The Internet’s newest buzzy phenom is Suor (Sister) Cristina, a 25-year-old Italian woman known as the Singing Nun. She won the Italian version of “The Voice” by a landslide, capturing 62 percent of the votes, which TheGuardianpointed out is better than Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi did when elected. But more than that, she captured our imagination around the world—her first performance on the show quickly went viral on YouTube, racking up some 53.4 million views so far and counting.
Her appeal isn’t just her tremendous pipes but also her humble demeanor. We’ve collectively fallen for her because of the very improbability of such a thing: A devout young servant of God rocking out to Alicia Keys’ song “No One” in her sensible lace-up shoes, spectacles, black habit and serious-looking cross? And one who wins a high-profile national contest and celebrates by reciting the Lord’s Prayer and giving her “last word of thanks” to “him in heaven”?
The trouble is, we can’t. It would give a whole new meaning to “brand halo,” but it could go over like a lead balloon. We’d offend core constituencies.
And it’s not like she’d consider recording a commercial or appearing at an event. It’s not clear if she’ll even accept her prize as the winner of the contest, a contract with Universal. TheGuardian reported that her coach on the show, a rapper with tattoos called J-Ax, suggested she record an album or a song and give the proceeds to charity. For her part, the paper said she has been “quoted as saying earlier this week that she would leave it up to her superiors to decide whether a career in [show business] was an appropriate activity for a nun. ‘I would also be very happy to go back to singing with the children in parish churches,’ she reportedly said.”
So it’s pretty clear a corporate sponsorship deal is out of the question. That leaves us as marketers unable to figure out how to hijack her appeal and success because of religion. She’s apparently already come under criticism for simply appearing on the show. After her final performance, she thanked those who had supported her during “a period that has certainly been difficult,” The Guardian related.
Then again, the paper saw her appearance here, and her breakout success, as “fitting for the era” of the populist Pope Francis, who has been shaking up Catholicism ever since he became pope. And a religious figure entering pop culture isn’t completely unheard of. There was Michael Jackson’s friend and spiritual adviser Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who parlayed that relationship into his own personal brand as America’s Rabbi. He courted controversy back in the Jackson years and does now, too, as a columnist for the New York Observerand the Huffington Post. Plus, the Dalai Lama is arguably as much a pop culture figure as a spiritual leader for the truly religious, as seen by the 9.4 million people who like him on Facebook and share his posts there.
Still, as a singing phenomenon whose notoriety has little to do with words of wisdom or other words she might have imparted, Sister Cristina is something new. Perhaps she’s just the start of a wave of religious people we’ll see showing off their secular talents. Maybe the next singing servant of god will come from another religion—a crowd-pleasing cantor or rock-star Buddhist.
But for now, Sister Cristina still has an exotic allure and marketers are still trying to make sense of it. The branding question for now is: How can we solve a problem like Cristina?