Cause trust me, that disheveled, sweaty, bleary-eyed mom in the black shirt and the pink button down–the one with piles of bags swallowing up her entire one square foot of allotted real estate at Orlando’s Amway Arena–will not be me. No matter what you think.
See, when I agreed to take my daughter to audition for American Idol, despite my initial misgivings about the ludicrousness of such a venture, I took comfort in knowing that I would be but an anonymous blip on the radar screen, someone never to be seen on television. I was yielding to the next generation, happy to be invisible (not at the very least because of the gush of sweat pouring profusely from my face and armpits, something I’d rather not showcase on national television), to encourage my daughter to shine. For me, it was all about being out of sight, out of mind.
But by the time I found out I might actually be seen—by people I know, no less–it was too late. My public humiliation was cinched, and I was forced to hurl myself onto the altar of self-sacrifice for my own child’s welfare. Martyr, thy name is mother.
My daughter and her friends played American Idol games when they were as young as eight. They’d set up a video camera and take turns singing with the karaoke microphones, and the handy thing about playing this game with just a few kids is that your odds of winning are increased dramatically. Invariably she’d win every now and again.
Compare that to the odds facing those singers brave enough—or nuts enough—to audition for American Idol for real. Auditions were held this year in seven cities. At our venue, Orlando, some 10,000 singers tried out, making the odds slightly more challenging than our little backyard Idol shows of yore.
But we knew that going into it, so our plan was just to experience it. Worst case scenario, it would be the mother of all cattle calls. And if nothing else, it would provide days of amusing people-watching.
Now might be a good time to mention that A) I hate crowds; B) I can’t abide heat; C) I actually moved away from a major metropolitan city because traffic, excessive amounts of people, parking hassles, and the like were beyond unpalatable to me; and D) did I say I don’t fare well with large crowds and claustrophobia sets in?
I think it’s fair to say that I had viewed this experience in the same vein that one might anticipate a colonoscopy: an inevitability one puts off as long as humanly possible.
At least with a colonoscopy you’re knocked out for the event.
We arrived in Orlando late Monday evening, still unsure of whether we planned to camp out overnight or take our chances to get in line pre-dawn. This line was simply to be able to get in the next line: if days one and two (registration days) were the fraternity pledging of American Idol, day three would be initiation week, with commensurate hazing to ensure that we really remember the experience in all its, er, glory.
Before settling in for the night as guests of a dear high school buddy of mine whose Orlando door is always open to friends, we decided to cruise by the Amway Arena to case the joint. The AI website warned participants that camping out overnight was not allowed. But as we drove slowly past the hulking arena, it was obvious that the rule only applied to on-site camping out, as by 10 p.m. lines were already forming directly across the street. Never mind that it was in a sketchy part of town; a chance at the brass ring clearly superseded concerns for safety.
We decided we didn’t want to be too overzealous about things, plus I needed my sleep. In reality I’d gotten a fabulous heads-up on what to expect from another high school friend whose daughter has tried out repeatedly for AI–he’d given me crucial tips on circumventing the crowds. I was fully prepared to take advantage of his sage advice; alas, my daughter feared this would somehow nix the opportunity and wasn’t willing to take her chances. So our compromise was waking early enough to be in line by 5 a.m.
Did I mention that this was going to be a relatively sleepless week?
I’ve come to the conclusion that about the only time one should aspire to be awake in Orlando and beyond the confines of air conditioning in July is during the hours before the sun is allowed to punish those in its presence with oppressive, strangulating heat. Thus I told myself we were actually fortunate to be up and out the door by 4:15. A.M. And I kept reminding myself of that for the several hours before the sun began to wreak havoc on us, as I longed to rest my head on a pillow and relish being swallowed up by the especially cozy feathered duvet on my friend’s guest bed. That duvet and I had barely made one another’s acquaintance before having to part company when my alarm erupted at 3:45.
Parking near the arena was surprisingly easy, in a garage just a few short minutes’ walk to the parking lot of the Amway. As we strolled to the venue, there was a sense of anticipation in the air, as if a large party—minus the liquor, but very possibly including the dancing girls—was about to unfold, and who knew what could happen. Arrivees were being directed into “chutes” in a very orderly fashion. These chutes were two roped-off rows of parking spaces segmented into parceled off sections of parking lot, extending from the main steps of the south entrance of the arena to the far end of the lot. Between each roped-off section were two open lanes of parking spaces, then two more pens, and so on. It was hard to estimate the number of people per chute but it likely approached 1,000. Moooooo. My friend called it an organized clusterfuck, which was a fair assessment. This system, thank God, did at least eliminate the mayhem that would have ensued had we all been left to our own defenses amidst a sea of asphalt. Mob mentality is rarely a good thing, and I’m sure the producers of American Idol were keen to prevent a repeat of the infamous Who concert trampling. I was grateful for that little nugget of litigation-averse kindness.
