Late last year, Fox aired arguably the most bizarre addition to the crowded field of reality singing competitions. The show was called Alter Ego, and the concept was simple: Instead of having aspiring stars perform onstage and be judged based on superficial physical qualities, the producers had contestants design a digital representation of themselves that would appear in their place. By using this avatar, singers would be able to transcend physical disabilities, their gender appearance, and anything else that might prevent their music from being received on its own terms.
In practice, this meant that you had digitized purple people stalking the stage and performing pop hits. Judged by singers Alanis Morissette, will.i.am, Grimes, and Nick Lachey, it was … weird. And if you know anything about me from this newsletter by now, it’s that I like weird stuff. Naturally, I watched the entire show.
There were many fascinating story lines woven into the season, from a contestant struggling with Crohn’s disease to singers purposely performing as another gender—something the audience only discovered when they were eliminated and came onstage for their goodbye song. But I was particularly captivated by a young Muslim woman in hijab named Israa Darwich. Despite being one of the youngest contestants—just 19 when the show was filmed—she made it to the final round.
Since completing the competition, Israa has returned to school as a college student in Michigan, where she recently released a new EP. We sat down to discuss what it was like performing in such an unusual environment, how her Islamic faith was reflected in her digital persona, and what she hopes people will take from her story.
Yair Rosenberg: I want to start at the very beginning, which is to ask you: How did you end up on this show in the first place?
Israa Darwich: It was a crazy ride. I post videos on Instagram, just me singing and stuff like that. One of the producers saw my videos, and they were like, “Hey, you’d be perfect for this hidden-identity singing show.” So they basically scouted me, and then from there, I sent in my audition videos. I wasn’t expecting to make it that far in the audition process at all, and then there I was in California.
Rosenberg: You decided to name your digital avatar “Night Journey,” which might sound mysterious to the average viewer. But of course, as you know, it’s just a translation of your name, which itself refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, in the traditional Islamic understanding. Was that always what you were going to choose? And were you at all concerned that somebody might figure it out?
Darwich: Honestly, I thought, There’s no way somebody is gonna figure this out. Even people in my faith, it’s not like somebody would say, “Oh, ‘Night Journey,’ they were going for Israa.” Most people figure that it’s just “journey of the night,” or some abstract idea. I felt like it was really powerful to be able to use my name. I had a few other ideas, but they were all more random, and this was one that actually had so much meaning to me. And the producers loved it, so they let me use it.
Rosenberg: It was cool for me to see, because it was the sort of religious reference that people don’t tend to see on mainstream television. But let’s take a step back. Walk us through the process. You’re in California, preparing for the show. How do you design your avatar? How do you pick your songs? How do you choreograph your actual performances? How long does it take? How did it all actually work?
Darwich: It was such a cool experience. You work with the producers to design your avatar. They asked us questions: What do you want her to be? What vibe are you going for? Stuff like that. I told them that I wanted something kind of edgy, something fierce like a warrior, and that’s exactly what they went with. From there, they gave me the rough outline of Night Journey. And then we changed her hair, we changed her outfits, and so on.
Rosenberg: Once you have the avatar, how does it work in terms of preparing the songs? Because of course, this is a show in which there’s a digital character that’s performing as you, and so my sense is that while you’re singing the song live backstage, you’ve already programmed the routine beforehand. Is that correct?
Darwich: Yeah. When it comes to picking the songs, it’s also a collaborative experience. Obviously, it’s not like, “I want to sing this song; I’m gonna sing this song.” It’s more like, “Here’s a list of songs I want to sing. Which ones can I do?” I was happy with all the songs that I ended up with, because I wanted songs that told stories, that supported my message, and they really let me share that message.
Rosenberg: Let’s talk about that, because not everyone reading will have seen the show. You had a very clear message that you wanted to convey and that you were very articulate about on the show. Not all the contestants had a story they wanted to tell, but you did.
