The show must go on — even when the world shuts down.
Aviano Air Base, home to the Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing and approximately 9,000 Americans in northeastern Italy, is getting ready to launch its latest “Aviano Idol” competition beginning May 15. The base has held the singing contest several times before, but this time there are new twists: Facebook-exclusive performances for a global audience, a $5,000 grand prize and celebrity judges to boot.
“We really wanted to make this event special for the Aviano community, which is why we are doing it bigger than any other talent competition that has been done in USAFE or Air Force-wide,” Jamille Jackson, marketing and publicity director for the 31st Force Support Squadron, said. “The thing that excited us most is that there is such a diversity in talent. We have singers from opera, jazz, country, pop and R&B.”
Aviano residents have been on lockdown since February 24, banned from leaving their homes and yards for any reason other than work, grocery shopping and medical treatment.
“Aviano has arguably been one of the Air Force’s most affected communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jackson said. “Aviano leadership and facilities have put a number of resiliency initiatives in place to keep up morale during this hard time.”
Competitors will perform in an empty auditorium for three judges who will be present via Zoom. Each judge will appear on a television monitor with full audio and visual capabilities so they can interact and provide feedback to the contestants in real time.
Another way Aviano Idol differs from the average local talent show: its existence has attracted some serious pop and military stardom to the judges’ panel. Jessie James Decker, the country music singer, songwriter and TV personality will be first up to assess the 10 singers who made it to the live rounds. Ashanti, the Grammy-winning R&B singer, will jump in on May 22. Brig. Gen. Daniel T. Lasica will join the other judges the third week to determine who advances. And for the show’s finale, Facebook viewers will vote for the ultimate champion.
“The Aviano Community Center did an amazing job bringing in some exciting celebrity judges,” Master Sgt. Nathan Parry, an affiliate manager for AFN Aviano and member of the judges’ panel, said. “I’m thrilled for our contestants to perform in front of Jessie James Decker and Ashanti. That’s an opportunity they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives.”
The show’s organizers sought Parry out for his theater background and his experience judging the 2018 “Aviano’s Got Talent” competition. He will be looking for someone with great stage presence and overall performance quality to win it all. Since “this year’s crop was extremely competitive,” he says, and with more than 30 hopefuls auditioning, chances are good he will find them.
“People seem really excited for this year’s competition,” Parry said.
Air Force veteran and Aviano resident Heather Simpson is one of them. A professional chef and mother of two, the 30-year-old St. Louis, Missouri-native has been singing since she was five. Going by the stage name Heather Ann, Simpson videoed herself covering Beyonce’s “Ave Maria” and emailed it to Aviano Idol organizers to earn her spot in the competition.
“I wanted to show my children just how important it is to chase your dreams and prove that even in the toughest of times, you can still place a smile on the faces of many by being uniquely you and sharing the special gifts that [you] have been blessed with,” she said. “Aviano Idol isn’t just a chance to win; it is a chance to bring joy to many.”
That joy is sorely needed around base, Simpson says, given the challenges brought by COVID-19 while stationed thousands of miles from home.
“I feel like the morale around the base has been somewhat of a rollercoaster,” she said. “We have all gone through the stages from worrying, to being proactive about the whole thing, to ultimately showing just how strong the 31st Fighter Wing is in the face of adversity.”
Anyone can watch the weekly competition via the 31st Force Support Squadron’s Facebook page. The competition’s online nature lent itself well to working with stateside celebrity judges.
“Performing in front of these celebrity judges is awesome!” Simpson said. “I’m not a starstruck kind of person, but I am so excited to get feedback from these incredibly talented performers that I aspire to be like.”
More than a fun singing competition, however, Aviano Idol has been a chance for a sequestered community to pull together, says Parry.
“I’ve been really impressed with Wyvern Nation as we’ve really banded together,” he said. “There are plenty of stories about how Airmen have supported each other and our families. Aviano Idol is a good example of this. Our airmen, uniformed and civilian, continue to work each day making sure the mission is accomplished, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”