By the time we arrived, still well before dawn, three entire chutes were filled with wannabes. We herded our way toward the front of chute four; by the time all was said and done, six chutes were teeming with people hopeful that they would be the next American Idol. In the meantime, we were all to be victims of American Idol, in that we had to wait. And wait. And wait some more. Waiting interspersed with odd moments of that cattle mentality when a camera would happen by and previously sullen wannabees would spring to life feigning enthusiasm for the cause.
Volunteers (Fox Network interns, I gathered) in telltale maroon (dubbed crimson by them, but that adjective implied something a bit more regal than this occasion called for) shirts milled about throughout the waiting period, always causing people to be mindful that they were being watched. Though being watched reading books and doing crossword puzzles and twiddling one’s thumbs, all sans make-up and brisk showers and beneath the gentle glow of 10,000-watt portable halogen floodlights wasn’t particularly eventful. American Idol workers cruised by periodically on golf carts, reassuring us we would be hot, we would be there a long time, but we would all be in this together. There was something not terribly reassuring about that, just us and twenty thousand (in addition to the auditioners, there were another 10,000 companions along for the festivities) other good friends suffering through this little slice of hell.
And we did make friends. Or at least acquaintances. In a trench-warfare sort of way. Next to us, coincidentally, was a young man from Virginia. En masse like that, anyone who hails from within four hundred miles of your home is virtually a neighbor. He and his brother shared my snarky sense of humor that was perfect for the mood so we could keep a running commentary on the strange people who sauntered by.
Although there weren’t too many weirdos lined up that we could see. A few attention-hungry mongrels, rummaging through the Hey! Look at me! trashpile, rabid for a camera to focus on them. One such guy sported a mullet and a cowboy hat and plinked loudly on a guitar, all the while sounding like the mournful dying cat whose guts must have been used for those very guitar strings he was tormenting. I’m guessing he wasn’t meant to be the next American Idol. But he wouldn’t shut up, and coaxed the camera in his direction much like a prostitute enlisting a willing john. Talk about a perfect match: a soundbite-needy videographer and an attention-craving wannabe. Make that nevergonnabe. We saw a lot of that during our ’stay’: cameras actually creating a frenzy where one never existed. All we’d read about AI auditions was that: it’s not about the singing so much as it’s about a reality program being made. And it’s true. More on that later.
Really for the first couple of hours that morning all was fine and good. But like some reverse spell that releases vampires and ghouls after dark, it seemed that dawn ushered in the likes of the wailing cowboy with the achy breaky voice, and the man with the bongo drums whose hit of peyote clearly hadn’t yet worn off. But worse than them was the Botox Stage Mom. Because while the singing dude was merely a loud nuisance, and drummer boy a little too high to be really entertaining, BSM was downright obnoxious. When we all lined up like good little dogies in our pen, we were told by the various AI producer and interns milling about that we should give ourselves plenty of room, because it would get hot and crowded and we’d be there awhile so we might as well try to make it as tolerable as possible. And folks followed this advice. Everyone stayed within a respectable boundary with virtually no space-violating. Which was fine by me (see crowd aversion and tendency toward claustrophobia, above).
But once the cameras started meandering in full-force, we began to see who amongst us we wanted to slug. And first came Botox Stage Mom.
In the distance, like the rumblings of a volcano deep beneath the earth’s surface, we could hear crowd reaction happening. Somewhere, several cattle pens away from us, we knew a camera was fixating on crowd shots, eliciting reaction from otherwise subdued, sleepy people. As the cameras worked their way through the parking lot, the rumble became more pronounced, an aural wave of sorts, and it became apparent that once that camera was within spitting distance, it might well be every man for himself. All propriety would be out the window as people supplicated on the altar of desperation in the hopes it would set them apart from the rest of the riffraff and get a notice by a key producer.
