Anggun C. Sasmi overcame initial reservations to become a judge on X Factor Indonesia. The mother-of-one finds that mentoring the hopefuls and taking them under her wing requires its own form of parenting.
Since its debut earlier this year, X Factor Indonesia has enjoyed phenomenal success. Part of the attraction for viewers is the show’s fresh take on the usual talent contests aired in Indonesia, along with the bevy of mostly Gen Y singing talents who have quickly become household names and earned social media cred.
There is also the mix of personalities of the judges – level-headed singer Anggun C. Sasmi, happy-go-lucky crooner Rossa, shoot-from-the-hip musician Ahmad Dhani and cool, calm and collected singer-songwriter Bebi Romeo – and the often humorous, occasionally barbed repartee as they go to bat for their charges.
Anggun, who turns 39 on April 29, admits she was reluctant to accept the producer’s offer for the show. Herself a music business prodigy, she knows what it’s like to be a performer in the harsh glare of the spotlight and subject to criticism (she shrugs off her lowly finish in the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, representing her adopted homeland of France, as having a lot to do with the notorious political allegiances at play in the Europe-wide contest).
“I didn’t want to judge other singers. But the difference is that I am mentoring, I’m not just sitting there saying, ‘you’re no good’,” she says of why she took up the offer.
“To me, that is much healthier, because you’re really involved with them. They’re like my younger brothers — we went to see a movie together, I give them vitamin C, I genuinely care for them.”
She has left her husband, writer Cyril Montana, and her daughter, Kirana, 5, at their Paris home during the run of the show, scheduled through mid-May. She describes mentoring as a round-the-clock, emotionally and physically consuming job, from picking songs, the performance outfits, to making sure her proteges are in good spirits so everything goes right on the night.
“I breathe X Factor but then maybe I’m taking this way too seriously. I’m a bit of a Jewish mother, which I guess sounds strange from a Muslim,” she chuckles.
Courtesy of Sony Indonesia
In her balanced comments about performances, she refers to the advice of her late father, the writer Darto Singo, to always be careful in what she says, weigh the ramifications of her words and accentuate the positive.
Sending performers home is tough, she said. Each is good in his or her own way, and courageous to face criticism (her own singer, Gede Bagus, was eliminated on Friday night).
“I told him to remember that he was watched by millions of people every week, and this is his stepping stone,” she said of her parting words to contestant Agus Hafiluddin.
“As mentors, we can only go so far with them — it’s up to them how far they want to go.”
Anggun herself was willing to step out of her comfort zone to develop her talents. She left a successful career as an edgy teenage “lady rocker” — “it seemed like a good idea for the time, now maybe not so much,” she laughs — to go abroad at age 20, eventually settling in Paris, learning French and dealing with rejection before landing a record contract.
Sacrifice and hard work paid off. Anggun scored an international hit with the haunting Snow on the Sahara in 1997, followed by several other albums (a best-of album, Design of a Decade 2003-2013, is set for release in May). The naturalized French citizen has been embraced by the French populace as one of their own; she is also active in various causes for UN agencies.
In her birthplace, X Factor Indonesia is also bringing her to the attention of a new generation of Indonesians, the Mikha Angelos and Fatin Shidqia Lubis of the show, who did not grow up with the beret-wearing teen with the powerful vocals.
Still, she admits her relationship with her birthplace is a complicated one. She terms changing her citizenship an “administrative change”, a practicality in living abroad and marrying a Frenchman, as well as the hassle entailed in securing visas for almost all destinations on an Indonesian passport.
It’s tiring having to justify to some people that she herself didn’t change when she changed her passport. And hurtful, too.
“I feel like a stranger here,” she says, an unusually blunt statement from the usually amiable Anggun. “They will never forgive me for changing my citizenship.”
She tells of some local journalists insisting on speaking English to her, as though she may have somehow forgotten Indonesian (“if that’s how they feel, then they really should speak French to me”). In a cringe-inducing moment, one TV interviewer asked her if she still ate rice.
It’s true that scrolling through YouTube comments about X Factor brings a few snide entries about her citizenship. But there are also many posters who express pride in her talent and international success.
“Those are the people who think, who have been abroad and read,” she says, pausing to weigh her words. “Or maybe I am being harsh on myself. We tend to believe the worst critics, and the things that hurt us the most.”
She confesses to exhibiting contrasting reactions to criticism; the Indonesian in her cares what people think, the European is willing to dismiss their words as having no direct bearing on her life.
“The color of my passport doesn’t change my childhood or my blood. Maybe these [the critics] are people who when they go abroad feel they will have to change themselves. That’s not me […] But I know that the people who love me, love me.”
One of them is Kirana, who has made a brief visit to her mother in Jakarta before they vacation at the family’s villa in Bali. She credits having her daughter for changing her life and her priorities — an important factor in her own happiness.
“I’m extremely happy. Now, if I was 39 and not a mother, then that would be a problem — that’s very Asian of me,” she says.
She will turn 40 in 2014, that major, often feared milestone for many. She looks remarkably youthful on this day, wearing a T-shirt, sans makeup and sipping jasmine tea, contentedly keeping an eye on Kirana as she plays with a new friend.
“When you are at peace with yourself, you don’t look your age. And good genes and a good plastic surgeon also would help,” she laughs.