Welcome back, Rock Star
"Are you kiddin' me?" says the burly man in disgust as he stands with his wife outside Warehouse Live on a drizzly Friday night. "Dilana? Sold out? I used to see that girl in..."
"I'm sorry sir," says the doorman. "But yeah, it's sold out. You could try a scalper."
"A scalper?" The man heads back to the parking lot muttering to his wife about how far he had to drive. "You hear that? A scalper for her!?"
Yeah, for her. Inside, Dilana Robichaux -- known to fans worldwide as simply Dilana -- is stomping on the Warehouse Live stage as if it's on fire. She's just burned through her most recent single, "Holiday," which will appear on the album she's releasing this summer. Next is a frenzied cover of Tracy Bonham's "Mother, Mother," a song that she nailed on Rock Star: Supernova, the CBS reality series that gave her an instant springboard to national and international attention. The piercings below her bottom lip look like they might pop out. Her hair is a fireball of purple, pink and red strands, and she shakes it like she's knocking dust off a broom. There's not a speaker that she won't pounce on like a cat on meth.
Dilana, 34, was the runner-up on Rock Star, coming this close to fronting Tommy Lee's band. And now the former Houstonian is home, playing to a packed crowd estimated to be 1,700 strong -- though the way they're screaming, it sounds more like 17,000. "I have been so damn nervous about this gig," she tells them breathlessly after a number. "I promise you, I'm gonna rock the S-H-I-T out of this show." She then proceeds to play new material and covers of Johnny Cash, The Police and even Britney. She grabs a scarf that a fan threw on stage. "Thanks, this is exactly what I needed," she says, then uses it to rub down her armpits.
The ballsy, brash singer has had to learn that success means sometimes having to piss some people off. She did it famously on Rock Star. A fan favorite from the first time she hit the stage, she wowed the boys' club that was Supernova (Lee, Gilbey Clarke and Jason Newsted) and host/executive producer Dave Navarro. She unleashed a fury of hair and her Michael Jordan-esque tongue on numbers like Nirvana's "Lithium." And she got the "aww" response with her acoustic version of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." Clarke said that after watching her, there was "no question a woman can front this band." She was an instant media darling, and the only real challenger to Canadian singer Lukas Rossi, a hipster who looks like an anime character come to life.
But then came some ill-timed, cleverly edited comments about fellow cast members, shown in mini-segments to live and TV audiences at each performance, and the subsequent fabricated reality drama. Suddenly Dilana was getting booed, getting dissed by Navarro and getting a little crazy at the house. She broke a glass when producers denied her a chance to call a friend. "As soon as I walked away, they called the cameras to follow me -- they were waiting for a meltdown," she says. And they got one. A piece of glass hit cast member Magni çsgeirsson in the head, causing him to bleed. It played out like an ER episode, and suddenly, Dilana was branded a wild woman.
She laughs about those drama days as she sits with some close friends before the Warehouse gig at the Prime Time Steakhouse off of 1960. The restaurant, where she performed every Tuesday for a year, has opened early for her entourage, which includes middle-aged couples, some teens, a youngish woman in a bandana named Tabitha and two guys in wheelchairs, Brandon and Ronnie. "This is my crew," she says, "and I needed to be with them."
Dilana has a lot of people to please. Last night here at Prime Time, she says, a fan from the old days asked her for a picture. "I told him I had to go to the loo, and I'd be right back. But when I came out, I totally forgot and started jamming with the band. Then I saw them and apologized. The guy handed me a card, and on the back it said, 'Thanks for the picture, super star.' I apologized, and he said, 'Well, you're a superstar now, aren't you? You forget about your friends.'"
Dickie Robichaux chuckles at the idea that Dilana forgets friends. "I don't think I know anyone who cares more about people than her," he says. "See her?" he says, pointing to Tabitha. "Dilana heard that she had cancer and invited her to join her tour. What's that tell you?"
