This year's New Zealand's Got Talent panel wants to bring a harder edge to the top-rating show, writes Scott Kara
Cris Judd, the new judge on New Zealand's Got Talent, wants to bring a more competitive, ruthless American edge to this year's competition - and he has the backing of Rachel Hunter.
The former supermodel, who returns to the judges' table with singer-songwriter Jason Kerrison when the new series of the talent show returns on September 15, is keen to "knock New Zealand's tall poppy syndrome down" once and for all.
"The problem I have is, why do New Zealanders pick themselves out as 'New Zealand singers', 'New Zealand dancers'. No, we're all the same, we're all human beings, it's just a different country.
"There's just as much talent here as anywhere," says Hunter.
Judd, a renowned dancer, choreographer, and former husband of Jennifer Lopez (though there's an express request from the show's publicist to avoid any J.Lo questions), is replacing former UB40 frontman Ali Campbell, and wants to bring the American mentality of being in it to win.
"I'm a teacher, so I encourage kids to pursue a dream and I want to see more of that. So if you are here just to give it a go, then that's not going to work for me. I'd like to see someone with more drive."
TimeOut meets the judging trio at TVNZ and they seem to be getting on like old mates. Kerrison and Judd are playing table tennis, while Hunter lounges on the couch tinkering on her phone. And once we're talking, they bounce off each other effortlessly.
NZGT was the highest rating show on telly last year and that is one of the reasons Judd came to New Zealand - as well as the fact he loves the Got Talent format.
"Being part of the No1 show in New Zealand, how could I pass that up?
"I'd also worked on America's Got Talent, and I like the format, I like the opportunity it gives people, and being a teacher and choreographer I can help with that, and their journey."
Ultimately what are you guys looking for? Is it someone with raw talent? Or someone with the complete package?
Judd: Sometimes you meet someone who has that complete package, but sometimes you meet people that you can see it in them and it's up to us to draw it out and tell them that 'this is what we want and the next time we see you we want to see that progression and growth throughout the show'. You want to see someone blossom into something that they never thought they could be. We're mentors, we're teachers, and we have that wisdom and knowledge to pass that down.
Hunter: When someone walks into a room and they have that presence, it's pretty obvious. And Clara was the perfect example of that. She was 15, and she had that. So many of them do have that but there certainly is a roughness sometimes when they come on stage. Some of the awful outfits they wear, how their hair is, and they're just a complete f***** mess.
What did you learn from last year's show that you want to take into this season?
Hunter: To use the buzzer more. To be honest: 'She's lovely, but no, we can't let that through'.
Kerrison: But that is the charm of the show, though. It's not all about finding a virtuoso, it's about letting everyone have a crack and being really generous and warm and supporting those people as well. There's a real sense of that in the room. And ignoring what these guys [Hunter and Judd] have said about whether you know if someone's got it straight away, equally, there are moments where you are completely aghast that this shy retiring person, who's freaking the f*** out, opens their mouth and their talent comes out. That for me is the really, really cool thing about this show. As much as we can help out and coach, it's also great to sit back and let it wash over you.
What makes the format unique from the other TV talent shows then?
Judd: I like the fact that anybody can audition, there's no age limit, and it doesn't lend itself to just singing and dancing - there are dog acts ...
Hunter: ... and sheep.
Judd: ... and sheep [laughs]. So someone can say, 'I'm good at something, I'm going to give it a shot and see if it's good enough to win'.
Hunter: I hope something from New Zealand, like the kapa haka group we saw, does well. I want something really authentically New Zealand.
Kerrison: That's why the show is actually so popular. You don't have to be a singer to watch the show, because you can jump on there and see your aunty, your neighbour, and it does reflect New Zealand's cultural identity.
It's all very well winning and doing well, but how much is it about making the most of the exposure you get from the show?
Kerrison: Part of them winning comes from the drive they have to succeed anyway. And had there been a show or not they probably would have. But the fact they've got a platform to show their wares to a million people every week gives them better leverage out there in the world and to do the things they want to do. To do the things that Jessie [Hillel, last year's second place-getter] who is a Bollywood star now. Or you've got Evan [Sinton, the singer-songwriter who was third] who's doing well and hasn't been rejected by the "alt" community for being involved in the show because it's all-inclusive.
So what have been some of the standouts during auditions?
Judd: This one guy sang something that you'd never imagine him singing. He was this clean-cut Asian guy, with his braces on, he looked like a school kid, and he could barely speak English and he said, 'I'm going to sing Iron Maiden'. He was full on ... unbelievable.
[with this Judd and Kerrison re-enact the young singer's performance of Run to the Hills].
The contestants who make it to the finals have to put their lives on hold. So what is it like for you as judges? Do you live this competition too?
Judd: My life is on hold at the moment. And it's amazing to be here and be part of something so successful. We just want to make it the best show we possibly can, by weeding out the talent and making sure who is going through to the semifinals and finals are the best choices.
Hunter: Yeah, all of our lives are on hold. For me, living up in the States, at the moment Liam and Renee [her two children] are about to go off to university. But I'm here. But when you're in that [audition] room you are fully in there. I take a long time to come down after a show because you are emotionally involved with these people. You are emotionally picking up everything in the audience so it's not to be taken lightly. And these people are baring their souls to us, as far as their talent goes and you don't just brush that aside because that's a human up there on stage ...
Kerrison: ... not always.
Hunter: No, not always, but you have to treat them with respect.
Kerrison: And as much as we are on the panel, I also feel like I'm also sitting on the couch kind of rooting for them, too.
Who: Rachel Hunter, Jason Kerrison and Cris Judd
Where and when: Sunday, September 15, 7.30pm