Williamsville East grad Justin Rhodes gets a taste of reality on ‘America’s Got Talent’
Updated 5:35 PM , June 28, 2014
Howard Stern didn’t seem to be buying the story that Justin Rhodes was selling before he performed on NBC’s summer reality show hit “America’s Got Talent.”
Stern’s questioning of Rhodes’ claim that his father had never seen him perform as an adult was the first of many reality-show lessons the Williamsville East graduate has received, and viewers can take from his experience.
Rhodes, who was known as Justin Bartkowski in high school before taking a stage name, has also learned that with fame comes criticism.
And that beautiful, famous celebrities like Heidi Klum and Mel B might exaggerate on TV when it comes to calling one “very special” or “sexy.”
Stern provided the initial lesson about how reality TV works when Rhodes – a former pianist for “American Idol” contestant and fellow East graduate John Stevens – was moved into the next round the week of July 22-23.
“I’ve gotten a few comments about what Howard Stern said,” said Rhodes in a telephone interview. “I’m not sure about this but all the contestants have kind of speculated – the judges are guided on what to say to us. There are times that they so happen to touch on the most important part of our story and what is going to draw the biggest audience. And they just so happened to touch on that.
“So him saying, ‘It is odd to me your father hasn’t seen you, why is that?’ He was trying to lead me into saying, ‘Well he’s getting older, he can’t get around much and it’s getting harder and harder for him to get to my shows.’ ”
Stern wasn’t the only one not buying the story.
After Rhodes made the claim, Tom Sartori, a Western New York singer who appeared on “AGT” years ago, went on Facebook, said he used to be Rhodes’ manager and wrote a vicious post questioning just about everything that Rhodes said on TV and added some negative things about Rhodes’ character.
Rhodes became aware of the post, which Sartori later said he took down at his mother’s request.
“I’ll stand by this,” wrote Sartori in the post explaining why he took the first post down. “Don’t screw people over, lie, sneak, cheat and then go make a huge lie on national TV and expect not to get called out.”
Sartori’s posts gave Rhodes another lesson in reality.
“I have no comment on them,” said Rhodes. “When someone is in the limelight, that’s just what happens.”
Rhodes’ answers to questions indirectly answered many of Sartori’s claims. Rhodes stands by the substance of “the story” told on TV with an adjustment.
“What I said was my father has never seen me perform on a stage as me,” explained Rhodes. “I’ve been in backup bands and the piano player for different bands and he didn’t come to one of my shows. One time, somewhere in Florida, I sang one song for him, and I was kind of in the back of the stage. That’s the only time he has ever seen me perform.”
“The story” – an important part of reality TV – made for emotional television as Rhodes’ father, Gene, was moved to tears as his son went to the piano and sang “Wake Me Up” by Avicii. The cameras also caught Rhodes’ mother, Jill, his sister Shana and some friends cheering but the focus was on dad.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad cry before so that was very, very hard for me to watch,” said Rhodes. “It shocked me. I almost forgot about it when I was watching the episode.”
Rhodes understands the importance of a performer’s “story” for reality TV. He said he was interviewed for three or four hours of interviews before and after he performed and his comments were cut to a few minutes.
“They had me write almost an essay on everything I’ve been through in my life, everything I’ve gone through to get where I am,” said Rhodes. “There are points they want to touch on. And they really don’t want you to finish the interview until they get everything they want.”
“I’m not one for sob stories to be honest with you,” added Rhodes. “I really couldn’t care less about ‘the story.’ I’m judging it by talent.
“Being in the audition room and the holding room where the interviews are happening, I heard some of the stories and where the producers were leading them. Some people start getting emotional and crying. They really dig into people. It’s really unfortunate because it is for TV but these also are people. I know they have to do it. It is reality TV. It is what it is. But in my opinion … it is not nearly the most important part.”
He said he wasn’t led anywhere he didn’t want to go.
“What made me more comfortable was my parents were sitting right behind me so they could hear all that was happening,” said Rhodes. “They’ve been there with me so nothing was a surprise when it came out.”
Santori’s initial post suggested Rhodes made up his drug use.
“I’ve used drugs; that’s the short answer,” said Rhodes.
Did it become a big problem? “It became a problem, yes,” said Rhodes.
He had no problem connecting with Klum or Mel B. The first comment from Klum was edited out. “When I walked out she said, ‘You should be a model,’ ” said Rhodes. “I said, ‘Obviously I don’t need this show. Just take me with you.’ ”
He didn’t take Mel B’s statement that he was “sexy” too seriously.
“I’d love to believe Mel B was losing her stuff over me, but I have a feeling it has a lot to do with just being on TV,” said Rhodes.
He isn’t saying reality TV isn’t real. “It is actually very real,” said Rhodes. “They glamorize. I’ve never seen them just take nothing and make something out of it. They take people’s stories and try and draw out the emotion, but from what I’ve seen they have not made up anything, they haven’t said, ‘This isn’t going to sell so we need you to say this.’ When I say they lead you they’re not necessarily saying, ‘We need you to say this,’ they are saying, ‘We touched on this, go with that a little bit. Get deeper into that.’ ”
The benefit of being on “AGT” just once has given Rhodes another lesson. His “AGT” appearance has increased the crowds at his Hard Rock shows in Tampa, Fla., where he is now being billed “as seen on ‘AGT.’ ”
“I actually said to a friend of mine after I did a solo show at the Hard Rock, for the first time it felt more like a concert, people were there to listen to me more than ‘there’s music over there we can step away from the blackjack tables,’ ” said Rhodes.
He realizes he wouldn’t be in this situation if it hadn’t been for his choral director, Maureen Reilly, and band director, Dr. Steve Shewan, at Williamsville East. He added that his mom is a professional singer and had input as well.
“I don’t think I would have pursued music or singing if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Reilly and Dr. Shewan,” said Rhodes.
In a way, Rhodes has already won. His name is known. But he wants bigger things.
“To a degree yes,” Rhodes said of already winning. “But I’ve been a big dreamer. What’s happening now is still very premature on the road where I want to go. … Even after one episode, I’ve already gotten calls from record companies and people in studios who want to work with me so in a sense you are right I have already won. But I would like to be on the show long enough to really make some sort of waves in the music industry to the point I have a little bit of pull. “
His dad, his teachers, his family and friends are certainly pulling for him even if Sartori is not.