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Category: Simon Cowell

A Cynic's Eye View of American Idol Tryouts, Part One

*sorry I have no pictures to go along with the early part of this but stick with it and there are plenty further down. Also pardon the length of this post but everyone kept asking me for details, so details are what you get! If you enjoy reading this please forward the link onto others!)

So in January when you turn on your boob tube after the holidays are over and you’re looking to settle into your overstuffed recliner to kick back and watch the crazies auditioning for American Idol, whatever you do, don’t look for me.

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.

note bedhead in guy in front right. He's our Virginia buddy.

note bedhead on guy in front right. He’s our Virginia buddy

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.

Lots of American Idol Interns/staffers in "crimson"

Lots of American Idol Interns/staffers in “crimson” (this is a day 3 picture though)

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.

Polka dot head ranked amongst the attention-cravers (Day 3 pic)

Polka dot head ranked amongst the attention-cravers (Day 3 pic)

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.

waiting, and waiting, and waiting (note bubble blower)
waiting, and waiting, and waiting (note bubble blower)

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.

day breaks over the Amway Center

day breaks over the Amway Center

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.

Waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Note bubble-blower...

Waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Note bubble-blower…

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.

Our line buddies on Day 3

Our line buddies on Day 3

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.

Cynic's Eye-View of American Idol auditions, Part Two

Finally after about three hours of waiting, we were all corralled en masse to the front steps of the Amway Arena. This was a hurry-up-and-wait measure to shoot yet more cutaway shots, all of which add up to maybe ten seconds on-air headed into commercial breaks during the show. Over and over and over we were told to shout out various chipper phrases, all to capture the essence of the buzz of excitement that surely existed. Somewhere. Probably within the souls of those folks whose singing alerts kicked into overdrive. Yep, once we were jammed like fleeing refugees in front of the arena, the singing types ratcheted into full gear. Warbling the same songs over and over again. Belting them out, all with hopes that they’d somehow be noticed by someone important. It was the Lana Turner School of Fame and Fortune they desired. But shy of a fountain stool upon which to sit in waiting, they glommed to the barricaded line so that they would be front and center for those cameras, come hell or high water. I was tempted to shout out à la Randy Jackson, “Sorta pitchy, dawg.” Also in the front: signage galore, anything that boasted of one’s heartfelt love for all-things-Idol made it front and center. Messages on shirts, messages on umbrellas, messages on arms. You name it, someone had expressed that sentiment.

Finally, after four or so hours of outdoor waiting, we were finally allowed to work our way inside for indoor wait time. Fitting we were in Orlando, where Disney had already mastered the fine art of waiting in line, and even makes you think it’s fun to be stuck in queue for all eternity. No doubt we were hastened indoors thanks to roiling storm clouds looming, with host Ryan Seacrest apparently needing to shoot his stand-ups before the rains descended.

Since we were at the tail end of those that fit on the steps area (another two groups were left to languish in additional cow pens, alas, never to have their lovely primped and primed mugs grace those cutaway shots), we of course had to wait for the masses to stream inside. Which meant I easily noticed a man with star quality and a security detail surrounding him and camera booms and masts kicking into high gear. I’m fairly certain I heard a choir of angels launching into a rousing round of some pop tune, maybe Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, as well. For there, before my very eyes, was something just short of the Holy Grail: Ryan Seacrest, in the flesh.

HRH Ryan Seacrest, in the flesh
HRH Ryan Seacrest, in the flesh

Whenever we tell someone we were at American Idol tryouts, everyone immediately wants to know about Paula, Randy and Simon (I guess I should add in Kara). The dirty little secret is that those judges aren’t even there. But Ryan Seacrest does get to be at each venue to at least shoot stand-ups with crowd-shots and the arena as a backdrop to give you an establishing shot. So I suppose we were lucky that we saw him, because I don’t think many singers that day did.