Houstonians who claim Dilana as their own have Dickie, an executive for a "major oil company," to thank. In 1997, Dickie met Dilana, who was born in South Africa, while working in Holland. "I had no idea she was a performer, I just knew she had this incredible magnetism," he says. Dilana's wildly popular (in Holland) cover band got signed to a label, and soon, she exploded in Europe. "We couldn't take public transportation," Dickie recalls.
Later, they married and moved to Houston for Dickie's business. Dilana tried starting some bands, then humbled herself, going from thousands of dollars per night to a few hundred gigging around Houston. Clubs such as Chances weren't interested, though "they've e-mailed me three times since the show." In 2004, she was in a serious motorcycle accident that nearly killed her. Later, fully recovered, she auditioned for Channel 2's Gimme the Mike show, where "Sam Malone told me I had no future in the business," she says with a laugh.
Then came Rock Star. After spending three months locked up in an L.A. mansion with her cast mates and performing twice a week, Dilana lost to Rossi on the season finale. "After the show, there was a whole entourage of press. They wanted the raw emotion, and I think they were hoping to get me crying," she says. Instead, Dilana was buzzing. "The press was amazed at how happy I was -- I was ecstatic -- and kept asking if I was in shock."
Then it was the cold dose of reality of life after reality TV. Released from their mansion prison, Dilana says, "Toby [Rand, a fellow Rock Star contestant], Magni and I just stood there. We were so lost. I was like, what the hell do I do now?"
The following day was judgment day; should she stay in L.A. or should she go? "I had a return ticket but decided to stay and strike while the iron's hot." Turning down a deal from Sony, she signed with Jimmy Stewart, who also manages Supernova's Clarke, and he and Dilana threw together a backup band and created a record label and a publishing company. Dilana says her real goal in life is to raise money for a pediatric AIDS foundation she wants to start in Africa, "so I want to make all the money I can -- for that. I could give a shit about a fancy house or nice car."
It's nearly 2 a.m., and backstage at Warehouse, Dilana is hanging out with some holdovers from a private acoustic party after the main show. The acoustic gig almost didn't happen -- Dilana "totally forgot about it" -- and the band has had to improvise. (Drummer Jared made impressive use of keys and a woman's shoe as percussion.) Dilana burps, slaps a female friend's ass 30 times (it's her birthday) and toasts her two "exes in Texas," Dickie (whom she divorced last year) and ex-beau Steven. Later, as her tour manager comes in for the fourth time trying to get the crowd to leave, Dilana signs autographs and does Borat impersonations.
Nicole, 22, has followed Dilana from the start of Rock Star and has flown in from Rhode Island. "It's her energy and the way she gets the crowd going that I -- and I think everybody -- loves about her," she says. Another fan came all the way from New Zealand to see the show.
Tabitha gets choked up as she talks about her idol. "Dilana asked me to make a list of things I wanted to do before, you know, my time," she says. "Next thing I know, I'm selling merchandise at every stop. She even offered to sing at my funeral. If I have to go out, that's the best way to go."
Next, it's off to a swanky suite at the Four Seasons for a little after-party. The music's pumping on the speakers, and a giant bouquet of Corona on ice sits in the living room. There's a knock at the door. "You'll have to break up this party immediately," says a not-kiddin'-around manager, backed by three buff guards. "Now."
Dilana's entourage spills out into the hallway, giggling. As she whistles to her friends, an irate hotel guest opens the door and glares at us. "Uh-oh," says Dilana naughtily. "I think I'm screwed -- and I barely got to drink."
Her life reads almost like a Behind the Music script: Girl leaves poverty in South Africa, travels Europe, falls in love, struggles in the U.S., nearly dies in a Harley crash, and becomes a star. And now, in true rock star form, she's getting thrown out of a hotel suite. Yes, Dilana may have tapped into the newest form of marketing for musicians: losing on a reality TV show. "I hadn't thought of that," she says with a laugh. "But yeah, especially when you look at all these singing contests -- most of the runners-up become more famous than the winner. Look at Clay Aiken. Getting second place is the best thing that could've happened to me. I won, baby -- I totally won."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.