Potts’ luck: the rise of a superstar

by Kazuaki Nagata

It’s a cliche to say “don’t take things for granted” or “you never know what’s going to happen in life.” But it sounds more convincing from the mouths of certain people.

Among those may be a former cell-phone salesman who climbed to stardom at an unimaginable speed and became a multimillion-selling singer.

“I don’t think you should ever take anything for granted,” says Paul Potts, an Englishman who in June 2007 won the popular U.K. TV talent show “Britain’s Got Talent,” created by “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell. “Britain’s Got Talent” offers contenders a chance to prove they can entertain an audience. If they succeed, performances in large stadiums and theaters beckon, as well as lucrative contracts with agencies.

“I would never, ever, take what’s happening in my life for granted,” Potts said in an interview in July, and it’s probably fair enough for him to say so, given how the 37-year-old has transformed from a councilor in Bristol for the center-left Liberal Democrats to a global superstar in around a decade.

Standing on stage at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, dressed in a dark-gray suit, it was obvious from his face that Potts was nervous — and he recalls now that he had no confidence, no idea what was going to happen.

“What’re you here for today Paul?” asked Amanda Holden, a British actress who was one of the three judges.

“To sing opera,” he replied.

All the judges appeared dumbfounded by his answer, as if finding it hard to imagine that such a nervous-looking man could pull off an operatic performance.

But once Potts began singing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” he shocked the crowd and judges alike with his overwhelming tenor voice that earned him a rapturous round of applause from the audience of about 2,000 people.

After his first performance, Potts enchanted viewers whenever he was on the show, and seized the chance to become a singer. He took the show’s grand prize of £100,000 (¥19 million).

A TV talent show may not be a conventional way for opera singers to launch a career. But when asked if he feels more associated with pop as opposed to opera culture, Potts said he does not put himself into a category.

“I don’t label myself at all,” he says. “I just describe myself as a singer. All music is music. I think music is the one truly universal language. You perform for the audience and you communicate with them, and they react to it. It’s part of the singer’s job to provoke a reaction.”

The TV show literally changed Potts’ life — and quickly.

“I was in a recording studio seven days after the show,” recalls Potts, who was at the time still an employee of Carphone Warehouse, a chain of cell-phone stores.

The recording session was finished just nine days later, and his debut album, “One Chance,” was released less than a month after Potts won “Britain’s Got Talent.” It featured 14 opera-style songs, and has to date sold more than 4 million copies worldwide.

What’s more, a movie about his life is in the early stages of production.

“To come to that position in a year or less is, yes, mind-boggling,” says Potts. “You can’t make that kind of thing up.”

For Potts, singing has always been something special.

“I just feel like I am me when I am singing,” he says.

When Potts was a boy he was bullied, and he says his voice was his best friend: “It gave me a place where I’d belong.”

Potts sang in church choirs as a child, and found great inspiration in Spanish opera singer Jose Carreras when, at the age of 16, he bought a compilation album of live songs.

“I think it was ‘Che Gelida Manina’ from ‘La Boheme’ that really got me,” he says, referring to the aria from Puccini’s famous opera.

As an adult, he participated in an amateur opera group and kept singing. He even saved up money, and winnings from a different TV show, to go to Italy in 2000 to learn the language and receive training on how to sing. He also had a chance to perform with his singing class. He recalls a positive reaction from the Italian audience — no mean feat for a visiting Briton.

But he never saw singing as a career option.

“I did it because I love doing it,” he says. “I’d often go to karaoke night at local pubs, singing Queen songs. . . . It was a very committed hobby for me.”

Yet in 2003, he nearly lost his ability to sing. Potts underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor on his adrenal gland, which was found when he was operated on for a burst appendix. The surgery was successful, but as he was recovering he had a bicycle accident and broke his collarbone. Nearly two years of illness left him unable to work, and he could no longer afford singing lessons.

“As far as my singing was concerned, it was over,” Potts says of that time.

On his blog, which he started writing after winning “Britain’s Got Talent,” he says that he’d entered the show because he had an ambition to sing at the Wales Millennium Centre. His nervousness was down to four years’ lack of singing practice, he wrote.

Standing in front of 2,000 people and three judges, including Simon Cowell, who is infamous for his snide criticism and catty comments, was “nerve-racking,” he says. “I seriously considered walking away.”

Good thing he didn’t. Since winning the show, he has toured the globe, and even been able to pay off debts he accumulated while recovering from injuries with the prize money.

As for his singing, Potts says he hopes to develop his skills, and he thinks he has improved since appearing on the show.

“I think I’ve come a reasonable distance since doing the show,” he says. “I am not what I’d call the finished article.”

There will be more successes to follow. But for now, Potts is humble about his sudden success, and insists that he considers it important to just be himself.

“No matter what happens, you have to be who you are regardless,” he says, adding he is not used to life in the public eye, nor certain how long it will last.

“There is no such thing as a guaranteed future,” he says. “I just hope to continue doing this for as long as possible. I enjoy performing, and I hope people continue to enjoy watching me performing.”

“One Chance” deluxe edition will be released in Japan on Oct. 22.