She was 19, and she wore battered Etnies skateboard shoes, torn jeans, and looked like Shane McCutcheon before Shane McCutcheon existed, or the lovechild of Fairuza Balk and Andrea Gibson. She was really into Ani DiFranco. She was heartbroken, jilted, and talked about it feverishly… yet none of this mattered as much as her ability to carry a tune like Gary Jules’ younger sister.
In the summer of 2003, her psychotherapist father signed her up for the second season of the lackluster rival of Simon Cowell’s wildly successful Pop Idol, BBC’s Fame Academy. Having long considered a career as a professional singer a pipe dream, she was more interested in studying clowning and acrobatics and The Hub Theater School, traveling to Spain and Amsterdam to work as a mime, and getting out of Cornwall, for good. By that October, however, her voice and name — Alex Parks — quickly became known and acclaimed throughout the UK.
After Parks won Fame Academy in 2003 (a show that’s name implied its contestants were being strategically groomed for more than the Warholian fifteen minutes), she would go on to release a 2x Platinum album, all while voicing concerns to The Telegraph that she was being portrayed as a “spikey-haired Cornish lesbian” or was doomed to a life in the “cheesy pop world.” In addition to a record deal, the BBC offered Parks a BMW sportscar, an apartment in Notting Hill, and what seemed like a lifetime supply of champagne. When the network asked Parks — who grew up in a 300-year-old cottage in a working class neighborhood — if they could record her around her new digs for a documentary about her, she refused. “They want to film me in the flat and driving the car, with me saying: ‘Oh, I am so thankful for everything you have given me, where you have put me, ra ra ra,’” she told The Telegraph.
Shortly after her moderately successful sophomore album’s release in 2005, Alex Parks amicably cut ties with her record label and vanished — but not in the way pop culture celebrities typically do. The Meme Star of Questionable Talent (William Hung, Chris Crocker) and The One-Hit Wonder (Lumidee, Daniel Powter) archetypes that have increased in ubiquity in tandem with reality television usually fade away. Parks’ talent was not questionable but undeniable, and she did the opposite of passively falling into obscurity: she deliberately turned invisible.
Earlier this month, days after the 11th anniversary of Parks’ Fame Academy win, Daily Star’s Mike Ward revived the case of her disappearance:
I realise I could ask the same about a million and one talent show competitors in the years since, people we’ve briefly become super-excited about and then quickly forgotten, fickle buggers that we are. But most of them you can Google in a matter of seconds to get at least a rough indication of what they’re up to these days, before going: “Oh, righty-ho.…” and getting on with your day. Alex, on the other hand seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth – and, more to the point, seems to have done this intentionally. Which not only seems a shame (I really liked her: great voice, real charisma, I actually bought both her albums), but also makes her story oddly fascinating. Alex’s Wikipedia entry hasn’t been updated in years. Her website has been frozen in time since 2005. Twitter delivers nothing relevant, as far as I can see. Only Facebook seems to offer a vague clue: an Alex fan site with a more recent entry, hinting at a comeback whose promised date has come and gone.
Along with her eclectic professional interests (Parks continued to mention her desire to become a mime in interviews) and open resistance to the BBC’s attempts at exploitation, there were other signs that Parks would not be a good fit for fame. When asked in November 2003 if she felt like a career in music was sustainable given David Sneddon’s retirement less than a year after winning the first season of Fame Academy, she responded tentatively:
It does scare me, yeah. I’m going to do everything that I can to not let that happen. I’d be very gutted if I stopped loving it as much as I am now, in a year. I want it to go on for years and years.
She also admitted to finding celebrity culture alien. “People recognizing you, people wanting things of you, like just a small signature. I find that quite mad, that people just want you to write on something or want something of yours. It’s a compliment, but it’s quite hard to understand.”
