By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
My sister emailed me a Youtube video that, quite frankly, blew me away on many fronts. It’s a clip of the first appearance of Jonathan Antoine, a 17-year-old teen, on Britain’s Got Talent. As Jonathan walks onto the stage along with his duet partner, watch Simon’s facial expressions as he rolls his eyes and murmurs to judge Amanda Holden: “Just when you think things couldn’t get worse.” You see, Jonathan is clearly obese, hides behind long curly locks, and is wearing drab, baggy clothes. Watch the audience reactions, including eye rolling and obvious discomfort. But pay special attention to your own thoughts as you first see him. This is a very special test of how, at first, we tend to judge others based only on appearance.
Cowell’s initial impression is clear. Appearing disinterested, he asks the perfunctory questions of all new guests and his demeanor indicates he wants this over with quickly. Jonathan’s partner does most of the speaking and it’s clear she’s there to offer him comfort and security to neutralize his lack of confidence. When asked if he’s shy, Jonathan nervously indicates “sometimes” followed by a sidebar interview in which he opens up about how years of bullying about his weight have taken their toll on his sense of self-worth. Finally, Cowell, looking bored, barely looks up as he offers a rushed “good luck”. A hush descends on the vast theater.
And then a miracle occurs. As the first chords of “The Prayer” began to play, Jonathan’s eyes close and he leaves us, going to some place of passion and joy far from anyone’s criticisms. Then he begins to sing with the most incredible operatic baritone I have ever heard. Now watch Cowell’s face and how the audience responds. With every phrase, this young man stuns everyone with a magnificent voice. Suddenly, no one cares about his unkempt appearance, physical flaws, and initial lack of composure. Instead, they are mesmerized by his glorious gift, a voice that will no doubt enthrall audiences for years to come, housed in the body of this young man, emerging from very difficult times.
I’m writing this blog to remind people that we all need to do reality checks on our own biases toward others, and in this case, those whose appearance is not fulfilling some kind of “ideal”. I’m also bringing up the issue of bullying and its devastating consequences. As Jonathan noted in one interview, every time someone made fun of him, “it was as though they took another piece of me.” The bullying about his size became so intense that Jonathan left high school after suffering a “nervous breakdown.” Under the care of a therapist now, he’s beginning the healing process. Thankfully he had his singing lessons to provide a base to build self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. And kudos to the singing teacher who knew he had this gift and that he needed to share it with the world.
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps went through something similar when he was young. Constantly tormented by kids who mocked his larger-than-normal ears and his attention deficit issues, Michael sought solace in the comfort of the water. And, as they say, the rest is gold-medal-winning history.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that over half of all children are bullied some time during their school years, and approximately ten percent are regularly mistreated. When kids are different in any way, a bully will seek to control and dominate this child or teen, noting their difference, such as being large, as a vulnerability to be taken advantage of. For many, it’s led to life-long post-traumatic stress as well as suicides. This cruel behavior has to stop.
To Jonathan’s credit, despite profound pain and anguish associated with social isolation and the verbal taunts he continuously took from his fellow classmates, he kept singing. He also showed he’s an honorable young man. After having wowed the audience that night, Cowell remarked that Jonathan should dump his partner who, although a “good” singer, was nowhere close to his level of talent. “We’re going to continue as a duo,” was Jonathan’s response, to the shock and amazement of the judges and audience. I pray that Jonathan gets all of the help he needs to help him heal from years of emotional challenge and turmoil.
Between you and me, it’s now irrelevant whether he and his partner win. Record companies everywhere are already banging down his door, and truth be told, I’ll be first in line to buy any CD this young man produces. At the end of the day, he not only gifted us with his uniquely rich and powerful voice, but also gave many hope that, in each of us, regardless of how far we may be from some faux ideal thrust upon us by society, there is a greater self than can be seen from the outside. Take a moment right now and ask yourself: “What is my own unique talent, my own gift to the world around me?” Find it, believe in yourself. Reject criticisms and negative speak. Push to achieve and finally succeed. Like Jonathan, find your own voice and rejoice in it.