By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
Toni Dolce does not take no for an answer. She knew that she wanted to be a professional singer since she was 8 years old. After Toni's first experience in the spotlight - a role as an orphan in Fredonia Central School's production of "Annie" - her aunt, Donna Dolce, brought her to New York City to see a musical. It was "Cats," and it was love at first sight.
"New York City was so glamorous that I put in my mind that I was going to move there one day," said Toni, 31, just upon arrival to her hometown for the first time in more than a year.
She did make it from Fredonia to New York as she had hoped, though her journey there wasn't easy and it was not the way she had planned.
"I had given myself until age 30 to 'make it,'" she said, sending her bracelets a-clatter with the use of finger quotes for emphasis. "I had done so much. And there were a lot of things that could justify me 'making it.' If you look at some of the success I've had, you could say, 'She's made it! She's doing well.'"
"But for me, I hadn't made it yet. I wasn't a household name. I wasn't doing high profile stuff. I wasn't the star."
Toni had always had a deadline in mind. She told herself when she was younger that if she didn't "make it" by 30, she would settle down, get married, choose a different path, get a "regular" job. She did turn 30; she did get married. Last August, she wed music producer, tubist and Julliard pre-college professor Andrew Bove in a ceremony in Central Park. But she would not settle. The number 30 no longer mattered.
"I always told myself that if there was one thing I would do, I would audition for 'The X Factor,'" said Toni, blond-haired and fair-eyed, with a confident, unwavering gaze. She speaks quickly, animatedly, and never seems unprepared.
"I've watched 'The X Factor' online for six years," she said. "I thought, I like Simon Cowell. I would like to sing for him."
The show has been a hit in the United Kingdom since 2004, two years after the creation of "American Idol." When Toni heard whisperings of Cowell's plan to bring the show to the U.S., she knew that she would audition.
And she did just that. On "The X Factor," which premiered Sept. 21, auditions have been shown for the first four two-hour episodes, the last of which aired on Thursday. In favor of the disastrous, difficult-to-watch auditions copiously added in for shock value and comic relief, Toni's audition was not shown in the final edit. She made the cut and will continue on to boot camp along with 164 other hopefuls.
However, her place on "The X Factor" did not come without a fight. It began with a "No."
'RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN'
Toni began gearing up to try out for "The X Factor" in September 2010, five months before the first advertisement for the show aired during the 2011 Super Bowl. She started a "vision board" and placed it so that she would see it when she opened her closet door. It was covered in inspirational quotes, a photo of Simon Cowell, photos of herself, song ideas that she continued to add each time one came to her.
"It was a constant reminder, every single morning when I got ready for the day, I would be looking at this vision board," Toni said. "It said things like, 'X Factor: You're going to do it.' Or 'X Factor: You're a star.' Or something that would put me mentally in the right frame of mind that I was going to be on the show. I was going to do it."
There are three rounds of auditions before the one onstage in front of the judges. For the first one at the Prudential Center, there were thousands of people filling up the venue, as if it were a concert. In the middle of the theater were 36 different booths set up, each holding one or two producers brought in to screen talent. There were hours of waiting, for more than one day.
Finally, Toni was called in to the audition and was greeted by a British producer, just as she had hoped. She shared her enthusiasm for the show and told him that she knew it was where she belonged. He instructed her to step up on the "X,"sing for 30 seconds a verse and a chorus and then wait for a yes or no.
"Rules are meant to be broken, I strongly believe that, especially when your talent is on the line and you really want something so incredibly bad in your soul that you're willing to do whatever it takes," Toni said determinedly. "I'm not going to go and stand on an X just like everybody else."
She told them that she was going to sing two songs one classical and one pop, to show them what kind of singer she was.
"Did they stop me? No. Because when you look someone so confidently in the eye and tell them this is what I do, this is what I'm good at, let me show you how to do it - they can't deny you!"
She made it through. In the initial audition, Toni estimates that about 20,000 were cut down to 1,000. Two more auditions followed, the last of which is followed by the producers simply saying, "We'll be in contact."
"I said, 'Will you be in contact with a yes or a no?' And they said 'Yes,'" Toni recalled. "Then I was on ice for about a month."
