Chandra Olson made the trek every July.
She inked it on her calendar and told her manager and booking staff so everyone in her camp knew she was off-limits. For two days in midsummer, nothing was more important to America’s premier black vocalist than leaving Los Angeles, flying to Birmingham, and driving out to the old country cemetery where her parents were buried.
She would spend the day here, same as she did each July for the last four years. No driver or entourage or fanfare. Just Chandra Olson, a fold-up camping chair, a cooler of Smart Water, and a journal.
Always a journal.
That way Chandra could write her parents a letter they would never read and express in words her thanks for their support, and her regrets at the cost of fame.
The very great cost.
She parked her rental car in the corner spot and surveyed the area. Oak trees dotted the couple of acres of grass and
tombstones that made up the graveyard. There were a few worn-out bouquets and the occasional American flag pressed into the earth over the grave of a soldier’s sacrifice. A quick look around confirmed what she hoped to find. She was alone. The place was empty except for her.
Chandra stepped carefully over the freshly mowed grass, making her way between markers to the place where her parents lay buried. She set her cooler down and opened her chair. Then, for a long moment, she simply stared at the etchings in the modest gray stones, letting the truth wash over her once more. Martin and Muriel Olson. Young and vibrant and full of life. Her dad, forty-eight. Her mother, just forty-four. Weddings, grandbabies, retirement—all of life ahead of them. Shot down in the prime of life.
Tears blurred Chandra’s eyes. The death date was the same for both of them. May 15, 2009.
A song burned in her heart this morning, a lyric that had been swimming to the surface for weeks. It would come together here, Chandra was sure. Here, close to the bodies of her parents and with the first round of auditions for this season’s Fifteen Minutes set to begin later in the week. The song would be a ballad. A warning to be careful what you wish for, be careful what you dream.
In case it actually happens.
Chandra took her seat and studied the gray clouds low-slung over the cemetery. Somewhere in houses across America, they were getting ready. Tens of thousands of them. Saying good-bye to family and friends and headed off for a weekend of auditions in one of eight cities across the country. Looking for a shot at their own personal fifteen minutes of fame.
Six years ago she was that wide-eyed singer, working at a
day-care center and taking college classes at night. Nineteen years old with a dream bigger than Texas. What did she know about Fifteen Minutes or where it might lead, where the journey would take her?
For a long moment Chandra closed her eyes and saw herself, the way she was back then. No one was more excited about her Fifteen Minutes audition than Chandra’s parents. They were hard workers, both of them managers in office jobs in Birmingham. Martin and Muriel grew up in the projects, too poor to eat some days. They spent their lives trying to give their kids—Chandra and her brother, Chaz—everything they never had. Chaz’s dream had been soccer. He was playing now, a senior at Liberty University in Virginia. But only because her parents had worked overtime to pay thousands of dollars in club soccer fees, private coaching, and gym memberships.
It was the same way for Chandra, only her passion wasn’t soccer—it was singing.
She opened her eyes and looked at her mother’s tombstone. You used to tell me I was born humming. Remember that? You gave me every advantage, Mama. It was true. Chandra took voice lessons from the best teachers in the city. She attended a private arts school on the south side, and when she wrote her first song, her parents took her to Atlanta and had it produced by a guy whose name was synonymous with R&B hits.
But nothing opened the door to her singing career the way Fifteen Minutes had. Chandra blazed through the audition process and, even with the show’s manufactured drama, there was never really any contest. On the finale show, when host Kit Barker smiled at the cameras and rattled off the famous line “The next fifteen minutes of fame goes to . . . Chandra
Olson!” there wasn’t one surprised person in the audience or at home.
“You might be the best singer to ever grace the Fifteen Minutes stage.” That’s what one of the judges that season told her, and the comment was plastered across Internet websites everywhere, from the Today show to People magazine.
Chandra remembered a private moment with her mother a week later. “You realize how big this is, baby girl?”
Beneath the warmth of her mother’s words, Chandra’s heart swelled. She hugged her mama for a long time. “It’s big.”
