Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds Reveal the Behind-the-Scenes "Shit-Show" at 'The Sing-Off'

While discussing Bareilles' new book, the two songwriters and former judges of NBC's a cappella competition lamented the pressures that led the singer to leave the series and return to therapy.
Julieta Cervantes
Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds

After Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds semi-moonwalked onstage at New York City’s BAM Opera House and took their seats amongst multicolored megaphones, the two songwriters and longtime friends discussed their creative processes, the pressure to churn out a radio-friendly hit, and her experience penning Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song.

"I did try to steer away from anything that would be super controversial because I think that would hijack the point of the book," she told Folds on the Tuesday, the night of the title’s release.

However, Folds cautiously asked to discuss what he called "the shit-show at The Sing-Off," as a few pages of her memoir reflect on the 2011 season of the NBC a cappella competition series. In the chapter entitled "Beautiful Girl," Bareilles writes a letter to her then-self, warning that her role as judge on the show "will be the reason you decide to find a therapist again," as "you will be slapped with your own self-image issues again." In addition to keeping up with an exhausting shoot schedule while touring, she participated in "humiliating and degrading" weekly wardrobe process, which required her send photos of herself in dresses to producers for approval, only to wear "sparkly dresses that you hate and you will feel like you don’t look like yourself."

"[Executives will] say you aren’t wearing enough flashy jewelry, and that you don’t have enough makeup on. You need more hair extensions, and your lipstick should be brighter. Your dresses aren’t glamourous enough and you need to be sexier," Bareilles writes. "It brings up a lot of the body issues that you have worked really hard to undo, and you feel manipulated and paralyzed at your own lack of control. You want to rage on behalf of girls everywhere and you don’t know how. … The insecurity this causes bleeds into how you carry yourself, and you will suppress your shame and embarrassment until the season is over. You smile to their faces, talk shit behind their backs, and in the end, lie to the press about why you left the show."

Folds, a fellow judge that season, first clarified, "I thought it was more like sort of a feminism moment for you. I actually didn’t understand; I was the totally obtuse male friend who went out to get a coffee and [thought], 'Oh, they’re trying to make me look like ‘80s Elton John, … that’s fine, it’ll be fun,’ but it was deeper than that. … I felt bad that I didn’t take it seriously enough."

"It was super traumatic for me because, growing up, I was incredibly insecure about what I looked like," explained Bareilles, who joined the show after Nicole Scherzinger’s departure and was later succeeded by Jewel. "I was hired on the show because I am a musician and I sang in an a cappella group, and it felt like it became more about filling this need to have some version of femininity represented – which is not to say that’s a bad version, it’s just not my version. I felt I was stripped of my ability to say no; I said no, and it was like, 'Mmhmm, that’s cute!' And then I didn’t know what to do with it, and I was a grown ass woman feeling like I was stomping my feet and I felt totally powerless, not only because of contractual obligations but also just big corporation people and they wear suits and I don’t know what words they’re saying, and I was like, 'I don’t belong here!'"

She added, "I would like to think that at this point, I feel secure enough in what I have to offer that this doesn’t feel right to me, so more power to you and find someone who this is gonna be right for, and be able to just be willing to put it on the line and walk away. I don’t know. Every situation is different, and you make the decisions as best you can while you’re inside the fire of it. … Another way I could’ve gone through the show is just being like, 'I’m wearing these ridiculous dresses, isn’t that hilarious?' I couldn’t get there."

"That’s not the way you felt about it, you stood up for yourself, and I’m actually in retrospect proud of you. I think you handled it perfectly," Folds reassured, also laughing that the commercial breaks during the following season’s premiere were sprinkled with her hit single "Brave." "You spoke your truth, you moved on and by the time the show came back around, you were bigger than the show."

Still, Bareilles praised the contestants and the series overall for spotlighting a cappella, and Folds agreed: "I think the show’s an amazing force for good – 90 percent of the people that work in it are great, and then, sometimes there’s just some stuff that’s just kind of bullshit."

After the hour-long chat, Bareilles crossed the stage to the piano for her first live show in a while (thus, the whiskey, she confessed.) The songstress performed “Uncharted,” “Love Song,” “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” “Coming Round Soon,” “Brave,” “Beautiful Girl” with Folds on the piano, and “Once Upon Another Time” with Elizabeth Ziman and Emily King. And as an encore, she played “She Used to Be Mine,” her new single and a song off the Broadway musical Waitress.

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to NBC for further comment.