The Latino students at Franklin High School, located north of downtown Los Angeles, sat stone-faced in the school’s auditorium, waiting to find out what justified missing the period before lunch. Against the backdrop of an American flag and an Israeli flag, Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan informed them that they would influence the fate of six Israeli singers.
“You represent the country,” he announced to the students in late January.
The singers who would perform for these teenage judges were contestants in Israel’s new reality TV show, “Chai B’LaLa Land,” a name that plays on the phrase “Live in a Dream World” and the city of music dreams: Los Angeles. The show is designed as a combination of “American Idol” and “Big Brother,” and has given six stars in the world of mizrachi (Mediterranean) music a chance to achieve the near impossible for any Israeli artist: crossover into America. Starting in January, the singers lived together for six weeks in a Los Angeles mansion as they fought for a distribution deal with Geffen Records, headed by mega-producer Ron Fair.
“We see America through their eyes,” Shabi Zaraya, the show’s chief editor, said. “In Israel, they’re very famous. Everything comes easy to them. They’re stars. They don’t know what Americans expect of them in the music industry and how to be a star in America. It’s funny, exciting, and we have everything in this format because the meeting between them and America is crazy. They have a problem of language, mentality and missing home.”
The show — Israel’s most expensive reality show to produce to date — is the brainchild of Kuperman Productions, the company that created the 2006 reality hit “The Successor,” which had notorious “psychic” Uri Geller find his Israeli heir. The American remake of Kuperman’s award-winning sitcom “The Traffic Light” premiered on Fox last month.
With its local — and tribal — connections, Kuperman opened coveted doors. The contestants worked with Johnny Wright (manager of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears) and Israeli-born mixer/engineer Tal Herzberg, who was just up for a Grammy for his work on Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster.” They performed for Tori Spelling, among other celebrities.
The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles teamed up with Kuperman to shoot an episode at Franklin High.
“It’s a difficult neighborhood,” said Dayan, sitting at a wobbly picnic table outside the auditorium. “Kids here are members of gangs, so it’s important for us to reach out to them and show them Israel and the diversity of Israel.”
On this day, Israeli reggaeton superstar Alon de Loco immediately got the audience cheering when he hopped on stage with his gold chain and gansta pose. Of Moroccan-Iraqi descent, de Loco could easily be mistaken for Latino with his dark, Sephardi features and goatee.
“Six years ago, I had no money, a little kid in my hand and a wife,” he told the students. “And I said to myself, ‘How can I make it better — a good life for my family and my future?’ The only thing I knew how to do was reggaeton.”
He won over the crowd as he gyrated his hips and grabbed his crotch, Michael Jackson style, while singing a Spanish-Hebrew version of his rap song, “Madre.”
Zehava Ben rose out of the slums of Be’er Sheva to become Israel’s reigning mizrachi diva. She got her share of catcalls when she came out in tight jeans, a leopard-print spaghetti-strap tank top and high heels, but the 43-year-old brought the energy level down with her syrupy ballad, singing: “You won’t find the love in the world like the love of your mother.” Her twin sister, Eti Levi, couldn’t revive the crowd, but Israeli audiences will be more interested in what happens backstage between the twins. The show reunited them after years of bitter sibling rivalry.
With bright pink pants and a glowing blond mane, Julietta Agronov is the closest any of the singers gets to a Britney or a Christina. As she sang a Spanish-Hebrew pop tune about girl power, tinged with mizrachi instrumentals, students looked discerning and attentive but were still well behaved. When Avihu Shabat, an Enrique Iglesias look-alike and son of famous Israeli singer Shlomi Shabat, took the stage in tight leather pants, it was the girls’ turn to call out “sexy.”
But David “Dudu” Aharon, Israel’s Singer of the Year, got the crowd out of their seats — by request.
“If you want to respect me,” he shouted, “get up on your feet.” It was either a Freudian slip or a language error when he shouted “wake up!” instead of “get up!” Eventually, they joined him on stage as his smooth vocals entertained.
An informal poll crowned de Loco the winner.
“We could relate to his music more than the rest,” Keidy Rivas, 19, a senior, said. “It was reggaeton, and that’s what we and Franklin High School listen to.”
“He was also dancing a lot more,” added Rivas’ cousin, Daisy. “Catching our eye and not making it boring.”
If Franklin High represents America, de Loco will be coming back, but with three daughters and a baby on the way, the experience has taught him what’s really important. “I can have success, money and the crowd,” he said, “but without my family, I’m nothing.”
“Chai B’LaLa Land” will air this summer on Yes, Israel’s satellite cable network.