I’m not interested in Parks because I am interested in smoking a one-time celesbian out of her hard-earned hiding spot. I’m interested in Parks because she pulled a hell of a virtual vanishing act. Disappearing from the limelight and disappearing from the internet are two different things. As Ward mentions, even when a reality celebrity fades into obscurity, he or she still remains fodder for a late-night “whatever happened to…” search engine binges, and a Twitter handle or Facebook fan page is bound to be rendered within the results; the most seemingly has-been stars of reality programming can be found online. Even though he announced his retirement years ago, Fame Academy winner David Sneddon’s Twitter and Facebook fan page are mere clicks away. I sent tweets to a handful of Fame Academy‘s former hosts and “students” asking about Parks’ whereabouts and well-being without any certain response.
Despite our favorite reality television personalities no longer receiving screentime, the internet enables us to speak about them in the present-tense. Without the consistent play-by-play offered by Instagram or ill-advised real-world stalking, it would be tricky to verify Whitney Mixter’s ongoing existence. The “digital deletion-as-death” metaphor is an obvious one, so much that a program to assist users in removing their social media profiles is named Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and there is a LifeHacker article shamelessly titled, “How to commit Internet suicide and disappear from the web forever.” No one knows who Alex Parks is because she doesn’t exist at the click of a mouse — we only know what she was as indicated by old interviews and fan-uploaded YouTube clips of her Fame Academy performances.
What Parks did was not only mysterious; it was also enviable, even romantic. The goal is to have a control over web presence, for it to be a tool. But when other people are heavily involved in that interaction, control is not always guaranteed. I remain as guilty as the next person of dreaming of a day that’ll never come: the one when I delete Facebook. As Emma Healy writes at The Hairpin:
Appeals to disconnect and unplug will always find an audience no matter how slapdash or rote they might be. It is frightening to think that you might be a willing partner in the steady proliferation of your own sadness just because you’re checking Facebook all the time. It’s unsettling to remember that corporations can permanently alter the definitions of words like “friend” and “favorite” in the blink of an eye, or to consider that the concept of “connection” is just as mutable. It is scary to be told that the world is changing for the worse and that you’re a part of it. It is scary to look inside yourself and find that maybe you agree. Reading essays that tell me to get off social media is a way to confront my own insecurities, to question my own motivations for staying.
The same goes for case studies of people — people like Alex Parks — who’ve actually done it.
It was easier for Parks to vanish in 2006 than it would be today. The internet was less of a requisite beast, and her digital following was directly in contact with her music, never her. Parks, whose success largely predated the concept of Vining, Tindering, or posting one’s dinner to Facebook, escaped without a single ghost — which is more than many can say, even the dead (see: queer ex-Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson‘s final social media footprints). To “pull an Alex Parks” in 2014, one would have to somehow reach Bieber levels of success without leaving so much as a blog post behind.
Across the pond in the United States in 2005, another queer girl with pre-Shane McCutcheon sensibilities was also riding the reality television fame wave. 21 year-old Kim Stolz landed a spot in the top four during the fifth season of America’s Next Top Model.
But despite being another token gay girl in a sea of limelight ambition in the mid-aughts, Stolz didn’t vanish. Instead, she reincarnated herself again and again, all while maintaining a Twitter following of 12,500. Earlier this year, the model-turned-veejay-turned reputable lesbian bar owner-turned banker eventually turned author and published Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do, a collection of essays about her experiences at the apex of reality television glory and social media. “As for the MTV and Top Model fans who contact me through Facebook,” she writes in a tone that parallels the one Parks used when speaking about autograph requests, “I was constantly amazed by the illusion (or delusion) of connectedness that these (almost) strangers felt toward me. They believed that the mere acceptance of a friend request was the first step in our budding friendship — and I suppose that is exactly what I encouraged when I accepted them.”
Parks is now 30, yet the webmasters of her Facebook page and fansite cling to hope of a resurrection of messianic proportions. Just as much as the internet has lost track of Parks, it has retained her, perhaps in the most flattering light possible: her talent is all over, yet she is nowhere to be seen. Hopefully her current life mirrors this. Perhaps Parks finally made it to Amsterdam and is hiding in plain view, with a full face of mime makeup.