Cue Botox Stage Mom. Chute Three, right across from us, was being encouraged to belt out repeated versions of “Welcome to O-Town!” (who knew Orlando was actually O-Town? Obviously not me.) My daughter and I were perfectly content to salvage our comfortable spot in the front middle of Chute Four and leaf through our stockpile of gossip rags, consumed as we were with the demise of John and Kate (is that guy in meltdown mode or what?). But as soon as the bright lights of the camera shone in our direction, we—and several other patient people in our midst—were barroomed out of the way by this diminutive faux blonde broad with sharp elbows and sharper still features.
Botox Stage Mom was your classic middle-aged woman desperately—and unsuccessfully–clinging to her youth via regrettable means. Means such as bad Botox, which left her face bloated and seeping. And failed plastic surgery, which rendered her visage in a state of perpetual surprise (!) and so taut that hovering gnats could use it as a trampoline. And collagen. Oh, the collagen! Her swollen lips were so puffy and paralyzed she couldn’t successfully clasp the straw from which she attempted to drink, and instead dribbled Pepsi down her chin. That Pepsi was no doubt the diet version, as her lollipop head betrayed that her desire to be thin was clearly desperate enough to starve herself down to a disproportionate size. Were she not so pathetic to observe, she would have been laughable. I do fall solidly into the can’t we all just grow old gracefully? camp, so when I see 50-year olds attempting to remain 20 it just doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies.
But BSM did not endear herself to us—nor those around us—when she forced her posse of five past our personal bubbles in order to launch herself in front of those American Idol cameras, prioritizing herself ahead of her own daughter, whom I presumed was the one planning to audition, given the age limitations. To further seal our venom toward her, she then proceeded to park her sorry ass in front of those of us who waited politely in line for lo those many hours, undeterred by our grumbling and the many stink-eyes being darted her way.
But we couldn’t waste good people-watching time focusing purely on her, despite her lengthy catalogue of shortcomings-worth-gawking-at. Instead there were fleshy tattoos to read, plenty of exposed cleavages at which to gape in amazement, and men with bulky gold chains, periwinkle blue patent leather sneakers and low-slung waistbands defying gravity about whom we could take bets on when the pants would finally drop to their knees.
Finally after nearing four hours of this fun and frivolity, a producer shouted out on a megaphone the instructions for Chute Four. We were warned that the camera was watching us, so we were to move forward in an orderly fashion toward the Arena, and once inside we’d be issued the ever-so-valuable wristbands that were like mattress tags: do not remove, punishable by death (in this case the death of the dream of singing fame).
Despite being warned to move slowly and respectfully, BSM and her pack of jackals naturally tugged and pushed and clawed their way ahead of the pack as if they were at a Vera Wang bridal gown fire sale. I will be pleased if I get to see a cutaway of their shameless behavior during the Orlando auditions shots when the show airs (but please, dear lord, be sure I’m not in the background; I’d be the woman with bad roots glaring daggers at them).
Once we worked our way to the registration desk, we found we didn’t even need the myriad of identifying information they said we’d need (passports, birth certificates and the like). Mere driver’s licenses were enough to merit matching wristbands for my daughter and me. These wristbands would be the bane of our existence though, because if the number printed on them became unreadable, all of our efforts would have been for naught.
Thus our plans of cooling our day away in a Disney water park during Day Two was off the list: we couldn’t risk wristband deterioration. Note to American Idol Organizers: Uh, WTF??? You are expecting AI wannabes to not bathe for two days because of some cheap-ass manner in which you dot-matrix print numbers onto a wristband? Surely there is a better way.
Our solution to this tricky dilemma was to stick scotch tape over the number. I’m fairly certain it would have lasted fine at a water park, but quite understandably all of those who risked it all, as it were, to get one of those coveted wrist bands didn’t want to chance blowing it at that point. I kid you not, there were people we met in line on Day Three who didn’t wash their arms for two days for fear of wristband demolition. Between the tape over the number and the Saran Wrap we secured as added precaution around my daughter’s bracelet, I figured we were good to go. But so much for being cool and comfortable floating on one of those water park lazy rivers I’d been dreaming of.
Lucky for us, my friend kindly wangled a couple of passes to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Which we did visit for a few hours. But the heat—the heat!—put a major damper on that. I know this sounds uncharitable, but honestly, the peak season for travel to Disney is July, and so I do think that anyone planning a vacation with children to the seemingly subterranean hell that is Florida mid-summer to schvitz your ass off for a week outdoors needs to truly have his or her head examined.
Repeat after me: Summer, Maine. Winter, Florida. Summer, Maine. Winter, Florida. There is a reason God created air conditioning, you know.