So while the cattle were milling into the arena, and I had nowhere to go but wait, I slipped over to pop off a few shots of Ryan Seacrest—hoping the 6′ 5″ 300-lb. bodyguard didn’t notice me–just to prove I did indeed see the cute little guy. He is cute, by the way. Ryan, not the bodyguard.

note burly bodyguard in background; looks like he eats humans for snacks
note burly bodyguard in background; looks like he eats humans for snacks

As a former photographer who years ago gave up lugging camera equipment around in lieu of baby supplies when I became a mom, it often pains me to not have the appropriate equipment to capture a given moment. I once spent a week in Saint Lucia with a friend whose husband was obsessed with Led Zeppelin, and so when Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was discovered to be a guest, I was tasked with hiding behind palm trees to shoot surreptitious shots of Page in the background with my friend’s husband in the foreground. And I had the equipment to do so, so he ended up with great shots of his “personal” vacation with Jimmy Page. But my meager point-and-shoot failed me in my Ryan Seacrest spy mission, dammit.

Note menacing storm clouds on horizon
Note menacing storm clouds on horizon

I was surprised hordes of auditioners weren’t clamoring around the AI host, but evidently their desire to audition ASAP took precedence over their dreams of rubbing shoulders with the man. After I popped off a handful of shots I had to scurry back with my daughter and our makeshift friends to ensure we hurried into the arena. For the next several hours of waiting to begin.

lining up to line up, yet again
lining up to line up, yet again

Lines for the bathroom resembled the back-up on I-4, so we crossed our legs and went right to our assigned seats, passing by an Adam Lambert lookalike. Whatever. We were in section 111, which we would learn was smack in the middle of the audition order. Our newfound friends had bagged the pre-dawn lines to register late Tuesday evening; they were in section 101. Lord only knows how long it’d be to audition for those who waited till Wednesday (up in the nosebleed section) to register. The producers were going to start with section 117 and work backwards. We’d later learn the folks in 101 didn’t audition until near dinnertime—they waited 13+ hours that day (which made me slightly grateful we’d at least gotten up early Tuesday morning to garner a somewhat reasonable audition time).

Faux Adam was clear across the arena from us--he probably auditioned around midnight
Faux Adam was clear across the arena from us--he probably auditioned around midnight

Immediately a producer began to warm up the crowd. I sure didn’t need to be warmed up, as I’d been sweating my ass off (figuratively, lest we forget) for hours already. But I was most appreciative of the air conditioning—it was the highlight of my day. We were no sooner seated, I with my myriad collection of bags filled with things to do (none of which we’d used), than we were put to work.

This camera mast circled the arena oh, about two billion times I think
This camera mast circled the arena oh, about two billion times I think

At first, only the Beautiful Young People, those who were trying out, participated in this frivolity. Parents in the stands glanced at one another knowingly, wordlessly saying with a flick of the eyebrow, “No way in hell I’m gonna do that. You?”

So much for that vow of abstinence. Cause minutes later, warm-up buddy invoked the American Idol Threat: “Okay, parents. We’re filming important cutaway shots for the show. We need it to look as if the audience is excited and involved. That means everybody has to participate. Let me tell you this: you will jeopardize your child’s chances of moving on in the competition if you refuse to cooperate and join in the crowd reactions.”

Okay, then. So much for my grand plan to work on my laptop for the many hours of insufferable waiting that lay ahead.

And so much for salvaging my dignity, natch.

Doing The Wave, take 50
Doing The Wave at figurative gunpoint, take 50

Cause this meant that I had to participate in singing my second, third and fourth least favorite song: Heartbreaker. And Heartbreaker. AndHeartbreaker. Again. And again. And again. Until I would have gladly personally broken Pat Benetar’s heart, just to end our misery as the camera circled the arena over and over and over ad nauseum. When they announced the halfwitted cameraman forgot to turn the camera on…Don’t get me started. In this dog and pony show, I felt like the old gray nag. I took comfort in realizing that the only thing worse than the middle-aged moms joining in the rolicking fun was watching middle-aged men coerced into doing so. Talk about your rhythm-averse.

We also got to shout out “Simon! Don’t be a heartbreaker!” about 250 times. Need I say more?

