Royston Noell: 'It's So Powerful To See Someone That Looks Like You On TV'

16 May 2023 | 11:52 am | David James Young

“I feel like my younger self would be in complete shock.”

Photo of Royston Noell

Photo of Royston Noell (Channel 7/Supplied)

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The spotlight has gone out. The confetti has been swept away by the stagehands. The set has been deconstructed. Australian Idol has finished its first season in 14 years, and with it, its conclusion came the announcement from former contestant turned host, Ricki-Lee Coulter: “The winner of Australian Idol 2023 is... Royston.”

In the weeks following this moment, Royston Sagigi-Bara – now known professionally as Royston Noell – has relived the moment of finding out he had been voted the winner of the competition over and over and over again.

What, then, of the days following the announcement – when reality finally sank in after what seemed like a fantasy sequence? “When everything settled, what was going through my mind was how to keep that momentum going,” says Noell, speaking to The Music from the Sony Music offices in Sydney, where he has recently relocated.

“You can only ride the Idol wave for so long – soon enough, there's a new show out, and there's a new winner of that show to go with it. People can forget you very easily. They lose that same connection that they had with you, watching you on TV every week. That's coming from somebody who watched these shows growing up, as well – I've seen how this plays out. What I've been trying to do is maintain the connection with people that have been following my journey – I'm sharing daily vlogs, I'm going live on Facebook and I'm trying to stay as interactive as I possibly can. When you're on a high, you have to be strategic about how you keep it going."

Noell first began pursuing a career as a singer at the age of 18, relocating from Cape York at the tip of Far North Queensland down to the big smoke of Brisbane in the southeast. The move came with simultaneous excitement and reluctance – as much as Noell wanted to launch his career and pursue his dreams, he felt conflicted about leaving his mother behind. At the time, she had been diagnosed with cancer and was about to undertake rounds of chemotherapy. “After I graduated high school, I asked her if she wanted me to stay behind for a year and help her,” Noell recalls.

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“She was starting to get really sick, but she insisted I go. 'I want you to follow your dreams,' she said. 'I'll be here when you come back'. I went, but it was really tough. I missed so much back home – all my best friends turned 18, and I missed their birthdays and the parties. There were a lot of sacrifices I had to make in order to do what my mum wanted. It obviously paid off, I guess, but it was a lot to process for such a new adult.”

It's often said that you can take the person out of the town, but you can't take the town out of the person. Royston Noell has been taken out of Cape York, but he has taken its unwavering sense of community with him wherever he's gone since. “When we were growing up, if mum needed a potato when she was cooking and she didn't have one, she'd ask us to go knock on our neighbours' doors,” Noell says. “She knew someone in the neighbourhood would have one, and she knew they'd help her.” 

“That might be a bizarre thing for city people to think about, but that's just the way it is in the community. Cultural sensitivity is very important, too – when there's a death in the community, no loud music can be played. They call it 'sorry business'. When mum was sick, the community cared for her – she had fresh fish and crabs caught for her every week. Growing up, I thought this was all normal, but now I see just how different it is. I take a lot of that with me. I miss it every day.”

Needless to say, Noell's background and identity are rarely shown on programs like Australian Idol – and it's even rarer for someone like Noell to properly thrive within such a setting. He knew the odds were against him when he showed up at the auditions, but even taking up space there in the first place was his attempt at giving back to the community that had supported him and his family. “My main objective was to show representation for remote Indigenous communities,” he says.

“It's so powerful to see someone that looks like you on TV, and knowing you're not alone. I wanted to go on the show for the kids back home. We don't have opportunities like this, and it can all seem so foreign. I wanted to bridge that gap and let them know it can be done. No matter where they've come from, or what they've been through, they deserve to be here just as much as me. I want them to feel the same way I did watching Jessica Mauboy as a kid. If we can do it, why can't they?”

With his new single Invincible (written by Tones & I) out in the world, and more music to come, Noell is asked to contrast where he is with where he's come from one last time. What would Royston Sagigi-Bara, the Thanakwith and Wagadagam boy, make of Royston Noell, the Thanakwith and Wagadagam pop star in the making? “I feel like my younger self would be in complete shock,” he responds.

"When I was little, nobody sang in my family. Nobody at my school sang, either - there were about 60 kids, and I was the only one. I used to get bullied for it. I never liked singing in front of people because of that - it made me shy, and it made me timid. My younger self would be so proud of me - not just of where I am in life, but how far I've taken things. He wouldn't believe I was able to do all of this."