Andrea Begley, the partially-sighted winner of The Voice talent search, has called for better treatment of disabled fans at gigs and insisted that she will use her victory to launch a successful music career.
The Northern Irish singer, who lost 90 per cent of her vision after developing a degenerative disease in her childhood, was the surprise winner of the BBC series on Saturday night.
Voice coach Will.i.am expressed his disappointment that Begley, 27, had beaten the favourite, Leah McFall. Last year’s Voice winner Leanne Mitchell flopped and there have been reports that Universal Music, with whom Begley has signed a £100,000 record deal, is sceptical about her prospects.
However Begley, from Co. Tyrone, said she fully intended to grasp the opportunity given to her and hopes to act as an inspiration to any young disabled people who are told they cannot achieve their potential.
“We’ve come a long way but it’s still very much the case that the world is built for sighted people,” said the singer, who has been studying for a postgraduate Law degree while working as a civil servant in Belfast.
Disabled people said that going to gigs can be a “frustrating, isolating and humiliating” experience, a report in The Independent this week found.
“I have had some frustrating experiences at gigs and festivals,” said Begley, who celebrated her win by going to a Laura Marling concert.
“Sometimes access can be poor because of lots of steps and poor lighting. But often the problem can lie with a lack of knowledge on the part of staff. I think it is essential for venues to train all their staff in disability awareness so as they are able to deal sensitively with disabled customers.”
Begley has been seen by specialists at the Moorfields Eye Hospital but was been told that, despite technological advances, there is little prospect of her sight being restored.
“Down the years I’ve had to adapt to the fact that my vision has got worse and worse as I’ve got older,” she said. “My optic nerve is damaged and the nerve can’t be transplanted.”
Ironically, The Voice’s rotating chair “blind auditions” gave Andrea a chance to display her musical talent on the national stage. “I’ve gone for competitions where I’ve been judged on stage presence and performance elements. But for once I couldn’t see them and the coaches couldn’t see me. It put me on a level playing field.”
Begley is on course for her first hit this weekend after her cover of Evanescence’s "My Immortal" entered the midweek Top 20 on iTunes download sales.
A singer/songwriter who plays guitar and piano, she has a clear notion of how to capitalise on her victory, which was watched by 9 million viewers. “It seems absolutely crazy to have an album, a record label and a manager now,” she said. “The key thing is to get something out soon. Last year the big mistake was they waited too long.”
Begley’s wish-list of collaborators for her album includes Adele, Ed Sheeran, Newton Faulkner and KT Tunstall. Her lilting vocal style reflects a love of folk, country and Irish/Celtic music. A duet with her aunt, country star Philomena Begley, is on the cards. “It would be a great privilege to work in Nashville in any capacity,” adds Andrea.
Her blindness means she will never ape the flesh-baring, highly-sexualised stage performances of a Rihanna or Beyonce. “I know that is very entertaining for some but for me, the main focus is just the singing. There won’t be a lot of bells and whistles and dancers and fireworks.”
Growing up in Dungannon, one corner of the infamous Murder Mile during the Troubles, has given Begley, who studied politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, a perspective many talent show winners lack. “I love politics,” she said. “It’s always been a big feature of life in Northern Ireland. I’m very lucky that I’ve spent most of my life in a very peaceful Northern Ireland and you can feel that Belfast is rejuvenating.”
Intriguingly she adds: “Also I have experienced working inside government as well. Obviously I can’t talk about that because of the Official Secrets Act.”
She will quit the Civil Service to pursue her musical dream. But she defends her colleagues. “Sometimes civil servants can get a bit of bad press. You want to put as much effort into it as you can and you’re there to serve the public at the end of the day. Unfortunately in the environment we are in at the moment everything is potentially up for cuts.”
Begley has even won round Will.i.am. “I spoke to him at the after-party. He said ‘Look, if you were on my team I would have supported you just as much as I supported Leah. I wish you all the best and so does Leah’. I appreciate he was disappointed, he wanted his act to win.”
After battling adversity throughout her life, the singer is determined to make her mark. “I’ve been given this opportunity by the public and I’m going to put all my effort into it and with hard work, hopefully I can succeed.”
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