It's safe to say that reality TV is no longer a fad. The broadcast networks have discovered that real life plays real well on the small screen. In the midst of the ever-evolving reality genre, music continues to be the big hit, with FOX's American Idol drawing in millions of viewers each week in its third season. The weekly on-screen talent search has spawned such million-selling "pop stars of the moment" as Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, and Clay Aiken.
Perhaps what keeps audiences returning to these programs each week is the opportunity to see real people from all different walks of life dealing with the pressures of being in a surreal moment. And when those contestants are Christians, the pressure is even greater because the spotlight brings a choice: Can I be who I am and share my faith without compromise? For music artists and reality-TV alumni RJ Helton, Kristy Starling, and Kerrie Roberts, the answer is a resounding 'Yes!'
'They Knew What I Stood For'
American Idol contestant RJ Helton experienced a quick rise to celebrity status as one of the final competitors on the hit TV show's first season in 2002. After numerous rounds of auditions, RJ was originally cut before reaching the final 10, but the judges voted him back in during a special "Wild Card" episode.
"I didn't even know if I wanted to come back for the Wild Card show at first," says RJ. "I didn't know if I felt like being judged and insulted anymore. But Simon [Cowell] actually apologized to me on that show and said he had misjudged me earlier."
One of the show's three primary judges, Simon Cowell is notorious for his stinging remarks to contestants. The participants learn early on in the season to toughen their skin when it comes to the judges' critiques.
RJ ended up moving all the way into the top five before losing the audience vote, but the national exposure had already been enough to garner him a legion of loyal fans who still recognize him everywhere he goes.
"I ask myself all the time how I ended up with that opportunity," RJ admits. "I think God was just allowing me to have a platform because there are a lot of things I want to share. I've been through a lot of things growing up-things I think teenagers will be able to relate to. With me, it's more about that than it is about wanting to perform and sing."
RJ, who is of Mexican and Caucasian parentage, was raised in a Southern Baptist home and became a Christian at a young age. After high school, he moved to Nashville to pursue a career in Christian music, but success there was fleeting. So when the chance to audition for Idol came along, RJ was ready.
Along with the immediate fame from American Idol came the pressures of strenuous promotional schedules imposed by the FOX network and the weekly stress of competing live in front of a national audience. Through it all, the contestants lived together in one house, and close friendships were formed.
"When you have the Spirit of God in you, I think you're a happier person in general, and I think that's how I made it through," says RJ. "Sometimes I would wake up listening to praise music, and I think it made an impact on the others. One cast member didn't really even believe there was a God, but he ended up loving a Rachael Lampa CD I was playing, so I was encouraged that he wanted to hear the music."
As the group of contestants was preparing for its first major press conference, RJ recalls being pulled aside by the show's producers. "Before we went up on the stage to answer questions, they said, 'RJ, leave your faith out of this, okay?' But I said, 'Well, if they ask me about God, I'm going to talk about God. That's who I am and it's a part of this.'"
And sure enough, RJ had the opportunity in that press conference to talk about prayer and about how he sometimes left various Bible verses up on the refrigerator for the other contestants. A People magazine article later quoted a music industry spokesperson who said RJ's devout Christianity was probably going to limit him. "I thought it was the most amazing quote," RJ says, "because it told me that people knew what I stood for. I'm actually having it framed."
RJ, who is 22, signed a record deal with Gospo Centric's B-Rite Music label and released his R & B-flavored debut album, Real Life, in March. Today, in retrospect, RJ is thankful that he didn't go any further in the American Idol competition. "Had I finished in the top four, the contract would have given the American Idol people control over everything I do," he says. "Now I'm able to do the kind of music that God is calling me to do."