Vivek Shraya wanted to be a pop star when she was younger. That dream never came true, but the Edmonton-born artist, singer and writer got far enough — so she made a TV show about the experience.
How To Fail As A Popstar follows the journey of Vivek: a young, queer boy who aspires and fails to become a “brown Madonna” — the height of ’90s musical stardom. The coming-of-age story is told from the perspective of present-day Vivek, who is a trans femme author and creative writing professor.
Working with unhinged producers and abusive managers along the way, Vivek follows his dream from his local Sai Centre to Edmonton shopping mall competitions to Toronto’s indie club scene to glossy music studios in Paris, and then back to Edmonton where his story began.
“I think [for] most of us, the idea of our lives that we have when we’re a teenager, I feel like 90 per cent of us don’t actually get to live that life,” Shraya said in an interview with CBC News.
The challenge was to tell a story about failure during a time when success seems more accessible than ever. As Shraya jokes, younger fans have told her she should just try going viral on TikTok.
That’s the crux of what she explores in the CBC Gem musical dramedy, she adds: “What does it mean to grow up and realize you’re not going to get to have your teenage dream, and still live your life and enjoy it?”
LISTEN | Vivek Shraya adapts her coming-of-age play and book into a TV series:
The timeline of How To Fail As A Popstar bounces between several different periods of Vivek’s life. There are four different versions of Vivek in the show, with Shraya playing the present-day and pop-star dream versions of her character, and two young actors playing the child and teenage versions.
Shraya, who is now based in Calgary, acknowledges the irony of successfully making a TV show about her failed dream. But her achievements as an artist, singer, writer and associate professor still don’t quite compare to her childhood ambition, she says.
‘I felt like I could root for myself’
She began writing the story a few years ago, and as she reflected on where she wanted her career to go next, “I still kept coming back to music, even though I knew that it wasn’t going to happen.”
But a young Vivek still gave music a shot. While filming scenes in which Vivek works with antagonistic music industry figures who, at times, bully him into their own vision of what kind of musician he should be, Shraya says she got emotional.
“I felt like I could root for myself — my past self — in a way that I couldn’t in the moment,” Shraya said.
WATCH | The trailer for How To Fail As A Popstar:
Shraya said she had believers in her parents (her mom is portrayed in the series), even if they didn’t quite understand what a young Vivek was going through during the real-life experiences that How To Fail As A Popstar depicts.
“I don’t think they get what I do,” she said. “But to actually have them go, be able to turn on their television and watch a show, I think it’s one of the few times in my 20-something-year career where they’ve been able to [actually] see a glimpse of what it is I do in the world.”
How To Fail As A Popstar was a one-person play before Shraya adapted it into a book, and then an eight-episode TV series. She’s finally ready to leave the story behind — unless it’s made into a Broadway musical.