There wasn’t a multimillion-dollar contract with a record company. Simon, Randy or Ellen weren’t among the judging panel. A plastic trophy was all a winner would earn.

But that didn’t matter to Mao Ke, one of five finalists in Canada’s inaugural Newcomer Idol competition. She may be unknown here, but she’s already a seasoned performer with three pop and classical albums in China, looking for a stage on which to shine in her new country.

Ke, who came from Guangzhou, China, four years ago to study voice at Toronto’s prestigious Glenn Gould School, was the first to be called on stage at Grange Park. Her number, As Long As He Needs Me, captivated the hundreds of spectators there on Friday as part of a street festival.

“That was fantastic,” responded Tarik Bacchus, one of three judges and an employee of University Settlement, an immigrant and social service agency, who has performed in rock bands himself. “You’ve forced me to be very picky. Your tone was just great.”

The agency advertised the contest among a network of 50 community groups, and eventually relaxed the rules to allow people to dance and play instruments as well as sing.

“Everybody has their own stories, their own issues,” Ke said of the 17 contestants who took part in the event. “The Newcomer Idol is a platform for us to make friends, share our experience and support each other. We are one community.”

Zarrin Biniaz, originally from Tehran, has also recorded two albums and performed in many concerts, including a handful since she moved to Toronto more than two years ago.

She found it hard to perform outdoors, she confessed. “I wasn’t very happy with my performance. I didn’t like the acoustics at all,” said Biniaz, who performed a Persian song with her own seztar, an ancient guitar.

Spectators’ votes counted for 50 per cent of the score. torstar news service