Top Idol & the Cheater I Almost Took Down

Every good story needs a villain.

And what began as a funny, lighthearted bucket of Chinese randomness eventually became a battle between good and evil.

The story's hero, my brother, James/Jimmy.

For a couple hours sitting in an auditorium yesterday with my friends and my "Go Jimmy" sign, I found myself feeling unexpectedly and suddenly stressed out.

Allow me to start from the beginning.

After running a 10K in Los Angeles a couple months ago, James (Jimmy outside of the fam) and I were walking through a mall when we randomly stumbled on the first audition for a Chinese-speaking version of "American Idol." When I told the crew that my brother is fluent in Mandarin, within 30 seconds they had placed a microphone in his hands and brought him to the stage, and moments later, he was an official contestant to move on to the next round.

His accidental audition.

The next four rounds, actually. All the way to the finals.

With both of us, minus bells on bobsleds, laughing all the way.

So for four more weekends, James purchased a round-trip flight from Phoenix to Orange County, slept on our couch hide-a-bed, and went to ETTV studio in the City of Industry to compete in "Top Idol."

Each Saturday he thought he'd get cut, and each Saturday he found himself leaving the studio only to have to jump online and purchase yet another airline ticket.

Eventually, the show had narrowed the contestants to the top 12 finalists, and they had a random white guy among them.

They also had.... dun dun dun.... the villain.

The Competition

Since I wanted to support my awesome brother on this random adventure along the way, I came to almost all of the Saturday performances. I got to know the contestants and spent the bulk of my time uncharacteristically conscious of being polite and sitting unobtrusively in a waiting room watching a patched-in TV/audio feed of the performances, not understanding what the heck anyone was saying.

I felt like a fascinated fly on the wall in a world I didn't recognize.  

The ETTV crew was especially kind to me each day -- they thankfully spoke to me in my native tongue, since "I-don't-speak-anything-but-English" might has well been written across my caucasian forehead.

And then there were the contestants: all very polite, with varied levels of talent.

Emphasis on varied.

As a singer myself, I noticed some unexpected judging patterns in who was kept and who was cut each round. 

For instance, while I think my brother is a pretty good singer who had a rightful spot in the finals, he and I are the first to admit that he wasn't the best singer in the competition.

There was a 17-year-old girl named Janet who was figgin' ridiculous in the best way possible.  She could sing Christina Aguilera will precision and passion, and ace all the difficult trills most female singers flop on.  She was beautiful, sweet, and the total package. 

And at Round 4 -- they cut her.  

The most amazing contestant, Janet, was cut before the final round.

I almost fell off my chair.  James and I were sure she would win the whole thing, and both of us were actually rooting for her to get first and for James to get second.

The same thing happened at the San Francisco auditions.  The two best singers -- one of whom was professional grade -- were cut.

So, by the time the final 12 were narrowed down, while there were some good singers kept until the final round, not all of them were... well, how should I say this since Internet prose lives forever... 

Let's just say that I might not have chosen some of them.  For Round 2.  

But hey, a US-based Chinese singing competition has a narrow pool to fish from, and it's all subjective anyway, right?  

By the time the final round came around, I had come to realize that this competition was a dice roll.  Anything could happen, and the worst singer in the room could walk away with the 10-thousand dollar prize.

Plus, would they really let a white guy win?


But we were okay with that.  :)  

From the beginning, all James wanted to do was meet one of his idols, Jason Chen, and he had already done that.  The rest of this was a random, hilarious adventure -- something he can talk about at parties when the conversation turns to wisdom teeth stories or traffic tickets.

But there he was, heading toward the final round.

And along with it, came the final voting.  The never-ending, constant shaking of that phone app to get votes for my brother.  I shook that phone during business meetings at work, and even brought it with me on my 13-mile run after work.  There were times I'd wake up in the middle of the night, thinking I was still hearing, "Thanks for the vote!  Keep shaking! *shake, shake, shake*"  

Punch. Me. In. The. Face.

But determined to show the producers that James was worth considering for a cash prize, our family pumped social media full of "vote for Jimmy" propaganda.  And so many of you awesome, amazing, loving people responded!  You know who you are, so THANK YOU!!

The Cheater

In addition to voting on the app, you could vote on Facebook, Instagram, or on a website, and watch the votes tally up.  

Which is where I started to notice something interesting...