Finally someone mentions Alex Parks again!
I absolutely loved that girl and her voice! Well, and her looks too! :)
Still waiting for her to make a come-back one day…
In 2004 you couldn’t move in Glasgow for women who had met, kissed or played pool with Alex Parks. From then well into ’06 I was regularly told I looked like Alex Parks…I don’t, I had the hair though…hands up who didn’t. The last we heard she was moving to the US with her Glaswegian girlfriend and her girlfriend’s band…they had one hit UK single the name of which escapes me. Good on her for disappearing. Maybe I’ll bump into her at a mime convention one day. If I escape my life and go back to it that is.
The band’s name was Speedway and the vocalist was Jill Jackson. They were a lovely couple (and Speedway also a great band) but their relationship did not last.
Jill is now married to another woman and still releasing great music.
Wish I could say the same about Alex Parks… i really miss her voice. Both her albums, especially her underrated sophomore album, were great
Serial Season 2: Finding Alex Parks
I clicked on the videos of her performances not expecting her to be as good as she is! What an amazing voice!! Loved the yellow cover.
This article: http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/tv/s106/fame-academy/feature/a581965/fame-academy-david-sneddon-alistair-griffin-where-are-they-now.html
links to a photo of her from earlier this year:
It’s all very baffling. God I loved Alex Parks though, I was patiently awaiting my first proper celebrity crush and it was her!
Thanks for this! I’m glad to see she seems well (and seems to have some new ink to boot). I found a candid of her from c. 2011 while writing and researching this piece, but it clearly wasn’t taken to be made public…
One of the clearest childhood memories I have is of my family watching this show together. My ten(ish) year old self absolutely idolised Alex. I don’t think it was a crush, I think I was just excited to finally see someone on TV who “didn’t look like other girls”. At that age I was already consciously feeling pressure to conform to ideas of femininity and gender roles, and had been given a firm impression that I could not be happy if I didn’t look or act or feel a particular way. Seeing Alex on TV, doing the same as the other contestants, being treated as an absolute equal, being voted for week after week by (in my mind) the WHOLE COUNTRY was one of the most affirming things I can remember ever experiencing.
I can totally see what she means about deluded strangers feeling connected, but as a deluded stranger I want to say thanks to Alex Parks for being the only reason ten year old me had any shred of self confidence.
Yes. I remember being really excited/relieved upon my discovery of her, as well.
She moved to Australia. I’m not sure if she returned.
I remember seeing Alex Parks on the telly and being happy about it for reasons I couldn’t quite identify at the time but which are obvious in retrospect. When I watched Nina’s Heavenly Delights a couple of years ago I recognised her song and wondered what had happened to her…
hehe so adorable that you said telly
Ohh i remember listening to her when i was in middle school. Gives me a reason to look back into her music
I’m glad I’m not the only one who googles “alex parks” a few times a year.
Oh man, I’m glad to hear my multiple attempts at digging up information on Alex weren’t just evidence of my terrible googling skills. I discovered her via last.fm a whole six years ago. Two of my friends had a substantial number of plays from both her albums, and she kept popping up in my “recommended artists”. I still listen to her albums today. So do a few others by the looks of her charts: http://www.last.fm/music/Alex+Parks?ac=alex%20parks
yeah alex parks seems cool and all but I’m much more excited about the fact that fonseca is back! looking forward to seeing more of your writing
Awh, ya’ll are sweet.
This is fascinating…
I cried watching the “Yellow” performance.
Man, her cover of Yellow was just beautiful.
Ohh i remember listening to her when i was in middle school. Gives me a reason to look back into her music
Well I wasn’t sure who Alex Parks was until now. But this was a great piece. Made me reassess my own social media presence.
