Emil Barcenilla is a salon owner by day but when night falls he has of late been turning into the Filipino equivalent of Simon Cowell.
He heads up a three-member judging panel that has winnowed down a list of hopefuls from 100 to 12 over the past month as part of the UAE's Singing Sensation contest. Tomorrow night they will gather for the event's grand finale at the popular Filipino haunt Kitakits, a restaurant in Dubai's Marco Polo Hotel in Deira. Up for grabs are a top prize of Dh25,000 and several flat-screen televisions.
Barcenilla, 42, has won local and regional singing competitions, also works as a dance instructor and is something of a celebrity in UAE Filipino circles. So he knows exactly what he's looking for.
"The winner needs to be a great singer, of course, but also have star quality and be a role model," he says. "They should be able to dance and sing as well."
It is the first year for the competition, which is sponsored by the hotel and saw amateur singers perform with the help of a backing track over eight nights. Although it was open to all nationalities, and people from Korea, Japan and India auditioned, all the finalists are from the Philippines. That comes as no surprise to Epifanio Parades, a 32-year-old receptionist at Burj Khalifa and one of the last 12.
"Filipinos really have a passion for singing and are musically inclined," he says. "Filipinos also sing a lot of karaoke and there's always music in every house."
One contestant who didn't make it to the finals was Catherine Acebuque, who works at Dubai's Millennium Airport Hotel.
"I practised singing in my accommodation and people would tell me that my voice is classical, like Lea Salonga's, the actress from the musical Miss Saigon," said the 26-year-old, who is from Cebu, near Manila.
While Acebuque was hoping to be talent-spotted by an agent and to pursue a musical career, she also had a practical reason for taking part: "If I had won, of course I would have helped my mother, that's the most important thing because she's sick and diabetic. My father left us last year and I'm the youngest child, so I send all my salary home and I'm the one who is like the breadwinner now."
The Marco Polo Hotel in Deira, which donated the prize money for the contest, is already planning more such events to showcase local talent, says Renhil Krishnan, the food and beverage director.
"The most important thing for us is to give back something to the community who have really supported us," he says "This restaurant does incredible numbers, of up to 800 people at the weekends. Plus, when it comes to getting people involved in these events, the Filipino community is very easy to reach as they network at all levels - Facebook, Twitter and, of course, word of mouth."
The final of Singing Sensations begins at 7.30pm tomorrow at Kitakits restaurant, Marco Polo Hotel, Dubai. Admission is Dh20. To reserve a table or for more information go to www.kitakitsdubai.com.