One contestant, we'll call him.... Voldemort, was significantly behind in the polls, which was somewhat expected since he was... (I feel so rude, but don't know how else to say this) not exactly at the top of the charts in the talent arena.

Then all of a sudden, within 1 second, he went from having 90 votes, to having 2,590 votes on Instagram, triple the next highest person -- which just happened to be Jimmy.

In one second.


That's less time than it takes to read this sentence.

My spidey senses were tingling, so I looked at Voldemort's Facebook votes.  Sure enough, in one second, Voldemort had also jumped from next-to-nothing, to thousands of Facebook votes and followers, significantly higher than any other contestant.

Smelling a rat (or a wannabe wizarding overlord), I checked out the votes, and sure enough, the sudden voting profiles were all completely fake, which confirmed my suspicions that this sudden surge of votes were fake.  Not to mention, no one from any of these profiles bothered leaving any comments for him on Facebook or Instagram, where all the other popular contestants had hundreds of comments and shares.  

It was obvious.  

This contestant was using an Instagram "like" generator and a Facebook "like" and "follower" generator -- free websites that instantly give you hundreds to thousands of likes and followers with the click of a button.  They exist to help people appear more popular than they really are.  Or in a voting contest, they can be used for an additional purpose.


With just a few minutes of digging, I had a confirmed long list of proof.  

Anyone who knows me well also knows that while I'm generally a happy and pleasant person, I do not easily sit idly by when an injustice rears its ugly head -- even when it comes to a random Chinese singing competition.  

Admittedly, my eye was twitching a bit.

After debating whether I should or not, I ended up writing a very kind, polite email to ETTV that said "You are probably already aware, but just in case you aren't...." and sending them the list of proof that one of their contestants was cheating.

Interestingly enough, ETTV responded in denial, saying that it "made sense to them" that the contestant had so many votes because the contestant also "had a lot of followers."  They completely missed the point that the followers were fake, too -- and if they did any research, they would see that they all came into existence in one single second.  Not to mention, the fake Facebook profiles were all Vietnamese -- a country that doesn't have access to ETTV shows.  How would they even know such a contest existed? 

Amazing how so many people in Vietnam would suddenly take a simultaneous, instant interest in one of the most forgettable singers in the competition.

Ouch, I know.  

But true.

Anyway, it was clear that ETTV didn't want to face that it was possible to rig their system, and I didn't want to be a crazy stage mom and make waves in a losing battle, so I decided to leave it alone.  The best way to defeat the cheater would be to make sure Jimmy got enough real votes to even beat Voldemort's fake ones.  So shake away, we did.

The Finals

The final round came -- a live ticketed performance at the Baldwin Park Performing Arts Center.  The set looked great, and the lobby had 12 flat-screen TVs showing various photo poses of each contestant.  

It looked pretty sharp, actually. 

It's a running joke in our family that TV cameras always ask me for an interview.  Thanks for the training, Disney!

James was feeling happy.  While it would be nice to win some money, he was surprisingly indifferent about being named a winner.  All he wanted (and all I wanted for him) was to perform well and have fun.

And I'd be lying if I didn't say he was very ready for this adventure to be over so he could have his weekends back.

For the final round, each contestant would first sing one song.  Then they would be lined up on the stage according to who had the highest number of votes. Then the top six contestants with the most votes would have to pick someone from the bottom six contestants to "compete" with.  From that point, each person in a competing pair would then sing a second song, and then the judges would eliminate one of each pair.

Make sense?  It's a little complicated to explain, so feel free to read the last paragraph again to make sure you've got it.

Anyway, James sang his first song -- some soft, slow Chinese song with an acoustic guitar minus track -- and he did great.  Phew!  So far, so good.

Earlier during rehearsal, James had quietly confided in one contestant backstage that Voldemort had rigged the votes.  He didn't know that his confidant happened to be friends with Voldemort, and soon Voldemort nervously stated a clearly made-up explanation about having no votes in the US because his following was all in Taiwan.  Or Vietnamese servers, James thought, but didn't say anything because he didn't want to stir up drama.

Backstage at rehearsal.

Then it came time to line up the contestants on stage according to number of votes, which I think is cruel and unusual punishment.  And low and behold, who should be at the very front of the line, but--


Cheater McGee himself, with a fake 18,000+ votes, stood triumphant in his dirty little secret at the head of the line, right next to my brother.