Next came The Wave. I may have mentioned I came prepared for nuclear holocaust, and that included three bags with so much crap in them (none of which, sadly, was edible), that getting up and down with the rapidity with which that wacky Wave requires, was nigh impossible. I was more like that dribble of water that trickles into the tidepool after the wave has lost all of its energy. Otherwise each time I stood up my bags would cascade over the seat into the gal in front of me or onto the feet of the girl next to me. She was the one who couldn’t stop nervously jiggling her leg, that same jiggling that made me actually carsick after about three hours of repetitive motion.

After what seemed like the entire Afterlife’s worth of time had elapsed, finally, finally, finally, they got around to the mission at hand: auditioning singers. The swarms of interns and Important People populating the concrete slab floor of the arena were sent off to retrieve 11 tables and flimsy curtains to be erected between tables—these the “privacy” screens for auditions. Sort of futile, really, because we would learn as the day progressed, some people sang so loudly that you could hear them in the nosebleed section, sans microphones. Which meant some auditioners drowned out other auditioners by sheer dint of volume. Their gene pool might well contain the ingredients for a superhuman breed of heavy breathers or maybe deep sea divers, what with their evident lung capacity.

the crimson-clad interns finally set up for auditions
the crimson-clad interns finally set up for auditions

So the order of auditioning was thus: those who won the Disney American Idol Experience contests got to the front of the line, followed by a slew of singers who’d won local Fox affiliate station contests. And here’s where the front of the line mattered: a collection of fresh judges who’ve yet to hear the theme from The Bodyguardumpteen times is far more receptive to hearing it sung well early on. After hearing that song fify times in four hours, what judge could ever evaluate the song equitably? Your ears are too numb to the sound of those notes. Trust me, I heard Heartbreaker far fewer times than those folks heard any host of repeated songs.

So early on, the dispensing of the coveted Golden Tickets (really yellow 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheets of paper) was certainly more liberal. Many early auditioners made it through to the next round (about which no one could discern much information. We were told those who ‘went on’ would go through the tunnel at one end of the arena while those who didn’t make it would be snipped–more later on that—and dismissed. Whether there was further parsing of successful auditioners that day was unknown. And whether those who made it through got called back two days, two weeks or a month later for the next round of auditions, which rumor held still didn’t involve those elusive judges, was also a great unknown and subject to much speculation). Of course there were some stunning singers in that group who didn’t make it, instilling fear in everyone—if they can’t make it???

Nevertheless those early auditioners were breezing through in record numbers, giving the rest of the masses great—and false—hope.

Once section 117 started trudging down the flight of stairs leading to the floor, the granting of Golden Tickets began to dwindle slightly—one every ten minutes or so, versus what seemed like one every eight or nine auditioners at first. By 11:30 it had become constipated, with a person going through to the next round only every twenty minutes or so, and by 1 p.m. it seemed to more like the passing of kidney stones in frequency (in this case one person per 30 minute interval).

But let me backtrack and explain the process for auditioning. Tables were lined up lengthwise along the concrete floor of the arena, end-to-end, with flimsy fabric curtains separating each long table. There were eleven tables in all. The judges, generally two per table, had their backs to us; the auditioners fronted the group that included all of us who’d missed much of our sleep Tuesday morning to get earlier spots. Latecomers were punished by only seeing it all from behind, sort of the AI version of the last-minute Springsteen tickets always released behind the stage days before the concert.

the line-up
the line-up

Auditioners were brought down in sections, and there was throughout the day a steady line of auditioners parading down from the stands, circling along the outer ring of the floor, where they lined up one by one to show that elusive unsmudged wristband number. At that point the auditioners were sent in groups of four to a table, whereupon they were at the mercy of the judge. Some judges seemed to be far more generous with golden tickets than others. Male judges appeared to be more susceptible to wily females, so the vampy female singers lucked out if they got a guy to serenade.

It became a bit of a Tower of Babble on the floor of the arena, what with at least 11 singers trying out during any given second, with some of whom, as I said, bellowing out like foghorns into the Bar Harbor sky. Random folks who drew attention for various reasons: some dude who auditioned in what appeared to be a bedspread. His costume was too lame to send him through—it looked as if he just donned the bedcovers from his room at the Best Western. One gal had pants so tight they hurt my crotch. I questioned how one would put them on, and worse yet, get them off. Another woman had massive ta-tas, only negatively enhanced with a strapless shiny blue mini-dress. She was spilling out of that thing like panna cotta left out in the midday Tuscan sun. Methinks she thwarted her own cause, because she actually had a marvelous voice. Perhaps she thought she was at American Hooker auditions, rather than American Idol?

