Vivek Shraya Embraces the Failure of Her Pop Star Dream

"Even though my career hasn't panned out as enormously as I had hoped, I'm still here and I'm still making music"

Photo: Vanessa Heins

BY Marie SaadehPublished Oct 16, 2023

Objectively, Vivek Shraya's career is impressive by any measure: she has an extensive musical catalogue, numerous novels, children's books, visual art pieces and more. Despite this, she still feels the loss of failing at her biggest dream: to become a pop star.

But instead of burying this disappointment, Shraya chooses to fully embrace it in her new CBC Gem series, How to Fail as a Popstar, premiering October 13. A light-hearted comedy about a queer brown teenager from Edmonton pursuing dreams of making it big as a musician, the series draws from Shraya's personal journey to where we find her now. From singing in malls to living with a capricious manager in her basement apartment, the show illustrates the outrageous scenarios that one might encounter in the pursuit of fame.

It's a unique angle to take for such a personal series, but Shraya sees the value in celebrating failure as a necessary reality of being an artist.

"I think we need to be doing a better job culturally of creating a more fulsome picture of what it means to be artists — which is 97 percent rejection and disappointment, [and that's] not what social media is for," Shraya tells Exclaim!. "I think social media is very much the opposite. It's like, talk about the things we're doing and how amazing your life is at all times."

Even with this refreshing attitude about disappointment, writing a story about her biggest failure was, understandably, not always a breeze.

"To tell the story, I'm fully invested in who I was," Shraya says. "Wanting to be a pop star was my biggest dream, and not succeeding was my biggest heartache. Despite the fact that the show is funny, it did bring up a lot of heartache and sadness."

The series was born out of a one-woman stage production by the same name, written by Shraya and directed by Brendan Healy, which was later adapted into a book called The Subtweet. For Shraya, transforming this into a TV series unlocked potential in the story, particularly in the relationships we see on screen that make the show so special.

"The series was really exciting in that, suddenly, there was a cast of characters that weren't just played by me," Shraya recalls. "I have a TV mom and a TV ex-girlfriend, and there are two other actors playing [me at] different times in my life. So that was really, really exciting."

In the series, Vivek's mother Chandrika (played by Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves) supports Vivek's dreams completely. Vivek's childhood bestie turned ex-girlfriend, Sabrina, is played by Aayushma Sapkota and Nadine Bhabha. Just as we witness Vivek grow, we get to see Vivek and Sabrina's relationship evolve alongside him. (Shraya uses she/her pronouns when talking about herself in the present and he/him when talking about her as a teenager.)

Despite the show centring on failure, the love we witness around Vivek, throughout the ups and downs, reveal the series to be more of a success story than the title would suggest: "It became clear to me that this iteration [of How to Fail as a Popstar] is actually two love stories: a love story between Vivek and music, and also a love story between Vivek and Sabrina," says Shraya.

What would teenage Shraya think of this show if he could see it now? Today, it's more than just seeing her personal story or music come to life on screen. "We don't have enough bisexual representation, let alone brown bisexual representation," she asserts. The show, though, offers an opportunity to see overlapping identities in a way teenage Shraya could never have imagined, something she feels "very, very proud of."

She adds, "Every industry tends to centre [around] Toronto or Ontario artists, and to see a show that centres a story in Edmonton would blow my mind. [Also] the fact that the show is so brown, [with a] brown protagonist, brown mom, brown girlfriend, everyone being brown on the show. Especially thinking about queer role models in the '80s and '90s, for me, the only gay person I really knew in the media was Ellen [DeGeneres] — and I mean sitcom Ellen, not even talk show Ellen. It would [have been] amazing to have a young, queer brown person on my TV screen."

Despite never quite reaching pop stardom, Shraya remains devoted to music, which she considers the "love of her life." She is releasing a soundtrack to accompany the series, which contains songs from both the series and stage production, including a collaboration with Jully Black.

"I really feel like that's been my journey with music. Had I given up making music, I wouldn't be making a TV show, so I'm glad that I actually kept finding ways to show up with music in different forms," Shraya reflects. "Even though my career hasn't panned out as enormously as I had hoped, I'm still here and I'm still making music."

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