James got 16,000+ votes.  2-thousand real votes short of beating Voldemort's robots.

So close!

The third place contestant had half of James's votes at around 8-thousand.  James had swept it.

But no one would ever know.

Except you.

I felt my eye twitching again as I saw Voldemort smirking in line ahead of my brother, but shook it off.  It didn't matter.  At least this meant James could have a choice in who he wanted to "compete" with for his second song (which I also think is cruel and unusual punishment, for the record).

So, as announced, Voldemort got to choose who to compete with first.  The host asked him who he wanted to select.

"Jimmy," he said.  

Everyone freaked out.  Could he do that?  We thought he had to choose someone from the bottom six.

The host looked at the judges.  They shrugged.  Looks like it would be allowed.

From the back of the auditorium, James caught my glance and gave me an oh-my-gosh look.  The cheater was trying to eliminate him because he had the actual highest votes, and because Jimmy was the person who knew that Voldemort had cheated.

My eye was in an all-out spasm now.

The contestants went off stage briefly, and my phone buzzed.  It was a message from James:
"Claws are coming out.  I shall DANCE!"
And dance he did.  For his second song, "Bailamos" by Enrique Iglesias (the judges' request for him, making Spanish the fourth language James would sing in this competition after Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English), James threw all caution to the wind and danced it up in the best way a not-so-Latin dancer could, complete with spins and... a bunch of other fancy footwork neither of us know the name of... if it has a name.  He sounded great and pulled off the surprise dance moves at the same time.  Phew!

James connecting with his inner-Latino at a Chinese singing competition.  Cuz that makes sense.

Next, it was Voldemort's turn to perform.  Then the judges would eliminate one of them.

As far as I was concerned, this was no longer about just having fun.  This was about kicking the crap out of the cheater.

Before Voldemort's performance began, the host asked him how he was feeling.  He then, I kid you not, began to fake cry about how hard his week has been because someone stole his credit card and other events that got lost in translation.  The audience stifled laughs as best they could, but it was so weird.  He was so obviously grasping at the pity vote, just like he had so obviously cheated with online voting.  Was this guy some sort of sociopath?  No conscious at all?  Just doing anything to win ten grand? 

I was not laughing.  His were not authentic tears.  I couldn't believe someone would stoop so low.  

But then again, he did try to kill the most powerful and beloved teenage wizard in the world.

It stayed weird when his song began.  Suddenly two female back-up dancers popped out of the side-curtains and the three of them did a very strange, in-your-face-but-completely-awkward-for-the-audience intense sensual dance... with a little bit of yelling into the microphone.

I was so uncomfortable.

I didn't even know back-up dancers were allowed in the competition.  My friend Megan, a dance teacher, cringed at the dancing.

At a typical singing competition, Voldemort probably would have been eliminated rounds earlier.  He clearly knew he wasn't a strong singer, so he hired a couple back-up dancers to try to use promiscuity and make up for it.

No dice.

When James and Voldemort stood in front of the judges, one of them had to go.

It wasn't James.

Bye bye, Cheater McGee.  The judges voted in James's favor.

I instantly relaxed as James took a seat in one of the six "safe" chairs on the side of the stage.  Right after he sat down, he looked at me again.  I shook my head in disbelief.  He slowly nodded in agreement to me.

Voldemort was gone.

Or so we thought.

As I should have learned in both the books and the movies, it takes a lot to defeat Voldemort.

The other performers all sang their second songs as judges eliminated one person from each pair.  I was bummed to see some of them go, especially a girl named Story who had the best voice and performance out of the twelve, but like I said, this competition was a roll of the dice at this point.

Once everyone had sung their second song and the 12 had been narrowed down to 6, it was time for each remaining contestant to take 30 seconds to do whatever they wanted to impress the judges, and then they would name the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners.

Whatever floats their boats, I guess.  Such a "unique" criteria for a singing competition.

Just as they were going to start, suddenly the host said something in Chinese (because everything was in Chinese), and then who should run back onto the stage, but--


I instantly tensed again.  What the heck was the cheater guy doing back on stage? Was this some kind of practical joke?

I leaned over to the nearest Chinese-speaker on our row.  "They decided to bring back a wild card," he told me.

What?  That guy is back for this 30-second round?  James has to defeat him again?

I saw surprise on James's face.  Then determination, and I knew what James was going to do during his 30 seconds.  I literally prayed out loud that he wouldn't land on his head.