Another young woman wore a purple dress with dangling spangles that made so much noise we could hear them in the stands. She sounded like a walking wind chime. Nothing like being shown up by your clothing. Another extremely large-breasted woman with crazy red dreds in the front but normal hair in the back made it through. You seriously could’ve served martinis atop her boobs. We never did hear if she had talent or if she merely had the world’s most protruding breasts. A guy with a cape with large silver spangles and coordinating jeans and scarf made it through. Something told me he didn’t make it through on talent. As we watched the auditions unfold, it became apparent that lots of females worse strapless tops, and spent an inordinate amount of time hoisting up said tops. Note to ladies: wardrobe failure is not necessarily the way to go through in American Idol, unless you want all 20,000 of us to see your equipment.

The line-up, auditioner on the spot
The line-up, auditioner on the spot

I was stunned to see how many exceptionally talented singers actually showed up to this thing. And also stunned at how many exceptionally beautiful people, particularly the young women, auditioned. This really seemed like the crème de la crème—not a lot of losers in the lot. And to realize that plenty of crème-de-la-crème singers across America never stepped foot at an American Idol tryout, well, the odds are clearly grim in this profession.

As a writer used to swimming in the dime-a-dozen pool of creative people, I’ve often been dismayed at how damned many good writers there are. I long lamented that I was so dense when it came to numbers and mathematics that a career in anything other than something involving the liberal arts wasn’t meant to happen. No engineering, no sciences, no finance, nothing in the business world: no fat happy salaries for me. What I was left with was virtually no freaking salary, thank you. Imagine how ticked off I was to realize that all of those idiots on Wall Street also had no clue about numbers—they were just good at faking it. Damn, to think I could have retired on my investment banking career ten years ago with vacation homes in the Hamptons and the South of France, had I just faked it with the rest of them…To think here I was thinking my only option was the low-paying world of writing!

But when I saw this viable pool of potential AI contestants, I felt a little less sorry for myself trying to keep up as a writer. Because dayum, the chances of getting ahead in the world of entertainment is that much less likely. And to realize that waitressing jobs must be down by 50% in this economy. At least I can write obituaries if push comes to shove. Though I guess singers could be hired to warble at weddings…

wannabes had to primp wherever possible, even beneath the tampon dispenser in the bathroom...
wannabes had to primp wherever possible, even beneath the tampon dispenser in the bathroom...

Let’s digress now and talk for a minute about bathroom breaks. The Amway Arena’s exterior areas were suddenly transformed into Beauty School Dropout headquarters. Everywhere, on the floor, leaning against walls, over the sinks, were young women flat-ironing their hair, applying make-up, hoiking up tight skirts, tight tights, tighter pants and tightest tops (well, I guess they’d be tugging them down). And every, everywhere were people singing. You couldn’t step five feet without being serenaded with something or other, usually a song started, then stopped, then started again. Come to think of it, my parrot Graycie–the subject of my upcoming memoir, WINGING IT: A MEMOIR OF CARING FOR A VENGEFUL PARROT DETERMINED TO KILL ME (Simon Spotlight Entertainment/March 2010) (think Marley & Me with a deadly beak and a snarky attitude)—would’ve loved it, what with all the singing going on. She loves it when someone belts out a song in front of her. She could’ve also helped knock out some of my daughter’s competition with that dangerous beak of hers. Although this would have then facilitated next year’s warning: do not bring parrots, birds of prey, raptors, or winged creatures from the medieval period. And then some other smart ass writing about American Idol tryouts would say “Uh, would someone actually bring a parrot with them? Are people that stupid?”

In the bathroom—after waiting in line, naturally—I was serenaded while peeing by at least five different women in various nearby stalls. Also in the loo, the gauntlet of fog from hairspray enveloped the ladies room so much that I feared contracting black lung—make thatshellac lung–disease.

