By now, the TV audience is used to the aesthetics of the talent show and the arena conditions; the contestants hoping to see their star shine, the studio audience cheering loudly and creating an uproar, the presenter trying to tame (and manipulate) emotions, the panel of judges offering acerbic comments, eyebrows raised. But what about a panel of judges comprised of 100 entertainment industry professionals, making noise of their own, as they show support, enthusiasm or disapproval of the contestants?
“The word ‘chaotic’ is an understatement,” laughs Maria Mercedes, who is one of the aforementioned 100 judges sitting on the panel of All Together Now, Channel Seven’s latest hit.
The seasoned Greek Australian performer praises the work of the production team in handling the crowd and creating a compelling show – one which she admits she was reluctant to join at first.
“As an actor, you don’t want to be doing reality TV,” she explains.
“You want to think of yourself as a serious actor. But then I thought ‘you know what? That’s how I started’. I started as a 15-year-old in a talent show; I was on Young Talent Time and New Faces back in 1973, before anyone was born,” she laughs.
“I started my career winning two singing contests and I thought that maybe there is a singer there, maybe there are people who are aspiring for a dream, and I would like to be part of that experience, and maybe discovering someone.”
The show has delivered on that.
“Oh yes, there have been some very special singers out there,” she says.
As for the advice she has for them, she urges they tap into their originality.
“Try and find out what makes your talent so special. We all have our influences. I was influenced by Shirley Bassey and Cher – believe it or not – there were singers of the time that influenced me.
“Sometimes you have got to find what makes you special. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to like it. You have to believe and trust that your talent is your talent and develop that – and display your talent wherever you can. Busk, if you have to. A lot of people have been discovered busking in the street. It’s all a matter of getting out there,” she explains.
And she’s not afraid to be frank, happy to be the voice that tells it like it is.
“People will fill your head with a lot of bullshit. They will promise you the world, there is a lot of disappointment.
“But the disappointment will steer you away from why you want to sing. If you no longer love it you can’t be doing it.”
And what if she saw her young self among the contestants; what advice would she give herself?
“Don’t change your name. To this day I still struggle with that. I entered the business when there wasn’t a lot of acceptance of people who come from different backgrounds. I had just won two young talent shows and I was on Graham Kennedy’s show and he couldn’t – or wouldn’t pronounce my name, Moutsidis, he made a big joke about it. It was humiliating for me,” she says and remembers the show’s producer persuading her to change her name.
“I went home and told my dad; he wasn’t happy, he was very upset. But then, when they started calling him ‘Mr Mercedes’, he liked it,” she says, and bursts with laughter.
Under the stage name Maria Mercedes, she managed to have a long, fulfilling career in musical theatre and she is the first to admit that things are much different now than it was back in the ’70s.
“When I started, we had so much variety television,” she says.
“As soon as I won these contests, I was able to have a career – every week I would be singing on some national TV show, even the ABC were doing variety specials. These days people don’t have that kind of platform, there are no opportunities anymore, that’s the big difference. On the other hand, it is easier to release a record today. You don’t have to have a contract. You have to be more creative and have more control. People release things online all the time, they have their own YouTube channels, there are those avenues. But if people want to be recognised on a large platform, you can’t do that anymore,” she continues.
“Television has changed a lot, obviously. People’s idea of entertainment has changed a lot. People these days who watch TV, if their attention is not grasped within the first 20 seconds, they will switch off. Back then, audiences were a lot more patient.”
Still, she seems to enjoy this new environment she’s found herself in.
“The wonderful thing about it is that before we go out on stage to start taping the show, we all hang out in the Green room and I’ve been blown away by some of this young talent. We are jamming and singing, there is a lot of camaraderie and you probably think that there is a lot of ego, as well – there is!” she adds, bursting into laughter.
“But I’m used to it. I’ve been in the industry since I was 16. I’ve had to contend with a lot of ego.”
How does she cope with that? “I laugh,” she says. But what about her own ego?
“Let me tell you, I have had to keep a check on that as well, because I’m not the young, youthful up-and-coming performer, like the ones that they have as judges on the show. I’m obviously going to be in this industry till I die but a lot of attention is always given to the youth and I have to sit back and not let my own ego get affected,” she says, but is quick to add: “It’s all good.”
Having said that, she admits that she feels inspired by this coexistence with younger performers. In fact, one of them, Greg Gould recently invited her as a guest on his show at the Paris Cat Jazz Club.
“I want to start singing again, like I did,” she says. “I did a full circle and this show has inspired me. Even though I have had reservations about this show, it really opened up my heart to singing and performing as Maria Mercedes again and not part of a musical and playing a character. I see all these young people who are singing for the love of it and I have missed doing that. It’s interesting that while I’ve done this show to help others, it’s actually helped me.”