Bucking the traditional look and sound of the people who usually excel on reality singing competitions, Michelle Chamuel proved there's room for everyone on shows like The Voice.
The Little Indie Artist Who Could nabbed a spot on Team Usher during the blind auditions with her geek-chic rendition of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." During the live shows, she quickly turned from dark horse to frontrunner, becoming a consistent presence in the Top 10 of the iTunes songs chart with tracks like Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." She eventually made it all the way to the finals, where she fell short of victory last week by placing second to 16-year-old winner Danielle Bradbery.
On Thursday, Chamuel called Rolling Stone from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, to candidly chat about the effort it took to stay true to herself and whether she thinks her sexuality played a role in just missing the crown.
What went through your mind when host Carson Daly announced that Danielle was the winner?
Man, I was just so happy for her. The stuff that she’s doing at her age and the trajectory I can see her going on is really incredible. I think everything worked out for the best for everybody. For me, I was itching to regroup and process the experience and put my feet back down at home and just figure out my next step.
What do you think the next step is?
The Voice is an incredible opportunity, especially for those who fit in and partner with a label; huge things are possible in that respect. But I’m different, I guess, in that way. I love being independent, and I’ve always been independent, so maybe I’m gonna say no to certain opportunities. And that’s OK. Because being indie means I’m the CEO, I’m the boss, I’m the manager.
Why do you think people connected with you so much?
I don’t know what to say because I’m still on the inside of it, but from the feedback I’ve been getting, it seems to be because of the furious fight I put up to be myself. I tried to be respectful throughout the process, like, "I totally see your perspective on why you want to attach hair extensions to my head, but this is how I’m most comfortable." It’s exhausting for everybody in this world to be constantly looked at. With Facebook and Twitter there’s so much immediacy and feedback you can get on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and how much people like it, and maybe a connection resonated by seeing someone going through that struggle in a different space. I mean, everyone on the show was being themselves, so I don’t even know why that would differentiate me. But even my preferences – like who I am – require a little more push against the norm. I didn’t wear high heels. I tried to apply the least amount of make-up possible. The song choices I pushed for were a little more independent – I got Robyn and Zedd tunes in there. So, I think that struggle resonated with people.
What kind of artist do you want to be going forward?
I’m definitely going to be using this time to try to figure that out. Today, I'd say I'd like to remain independent and release music that's from my heart, whether it will catch on or not. I’m not trying to blow up. Because you can use this as a platform to do just that, and Usher taught me a lot about how to gain success by doing things that are true to myself and expanding on them. So that’s a path to explore. But from this vantage point, standing in my driveway, I really just want to make art in completion. Produce it myself, sing on it, chop it up, mix it and release it. Sorta like mixtapes in a Frank Ocean-type of way.
There were comments in our weekly episode recaps from people saying you should "dress sexier" if you wanted to win. Did Usher or the producers or anyone related to the show ever pressure you to change your style?
[Sighs] I’ve been dealing with this since I’ve been in the industry. I’ve been in a band for a long time and I remember someone once saying, "Ha. Michelle’s in a T-shirt? Who wants to listen to her when she looks like that? She should wear sexier clothes if she wants to go anywhere." It’s unfortunate that these thoughts are out there. Not everybody thinks that way, but a lot of people hold that opinion and don’t even realize it. But in terms of the producers, they were actually really, really cool with letting us be ourselves. The main push that we felt from them was to make our performances bigger and better every time. Like trying to get my jackets to have more studs and more shine, or making my hair bigger by piling on fake hair.
You've mentioned fake hair a couple of times. . . .
Yeah, one of the creative suggestions that came in was for me to wear a ponytail during my performance of Pink's "Just Give Me a Reason," so they put a whole bunch of fake hair in. I was squirming in the chair, really not happy about it, but they were like, "Just try it." So I went onstage to rehearse, and I crush my hair in my hands a lot when I’m singing, and I managed to get a handful of this beautiful hair that was once someone else’s and is now dead on my head and I said, "I can’t sing like this, this feels so wrong." But I got through it, 'cause that’s what you do. But the second I got off stage I went to talk to someone about how this is not OK. And it turned out the producers had been watching and made an executive call, saying, "Get that off of her head. That’s not her, she’s got to be herself." The producers really do want to keep you authentic.
Did they ever try to talk you into wearing contacts?
It’s funny 'cause you say "they," and there are so many "theys" that I want to be super-clear that the producers that I interacted with on a daily basis on the show were very much supportive of me being me. There's such an over-arching structure, you don’t really know where the input comes from. But Usher and his people did ask me, "You have beautiful eyes, how would you feel about showing them off more?" It’s pretty intimidating to sit down and look at someone you have immense respect for and say, "You know what, I actually prefer it this way." It's kind of nerve-wracking to say no. But I only get the question a few times. Followed by, "Really, you sure you don’t want to?" My prescription is, like, really, really intense and the thickness of the glasses I need to wear obliterated my eyes on TV. So the glasses I wore on the show were, like, two-thirds of my full prescription.
It didn't really come up on the show, but you're an out lesbian. Do you think your sexuality hindered you from winning?
You'd be surprised by how many people were like, [yelling] "Come out on the show already, you jerk!" But I'm not going to force something into a conversation that has nothing to do with being on the show. But it was interesting to get that kind of pressure. Like, [yelling] "You're not out enough!"
To take a very broad, philosophical perspective here [about it being a hindrance], whether it's my sexuality or my clothes or my glasses or my song choices and the fact that I like indie music, which is a genre that isn't on the top 200 iTunes chart . . . you can blame it on that [my sexuality] and point to it and use it as an excuse, but I actually think that not being mainstream is going to add to my appeal. Indie music, by definition, isn't the most popular and shouldn't theoretically get the most votes until it's mainstream. But I think what's happened is it became a little more mainstream as a result of me being on the show.