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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.