THE BIG AUDITION
Fast-forward to the onstage audition day at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., in front of Simon Cowell and the other judges. The singers making it to this round numbered about 45. Coming along with Toni to show their support were her husband, her father Rocco Dolce (who relocated to Rochester, and is related to the Dolce and Joy family from Fredonia/Dunkirk area), stepmother Sandy Dolce, mother Robin (Zielinski) Carr of Brocton, brothers Mike and Adam Dolce (Fredonia natives now living in New York City), half-sister Leah Carr, mother- and father-in-law Norma and Doug Bove, Aunts Donna Dolce and Lynn Sorf, former voice teacher G. Mary Matteson and her friend Evonne Henneberry, and Toni's friends Susan Foley, Alessa Aichinger and Sarah Connerly.
"We all met under the clock at Penn Station and then we got on the train to go to Newark," Matteson said, clearly delighted to be speaking about her successful former student. "She's wearing curlers with the gown. And we were like a parade we had banners. Toni really thought of everything. We got off the train and walked down the street with the banners, like a parade."
Toni wanted to make sure that she got noticed and stood out from the prodigious crowd. She concocted a marketing strategy. In addition to the banners, her entourage wore T-shirts emblazoned with Toni's name, and she carried fliers as well.
"I was passing them out to people, putting them in the train station, putting them on the walkway going up to the Prudential Center, just canvassing my name out so there," Toni said. "So that if one of the producers, anybody would walk by and say, 'Who's Toni Dolce? I know I know that name. I don't know how.' And then "The X Factor" Twitter person was walking around and they Twittered a picture of me because they noticed the shirts."
Toni also dressed strategically for the audition to show who she was as an artist, a classical-crossover singer. She wore a black, floor-length gown, in sharp contrast to the many singers dressed similarly to Britney Spears in her heyday.
Her entourage had a choice: they could either stay backstage with Toni or sit in the audience. They opted to go backstage. It was an all-day event, and as Toni prepared and did interviews, her entourage had to occasionally play "background people."
"They would say, 'We need 8 people over here! Sit in these chairs. Don't look in the camera, just talk to each other,'" Matteson said.
Her former teacher said that Toni did not seem nervous as she waited to go on.
"She has her routine," Matteson related. "She just asked us, 'Send positive vibes' she's all about positive vibes. Once we got backstage and it was time to go on, she just composed herself. Standing around, it is nerve-wracking, but she has a procedure. And Andrew, her husband, is her right-hand man. They're a real team."
As Toni was waiting in the wings, the singer auditioning before her sang the song she had planned to sing, Adele's "Someone Like You."
"I know from a producer's standpoint that that makes for good TV," Toni said. "So I'm just like, 'Of course! They're going to try to throw you for a loop!'"
Unfazed, Toni walked out and sang her song as planned.
"Simon says, 'I don't know if we're taking a vote yet but it's a definite yes from me.' So I was feeling really good!'" Toni said. "And then Paula (Abdul) said, 'I don't know what you're listening to because it's a no for me! I don't think she's strong enough. I think there's other people in this competition that are better pop singers.'"
By Toni's account, Abdul then told her, "I look at you and I see that you would be in the market like Katherine McPhee, but you're not as good as Katherine McPhee.
"So then Nicole (Scherzinger) takes it over and she says, 'Toni.' And I go, 'Nicole.' She says, 'I was absolutely mesmerized by you. I couldn't take my eyes off of you. But that being said, I was going to say yes'"
Toni noticed that Abdul was sort of elbowing Scherzinger while she spoke, and then judge L.A. Reid who Toni describes as the show's true "power player," spoke up.
"L.A. says, 'I will agree, there is something about you, I don't know what it is, I don't know if it's enough.'
"And that's when I realized, oh, my God, they're gonna say no. They're gonna say no!" Toni said. "I did not come all this way for them to say no! Simon Cowell says yes. Simon Cowell, for me,was the most important person that I needed to impress."
"So, in a split second, I just realized, I am not leaving here until I get a yes."
Toni told the judges that she would do whatever it takes to get a yes. She offered to sing another song, explaining that she sees herself as a female Josh Groban, not McPhee.
"Simon is arguing with them, saying, 'She's 31 years old. There's a market for this woman. We don't have a singer like her. I don't understand where you're coming from.' And then they started bickering," Toni said.
