When he broke down on BGT it provoked claims of exploitation. But nine-year-old Malakai’s mother defiantly insists . . . My son’s TV tears were a price worth paying for a chance of fame
11:44 GMT, 7 June 2012
Standing in the glare of the spotlight, nine-year-old Malakai Paul could feel himself buckling under the pressure of expectation. In front of him sat Britain’s Got Talent judges, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams, and behind them a sea of unfamiliar faces.
‘I thought I was going to throw up,’ says Malakai, recalling the televised audition that would turn him into a household name — for all the wrong reasons.
‘I think it was the crowd. There were lots of people there I didn’t know, staring into my eyes. I felt my heart thumping. ‘When I started singing, my voice began shaking and I couldn’t control my feelings when I cried. I felt I let everyone down.’
Malakai says adjusting to life after BGT has been 'weird'
BGT judge Alesha Dixon and Malakai’s mother, Toni-Ann, rushed on to the Birmingham stage to comfort him before he bravely decided to continue, performing the Beyonce hit Listen to a standing ovation from the judges, who unanimously voted him through to the semi-finals.
His raw talent, which prompted Simon Cowell to proclaim ‘You’re a total star’, did not, however, prevent Malakai being voted off the competition in the semi-finals.
Millions watched as this talented young boy buried his face in presenter Dec’s jacket to hide further tears of disappointment. Pudsey the dog went on to triumph.
The sight of someone so vulnerable created a storm of protest, leading to accusations that the show exploited youngsters.
Peter Bradley, deputy director of charity Kidscape, said after Malakai’s performance: ‘Year after year we see children breaking down on TV, all for the sake of entertainment.’ Children’s Minister Sarah Teather described the scenes as ‘uncomfortable’ and called for the welfare of children to be put ahead of ratings.
The Government, it was reported last week, is planning to bring in new laws to protect children taking part in reality TV shows. Ministers have scheduled meetings with broadcasters to discuss how to safeguard vulnerable young people taking part in high-profile series.
Malakai's mother Toni-Ann says her son does not regret taking part in the show, even though he didn't win
So how do Toni-Ann and Malakai feel to be at the centre of this storm
Far from feeling exploited, Toni-Ann rounds on government ministers rather than BGT, accusing them of wanting to cut off one of the few escape routes to a better life open to struggling families like hers.
‘Malakai wasn’t exploited, the show gave him opportunities he would never had anywhere else,’ she says. ‘If ministers want to offer an alternative, fine. But for people like us, these shows offer a real chance to lift ourselves out of our environment.’
She lives in an area of North London marred by gang-related crime, with hoodies roaming the streets armed with knives.
Today, Malakai is singing Listen to me in the council flat he shares with his mother, singer and designer Toni-Ann, 31, sister Najah, 14, and brother Joseph, eight.
He is pitch-perfect and possesses a beautiful voice. But for now, he will have to be content with being a star in his own front room.
Speaking of his BGT ‘journey’, Malakai, now ten, says: ‘When I was voted off in the semi-finals, I felt my career was over. I felt low. I knew I could have done better.’
Adjusting back to normal life has been ‘weird’ he says: ‘I’m sometimes late for school, because many people come up to me to talk or ask to have their picture with me. They ask: “Are you that famous boy from the telly”
‘Now, I feel as if I’m in limbo. Everyone knows who I am, but I am waiting for something to happen. I want to be famous for my singing.’
Malakai was only seven when Toni-Ann first took him to a BGT audition, only for him to freeze to the spot and abandon his ‘dream’. Two years later he tried again. This time Malakai sailed through with a spell-binding performance of Joyful Lord from the film Sister Act.
Toni-Ann tells me they were up at 3am to go to Birmingham for the first round of auditions, taking two buses from their home to Victoria to catch a coach to the Midlands.
There were hours of hanging around before a tired and nervous Malakai finally performed for the judges at 5pm. Toni-Ann says: ‘When he started crying, I wanted to give him a hug, so I just rushed on stage.
‘The second time he sang, everyone heard the real Malakai coming out, and they loved him. ‘Not once did I think: “What have I done” Even thought it was a bit daunting for Malakai, it was a good experience — character building.’
The BGT makers have stressed: ‘We have stringent procedures in place relating to children who appear in our shows. The welfare of contestants is our number one priority.’
Certainly, Toni-Ann confirms she was allowed to chaperone her son and the minute he was accepted for audition, the proper licences were obtained from the local council for Malakai to perform. He was appointed a legal representative and introduced to an agent.
After Malakai broke down in the first round, BGT put the family in touch with a counsellor who, they have been told, is still available to them now the show has finished.
Toni-Ann’s criticism is reserved for government ministers, who, she says, should spend some time with young people in her part of London before deciding what kind of help such children really need.
BGT 2012 winner, Pudsey the dog, with proud owner Ashleigh
What are a few tears on stage and a bit of stage fright, she asks, compared with the fear of knife attacks on the streets ‘I’ve been accused of being a pushy mum, but for families like us these shows can be our only passport to a better life,’ says Toni-Ann, a single mother, who is launching a design business with the help of the Prince’s Trust.
‘We don’t live here because we want to; we have to. Three days ago, a 13-year-old got stabbed down the road in his house. Over Easter, another teen hanged himself at the end of this road. Last year, one of my daughter’s friends got stabbed down the road there,’ she says pointing through the window.
‘Exploitation is a strong word. For someone like Malakai, if this show helps him out of that situation, then what’s wrong with that
‘It was Malakai who wanted to go on Britain’s Got Talent and I believe in his dream. Malakai isn’t the first child to cry on TV, so why all the fuss about him He was just a little tired, shy and frightened. ‘He wasn’t used to performing in front of a big crowd in the same way stage school children are.’
Toni-Ann has good reason to seek a better life for her children. She shows me the scars from bullet wounds on her arms and stomach. Aged 14, in Jamaica, she was shot when a man fired at people in the street, and she almost died.
Her eldest child, Najah, was six months old when his father was shot in the head at a party in Stoke Newington, London. Toni-Ann, who was not at the party where he died, was left a 17-year-old single mother.
Eleven years ago, she married Malakai and Joseph’s father, musician Tyrone Paul, who has had two Number One hits with rapper Dizzee Rascal. But she says it was a troubled relationship and they separated eight years ago.
‘I have worked hard all my life and my children’s welfare is my priority,’ says Toni-Ann, who studied music at college in Barnet and has worked as a youth leader. ‘I don’t want my children to see that life I saw. I want better for them.’
But isn’t it worse, ultimately, to have your hopes raised only for that glimpse of a better life fail to materialise Will Malakai always be burdened with the fear he blew his big chance with his tears
After all Simon and Co are already looking for the next big thing and surely keen to distance themselves from a competitor who has attracted the concerned attention of government ministers. There has been no contact with BGT since the show finished.
‘I was a bit upset to see an advert in the paper for the Britain’s Got Talent summer tour, with selected acts from the show performing, and I thought: “Why didn’t they ask Malakai” ’ says Toni-Ann.
However, he has been invited to audition for a children’s film and possibly a part in the new West End musical, The Bodyguard.
Malakai is bored by all this adult talk. He wants to go out on his bike with his friends and be an ordinary child again. ‘I don’t wish I hadn’t taken part,’ he says, as he races out the door. ‘At first I felt low, because I thought everyone was disappointed in me, but I’d do it all again.’