So yes, we schvitzed with the rest of the poor slobs vacationing in Orlando until we realized we might commit physical acts of violence if we did not soon cool off. Our first escape was to the Disney American Idol Experience at Hollywood Studios. Now, one could argue we had enough American Idol going on in our lives without having to bother with that too. But it was blessedly cool inside that studio and cool won the day. The AI Experience had an actual prize at stake—something we realized much later was a veritable ace-in-the hole. Three pre-selected contestants (we never did figure out how/when these folks got the nod) were competing to move on to the day’s end competition, the winner of which won a ticket to the front of the line for Thursday’s auditions. The Golden Ticket to end all Golden Tickets.
At the time we dismissed this as a minimal advantage. From what we’d read online, it didn’t seem that being first to audition mattered. That, we would learn, was not at all the case. So in the best of all possible worlds (well best of all possible worlds would’ve had this audition in, say, Nantucket, or maybe Paris, where we could at least do some serious tourism damage while waiting), next time (there’s not gonna be a next time, dammit!) we would definitely do what we could to be at the front of the line.
So after exiting the studio into the scorching noon-time sun, my daughter and I made an executive decision to spend the rest of the day in a movie theater, soaking in the frigid air. By the time we were done with movies, it was bedtime. Yeah, that would be at 7:30 p.m. I don’t think I’ve gone to bed that early since I was in first grade. Unfortunately the early bedtime mission failed and I never did fall asleep till about 1 a.m. Which meant the shrill alarm at 3 a.m. was that much shriller. This time we had to be up way early, showered, cleaned, packed, etc, because my daughter had to look good enough for an audition and because we were headed straight to the airport after the audition ended. It was shower in the middle of the night, or not at all.
When we’d arrived Monday night we’d put our faith in our trusty British-accented GPS lady, who failed us miserably, ordering that we take exit 82 B off of I-4, which, it turns out, didn’t exist (she was also incapable of saying the word “orange,” which is about as common a word as “street” when it comes to Central Florida signage, thus finding directions was indeed most tricky). Hence that first night we bypassed our exit and had to backtrack through the mean city streets to find the arena.
And while we may have cursed our little Brit that night, we learned early the morning of auditions that she’d done us a huge favor, when we discovered bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway and realized the fabulous traffic control of Tuesday morning was shot to hell. Asix-mile back-up was greeting us to get to the Arena via exit 82-A. But ah, we knew how to get lost and then found in the city. So we cruised on by the jammed three lanes of highway, took the next exit and finagled our way back through the city.
All fine and good, only to find out that Tuesday’s parking riches had become a dearth of parking options with 20,000 people vying for them all at the same time (all contestants were told to arrive at 5 a.m. This plan was perfect for the AI folks, who wanted crowd shots, but downright insane for those people who chose to avoid the earlier lines and register on Day Two, because they wouldn’t have a chance to audition till after dinnertime that night). Block after block of traffic directors-cum-ramp operators (just motioning cars forward with that two-handed runway directional signal). Only problem is after so many blocks of no available parking, the traffic folks just evaporated and we were left to fend for ourselves. I took a chance on a really dark street after asking a couple where they’d parked and they motioned to their lone car in front of some government building. The man assured me he was a local and parked there all the time. I hoped like hell parking enforcement wasn’t going to capitalize on us ignorant out-of-towners and tow the bejesus out of that end of Orlando. But our space two blocks away sure beat the garages a good mile away to which many latecomers were relegated.
I failed to mention that upon registration we were handed a sheet with all the information we could ever want to know about American Idol tryouts. Pretty much it was limited to what not to bring into the arena. A small sampling of what we were urged to leave at home: air mattresses, fireworks, hibachi grills, illegal drugs, weapons, including swords, forged or carved, from any of the middle ages. Which left me to wonder if someone once actually tried to bring in a medieval sword, and if so, why? I struggle to imagine lugging an air mattress into an arena. And generally speaking I’d say common sense dictates that one can’t grill over a hibachi in your average indoor sports venue. Are people really that stupid?
The directions were vague on chair-toting. It said no lawn chairs. It said no chairs that didn’t fold. Hence we extrapolated (wrongly) that those teeny little folding chairs that everyone lugs to soccer matches would be acceptable for waiting outside. We presumed wrong, so I had to ditch our borrowed chairs in the bushes while setting my daughter down for the long wait, only to have to lug those damned chairs back to the creepy dark barrio parking space all alone. Without my medieval sword to protect me. Damn.
