Jasmine Murray, Fox’s “American Idol”

Jasmine Murray came from a family of singers—one of five children, she grew up singing in church and school choirs. Jasmine says she watched music videos, listened to the radio, and played CD’s to hone her listening ear for music.  She began performing in pageants at 13, winning the state Outstanding Teen Pageant and going to the national competition.  “I loved being able to perform even at that young age,” Jasmine said. “American Idol was a way for me to be able to experience that on a new level.”

At 16, Jasmine auditioned for American Idol in Jacksonville, Florida.  She was given the traditional thirty-second audition to start off with, only facing the judges including Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, three auditions later. “That’s the big one, before you get to Hollywood Week,“ Jasmine said.  

For Simon, she sang “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fergie.  Aware of his reputation, she was nervous at first.  But in person, he didn’t seem nearly as intimidating as he did on screen, Jasmine said.  “He’s not scary!” she said.

She nailed the song and advanced onto the live show in Season Eight of the blockbuster reality show.

Her first song on the show was “Love Song” by Sarah Bareilles.  Although she went on the block for elimination, she was picked to continue by the judges as a wild card selection.  “When you’re chosen for wild card, it’s because the judges chose you for a second chance,” Jasmine said. 

She counts her wild card performance as her best moment on the show, singing “Reflection” by Christina Agulierra.  Jasmine counts Christina as one of her favorite artists, singing another arrangement of hers, “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”, for her talent at the 2014 Miss Mississippi Pageant, winning the title on her third try. 

While new to her, the twenty-four-hour-a-day filming was not a big challenge to Jasmine.  “I learned to just adjust and learned to go with it.  After a while, you forget they’re even there.”

The “Reflection” performance was good enough to get her into the top 13 episode, which featured her singing “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five. Although that performance eliminated her, she doesn’t regret a moment of the competition.  “Once I got to the actual live show, that’s when I said I am so happy to be here,” Jasmine said.

She returned to Brookhaven and the Mississippi School of Art and graduated at 18, then took herself to Nashville to follow up on the doors that “Idol” had opened for her.  She spent the better part of two years in Music City, practicing her craft by writing and recording songs with producers.  She was invited to perform at Mary Kay’s national seminars and did so for several years.  

Now 22, Jasmine goes on to compete in the Miss America pageant tonight and represent Mississippi at the national level.  Her platform, “13 Going on 30”, is an effort to educate girls about the dangers in growing “too fast” and not enjoying their time as kids in a rush to become teenagers and adults.  After the competition, Jasmine plans to return to Mississippi State University and complete her degree in broadcasting.

Jason Champion, HGTV’s “Design Star”

Grenada-born Jason Champion wanted to take his career to the next level, and going on HGTV’s “Design Star” helped him achieve that. “The production of Design Star put me at a level of PR that I could never afford,” Jason said.

He auditioned in early 2009 for the show and beat out over 13,000 competitors to land in one of the 12 spots on the show. “I filmed myself setting up for a New Year’s party. I did some tips and tricks about setting a table and doing a party,” Jason said.

Three months later he got the call for a screen test. “I was in LA less than five hours,” Jason said.
But two weeks later he heard that he’d been selected for the next round, and after interviews, was taken to meet the stars of the show. “The production assistant took me to the hotel room next door where Vern Yip, Candace Olson, Genevive Gorder, Clive, and the senior producers were and they asked me was I ready for what was about to come,” Jason said.

Jason finished in the top five in the competition, which was ultimately won by Antionio Ballatore. He was on for five episodes, including the infamous “white room” challenge. The twist that year was to shop for decorative items at a grocery store. Jason used dog food for flooring and the dog food bags as wallpaper.

The first challenge was to design a room in the house they were staying in. Jason and partner Jen put wooden letters on the walls to create what they called a “National Geographic writer’s room”.

The reaction was mixed, which Jason came to expect. “I got ripped every episode,” Jason said.