She took this as an opportunity to sing her second song.
"I just shouted out to the sound man, 'Track No. 1! Taking Chances!'" she said. "After the song was done, Simon Cowell was like, 'That was better than the first one!' And then they started chatting again.
"And then, God bless him, some strange guy out in the audience my family's all backstage, so it wasn't anybody that I came with shouted, 'I thought you told us we're the fifth judge! Don't we count?' And L.A. Reid turns around and says, 'I guess you guys do. What do you think?'"
The audience went wild, filling the Prudential Center with cheers and applause. The judges told her yes.
"I have the audience to thank, because I felt a true connection with the audience," Toni said. "Four judges in front of me frightens me. But an audience of 4,000 people, that's where I belong."
"We were watching her on a screen backstage, and the audience just rallied behind her they were the ones that put her through," Matteson said. "To be there and be part of it was a real privilege. And she appreciated it, too, that people would come out to support her."
Matteson explained that there were people auditioning who weren't so fortunate some had only one or two family members or friends with them for encouragement.
"One, that poor soul, had only his mother with him," Matteson said. "At first glance you could tell, he still lived with her, he was middle-aged, the whole thing. And I honestly think they put him on there as they do as one of those people who will be a novelty. I noticed he had a bag with a big, fat, old book in it. They directed him to go over to a window and act like he was reading it. His job was as a reader of the Torah in a temple. That was very unusual."
Oddly enough, Andy the Torah reader was shown on Thursday's episode of "The X Factor" featuring the Newark auditions but Toni was not.
"Being snubbed during the audition segment was a bit disappointing and I do feel they spent an exorbitant amount of time on nonsense contestants," Toni said. "There were so many talented singers that made it to boot camp that weren't featured one bit!"
Toni did catch a glimpse of herself in the preview for next week's "X Factor," shown in a scene at boot camp wearing a hot pink dress.
To find out what happens next, tune in Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Fox.
THE COMMUNITY SHE CALLS HOME
"The X Factor" was among several television appearances for the rising star. Back in 2007 she won $25,000 on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," was featured on "The Nate Berkus Show" last year and most recently, and she sang with the New York Choral Artists in the New York Philharmonic's concert for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which aired on PBS Sept. 11.
Despite her success, Toni hasn't forgotten her roots.
"The music program at Fredonia High School was the foundation for my love of music and the beginning of my confidence in my music," Toni remembered. "It started with Sallie Pullano. Doing music through grade school, I didn't even know that I could sing until at the age of 8 she said, 'I think you should audition for this musical that Mr. Sternisha is casting.' (It was) 'Annie.'"
Pullano, the former grade school music teacher at SUNY Fredonia, also introduced Toni to Mozart, perhaps the origin of her affinity for classical music. Pullano and her husband, Frank, have recently relocated to Rock Hill, S.C.
"Over my many years as a music teacher in Fredonia Elementary, certain students stood out," Pullano said. "Toni was one of them, in the very nicest way. Handling choruses of 100-plus children was sometimes challenging, but kids like Toni made it all worthwhile. She was a natural, always interested, exactly the kind of student of which any music teacher would want dozens more. She always seemed to enjoy school, always helpful and a real credit to FCS."
Toni also gives credit to middle school music teacher John Straight, musical instructor and band director Donald Keddie, and Jack Sternisha, all whom instilled her with the unfailing inspiritment that certainly helped her in the trying years that would follows. She remembers working with Sternisha on musicals and trying to be the best that she could be, always wanting to impress him ("I felt like a lot of students felt that way, too," she said). They have stayed in touch over the years and met for lunch with him during a hometown visit.
"She's very talented," Sternisha said, now living in Punta Gorda, Fla., after retiring from FCS in 2003. "I can remember telling my wife that there was a student that has exceptional ability, and I was very sad to see that she moved away."
Toni's family moved to Rochester at the beginning of her 10th grade year. She graduated from Gates-Chili High School, where she was the school's first (and only) singer to attend the prestigious All-Eastern Music Conference. As she had decided at age 8, Toni intended to go to New York City. She auditioned for only one school, New York University, and was accepted.