James went first.  He sang a quick power series of notes, set the mic on the floor, ran and did a round-off-double-back-handspring across the stage, then picked up the mic again and finished with a final note.

People freaked out with screams and applause.  No one knew he was going to do that.  Except me.

It was awesome.

The other contestants followed.  Most of them sang 30 a capella seconds of a song.  One did a comedy act in Chinese that I obviously didn't understand.  Everyone applauded for each contestant.

Voldemort went last.  Just as he stepped forward, a music track kicked on (again -- didn't know that was allowed), and the cheater jumped out in front and lip-synched a cocky mash-up of female pop songs.

Yes, you read that correctly.  

He lip-synched.  

In a singing competition.

Once he finished, the audience was as quiet as a live audience could be.  Only polite applause, if that, echoed throughout the auditorium.  One thing was clear -- No one wanted this guy to win, and they didn't even know what a creep he had been during the voting.

At one point, the host approached the audience and called out each contestant's name, asking for their fans to cheer for them.  When Jimmy was called out, the audience joined my loud group of friends in showing what might have been the loudest support in the room.  When Voldemort's name was called, you could only hear one thing;


The host had to ask a second time if he had any supporters in the audience.  Nothing.  Not one person clapped.

For a contestant who lives a few miles away from the theater who supposedly got more votes than any other performer, it was telling.

I looked at James.  He looked at me.  As far as we were concerned, James had won.


James didn't win 1st place.  He didn't win 2nd or 3rd either, but that was okay.  He had done his best, performed well, made a bunch of new friends, and had fun.  

Voldemort won one prize -- a free watch for "getting the most votes," which will help him think about the voting whenever he checks the time.  

Perhaps that is punishment enough.

The winner was Cydney, a cute girl with great stage presence who really brought her A-game to the final round -- she was literally twice as good as she had been at previous rounds.  My hope for her is that she stays cute and doesn't try to sell herself through promiscuity as young singers often do.  While Story was a better singer, Cydney was a top-3 performer, so she deserved to win something.  I'm happy she did well.

Announcing the 1st place winner - Cydney (far left, in red)

2nd place went to a quiet girl from New York -- total dice roll, and 3rd place went to Tony, a rapper with a genuine personality and some great rapping skills.  I was happy to see him place.

Listen to me.  I've become.... *gulp*... involved.  Ugh.

After everything was over, James took pictures and hung out on stage with other contestants for a bit, and I offered my happy congratulations to all the winners and shared some laughs with friends and crew members.

James with Story, who won "Best Performance," and yet didn't place... hmmm...

Then while I waited for James, like a mama bear, I looked around for Voldemort.  I couldn't see him anywhere, and I really wanted to find him.  The other contestants were still around, but he had vanished.  I'm not sure what I would have done if I had found him.  Probably cornered him and tried to lecture him to death.

Or used my wizarding wand.

Instead, James and I spent some time talking to Jason Chen and his friends, and then went out to eat pizza with my group of friends.  

It was a fun day, and a crazy ending to a very random once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

To the Cheater

By the slim chance the cheating contestant ever sees this blog entry, this part is written for him:

I know I've written some harsh things about you in this post and said even harsher things, but all of it becomes obsolete if you do one thing.


You're young, and this life is going to be filled with opportunities to rob other people to try to put yourself ahead.  During those times, don't take the dishonest track because it looks like the best possible escape route.  Sometimes you'll get away with it, but when it comes back to bite you, it'll hurt.

I don't think you're a bad person, which is why I haven't written your real name, but I fear you might be a good person on a bad track.

So hear this -- Instead of worrying about what others think of you, worry about what you think of yourself.  By making yourself a better person on the inside, you'll become a better person on the outside, and then you'll get the "votes" you're looking for.  The opposite just doesn't work.

Enjoy your watch.


  1. Wow! I love your story telling! I felt like I was right there with you in the audience. I think it's amazing everything James did. What a incredible story and memories. Way to go James!

  2. That was so entertaining! Pretty awesome story!

  3. I wonder if the station hired Voldemort to participate in the contest so that they don't really have to pay out $10,000 prize.

  4. That was so many kinds of awesome! We truly loved keeping up with his random (but amazing!) journey (even with such a bittersweet, yet somehow still satisfying ending--including a villain and a message!). Thanks for an entertaining couple of weeks, and please congratulate Jimmy/James for us!


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