It was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, surreal. Not the least of which because I was so freaking sleep-deprived at that point. I mean good God, I was exhausted. If levels of fatigue ranged in size from baby to monster, I’d have qualified as Godzilla tired. I wasn’t just tired. I was drugged-by-wicked-witch-while-wandering-through-a-field-of-poppies-tired. Making it all the more bizarre to wander the hallways, seeing women dressed in various stages of undress. And that was once all of their clothes were on. Clearly the plan was to wow the judges with their uh, natural assets, and then hope the voices clinched the deal I guess. There was the gal—who looked like she teetered toward the far side of the age limit—dressed in a schoolgirl-fantasy-bend-me-over-the-teachers-desk skirt and a stockmarket-like plunging neckline that showed what good money can buy in the world of new breasts. Oddly she felt compelled to spritz cloud after hefty cloud of perfume on herself while globbing cosmetics onto her already overdone face, as if that might actually make someone choose her. Uh, unless there’s scent-o-vision come January on televisions across the world, aroma is simply a non-factor.

Refugee from The Girls Next Door perhaps?
Refugee from The Girls Next Door perhaps?

Bizarrely, or perhaps charitably, arena vendors were open for business. I knew there would be food available but I hadn’t taken into consideration that it would be disgusting stadium fare. Who could stomach French fries at 9 a.m.? Plenty of folks, apparently, all of whom were buying such healthful delights as nachos doused with that unidentified cheese-like sauce and jalapeno peppers. Yum, yum. And usually I’m all for stale popcorn, but not so much for breakfast. So my one meager apple I’d packed was it (along with a few lint-covered peanut M&Ms lurking in the lower intestines of my purse). I’d had dinner at 5 p.m. the night before, and didn’t get another meal till nearly that time Thursday. Yeah, the stomach was growling. At least never to be heard over the din of voices.

Back to those voices. As singers went through the auditions, the process went as follows: groups lined up behind their assigned judge’s table in rows of four. When their group’s turn came up, they were asked to step forward, one at a time, and given somewhere between 15-30 seconds to sing. It was disheartening to see how many fabulously talented, telegenic singers got nixed, one after another. It was interesting to see how many guys made it through. I’d bet five to one guys. And I suspect it’s because those who vote for AI are ‘tween girls, who love to vote for a guy who tugs on their heartstrings. The other population that seemed to make it through more regularly were the hottie girls. The ones who had that just-had-a-fabulous-roll-in-the-hay look to them. A little gritty, sorta smokey and very sexy seemed to be the judges’ choice. One woman, who I’ll grant you had a hell of a voice, but dressed like a hooker, seemed to win over her judge by virtually pole-dancing the judge’s table. Rather than the standard 15-second audition, she probably sang for four minutes total. He obviously was relishing his moments with her, and she was fortunate she had a guy judge, who did, indeed, let her through. I think any woman judge would’ve kicked her off the table with her heel like a dead bug one wouldn’t want to touch. All were heartened early in the day to see that one very young woman with a huge, huge voice made it through. And then to learn that she couldn’t have been but 16 years old and was blind. I’d look for her when American Idol begins in January because damn, she was something else to hear.

Certainly what freaks were there made it through to the next round. And those who performed just odd things. One guy did some crazy Flashdance split jump and ripped his drawers while landing in a straddle (a feat for most men), whereupon he sprung up into yet another straddle, landing face-down, legs splayed, to the gasps of the audience. No doubt he sacrificed his ability to father children for the cause. When he stood up, his pants fell off, giving us all a great shot of his tightie whities. Yep, he made it through.

