at a point in my life now where I’m living, doing what I love and I’m this strong, confident, big beautiful and sexy (also the name of her book… see what she did there?) woman who gets to go out, perform and talk to people very openly and honestly about my life and the struggles that I’ve had. But also about the amazing achievements I’ve made as a person with opened doors and closed doors. Ten years on and I’m still smiling!”