That several block trek back again was all it took to trigger the sweatfest to begin. Would that I could literally sweat my ass off, because from that day alone I’d have been bulimic-thin by now. How can it be oppressively hot at five in the morning? Doesn’t everywhere get acceptably comfortable, temperature-wise, come nightfall? Yeah, I sweated. Wait–is that the past tense of sweat? Or would it be swat? No, but swat is something else you could do with an ass. You could also kick an ass, and round about that time I was thinking I should’ve been kicking my own for having gotten myself into that situation when I could have been happily asleep in air-conditioned comfort. The heat and humidity were not only causing an internal thermal meltdown but also rendering my hair into something akin to an Irish Setter’s limp and floppy coat. Why I even bothered to try to style it I’ll never know. Because with 90% humidity it instantly collapsed into a damp curtain around my eyes, obstructing my view on top of everything else gone awry.
I arrived back to find my daughter must have had an internal honing device for whack jobs, because sure enough the nearby idiot who’d been philosophizing about life and bonding and music and why can’t we be friends when we’d first arrived had taken an immediately liking to my girl. Lucky for me a nearby mom’s creeper alert had gone off, and she and her teen son had swooped in to save my daughter from weirdo-on-the-make. Luckily odd dude, who had some strange compulsion to lead people in song in those pre-dawn hours, had found other followers apparently more willing to guzzle his sort of Kool-Aid.
Our information sheet warned us that we all had to learn the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s (I like to call her Lady GagMe) Poker Face. One of my least-favorite songs and singers, I had no plans to learn that. And luckily my daughter hadn’t gotten around to bothering to try. Cause apparently half the auditioners were told the song was actually Pat Benetar’s Heartbreaker, a song I never, ever, ever, ever, ever want to hear again.
As dawn emerged, random people in various cattle car chutes (we were all the way in chute five this time) erupted into joyful song. There’s something inherently weird about people who sing at that hour. Perhaps partly because the sense I got with all of those who felt compelled to belt out a tune was because they were under the impression they were somehow more talented than everyone else.
Memo to all AI auditioners: just about every freaking person trying out is good. You know when you watch those edited down shows, and you think everyone sucks? And that a bunch of crackpots converge upon these audition sites like zombies in Night of the Living Dead? Not true. Sure, there was your average collection of young women dressed like hookers/cliché male sex fantasies, one even in her sequin boy-shorted bare-tummied high school baton-twirler costume (I wanted to ask her WTF but thought that’d be rude)–I think she got lost en route to the Dallas Cowboy cheerleader tryouts. And along the way a small handful of freaks doing their freak things. Or those with important messages they had to get out to the world: One fellow insisted on thrusting forth his sign for the cameras with the good news that There Are No Lines for Jesus. All fine and good but he wrote this on poster board in very faint, practically illegible pencil. One would assume enough fervor behind the message would have propelled the man right down to the office supply store to find a fat Sharpie pen so that everyone on national television could be in on his big secret.
Audition morning brought with it a dense aura of things-to-come. We knew not what, but it seemed as if something had to be in store for everyone so willing to put themselves through such inconvenience. But as the morning played out, about the biggest thrill occurred when a light rain began to descend—a cruel fate for the many women who’d gotten all dolled up for their audition. Luckily heavy rains remained at bay, so most everyone was spared an unwanted soaking. Time and again excitement was aroused with a camera drive-by—golf carts laden with videographers, zooming in to capture the essence of our suffering. It was all faux-fabricated for the television audience, cause trust me, the vast majority of us were busy conserving our energy, much like a lion sleeps out the heat of the day bracing for the upcoming night’s kill. Anyone you see on TV squealing and jumping up and down, giddy with glee? Mark my words, thirty seconds earlier they were blowing bubbles with chewing gum and painting their nails. Or catching some zzzz’s, on the comfortable pavement.
In the meantime we had little to do but sweat. And sweat and sweat and sweat. In hindsight it would have been smart to pack a box of maxi-pads to mop up the drench from my face. Cause the mini-packs of Kleenex stored in my purse just didn’t do it, and instead left tissue lint behind on my face—not exactly leaving me camera-ready. Much like having a piece of parsley on your teeth while smiling for a photograph. There was a desperate need for blotting out there, and I could’ve made good money offering up discounted clean, dry Kotex with which to soak up extra face moisture. Oh well, next time (d’oh! There won’t be a next time!).
***To be continued on separate entry, because WordPress doesn’t like entries with so many pictures or something and keeps deleting my entire entry.