Viewers of "The Voice" this week were no doubt moved by Team Cee Lo auditioner Jamar Rogers, not only because of his brilliant cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," but because of his harrowing backstory: After battling meth addiction, he got clean and sober six years ago, but now he is living with HIV as a result of his drug use. What made Jamar's story even more interesting, however, was the fact that it was not told when he appeared on "The Voice's" more conservative rival show, "American Idol," three years ago. Diehard singing competition fans probably remember Jamar from "Idol" Season 8, when he auditioned with his best friend, future third-place finalist Danny Gokey, and back then, Danny's sad story of young widower-hood received a huge amount of screentime. But "Idol" viewers oddly learned nothing of Jamar's own equally serious troubles.
Speaking to Reality Rocks this week, Jamar reveals that while "Idol" producers knew about his drug-addled past, they didn't know his whole story. "I did talk to them about the drug use. I was very candid; as a matter of fact, I was under the impression that they were going to use that as a part of my story. But they didn't," he begins. "But I was not in a comfortable place to talk about being HIV-positive. Man, I was petrified. I was just scared s***less. I was worried that the producers would find out, and I hadn't come to terms with it myself. I wasn't at a place I could talk about it, and the best thing that they could have ever done for me is eliminate me, because I was able to move to New York and from there get the counseling that I needed to come to grips with everything. I got to a place where I had to just stop running from myself. I had to finally just stand up and face the music. And one of the ways I did that was by volunteering at some amazing organizations in New York that dealt with people who were living with HIV, and I began to see other human faces for it, and it began to change my own prejudices."
Season 8 was not Jamar's only run only "Idol": He tried out way back in Season 3, but it was not meant to be. "The only time they actually showed me singing was when I was messing up, which is quite funny," laughs Jamar. "But that when I was at the height of my drug use, and it was actually a huge blessing in disguise that they cut me back then, because there was no way I could've handled it." Jamar also gave "Idol" a final try in Season 9, but he says that time he voluntarily walked away from the show. "I did audition again, and I made it to the judges' round, but I didn't show up. I dropped out," Jamar reveals. "And the reason I dropped out is when I was going through the audition rounds again, for the third time, I knew the executive producers, we were on a first-name basis, and they were still just saying things that made me feel really crappy about myself. Like, 'The judges don't really like repeaters, we don't even know why you came back.' And the thing is, they asked me to come back! I felt like they were already knocking me down before I even got to sing for the judges, and I was like, 'You know what? I'm good.' My heart and emotions could not take this for one more season, so I said screw it and packed up and moved to New York. And the rest is history."
Last year, when Jamar decided to audition for "Idol's" newer rival show "The Voice," he says he "felt like I kind of had an obligation to let people know what my story really was. This to me is more than just a singing competition. I'm trying to let people know that they have a chance out there, they have a shot. And even if the odds are stacked against you, you really can turn a truly horrific situation around."
Since his "Voice" audition aired this past Monday, Jamar has been deluged with well-wishes and messages of support from both new and old fans, and he literally tears up while discussing this over the phone from his home in the Bronx. "Honestly, I'm floored. Because for years, I was really, really scared. I mean, can you imagine meeting a girl that you're really digging and then having to have that kind of conversation with her? When it came to my dating life, to my friends, it was just a scary conversation to have. And with the response about it on Facebook and Twitter and the blogs and stuff now, I can't believe I was scared for so long. Because people...[chokes up]...I'm sorry...people are so supportive, man, and I just can't believe it. I can't believe how cool people are being."
Interestingly, it was a contestant on another reality show, Mondo from "Project Runway," who inspired Jamar to be upfront about his HIV status on "The Voice." Last year on "Project Runway," when runner-up and fan favorite Mondo revealed his positive status (something he had even kept secret from his family) on the show, it was incredibly moving, and Jamar was watching. "Mondo was my inspiration to tell everybody. I don't even usually watch 'Project Runway,' which is the funny thing, but I was watching it with some friends and happened to see the episode when he was telling everyone [about his HIV status], and I started crying," Jamar recalls. "I couldn't stop bawling and my friends didn't know why, and I didn't want to explain it to them, and at that moment--I was just going through the 'Voice' auditions--I knew. I was like, 'If he has the balls to do it, then so do I.'"
Another reality show contestant who's had life parallels with Jamar is "The X Factor's" Chris Rene, who was very open about his past meth addiction and auditioned for that show only days after exiting rehab. But Jamar admits that he has "mixed emotions" about Chris's "X Factor" journey. "Like, yeah, I know Chris Rene is doing really, really well--in fact, initially I was taken with how similar our stories are, right down to the fact we both have knuckle tattoos," he muses. "But on the flipside, if you go to any support group, any 12-step meeting, they will tell you that in the first 90 days, you shouldn't be making any major changes in your life, you shouldn't be doing anything like that, and it really grieved me that when Chris auditioned, he only had like 60 or 70 days sober. I'm not judging anyone, but what were to happen if he didn't get everything he hoped for? Like I said, I'm not judging, but I don't agree with them allowing him to audition. One thing that I really appreciate about 'The Voice' is when I talked to the casting, they asked me, 'How long has it been [since you got sober]?' And I said six years, and they said, 'Good, because if you'd said it had been two months, we would've told you to go home."
Now that Jamar has a very public platform, as a breakout star on what is shaping up to be a huge hit show that just might eclipse both "Idol" and "The X Factor," he is ready to use it for good. "Whether I win or not, honestly, when I first signed up for this, it wasn't to win. I'm going to get my story out there, I'll encourage some people, I'll inspire some people, and I'll let the chips fall where they may after that. I went into this thing because I wanted to start a national conversation. I wanted to change the face of HIV. We all look at Magic Johnson and we say, 'Oh, he's doing well.' But who else do people with HIV have to look up to? I would actually love to go around to high schools and college campuses and talk to people and let them know that wherever they are right now, they're not alone. And I don't care if your problem is an eating disorder, a drug addiction, or HIV, whatever it is, there's no pit too deep that we can't crawl out of. If I can create a sense of community with people, then I've done my job."
As for why Jamar's "Idol" past was not discussed on "The Voice" this week, Jamar says: "I don't know if it was a conscious choice on the show's part--but I know it was a conscious decision on my part. I didn't want to exploit it. Can I be honest? I felt like 'Idol's' loss is 'The Voice's' gain. And I kind of, in some perverse way, want 'Idol' to kick themselves a little bit! I feel like I had one hell of a story, and I didn't want 'American Idol' to get any ounce of credit for me whatsoever.
"I'm not taking anything away from 'American Idol'--if anything, they propelled me to go after I want--but I will say that 'Idol' is more of a cookie-cutter show," he adds. "'The Voice' lets people really be themselves. I didn't even think twice when I told the producers that I wanted to talk about [HIV]. No one coerced me, no one tried to make my story more interesting. I just said, 'I want to get this off my chest.' They didn't exploit me, and for that I was truly grateful."