September 10, 2005

Finding His Religion


"That's me in the corner!
That's me in the spotlight,
Losing my religion."--Michael Stipe, R.E.M.

1539 story1 capICKEY SMITH. TO MANY YOUNG ADULTS, that name may sound familiar. Smith was a finalist on American Idol's second season. In the top 10, Smith was recognized as "one of the nicest people we've ever had on the show" by judge Simon Cowell, and was known by the audience as the funny "Hercules, Hercules" guy.

But there's a lot more to Smith than the funny and nice guy seen on TV. Smith, 25, is extraordinarily gifted in singing and entertaining. And he is deeply spiritual.

Smith grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And he didn't like to sing--at first. But after years of performing at the urging of his mother, Smith fell in love with music. At 18 this Georgia native considered several colleges and decided on Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. His goal: a career in opera.

Little did Smith know how much his life would change after one spontaneous act just a few years later. Smith shared his amazing journey--and his struggles to balance faith and career--with me in a public interview at the Society of Adventist Communicators October 2004 conference.

1539 story1KLM: First of all, tell us a little bit about your background, and how you became interested in music . . .
RS: I was born and raised in the Adventist Church, and I really didn't like singing. But I guess there wasn't a choice. My mom would just be like, "Get up there and sing!" And when she gave you "that look," you didn't have a choice! So it was a forced thing at first. Then I just began to love it, and at the age of 18 I became serious about singing. I found my first love.

So you've been singing ever since.
Yeah, I've been singing ever since, so thank you, Mama, for giving me those looks.

Why did you try out for American Idol?
I watched the first season, and one of my mentors, David Knight (South-western Adventist University dean of students) told me, "You should try out ."

I was like, "Man, I can sing just as well as anybody up there." Not to be cocky, but, you know, I said to myself, "I can sing just as well as anybody up there. I wanna go try out." So I guess from there, after that season, I just kept looking on the Internet for the next tryouts. One day I saw it and said, "OK, I'm going to try out."

You mentioned that you were at Southwestern Adventist University before you auditioned for Idol. What was that experience like?
It was a great experience. College life, there ain't nothing like it. You know, Mom isn't there to tell you what you can and can't do. [Laughter.] And it's funny, because I have no problem saying it now, but my freshman year I played around a lot and ended up flunking out of school. So my mom was just like, "Well, you know, I ain't paying for this for nothing." [Laughter.] And I realized my lesson, and by the end of that year, before I set out to go try for American Idol, I actually made the dean's list and all of that good stuff. So you know, college life is lovely; I loved it.

So you tried out and made it. Congratulations. On the show, you were portrayed as "the nice one," and "the funny one." Did the show depict you accurately?
Yeah, it did. You know, one thing that I could say about the show is, I was on their good side. And once you're good and people see that you're appreciative, they'll show you in a good light. And, basically, what you see is what you get--I decided that I was just gonna be myself on camera, just be goofy and be me. And anybody that knows me knows I'm goofy! [Laughter.] You've gotta be yourself because if you don't know who you are, who else will?

How do you feel about being called an American Idol, then?
It comes with the territory. You know, I tried out for the show, and that's just one of the labels. I don't want to get twisted up with the word "idol," because that's a powerful word. I'd rather go for "American Role Model" or something like that--a positive influence in children. And I'm not the American Idol, but I'll always be remembered as an American Idol finalist. As I pursue and go further in my career, hopefully my career will overshadow the American Idol. That was just a stepping stone for what's yet to come.

You mentioned your career, and I know you've been working hard toward it and will probably continue to do that. But how does your faith manifest itself in your life?
First of all, if it wasn't for God, I wouldn't even be standing here. So you've got to give glory where glory is due. The Man upstairs has blessed me through many trials and tribulations.

Every time, before I went on stage, I would be the one to get everybody together backstage--Reuben and me--we'd get everybody together and say a prayer. Or we'd have Bible discussions and there would be some arguing, but it was fun because you literally had different people from different religions gathered. You had Carmen, who is Mormon; Clay, who's Baptist; Reuben, who's Pentecostal; Julia, who's Catholic. So we just listened to one another's point of view, and we respected them. But one thing we did every time before every show: we held hands and prayed.

1539 story1That's incredible. [Applause.] That is definitely a testimony of your faith right there.
I also came [to the show] with the mentality that this is really a competition. And the competitiveness and pressure--and Simon Cowell--can really stress you out. Some people, for example, lost weight. I gained weight. I would just go home and eat and think, Man, what am I gonna do? This man is stressin' me out! [Laughter.]

But I would also pray, and I just came with the mentality that every week I would just go out there and do my best. And whatever was in God's will would happen.

You mentioned Simon, and I was going to ask what was the best thing about being on American Idol. Maybe I should go with the worst thing first? You tell me, what were the best and worst things?
Besides getting on the show, the best thing was--I'm not gonna lie--all the free stuff! [Laughter and applause.] And the worst thing, of course, was losing all the free stuff!