"My parents sat me down three months before I was supposed to leave for college and they said, 'Even with the financial aid we can't afford to send you,'" Toni said, taking a deep breath as she relived the memory. "I didn't know what to do."
Her voice teacher called David Evans at SUNY Fredonia's school of music and got Toni a last-minute audition. She was accepted.
"I didn't really want to come back to Fredonia," Toni said. "I loved Fredonia, but I felt that chapter had closed. But obviously fate had it so that it didn't close."
Toni said her teachers at SUNY Fredonia were great to her, especially Evans, Julie Newell and Mary Charbonnet. Always precocious, Toni wrote a personal invitation to college President Dennis Hefner to hear her sing in "The Marriage of Figaro," and he obliged ("He wrote me a letter saying he enjoyed my performance on stationary and everything really lovely. I still have it."). Toni transferred to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she earned her BA in international development with minors in music and Spanish. While there, she toured the East Coast with well-known wedding band Black and Blue on the weekends.
At long last, Toni made her move to New York City. She did a two-year program doing conservatory work at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where she learned dance, more acting and practiced singing for musical theater. She described her first months there as scary, fun and nerve-wracking, because for the first time she began to doubt her talent.
"When you're a big fish in a little sea, it's easy to get a big head," she said. "When you really are thrown into that large ocean of talent, you start figuring out, oh my gosh, really soon that you need to work way harder, and you may be the cat's pajamas but you're nobody in New York. I learned very quickly that if you want something enough, you'll fight for it."
At age 26, she was down to her last $50. She had finished her studies and was crashing on a friend's couch; she did not want to go back home. She walked into a new karaoke bar in Times Square. They needed a karaoke hostess to go over and coax patrons to sing.
"I just start treating it like an audition, saying, 'I think that it would be great if you had a singing bartender. I bartend, too.' I didn't really bartend, I just made it up," Toni said. "Somehow he bought this idea and then I went from $50 to $1,000 in a matter of three days."
Toni worked there for five-and-a-half years for three or four nights a week and treated it as her training ground for pop music. She would try out her material for customers hailing from all parts of the world.
She began to get more and more work as a singer. She toured Eastern Europe as the female lead in "Phantom of the Opera." The road to the tour and during wasn't always smooth. She lost her voice onstage in Latvia in front of 2,000 people, her worst nightmare realized one of the only moments that ever made her want to give up. At her audition, on her 29th birthday, the director sang her praises and then told her she needed Botox, pointing to three specific locations where she should get the injections.
"It was really crippling to the ego to be told you are not young enough," Toni said, but undaunted, she came up with a quick solution. "Two days later, I come back in with bangs."
Toni sings with the New York Choral Artists and performs at the Lincoln Center often. She is also the host on www.journeytomydreams.com and the female voice for more than 400 abstracts at www.getabstract.com, Among her career highlights are singing the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden for an Islanders and Rangers game, where she sang for a crowd of 13,000, and performing at Carnegie Hall in Paul McCartney's oratorio "Ecce Cor Meum."
"After we were done performing his work, he was backstage and he kissed every single person that was onstage that sang his music," Toni said. "When he walks into a room, he's got, like, triple X factor."
In addition to traveling and performing, Toni is now working on her debut classical-crossover album entitled "Something Better." She raised some of the funds for the album through a campaign on Kickstarter.com. With pre-orders, her goal of $6,985 was quickly exceeded. The album with be a combination of different genres and languages. The tentative release is mid-November. Visit www.tonidolce.com to learn more.
Now that she's achieved her goal of being singing for Simon Cowell on "The X Factor," she has new objectives in mind. One is to duet with Josh Groban. The other is even more ambitious.
"I want to be the No. 1 classical crossover artist on the Billboard charts," Toni said. "That's the new goal. That's what the new vision board says. I'm big about vision boards."
Matteson has no doubt that her former student will make it.
"Even as a 12-year-old, I could see that she really had the determination," Matteson said. "I have been telling all of my students, I show them the card about her album with her picture on it that she gave me if you have an idea that you want to do something like this, you've got to really, really want it and work to get it. I've had other students who have the talent not too many of them had the determination. You have to have both - a big helping of the determination and be willing to do whatever it takes, and Toni is one of those rare people who has both."
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