Those who didn’t were funneled through to the snippers, i.e. the Dream Killers. These were Fox interns armed with scissors who confiscated wristbands after promptly snipping them off the wrists. So much for mementoes of the day. There was an element of disappointment to be directed to the snippers, but the reality was 99% of those auditioning had nothing to be ashamed of. If anything they perhaps should be proud they didn’t dry-hump the judges’ tables…

Dream-Killers in action
Dream-Killers in action

Everyone was told at the beginning by the head producer that there are no quotas, that they take whoever they take, and weren’t going to cut back the numbers to meet these quotas as the day progressed. But it became obvious that their saturation point was reached round about 11:30, when a meeting was called for all judges, perhaps to get a numbers count. But by then, I know I’d heard Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me about forty times, so how could a judge not be sick to death of it even if the good Lord Jesus Christ himself came down from above and sang it alongside a full orchestra, a gospel choir, and Elton John as back-up? After a while all you hear is that muffled wonking sound, like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Oh, and by the way, the sun did indeed go down on most everyone who sang that song.

There were people throughout the day you just wanted to smack upside the head. For instance the manipulative ones, who were angling for an angle to tip them over the top. Like the girl with theFrom Russian Orphan to American Idol t-shirt. Oh shut up and spare me the treacle. This isn’t the Olympics, where every athlete who is spotlighted by Matt Lauer has to have had some major life trauma impede their progress. We all have our crosses to bear, so get in line, honey.

The there were the ever-so-annoying “Sister One,” “Sister Two,” and “Sister Three” girls. I had my doubts on any blood connection there, as there wasn’t a shared physical feature amongst the trio. Didn’t stick around to see if they went through, but they were all cute so my bets were they did. But matching sets seemed to be en vogue with the judges, as they selected a macabre pair of black women dressed like Tinkerbell-whores-from-Hell: black vixen-like lace and tulle get-ups that revealed much, but for any singing talent that we could hear from our vatage point. Although perhaps their voices were merely drowned out by others. I think a couple of brothers made it through, dressed in bizarre clothing.

The Underworld sisters, shaking their stuff
The Underworld sisters, shaking their stuff

By the time my daughter got to audition, roughly 1 p.m., we’d put in a 9-hour workday leading up to this moment. Her group consisted of the three others sitting near us, so I’d had plenty of time in which to hear them sing, and I knew they were all kick-ass singers, plus beautiful to boot. But by the afternoon, Golden Tickets were trickling out at the rate of gold nuggets in the Yukon. And as luck would have it, someone right in front of them was about the only person that hour to go through, with women judges no less. Which meant it would have taken a virtual act of God—and no, no pole dancing with the ladies—to get a thumbs-up from those two judges. So all four of them headed off to the snippers, all vowing to return for another audition some day.

Which is the damndest thing about this American Idol thing. I got the distinct impression that people become addicted to auditioning. We’d met plenty of folks who’d “gone through” at various auditions beforehand, only to be cut one or two auditions later. With that brass ring dangling just before their eyes, the temptation to reach out and grab it was all the more tempting. It’s intoxicating, this dream to succeed, particularly in a profession in which one must somehow erupt from the masses as better than the rest. Even if you have to behave like Lady Gaga to do it. As a writer painfully familiar with how common good writers are and how hard it is to break through the noise and how much luck is involved in the process, I can appreciate how these many ultra-talented singers see this as a viable means to an end. And crazily as a writer who won an online fiction contest modeled after American Idol (The American Title III contest) I can say it worked for me, so I sure as hell can’t fault anyone for giving it their best.

But ultimately of the probably 100,000 people who try out for American Idol each year, maybe ten can exploit their experience to further their professional career. The rest have to chalk it up to a crazy time of it, and go on to focus on more realistic routes, happy to have had the experience, albeit a seriously strange one, and also content to be enormously talented though perhaps not destined for the stars, at least not this way.

I’m so proud that my daughter had the courage to put herself out there in this way, and was willing to view this as an interesting life opportunity. I think after all of those years of pretend AI auditions, it would have been a shame to shun the real thing, despite those odds against it. Can’t say I’ll be front and center to accompany her next year, though then she’ll be of legal age to go it without me. Although in a weird way, I suppose I’d look forward to the event, in some indescribable way, maybe like you look forward to a family reunion, knowing full well it’ll never turn out like you might hope.

In the meantime, we’ll have to be satisfied to watch it all unfold come January when the ninth season of the show begins. And I’ll just hope like hell that any shots of me end up on the cutting room floor.