Vanilla Ice sees a lot of ‘serious, untapped’ talent on ‘Canada Sings’

Rob Van Winkle wants you to know that “Canada Sings” is not just another “American Idol” wannabe.

The 43-year-old singer/handyman, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, joins Jann Arden and Simple Plan’s Pierre Bouvier as judges on “Canada Sings,” which launches Aug. 3 on Global.

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“We all know the impact ‘American Idol’ has had all over the world but this is a completely different show, very heartfelt,” says Van Winkle. “To see some of these people get over their personal hurdles, it’s very inspiring and uplifting.”

While it seems like there is a different star search show launching every other week on TV, Canadians can’t seem to get enough of them.

“The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent” and “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” are among the biggest hits of the spring and summer. More talent shows are on the way, including the City spin-off “Canada’s Got Talent,” the CBC’s upcoming “Cover Me Canada” and Simon Cowell’s highly anticipated follow-up to “American Idol,” “The X Factor.”

“Canada Sings” is different from the rest. While it shares the familiar three-judge format and there is prize money (a modest, even by Canadian standards, $10,000 to charity), the show plays more like “Undercover Boss” than “Canadian Idol.” After a six month search, 12 teams of ordinary, everyday workers were chosen for the competition. Each of the six episodes features two teams going through an intense, week-long rehearsal led by choreographers Kelly Konno and Christian Vincent and vocal coaches Scott Henderson and Sharron Matthews. Then, these collections of more-or-less amateur entertainers are thrust onto a stage where they are expected to perform a “Glee”-level song and dance routine.

The first episode features a crew of blue collar, junk-hauling West Coasters from 1-800-GOT JUNK vs. “The Zooper Stars,” 12 animal lovers from the Toronto Zoo’s Animal Health Care Centre. Much of each episode is spent getting to know these folks.

“We found, as we were shooting and editing, that this show really told us what it was about,” says executive producer John Brunton, who has the talent search format down cold after producing “Canadian Idol” and “Battle of the Blades.”

Brunton says Canadians will relate to and might even fall in love with characters from the singing teams. Unlike “Battle of the Blades,” a huge hit in Canada but a harder sell internationally, Brunton sees all kinds of potential to export the “Canada Sings” workplace talent format around the world.

Then there are the endless built-in product placement opportunities. As on “Undercover Boss,” there are moments when “Canada Sings” borders on being an infomercial. The Toronto gang from the Keg Steakhouse and Bar, for example, should all get bonuses, and Air Canada and GoodLife Fitness are probably down with their employees getting a little national network face time.

Van Winkle says viewers should try and get past that skepticism and just embrace the positive aspects of the series.

“There was just a great sense of accomplishment and I got to witness it,” he says. “It was very contagious, the smiles and the happiness and the good karma. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

The Texas-born rapper wears many hats these days and is shooting a second season of his DIY Network series “The Vanilla Ice Project.”

He was reached near Boston where he was helping to spiff up a 929-square-metre mansion. “We’re adding lazy rivers and home theatres, basically turning it from zero to hero,” he says.

His 1991 hit “Ice, Ice Baby” was featured on “Glee” last season, which Van Winkle thought was pretty cool: “It’s amazing the impact was so big it’s still being enjoyed by a new generation.”

There was no “American Idol” or “Canada Sings” when Van Winkle wrote that song as a mere 16-year-old. Would he have won a TV talent competition?

“You never know,” says Van Winkle. “After I wrote that, I went on tour as the opening act for the opening act for the opener.” Soon he was hosting shows like “Saturday Night Live” and partying with Madonna.

He feels there’s no substitute for paying one’s dues in the business. Still, he was blown away by a few of the civilians who stepped up to the mike on “Canada Sings.” “That one kid from 1-800 GOT JUNK, when I heard him sing I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ There’s a lot of serious, untapped, professional talent on this show.”


Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.