The next was to redesign a kitchen. The best part of that challenge was the demolition, Jason said. “Being from Mississippi, I know how to tear things up.”

After the white room challenge, Jason was not prepared for the challenges that came with the teen-age room redesign. “I was definitely exhausted, overwhelmed, and I hit the wall,” Jason said of the process.
He had to fire his contractor ten hours into the process and start over from scratch. The black, pink, and silver color scheme led him into some dangerous territory, which also included his worst moment on the show during elimination when he was questioned about a window design he had drawn with a black Sharpie marker on the wall. Vern Yip called it “graffiti.”

“What was I doing with that thing around the window?” Jason said.
Although the design was panned by the judges, the girl in question was happy with the overall effect, according to Jason. “She loved it! She had more room; she had a desk with a TV stand she did not have before,” Jason said.

“I think the judges were ready for me to go, and I was ready to go,” Jason said.

The time constraints and physical demands were unreal, Jason said. Five weeks of total shooting for the season with two episodes filmed per week was an exhausting production schedule.

His most enjoyable time was spent getting to know the other designers, Jason said. “Some of them are still very close friends of mine.”

Carrie Laster Smith, his longtime friend in Grenads, said that the Jason you saw on the show was the real thing, including his humor and personality. “He was himself the whole time,” Smith said.

Two years later, Jason was asked to appear on another HGTV show called “Showhouse Showdown against the firm of Mark Micheals, one of the top 100 design firms in the country. Jason’s $35,000 budget covered the renovation of a home north of Tampa Bay, with Jason winning the competition with his mix of traditional and modern element to create winning eclectic design.

“I’m the only Design Star alum that has been invited back to do another show,” Jason said.

The design bug bit Jason in his early teens, with his first project being his mother’s very traditional living room scheme in their Grenada home. He left Mississippi at eighteen to go to school in Birmingham, AL for his applied arts/interior design degree. He began his own business in Atlanta in 1999 and now resides in Florida where he heads up Jason Champion Design.

He felt like he represented Mississippi well in his TV experience. He felt that he treated people well and made a good impression on the judges. “They were excited to get someone with as much style as I had from such a small state that’s not known for design,” Jason said.

Jason appears on TV now in a Fox-affiliate show called “Good Day Tampa Bay” and an NBC-affiliate show called “NBC Daytime” where he does a monthly design project.

Meridian Idol 2014

Twenty-three -year-old Whitni Pinkerton, born and raised in Quitman, MS, works as a registered nurse at Anderson’s Hospital on the oncology floor. She loves to sing and has been singing ever since she could talk, with her grandmother hearing her singing “Tell Me The Story of Jesus” at a very young age.

Whiitni sang “How Great Thou Art” (using Carrie Underwood’s arrangement) as well as “Anyway” by Martina McBride to win out over fifteen other contestants at the MSU Riley Center event in Meridian, MS. Whitni goes to the Judges’ Silver Circle auditions in New Orleans on Wednesday, August 27, to perform for the chance to appear on the next season of “American Idol”. Congratulation and good luck to Whitni in her quest to appear on the upcoming “American Idol” season!

Karlous Miller, NBC’s “Last Comic Standing”

Karlous Miller remembers when he got the call from “Last Comic Standing” at the end of January 2014—a great feeling to be selected for the first 100 comics, Karlous said. “You go out and just perform and you never know who’s watching. It was a case of the right people were watching me.”

Executive producer Page Hurwitz said Karlous was an easy choice. “We considered hundreds of comedians, but Karlous was one that made us laugh aloud. That’s a prerequisite,” Hurwitz said of the competition that gave the “last comic standing” $250,000 and a development contract with NBC.

Filming started at the end of February, and the season began in May. Karlous made it to the top six comedians before being eliminated in a comedy face-off with fellow cast member Joe Manchi. The cuts were from 100 down to fifty, fifty down to thirty, thirty down to ten, then episode by episode down to five, Karlous said.

