Korean-born chef James Lee admits he’s an unlikely rock star. The 32-year-old doesn’t have the long hair or wear the leather pants of singing heroes Steven Tyler and Jon Bon Jovi, while New Zealand’s Got Talent judge Rachel Hunter towers over him.
But James still had the panel and the audience in raptures. From headbanging to feet stomping, the atmosphere went up a notch as he bravely auditioned, performing 1980s anthem Run to the Hills in the show’s first episode. And while he mastered the Iron Maiden classic, unfortunately James doesn’t yet have a maiden of his own, and is on the lookout for love.
“I think people find me very surprising because I don’t look like a rocker, but I change when I’m on stage,” says James, who lives in Auckland with his mum, Sunny Jung.
“But I’m a very shy person, so I find meeting girls difficult.”
“Rock stars always have [lots of women]. If I met a girl on the show, that would be good – but they would have to be my friend first,” he says.
Known to his pals as “Heavy Metal James”, the singer has a heart of gold. Normally very quiet around friends and family, James says he is a “stage man” – and comes alive when performing.
“As I stood in front of the judges, my leg was shaking. But I forgot my nerves when I began singing. It was very exciting.”
When James first arrived in New Zealand from South Korea in 2001, he formed a rock band called Full Spectrum in Christchurch. But he gave up singing in 2008, when he moved to Auckland to follow his other passion, cooking, and studied at AUT to become a chef.
But watching New Zealand’s Got Talent last year reawakened James’ musical appetite, and he quit his job at a Japanese restaurant in order to compete in 2013.
“I don’t believe I’m a risk taker, but I thought, ‘This show is my chance to find my dream,’” says James, whose favourite band is glam-rock outfit Stryper.
“My mother has been very supportive, even though she doesn’t like this type of music,” he adds.
James’ biggest challenge has been singing in English, which he is still learning, and he struggles with pronunciation and diction. A close friend helped him with the words to Run to the Hills, and if James makes the semifinals, he’ll have to work even harder.
“When I’m nervous, I mix up my English words,” he says.
“If I get through to the semifinal, I will have to practise more, because I will be even more nervous.”
“But singing is like an English lesson for me, so it’s good anyway.”