Canadian Idol's Tough Homecoming | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Idol's Tough Homecoming

High school is hell - especially if you're the Canadian Idol. When Melissa O'Neil won the TV singing contest last year, her classmates were starting Grade 12 at Lester B. Pearson High School in Calgary.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 9, 2006

Canadian Idol's Tough Homecoming

High school is hell - especially if you're the Canadian Idol. When Melissa O'Neil won the TV singing contest last year, her classmates were starting Grade 12 at Lester B. Pearson High School in Calgary. Instead of math, choir and school dances, she signed a record contract, made a CD and toured the country with her boyfriend, Idol runner-up Rex Goudie - all the while taking distance learning courses. When the tour wrapped in April, O'Neil decided to go back to her old school for the remaining two months before graduation. "I needed to be in a conducive learning environment - a computer in the corner of my apartment is not." It would also be a chance to reconnect with friends she hadn't seen in almost a year. Or so she thought.

Turns out the same students who had supported her, voted for her and been so proud of her during the competition had experienced a change of heart after she won. "One of my best friends called and asked me if I was coming back to school," recalls O'Neil, now 18. "She said, 'I really don't think you should, everyone hates you here.' Hate is a strong word, you know. I was like, 'Are you sure they hate me?' And she said, 'People just talk about you all the time and some people who you thought were your friends might not treat you the way you think they would.' "

O'Neil, who considers herself outgoing, went back anyway. How bad could it be? "I had a penny thrown at me, two pennies," she says. "People who I was friends with would make fun of me, saying [sarcastically], 'Can I have your autograph?' Some days I would have to pee so bad but I waited 15 minutes because I didn't want to go walk around in the hall." That desk in the corner of her apartment started to look pretty welcoming. "I told my friend and my teachers, 'I don't want to go back to school, I just want to do it at home.' They said, 'The only way to show them that you're still the same is by being who you are.' Well, that's easy to say."

By all accounts, pre-Idol O'Neil had been a confident, hard-working, well-liked student, who was on the basketball team and in two big musical productions. She played Maria in West Side Story and Carmen in Fame, the character who sings the title song: Fame, I'm gonna live forever / Baby remember my name. "I had given two years of my life and invested everything into that school," says O'Neil, "academic-wise, athletic-wise, creative-wise. And it was as if I had never been there. I was the new dorky kid that no one likes."

The consensus around school was that fame had changed her, turned her into a diva - and it became cool not to like her. "It was such a good, exciting environment through the whole Idol voting thing," says former classmate Dan Hasegawa, 18 (who played Tony to O'Neil's Maria). "But as soon as she didn't come back for Grade 12 and was off in Toronto, everybody just started saying things and making up stories and boiling up this bad image of her. By the time she got back it just stayed that way. I think people were just jealous."

O'Neil's music teacher, Kathryn Riben, chalks it up to a maturity thing. "As an adult, when I would phone her and it took her several weeks to get back to me, I realized it was because her time is not her own. There are all of these crazy demands and new things happening and it's really easy not to call someone back. But I think as teenagers, that was a harder concept to grasp. She was off doing this amazing thing and she was suddenly a star and they missed her."

Plus, the O'Neil they'd seen on TV and CD covers wasn't all that recognizable. "Idol made her up," says Riben. "She's much more exotic on stage, her eye makeup is different. They brought out her multi-ethnic background. She doesn't really wear makeup at school, she looks like a jock all the time. Her hair was always in a ponytail. And I don't think I'd ever seen her in heels until I saw her on the show."

But showing up in sweats when she came back still didn't humanize her in her classmates' eyes. She was now a celebrity - which put her in a clique of one. Not to mention that for many high school students, being a manufactured Idol is not exactly the coolest kind of celebrity.

Riben swears the Lester B. Pearson students just didn't know how to handle the new situation. Plus, when O'Neil came back to school, she was nervous and hid in the music room, working on the distance courses rather than joining classes that had started eight months earlier. And she focused on school work rather than sports, socializing or theatre. If she'd mingled more, or the other students had made more of an effort to come and talk to her, Riben's convinced they would have seen she was the same Melissa. "It was like she never left. Her kindness and thoughtfulness toward other people - none of that had changed. And she looked like herself again."

Had the school year been a little longer, says Riben, everyone would have come around and the situation would have normalized. As proof, she cites the graduation ceremony at which O'Neil received the same amount of applause as all the other students. Still, O'Neil skipped out on the banquet part of the evening. (There had been rumblings from classmates that they didn't want any of O'Neil's TV cameras showing up and stealing their grad from them.) Even though O'Neil didn't go to the dance, her boyfriend Goudie drove all the way from his home in Newfoundland for the occasion. "We went bowling with my family," says O'Neil.

These days, O'Neil shares a house in Toronto with Goudie. "I'm over it," she says about her not-so-happy high school homecoming. But expect to see some of the trauma resurface in the lyrics of her next album (which is due early next year). She plans on co-writing a stripped-down un-Idol-like disc, in which she bares all about her family and life pre- and post-competition. "What I want to do is take out all my diaries and my journals and just have it laid out for whoever I'm co-writing with. I know there are going to be nights where I totally bawl and I don't want to talk about it. But it will totally connect with people."

Maclean's October 9, 2006