“It’s bigger than that!” Her mother put her hands on her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. “Fifteen Minutes is the biggest show on television, baby. And you’re the best singer they’ve ever seen! God’s gonna use you, child. He’s gonna use you like none of us can begin to imagine.”
Her mama was right about Fifteen Minutes. The show had been on the air a dozen years, and though other voice talent television programs competed for a share of the market, nothing compared to Fifteen Minutes. Between the judge’s comment and her mother’s praise, the future seemed brighter than the sun, Chandra’s potential unlimited.
Anyone could see the success ahead.
But none of them could have anticipated what happened nearly two years later. The second spring after Chandra’s win, with her first album topping the charts and her fame far surpassing fifteen minutes, an Alabama stalker stepped into the picture. He found her on Facebook and asked for a loan. Money to help him and his mother buy a house. Chandra let the comment pass.
The request quickly became harassment with the guy posting daily demands for money. His most chilling post was also his
last. What if something happened to your parents, Chandra? Maybe that would get your attention!
Chandra blocked him from her Facebook page that day and filed a report with the Birmingham police.
“The guy’s annoying,” the Birmingham officer told her, “but anyone can make a Facebook page. We can’t prove he’s a guy or that he lives in Alabama.” He added that there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to investigate everyone who bothered a celebrity.
Her concert schedule rolled on and Chandra tried to forget the guy’s comment.
But one warm night in late May, her parents pulled into their driveway after a church service and climbed out of their car. According to one of the neighbors outside getting her mail, Chandra’s parents were laughing and talking. Her father had just taken her mother’s hand when a spray of bullets exploded from the front porch area, ripping through their bodies and killing them instantly.
The man turned out to be crazy, a certified insane patient who had escaped from a mental hospital in Mississippi. He waited on the Olsons’ front porch until police arrived and he immediately admitted to the killings. “I wanted to get Chandra’s attention,” he told police.
Life would forever be measured as before and after the shooting. No question, a part of Chandra was buried right here with her parents. In the wake of their murders, she took two months off and became a recluse, handling her parents’ affairs, afraid to leave the house. But eventually she had no choice but to return to the limelight.
The stage owned her now. It was where she belonged.
Questions plagued her then the way they still did here at the cemetery. What was the point of fame and celebrity? All the record sales and accolades and awards? The money and houses and vacations? None of it could take her back to that moment, to her mother’s hands on her shoulders.
Her parents’ faith had been strong and foundational, a key to Chandra’s life before Fifteen Minutes. But now there was only one Bible character she felt any connection with.
The king who had everything, but finished his days believing the most desperate of thoughts—that all of life was meaningless. Chasing after the wind. She had read the book of Ecclesiastes again on her Bible app during the flight and once more she had found her life verse, the only one that applied now. It was from Ecclesiastes 2:17, truth tucked in the midst of a host of depressing Scriptures. She could remember the verse now, word for word.
So I hated my life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Her newest album was number one on iTunes, and she’d been asked back to Fifteen Minutes, this time as a judge. But here in the warmth and quiet of the cemetery, she could only agree with Solomon. All of it was meaningless . . . a chasing after the wind.
All of it.
She opened her journal and began writing. The lyrics came easily, pouring from the gaping holes in her heart. The song would be a hit, she was sure. But even that was meaningless. Only one thing kept Chandra going, kept her engaged in the daily walk through celebrity and fame, through concerts and
autograph seekers. It wasn’t her new role as a judge on Fifteen Minutes or the countless hopefuls heading out to audition this week.
Rather it was the fifteen finalists.
The ones whose lives were about to change forever. The ones who would never be the same again . . . who could never go back to life the way it was. Just maybe among them was a singer like she used to be, someone with faith and family and a quiet, happy life.
If she could warn just one of them about the false illusion of fame, she would do it. And in the process she might find something she’d lost four years ago with the death of her parents. The one thing fame could never give her. The one thing worth chasing.