The challenges were interesting, Karlous said. And sometimes difficult in surprising ways. “I don’t even watch half of these movies,” he told comedy mentor Howie Mandel while preparing to emcee the guided tour of Universal Studios. But he told Mandel he wasn’t worried and went on to entertain the crowd well enough to survive the challenge.

Filming a reality show was a different experience, Karlous said. He enjoyed working with Wanda Sykes the most because she knew how to talk to comedians. “She knows the language to say it in,” Karlous said.

Hurwitz said the producers and crew were quick to notice Karlous during the show. “He was always quick with a joke during the reality filming,” Hurwitz said. “He didn’t hold back—he was very candid and didn’t worry about other people’s perceptions. He took advice from the judges, but he always had a clear idea of his own voice.”

Karlous remembers growing up listening to Richard Pryor as a child. “My dad had all his albums,” Karlous said. “He reminded me of the uncle in a family.” Other role models were Redd Fox, Eddie Murphy, and Bernie Mac.

After graduating from Oxford High School in 2001, Karlous held various jobs, including firefighter and pizza delivery guy. That job became the basis of one of his first comedy jobs, a radio gig as “The Angry Black Pizza Guy”. “I had a friend that had a morning radio show, and they just let me go rant about whatever I wanted to every Friday morning,” Karlous said.

He moved to Atlanta in 2005 and has spent that last ten years playing venues around the nation and overseas. He talks about Mississippi in his act from time to time and notes the progress that’s been made in Mississippi but thinks there’s room for more. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” Karlous said. “Mississippi is known for being mellow and laid-back, but we need a 2014 version. We got left a few years back.”

He’s not sure what makes Mississippians attractive to reality show casting but thinks it has to do with how we treat others. “We’re actually nice people,” Karlous said. Karlous came in for some hard knocks because of his Mississippi roots, with Gilbert Gottfried noting during his turn at the celebrity roast challenge that only someone from Mississippi could manage to misspell his own first name.

The format for elimination could make for some hard feeling among the cast, since each cat member selected who they felt should be eliminated by the end of the show. “No one was really prepared for that,” Karlous said. Fellow cast member Rod Man was selected as the winner in the finale, aired on August 18.

Karlous hasn’t left television behind him—he appears for his second season of “Wild’N Out” on MTV2 and returns to BET’s “Comic View” this season as well. He’s glad to be able to make a living doing what he loves. “I love to make people laugh,” Karlous said. “I’m just one of the people with that gift.”

Mary Kate Smith, TBS’ “King of the Nerds”

Many nerds have good relationships with their professors in school, and Mary Kate Smith and Dr. Keith Koenig of Mississippi State University are no different—Mary Kate had worked with Dr. Koenig for four years on the college’s NASA rocket competition team, called the Space Cowboys. Then Koenig got an email that would change Mark Kate’s life—it was from the casting directors of TBS’s “King of the Nerds”.

Koenig told that the email asked for a “passionate, competitive” student, who was the “best of the best” in “academics, science, robotics, cosplay and science fiction” with “a love of all things outer space”. Koenig knew immediately who on his first-place rocket team fit the bill.

“She’s the most unusual in the sense that she’s got some very diverse interests; she’s rather theatrical and she has a good, outgoing personality,” Koenig said.of Smith, who has worked on the rocket team in various capacities for the past four years, the last two being as project director, a position voted on by the students themselves.

At Koenig’s urging, Smith sent in a videotape where she discussed a range of interests, including rocketry, costuming, and science fiction. She was asked to submit another video, this one showcasing her cosplay abilities. Included in her video were costumes inspired by Marvel Comics and My Little Pony. “I costume because I love costumes and the art and camaraderie that comes with it,” Smith said. “Apparently I was eclectic enough and nerdy enough for the show.”

