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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Freshie-faced teenagers lip-sync their way to stardom

Freshie-faced teenagers lip-sync their way to stardom

Talent contest draws thousands of contestants seeking celebrity careers in film and

music business

Minutes before the final performance of the Hello Freshie Boy and Girl 2005 contest,

each spiky-haired boy and perfectly made-up girl takes a single incense stick, kneels

and makes a solemn prayer.

Around them, the backstage of Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk Theater bustles with preparations

for the live song-and-dance television concert. But the sixteen finalists wait patiently

for their turn to place a burning joss stick into a plate of fruit on the floor in

a pre-performance gesture.

Dressed in striped traditional Khmer costume, the teenagers are all wishing for the

same thing: to be the next Freshie, a guaranteed ticket to fame and job security.

"I think if I win I want to become a famous star and show the Khmer tradition

to all the people of the world," said Ieng Vichhay, 19, before the 2005 final,

held on February 4.

Like all the Freshie-wannabes, Vichhay wears his Freshie number (B9, for Boy 9) on

his wrist at all times. He calls his rivals his "Freshie friends" and talks

about how close they've become in the two months of "training" and elimination

rounds.

The Freshie contest is an annual beauty and talent competition for Cambodian teenagers

and is an instant star maker. Propelled by the kudos of Freshie-status, most winners

of the three previous years have gone on to become movie stars or sing in karaoke

videos.

To be a Freshie is to embody youth, purity and potential, says organizer Rauv Noy,

like something "fresh or just growing like the tree is growing for its new breath."

"Freshie boy and girl means 'youth-bud'," she explains.

This year saw more than 3,000 entries to the hippest pageant in the kingdom. As well

as being a high school student between 16 and 19 years old, the applicant's character

was taken into consideration during screening. Noy kept a special eye out for "beer

girls" trying to pass themselves off as students.

A contest committee sorted through photographs to choose 300, and auditions whittled

the number down to 25 boys and 25 girls. After a public catwalk appearance, ten male

and ten female semi finalists were chosen by the committee.

That's when pop star boot camp began.

Every day for three weeks, the youngsters were put through their paces in dancing,

singing and doing community services such as visiting orphanages, pagodas and meeting

HIV-positive people. The highlights of this preparation were aired on channel TV3

each Saturday.

Freshies were scored on their "beauty, education and talent", which included

a traditional Khmer dance perfected with the help of coaches from the Ministry of

Culture and Fine Arts. A Chinese coach helped with style and poise.

Judging was split between TV viewer text messages (30 percent), trainers who observed

daily conduct (35 percent) and a ten-person committee made up of newspaper editors,

broadcasters and sponsors (35 percent).

While jeans and T-shirts were the garb of choice during rehearsals, Freshies were

sewn into their costumes for the final traditional dance, in the formal style of

the Royal Palace, meaning no toilet breaks for four hours.

Competition was close; so much so that a tie in the last elimination round meant

eight potential Freshie boys and girls made the final.

A technical hitch meant that the show started late and pre-performance jitters mounted

backstage. When the concert finally began, the director of Samart (which splashed

out $100,000 to sponsor the event), gave a speech urging the participants to live

up to the Freshie philosophy of "love, sincerity and responsibility".

"Love in the wider sense," he clarifies.

After a choreographed traditional dance, the Freshies dashed off to change into modern

clothes for their last chance to impress the judges. One-by-one the girls took to

the stage, introducing themselves and timidly bopping along as they sang Khmer and

western pop hits.

Apart from the above-the-knee skirt of Ven Davin, 17, outfits were modest and dancing

restrained. One back up dancer wore a shirt that read, "Yo dude lay me",

but perhaps something was lost in the translation.

The studio audience warmed up and some Beatles-esque squealing began, but some wondered

about the apparent delay between the movement of the performers lips and the sound

coming from the speakers.

Could it really be that Hello Freshie Boy and Girl 2005 was being faked?

This lip-sync suspicion was confirmed after the first boy was introduced: the music

began, the singing started up but the stage remained empty. Awkward moments later,

Sithy Panhavuth (B2), walked on and made the best of his time in the spotlight.

Later, Noy explained to the Post that the singers had pre-taped their final songs

at U2 nightclub because organizers feared their nerves would get the better of them

on the night.

Television viewers didn't appear to mind, sending in gushing text messages - opinions

on contestants and even phone numbers - that scrolled across the screen with their

votes.

Their votes helped to make Lim Chealay and Chom Kaneka, both 19, respectively the

Hello Freshie Boy and Girl 2005. Each winner received $625 in prize money, with $250

going to the runner-up and third place.

But two months of singing, dancing and good behavior didn't go to waste for the other

ten contestants, who were all given a job opportunity with Samart phone company and

two mobile phones.

"Even though I lost, I still have a contract with the company for six months

and got a lot of knowledge from joining the contest such as singing, traditional

and modern dancing, and [it] made me brave," said 19-year-old Chhan Rithy.

But as Freshies past and present know, the contest is really all about having fun

and making the most of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Freshie boy is just a bridge to catch another career," said Chea Vibol,

22, who came second in 2003 and now squeezes in film and karaoke gigs in between

his full time job. "If we want to catch the cub, we have to get into the tiger

cave."

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