It was crazy, because we'd come home, and literally boxes of Old Navy clothes and shoes and all new kinds of stuff would just be there for us. And we had a chef--God bless Beth--she was the invisible chef. When we'd come home from rehearsal (literally we'd have to get up at 6 o'clock, and sometimes we wouldn't get home until 1 or 2 o'clock [the next] morning--that's how busy it was on every day schedule), there would be food waiting.

But back to the show, the best thing was the free stuff. I mean, you don't understand--it was just free! [Laughter.] Imagine just living for weeks not having to pay a bill, living in a mansion, sleeping and eating and singing, doing what you love to do, and then on top of that have somebody say "Here, wear my clothes!" [Laughter.] It was just great! And the worst thing, like I said, is losing all that free stuff, because once you get kicked off the show it's like, "Get your clothes and get out." I mean really, it's sad, because once you got kicked off the show you had this little family dinner--the "last supper"--[laughter] and from there the limo comes and picks you up at like 5 o'clock in the morning. And you move into a hotel room, and you do all these depressing interviews. [Laughter.] And you know, you're crying and everything . . . [Laughter.] I gotta quit thinking about it, man!

Let's move on then. [Laughter.] What are you doing now?
I am currently working on my album, staying busy, staying in the studio, doing a lot of writing. One thing I've learned about the music industry is that it takes patience. It takes a lot of patience because success doesn't happen overnight. My attorney said to me, "You're entering one of the hardest businesses, period." And now I agree with him, because it is stressful. But, you know, I just keep the faith. I'm under negotiation with like three different record labels right now, so hopefully one of them will get something good going on. And I'm doing a lot of appearances.

They are trying to put me on another TV reality show, but I'm not sure if I'm ready for it. Now I'm just basically, well . . . basically what I'm doing is paying everybody to help me out! [Laughter.] That's what they are. Your lawyer makes sure that your contract is good. The publicist makes sure that you stay out in the public eye. The manager--if you've got a good one--he or she makes sure that you get a record [deal], and then takes 20 percent of everything that you make. But it's OK. I'm just staying busy.

Hopefully by next year I'll have the record deal. In the meanwhile, I'm staying busy, and staying humble over all things--and going to church. For a minute there I slipped off and stopped going to church. I got into a depressed mode. But a person has to keep the faith. For everybody out there, my age and younger--things aren't gonna happen overnight. You've just got to remember to stay humble, stay focused, stay patient, and it'll happen. You can't be a doctor overnight. It takes 8-10 years. But once you get there, it's all worth the wait and all worth the worry.

1539 story1Well, I certainly hope that your patience and your hard work and the investments that you've made pay off for you. Where do you see yourself in five years?
Everybody I talk to thinks that I'm probably gonna end up doing acting--they say I've got too much personality. I think it's just attention deficit disorder! [Laughter.] I can sit and talk only for so long, and I'm just like, Ohhhhh! My publicist told me, "As much as you love to sing, I think we're gonna get you started acting." So maybe that's my calling. If that is what comes first, hey, I'd love to do it. But music is my first [choice].

Music is your first love, so you must have some favorites. What is the song that has inspired you the most?
"I Believe I Can Fly," by R. Kelly. Anybody that went to SWAU the same year I did would know. They probably got sick of me singing that song, but that literally is like a testimony for me. I was really stressed out in my senior year, and my mom could sense it. She came and started playing the song and singing it to me. From that day on it's been my theme song. Even when I was on American Idol and in line, in the rain, I just played my Walkman. That'd be the song I'd be listening to the whole time before every audition, and even before I'd have to go onstage. That's my inspirational song. [To me] it's just one of those songs that's telling you to keep your head up and just lean on God, for [with Him] all things are possible. All things are possible.

You mentioned that for a while you stopped going to church, and that your spiritual life was lacking for a time. You also shared that you've gone back, sometimes attending the Valencia Seventh-day Adventist Church in California. Do you see it as a challenge to be spiritual in your chosen career?
It can be a challenge; you have to know what your focus is, who your focus is. If the goals you set are good, you can easily do what you love and worship God. And you must stay positive and believe that with His help you can do it.

Can you be both a Christian and an entertainer?
Yes, I think you can be both a Christian and an entertainer, but you have to keep your motives right. People think you have to be very traditional [in order to be a] Christian performer. That's not true. For example, I'm not trying to sell myself--I just want to sing. I'm not going to sing about making love, but about love. That's an important difference. And I would hope that I'd inspire others [with my music].

Rickey Smith. Young, witty, entertaining, musically gifted--and Christian. Through the capriciousness of show business, Smith's faith has admittedly faltered. And it has grown. As he currently works on songs/recordings, as he takes a break from Hollywood life to finish school in Oklahoma, not only is Smith trying to find his way into a successful mainstream music career, he is striving to find--and keep--his religion.

Striving to be faithful and humble in a culture that doesn't typically reward such behavior is an ongoing challenge. But Smith is up to that challenge. After all, through God, all things are possible.

Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.