Smith was called to Los Angeles for her final round of interviews with the producers and executive producers and immediately charmed them all, according to executive producer Charles Wachter. “Mary Kate was the perfect mix of Southern charm and sweetheart intellectual,” Wachter said. “The second we met her, we fell in love with her.”

So Smith was selected for season two of the show, which features nerds from around the country who compete for $250,.000 and the title of “King of the Nerds”. She spent a week and a half at the ranch, called “Nerdvana” on the show. “It was pretty much in every sense of the word Nerdvana” Smith said, noting the presence of an electronics lab, video games, board games, war rooms for preparing to win challenges, and a group of people with as varied interests as Smith. “One thing I loved about the whole experience was the eclectic group they assembled for the show,” Smith said.

The first episode consisted of everyone meeting each other and forming teams. One member of each team participated in the Nerd-Off, which involved a game of “Nerdditch”, where the competitors rode flying brooms down a course and threw “vials” in various “cauldrons” of differing point values. Mary Kate was spared the Nerd-Off and continued to the next episode.

The second episode consisted of a “Nerd War”, a team competition where the nerds participated in a science project. The teams had to build working model volcamoes, and were judged by Bill Nye the Science Guy, 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winner Blake Marggraff,, and “The Big Bang Theory” cast member Mayim Bialik. Mary Kate and fellow team mebr Josh did the Gold Team’s presentation. Selected for the Nerd-Off were Josh and Zach.

This Nerd-Off consisted of an “alien autopsy” where each nerd was challenged to find organs in their “alien” corpses; the first player to score three points wins. Josh was eliminated, and Mary Kate made it to the next episode, where poor dice rolls in a game of Battlehammer in the Nerd-Off would prove to be her downfall.

“I was pretty disappointed,’” Mary Kate said of her elimination. The atmosphere was fun but very stressful at the same time. “It’s like playing a board game or a video game constantly with a prize at the end of it, and it’s 24/7,” Smith said.

Koenig was proud of Mark Kate’s performance. “She represented us well,” Koenig said.

Mary Kate felt like her performance on the show was an accurate representation of who she was. “I grew up watching Star Wars and Monty Python,” she said. “People say I inspire them to embrace their nerdiness. That’s the point of the show—it doesn’t matter where you’re from, there’s nerds everywhere. It’s all about celebrating nerd culture.” Smith also feels good about empowering girls to feel comfortable embracing their love of science.

Wachter said his show would love to recruit more in Mississippi, citing Mississippi State’s reputation among rocket teams. “The fact that we found Mary Kate there is a testament to the school’s great programs,” he said.

Linkie Marais, “Food Network Star”

Linkie Marias, finalist on 2012’s ”Food Network Star”, got her start cooking at a very early age in her native South Afirca. “Our whole culture revolves around food. One of my first memories is making my father a cake when he came back from war,” Linkie said.

Cooking continued to be a part of her life when she arrived in Mississippi at the age of sixteen and began a summer job for a cake decorator. She worked for her for all summers of her last two years of at Saltillo High School. “By the time I graduated, I was doing all her wedding cakes,” Linkie said.
She rediscovered her love of cooking once she began studying at Mississippi University for Women in Columbus after finishing her associate’s degree at Itawamba Community College, “falling in love” with the culinary arts school there in 2005.

Chef Erich Ogle, head of the MUW Culinary Department, remembers Linkie well from his first days at the school, calling her an “overachiever”. “I knew when she left here she would go on to do something substantial, something of note,” Chef Ogle said.

She married and moved to Oxford in 2006 and began work for Ole Miss Catering as a pastry chef. In 2011, she tried out for “Food Network Star” by sending in a video, only to be told she didn’t make it on the show. She tried again in 2012, going to New York City for an open casting call at the encouragement of her husband, Jannie. She made it through interviews about her experience, expertise, and culinary point of view.

She was called back to New York to present a prepared dish and to demonstrate a culinary technique. She made curried orzo wrapped in a cucumber skin for her prepared dish and demonstrated a tomato roast as her technique.