I just discovered Alex Parks in Spotify and I googled her to find out if she was gay… and of course the second link was an Autostraddle post ;) dat SEO
Alex now works as a van driver for Euro Car Parts in Truro , Cornwall
Je suis un de plus à regretter l’absence de Alex Parks. I watch the Fame Academy from the south of France (imagine) I bought the CD and now I am waiting. I hope she is happy somewhere. I am just sorry (for myself). Alain Lorreyte, now 71 years of age. Waiting for a comeback before I die…!
I think it’s safe for Alex to come back into the limelight now. The pressures she had back then will have disappeared. Her fans have grown up and the ones who have stayed true to her miss her and want to see and hear her sing again! Hope you’re happy in what ever you up to in 2015 ?
Holy yes! Still love listening to Alex Parks, shame she just disappeared off the face of the planet. She was definitely the gay awakening for me and a few people I know. In fact, my girlfriend bought her album last month after we stumbled upon it at a Poundland… Still in our little gay hearts is our Alex!
This article interested me so I tried to find her to see if I could! Creepy I know. Her personal Facebook doesn’t say much
I was a big Alex fan, I shed a happy tear when she won Fame Academy and was reunited with her home girlfriend. She seemed to have a massive crush on Caroline Goode (remember her? She turned up on X Factor as a country singer then got booted off first week of live shows). I mourne the days of early noughties when things seemed fresh and new and social networking was full of hope for social reform, rather than now with the Internet as a marketing tool to sell yourself. How many bloggers, vloggers or info sharers do it for free now?
Like Alex Parks that post rave loved up World of selflessness and sharing for the common good has disappeared. I used to be a knitwear designer, am totally disillusioned with social network. As a stuck at home, disabled and sick bisexual, I had about 500 friends on social media but apart from the partner I live with was getting to see just one friend every 2 yrs. So I made a decision to only connect on social media with ‘real world’s friends, and family (although no parents, one brother on other side of the World). Thus I have 11 Facebook friends;
5 blood relatives I haven’t met
1 friend from school I’ve not seen for 30 yrs
1 friend I worked with in 1980s I see once every 2yrs
2 artist friends of my partner
1 friend of my partner we see rarely
I now sell all my designs and give the lot to dog rescue charities.
Yes, it’s a relief to disappear but scary that the World doesn’t feel as modern as it did 13 yrs ago when Alex was just a kid, I was a young woman and it felt like women could do anything or be anyone even if they didn’t have long straightened or big rollered hair, fake tans and reality shows where they get their kit off and sling the ‘c’ word at each other.
Alex, where are you? Come back, start a non digital revolution and perhaps the World might get back on track again. At least she hasn’t done a Sia and married a bloke and moved to Hollywood or Palm Springs.. I hope?
I went to school with her, I sat next to her in a few classes. She sang at the end of school party, she was very good, I knew she was going to win the fame academy when I saw her picture on CBBC, my one regret in life is not betting my student loan on Alex parks to win (as I had a strong feeling about this), 2500:1 odds before the participants were announced, I would be a millionaire now. Bugger.
I was curious about what happened to her as well, I looked her up on Facebook it took me less than five minutes. It’s Lexi lox something. Apparently she moved to Canada or something
I met Alex Parks when she was seven and I was a student at Falmouth Art School. Her father was a welfare officer and her mother student union secretary. I spent a lot of time at thier home and being a friend to Alex until she was about 13years old, many happy photos are in my albums of her dressed in toilet roll as she asked if I could be her “mummy” and I suggested making her into a “mummy” , wrapping her in toilet roll and arms out! Fond memories of a shy , yet confident child more used to adult company, I believe her father told me she was a lesbian when she would have been 14 years old and schooled at an all girls school. her father encouraged the musical side right from early on ,saxophone if I remember, next she was on fame academy, her voice was exquisitely enchanting but beneath the celeb persona I still saw that ‘troubled’ , ‘shy’ child I knew, I bought all three albums, look back at photos with fond memories and hope she is content and fulfilled but I doubt it very much. A very unique and special young lady that never courted fame.