Darwich: My main focus was to draw light from the dark. As Night Journey, I wanted to convey the experience that people like me have of going though journeys in the night, when other people don’t understand what you’re going through. That was a reference to mental health. And I wanted the entire message to be that, even in the darkest times, there is light, and it gets better. I really wanted to push that in the music that I sang. I wanted to be able to share how I feel and make other people feel what I feel.
Rosenberg: Once you have the songs, how much time does it take to perform and program the routine, such that your virtual character can then do it onstage? What was that process? You have to wear a motion-capture suit. How does it work?
Darwich: Before we started filming the show, we had a month of just figuring out how to wear the suits and how to move in them. We had some vocal lessons; we got to work on the songs that we would be singing. In between each episode, we would rehearse, do fittings in the suits, and make sure that technical difficulties were not getting in the way. So we had a lot of time to get comfortable, but once we started filming, it was back-to-back-to-back episodes. It was really exciting, but it was definitely nerve-racking. What if I mess up? What if I move the wrong way and my avatar walks off the stage by accident?
Rosenberg: One of the unique things that Alter Ego’s format did was allow people who might have reservations about performing physically in person to be able to nonetheless perform as their full selves on stage. In your case, the show makes a brief reference to how this sort of performance might not have been in line with your religion. Because it’s television, these things get very simplified. And as someone coming from a religious tradition myself, I understand it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Rosenberg: Now that we’re not limited by television, and have all the length and space you might need, I’m curious if you could talk about the tensions that you navigated between your commitment to Islam and your commitment as a performer and a musician? And perhaps how the format of the show helped you do that.
Darwich: Yeah, so as a public-relations major, I was very careful to make sure I wasn’t saying the wrong thing in the wrong way, so it couldn’t be interpreted differently on TV. But music is definitely something that’s not always traditionally accepted in Islam. That’s been a struggle for me since I was young—people telling me that I was going to go to hell or something for making music, stuff like that. That always kind of followed me around. Then as I got older, I realized that Islam is about peace, and music is a form of empathy, and if you use it correctly, it’s just a beautiful tool that has helped me develop who I am as a person and saved my life. At this point, music and Islam are both such a huge part of my life, and I’m at peace with both of them. And so I don’t think there’s anything that anybody from my own community or from the music community could say to me that would sway that anymore, which is a really good feeling, knowing that I’m stable and like where I am.
Rosenberg: Did you hear from other people who are Muslim who watched the show and found it meaningful to them and their journeys as well?
Darwich: When I went on the show, to be honest, I didn’t care if I didn’t make it past auditions. I just wanted to open some people’s perspective. I wanted people from my community to see that a Muslim woman can sing and share emotion through music, and that it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. And then at the same time, I’ve never seen somebody singing on TV that looks like me. I wanted that to be something that I could change: for people in the music industry to see me and know that the future is going to look a little different than it does now.
Rosenberg: Many of the contestants had members of their family in the audience for some of the show. For you, I think it was your mother and your grandmother? Is that right?
Darwich: Yeah, so for the final, my big sister was there too. So it was the three of them.
Rosenberg: What did they see when they were there? What do they see live? When a performance is happening, what are they seeing versus what viewers see on the television screen? Because this is all very unusual—it’s this digitized character. Are they seeing a screen? Are they seeing a 3-D projection?
Darwich: So they see a screen. By the stage, there are giant TVs, and the audience sees the avatar on there, not a projection [like viewers at home]. So when the judges are looking at the stage, they’re actually looking just behind the stage [at the TV] and looking at what the avatar looks like on there.
When you’re doing your elimination song after you get eliminated, and you’re going out there standing next to your alter ego, it’s crazy because you’re interacting with this character, but you can’t see them at all. So you’re just like, I’m gonna guess you’re right here. I’m gonna hope that you’re right here. [Laughs.]
Rosenberg: If there’s one thing people take away from your performance on Alter Ego, what do you hope it would be?
Darwich: I’d say that when it comes to music, and when it comes to sharing a story, just keep an open mind. People come from different places. But when the intention is to create something beautiful, it’s important to just make sure that you are listening for something beautiful.
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