She was asked to meet Alton Brown in Atlanta and then fly the next day to Los Angeles to meet Giada de Laurentis, both hosts on the show. She appeared on the show in 2012 with nine other finalists, making it to Episode 6 before being eliminated.

Her culinary point of view was food as art. Being a pastry chef, she knew the value of a pretty presentation. “You always start eating with your eyes,” Linkie said. “If it looks beautiful, most of the time, it’s going to taste beautiful, too.”

Her first episode’s challenge was to aid her team in designing a restaurant—menu, atmosphere, and a particular dish she would contribute to that menu. She created a dessert she called “key lime pie”, but didn’t incorporate eggs into the recipe, leading the judges to call her out for it being too dense. “I had to redeem myself in the second episode,” Linkie said.
The second episode found her creating another dessert to present during a New York City bus tour of Little Italy. She selected a bakery known for its cannoli and created a dish she called ribotta cannoli cheesecake and presented it to the tour and the Food Network judges. Saved from elimination, she went on to episode three to endure a “Chopped” challenge

Just like on episodes of the Food Network show “Chopped”, contestants were given a basket of mystery items and asked to make a dessert course out of it. “As a dessert person, I [knew] this was right up my alley,” Linkie said. She took the basket—containing Reeses’s Pieces, coconut, cashews, and popcorn—and ground them all up to make a crumb base for her brandy chocolate mousse with the last ingredient—grape juice—being incorporated into the recipe as an apricot-grape jelly. The dessert earned her rave reviews and a trip to the next episode.

The next episode had Linkie recreating a chicken pot pie enhanced with curry and dried apricots. She had to present it while a model came down the runway in keeping with the episode’s Fashion Week theme. The presentation did not go well, with the judges calling her too rehearsed.

But she was still around for episode five, a live demonstration mentored by Food Network personality Guy Fieri. Linkie created a football-shaped cookie for her Super Bowl dish, stuffed with cranberry cream cheese and dipped in chocolate with white chocolate laces added for decoration. Linkie said judge Bobby Flay whispered to her that he’d take three dozen of them as the finalists filed into the elimination room.

The sixth episode proved her undoing when she was involved in a food court food challenge involving Mexican food, specifically, churros. “I had never even had a churro before that,” Linkie said.

She experienced technical difficulties when her oil refused to heat up, causing her churros to be doughy and without sufficient flavor. She was in the bottom two competitors and had to complete a challenge of preparing a dish and doing a one-minute presentation of it to the judges’ panel.

Linkie created a rum-seared chicken breast with basil and tomato but found her unfamiliarity with English to be her downfall in the presentation. “English isn’t my first language—it’s Afrikaans,” Linkie said. She couldn’t condense her remarks to fit into the one minute and was eliminated by that challenge.

Now living in Massachusetts, Linkie travels around the country promoting her brand “Living Linkie Style” and has broken into local television with a biweekly show by the same name and a occasional appearance on a morning show called “The Rhode Show” in Rhode Island. She is writing a cookbook that she hopes to sell and serves as the culinary partner for The Big Green Egg, a nationwide grillmaker.

“I left the show knowing so much about myself,” Linkie said of her experience. “Right after, you go through days of depression because you think I should have done this or done that. But if you don’t take chances, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Either/Or

In interviewing Mary Kate Smith, Mississippi’s contestant on last year’s second season of TBS’s “King of the Nerds”, I asked her opinion on some of the burning questions in nerddom, and here are her answers:

1. James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard? “Picard.”
2. Classic Avengers or classic X-Men? “X-Men.”
3. J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis? “Tolkien.”
4. Manga or Anime? “Anime.”
5. Batman or Superman? “Neither.”

Stay tuned for this and other interviews with Mississippi’s reality TV stars coming up on “Mississippi: The State of Reality TV”!