“I’m a small white girl and I like to sing big soulful songs,” says 16-year Khaya Cohen, an Upper West Side high schooler who’s trading in her pencils and textbooks for a stint on “The X Factor.”
Cohen has placed in the Top 12 of this season's reality show singing competition, and is killing it: Simon Cowell compared her to Amy Winehouse and Adele, and mentor Demi Lovato told her that she was “so excited to hear a voice like [hers].” We snagged a few minutes over the phone with the budding star.
This is a very intense experience for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old.
It’s really fun so far. It’s not really stressful. It’s my junior year, so I was in school for the first month and that was really stressful. Now that I’m here it’s kind of like a little break.
But it seems like there’d be so much pressure in this kind of environment.
I’m not really here to be super-competitive, I’m just here for the experience. I’m learning a lot from all the various people in the industry and just from being in L.A. I’m just here to see what happens and just play the game until it’s over. I’m definitely gonna go back to high school and go to college, so for me it doesn’t really matter what place I end up in, because the end result is probably gonna be the same.
Have you been able to stay in touch with your family and friends throughout this experience?
It’s a time difference of three hours, and plus we’re juniors and junior year is definitely the hardest year of high school, so I wish [my friends] could come and watch me but air fare’s expensive and they’re all busy. My parents have been rotating being my guardian out here, so I always have a parent at the shows. We’re in a hotel and it’s just me and my dad right now.
So there’s no “X Factor” house for the contestants this year?
They said they had that last year but it really didn’t work out well. Plus people would get sick and then everyone would get sick, and it was so far from the place where we practiced every day. Everyone would have to be there really early and then a bunch of people would just end up sitting around because there’d be nothing for them to do. This way we can all go by ourselves.
What’s a typical day like for you now?
What’s weird about this, and that I’ve kind of just had to learn to go with, is that you never really know your schedule. At like 9 or 10 o’clock I’ll be texted with my call time for the morning, so I’ll go and then we get either driven to the studios, or if there’s a photoshoot or something we’ll get driven somewhere else, or we just film at the hotel. Then every day I have school, so no matter what I usually go to the studio for school. Then we either do interviews or filming or vocal coaching or vocal routining [picking our songs for the broadcast], so there’s always something to do, but some days are definitely more intensive than others. I’ve kinda just learned to go with the flow and not ask where I’m gonna be next because no one knows. Things change really constantly.
What’s your relationship like with Demi Lovato?
It’s only the second week [of live performances] so I’ve only met with Demi like twice so far, but she listens to our songs and gives us criticism, and also she plays a role in what happens on stage — like, are there gonna be dancers? What [are we] gonna wear? She kinda is just there to oversee everything. There are other people behind the scenes that are doing a lot of the work, and she’s there to oversee it.
What kind of advice has she given you?
It’s kind of weird for me to be getting advice from someone who’s not that much older than me, but she’s really experienced and she does know what she’s talking about and she’s given me some pretty good advice, [like] to just open up. She told me to watch videos of my favorite performers and just be inspired by them; Demi told me that and my vocal coach told me that, so that’s what I’ve been doing and I think that’s definitely been helping me a lot. The people I watch are just so free on stage and so open, and it kind of has helped me become more comfortable with myself on stage.
Whose performances have you been watching?
I’ve been watching some Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Adele — they don’t move a lot on stage but they’re still very commanding.
What’s the hardest part of this show for you?
The only thing that’s not fun for me is that it’s really weird having cameras around all the time when I’m with [Lovato]. She’s never there when a camera isn’t there, so if I’m not comfortable with something that she’s saying, I can’t really say it. It’s not really like we’re just friends hanging out; she’s mentoring me because it’s for TV and I have to remember that. I’m always being filmed and I have to watch what I say, and I think that’s definitely been the hardest on me than all the other contestants. Simon’s criticism of me last week was that I seem uncomfortable around cameras and on stage and that I don’t come across as likeable. I just don’t really feel comfortable broadcasting my personality on TV because I’m here to sing — I’m not really here to be in a reality TV show.
So then why audition?
Well, I actually auditioned kind of on a whim. One of my friends made me send in a video. I honestly didn’t think I’d end up here. I never really realized how far I was getting in the competition, so I don’t think I really ever stopped to think. And now I’m just having so much fun that I don’t really want to quit, and I’m learning a lot. But I wasn’t ever planning on doing something like this so I never really thought about it, or ruled this show out over others. I was kind of just in school and planning on going to college and seeing what I wanted to do — I wasn’t planning on taking this route at all.