The internet, like elephants, never forgets. We see evidence of this all the time in the bitter excavations of decades-old tweets and retrospective examinations of maligned Noughties celebs. It also doesn’t let up. Mess up in a big enough way online, and you’ll find your name plastered everywhere for weeks, months, even years – your poor choices presented as some kind of social conundrum, while you cower (if you’re smart) in the comfort of the offline world, where the tweets and TikToks can’t find you.
In cases of spectacular f–k ups (immoral scandals, criminality), that’s probably not such a bad thing. In other cases – falling over, fluffing lines and other minor public faux pas – it must be utterly humiliating. No one understood that better this week than Ariana DeBose.
If somehow you haven’t seen her wobbly, unsure and delightfully camp Baftas rap, give yourself a treat and watch it now. It’s exactly the sort of frenzied and awkward performance a child gives when forced by their parents to perform in front of adults – as painfully adorable as it is entertaining.
Yet, after days of getting the parody treatment, it appears the West Side Story star has come out the other side. Rather than shying away from it all and hoping for it to go away, DeBose seems to have found merit in seeing the funny side of things.
Flicking through my own mental filing cabinet of utterly mortifying moments, I can see why. Though it wasn’t to an audience of millions or even in front of all my peers and idols, an incident in a small carpeted audition room at the age of around nine still makes me burst out in laughter today.
I was at a large warehouse for a Disney Channel talent competition, a sort of “making the band” project. With my hair in back-length, beaded braids and my most grown-up feeling outfit, I felt like a superstar. I knew I could sing and was confident that after seeing me – the younger, browner Alicia Keys – they’d send me straight to the finals.
For some reason, I didn’t tell my parents what I was singing at the audition. Nor did they ask. So, off we went, my audition song long perfected in the shower. I was going to wow them with my very own rendition of a classic: “Freak Like Me” (the Sugababes’ version).
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When I entered that room and opened my mouth to sing the opening line: “Let me lay it on the line, I got a little freakiness inside”, I just knew they’d be impressed. All of them. I’d heard others try, and they weren’t nearly as good as I was. The further I got into the song, the more the producers’ eyes widened, with one in particular, a black, spectacled man whose mouth had hit the floor, particularly transfixed.
“I want a roughneck brother that can satisfy me, just for me!” I warbled, unaware that what I was singing about was sexual liberation. As I reached the chorus (“Cause I’mma be a freak until the day, until the dawn”), the black producer stopped me. I’m through! I thought. “Do you have anything else you can sing?” he asked, almost laughing. I said no. It didn’t add up.
After years of thinking I didn’t get to the next stage because I probably didn’t have the “right look”, I realised what happened. Fully acquainted with the explicit Adina Howard version – and much more clued up on what the song was truly about – I realised, as a teen, what I’d done. I had, as a child, performed the equivalent of “WAP” to a Disney production crew.
It would be ridiculous to find it as embarrassing as I did when the penny first dropped in my teenage years. Though I’d repressed the memory for some time, it came back to me in my early 20s and has become one of my favourite stories, especially now that I can put myself in the producers’ shoes. It may have been awkward, it may not have been polished, but I’ve no doubt that it gave a bunch of unsuspecting adults a good laugh. It certainly makes me cackle to this day.
More importantly, it taught me the merits of not taking yourself too seriously. Embarrassing yourself in public doesn’t always have to feel like the world is ending. You can be in on the joke too, even if a small part of it still stings. DeBose seems to have learned this lesson. On Tuesday, in response to writer and podcast host Evan Ross Katz’ carousel of Instagram memes related to the Bafta rap, she commented: “Honestly, I love this.” Good on her.