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If, for some unimaginable reason, your idea of karaoke begins and ends with the plot of the 2000 Gwyneth Paltrow flop Duets, Peter Parker has a few words for you.
“Duets is about as much about karaoke as that ketchup bottle,” the bushy-bearded 63-year-old says at a Huntington Beach Applebee’s, gesturing to the red condiment on the table in front of him. “Karaoke’s not like that. Nobody walks in there like he’s the Hulk Hogan of the karaoke world, and everybody knows that. You’re not going to have a grudge match, a sing-off. Who’s going to judge? That’s just so stupid.”
You’ll forgive Parker if he gets worked up about a little-remembered, 10-year-old roadtrip comedy. While Duets chronicled contestants in a fictional karaoke competition, Parker has been running a real one—the largest in Southern California, he claims—for nearly a decade. It’s a contest that challenges, among other things, the popular conception of karaoke as a corny distraction for the drunk and tone-deaf. By all accounts, Karaoke Fest, held by Parker’s Cypress-based Karaoke Scene magazine, is serious business.
July will see amateur vocalists congregate in dives, sports bars and clubs across Southern California to participate in the qualifying rounds for the Crème de la Crème adult singing competition. Those who succeed in impressing barroom crowds will get a chance to croon at a final, daylong competition at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona on Sept. 12. The winners of that contest walk away with cash and prizes. Last year, top male singer Abraham McDonald happened to be spotted by scouts for Oprah Winfrey and ended up singing on her show.
“There are people who are aspiring singers but who have day jobs in escrow, who work in schools, who work in insurance, who are police officers, who work as lawyers,” says Manny Pacheco, a Cypress karaoke host who helps to run the competition. “You’re not going to get rich doing this, but the opportunity to be highlighted in the karaoke community is a very enticing thing.”
Parker likes to say the sport of karaoke is “democratic with a small D.” After all, anyone can sing. So he has tried to design the contest to reflect that: Instead of using “kingmaker” professional judges—or even allowing Parker himself to have a say—contestants are scored by other contestants, none of whom is allowed to cast a vote in their own favor. On game day in Pomona, the 25 male finalists are judged with secret ballots filled out by the 25 female contestants, and vice versa.
“When I first started, I thought, ‘This [judging system] is totally ridiculous,’” says Juanita Mankueliyo, 31, a contestant for the past six or seven years. “But honestly, I’ve found people are generally fair. You can’t vote for yourself. I’ve seen couples come in and not vote for each other. It’s been really surprising how very fair the self-judging can be.”
Even at the earliest qualifying rounds, there are strict rules to keep the judging pure. If you’re competing, there’s no getting hammered, no talking through others’ performances, and no leaving the room while other contestants are singing. Get caught getting distracted, and you’re disqualified. And if you’re not caught, you might still be hurting your chances at success.
“People get judged for singing, and people get judged for judging,” says Pacheco, 52. “People have actually lost this competition because they are obviously poor judges. The contestants are watching the contestants. If you’re loud enough and unruly enough to really not be a good judge, you will be marked down.”
For some karaoke die-hards, the Fest is highly anticipated. “It gets very competitive,” says Mankuleiyo, who placed third in last year’s finals. “People have been talking about what they’re going to be singing for Karaoke Fest since the beginning of this year, selecting songs and trying them out.”
Mankueliyo should know. For most of the years she has competed, she achieved the grueling feat of singing at each of the 25 far-flung venues hosting initial qualifying competitions. That meant plenty of late-night drives from locations in Orange, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Diego counties back to her home in Aliso Viejo. The marketing assistant for PIMCO managed her schedule with an Excel spreadsheet. She says she does it in part to keep singing, in part to see old friends and in part to get to see some good performances.
“There are a lot of really, really talented singers,” Mankueliyo says. “It’s better than going to your regular karaoke night and sitting through 10 versions of ‘I Got You Babe.’”
Alongside the main Crème de la Crème tournament, Karaoke Fest also includes a bracket for kids and one for Elvis impersonators—the Crème de la Kids and Crème de la King, respectively. The latter, which uses pre-selected judges, only started three years ago, but it has already made an impact. Richard Coco, a Santa Fe Springs ex-truck driver, says he owes his burgeoning impersonator career to the Fest.