American Idle

In Austin the nation's hottest reality-tv tryouts featured emotional fireworks, uncensored tragicomedy—and endless waiting around.

AT FOUR O'CLOCK ON NOVEMBER 5, seven hundred wide-eyed singers lounged outside the DoubleTree Hotel in North Austin. It was Election Day, and all over town voters were scrambling to the polls. But no one here was talking politics. The following morning at the hotel, the reality-television show American Idol, a wildly successful hybrid of Survivor and Star Search, would hold one of seven nationwide auditions—the only one in Texas—for its second season, and nearly everyone in line was fixated on a singular, modest objective: overnight Hollywood superstardom.

There was more to this fantasy than misguided youthful ambition. After all, last summer twenty-year-old Texan Kelly Clarkson was able to quit her job as a cocktail waitress in Burleson after being selected as American Idol 's first winner. The sometime karaoke singer not only dispatched her 29 competitors but also parlayed the experience into a lucrative, multifaceted entertainment career. Her success had become a model for those at the DoubleTree, many of whom had put their jobs and classes on hold for a few days and—some of them—driven as many as five hundred miles to give their own yet-to-be-recognized talents a similar Clarkson-size shot in the arm.

Fortunately, it wasn't a bad afternoon to be waiting around. The weather was gorgeous: sunny, 75 degrees, a cool breeze, and it was quiet except for the low drone of semis idling on Interstate 35. The mass of bodies, wedged between the hotel and a yellow "DO NOT CROSS" ribbon, stretched from the front entrance, down a cement sidewalk, around two corners, and on to the asphalt wasteland on the hotel's opposite side, where it had ample space to continue growing. Groups of contestants lugging overnight bags continued to arrive and were met by a grumpy Idol lackey wielding a black Sharpie, who branded them with numbers and told them to join the back of the line.

Up front, the impromptu ringleader was a nineteen-year-old prosthetics deliveryman from Kansas City, Kansas, named Curtis Cofield, who went by the nickname Dip. He was given this handle because whenever he ended one of his frequent Muhammad Ali-style rap-rhymes, he would strike a hieroglyphic sideways pose and up-sing "Di-i-i-p" before busting a swift, snaking break-dance move. Throughout the afternoon, Dip would aim his camcorder at a group of people (who, in turn, directed their camcorders back at him) and shout, "Somebody sing somethin'! Somebody uhnnn!" or "Come on, who's next? Come do your thang. Gonna sing, don't stop, if you stop this now I'm gonna have to get the cops," at which point someone would step forward and begin to sing—eyes closed, mouth down-turned and earnest, eyebrows dancing—about how his baby was so sweet to him ( oh) and he'd be so good to his girl ( awww). Those in the crowd would applaud, then scan the line through their camcorders, waiting for Dip to pick out the next soloist.

For the next ten hours, the singing continued uninterrupted like some operatic eternal flame. Wandering through the crowd, I watched people sing together and alone, on sidewalks, in bathrooms, and in lobby corners, rhyming "girl" with "world," "love" with "above." They affected baroque vocal gymnastics. They sang for each other, but most often they sang for nobody in particular. As if performing in their own private music video, many would sit quietly and then draw their eyes into a soft focus and serenade a patch of grass, while those nearby ignored them, sipping lunch-size boxes of apple juice or reading Cosmo, slumped over a friend's or a mother's lap.

As the sun went down, the contestants and the chaperones shielded themselves from the incoming cold front. Sleeping bags, Mexican blankets, and fleece covers were pulled over heads, and areas of the line looked like sloppy rows of discarded camping gear. But throughout the night, even as the temperature dipped to 46 degrees, spirits did not wane. Around midnight, a young woman from Buda caught her second wind and called out one of the show's catchphrases, "Who wants to go to Hollywood?!" Nearly every hand shot out of a sleeping bag into the stinging wintry air to be counted. And those who didn't at least whimpered a muffled, " Me-e-e-e."

ONLY IF YOU'D HAD YOUR head in a bag last August could you have avoided hearing about American Idol . Ever since CBS unleashed the original Survivor series in the summer of 2000, all four major networks have been carting out new reality-based shows each rerun season, attempting to uncover the next cheap-television gold standard. NBC had some luck with the gross-out hit Fear Factor in 2001, and last summer ABC got in the game with The Bachelor . But nothing's come as close to generating Survivor-level buzz as Fox's American Idol . Along the way to winning its time slot for viewers age 18 through 49 for eight weeks straight, Idol became an unavoidable conversation topic on late-night television talk shows, in entertainment magazines, and in school hallways. The show's formula—copied, like many reality-based shows, from an earlier European version—is quite simple. About two hundred singers selected from a nationwide talent search come to Los Angeles, where judges pluck 32 semifinalists to appear on the show. Each week, those semifinalists perform a song in a different genre—a power ballad, say, or an R&B classic—to show their versatility. In the first two episodes, a panel of celebrity judges—former pop star Paula Abdul, talent scout Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell, a veteran from the original British series, Pop Idol —decide which contestants make the cut, but beginning in week three, the television audience members have a chance to hurl their weight around, calling a toll-free number to vote for the singers they want to see in the next round.

By the time the American Idol contestants were narrowed down to Clarkson and the bushy-haired Justin Guarini last August, about 40 million Americans had watched all or part of the series. The 22.8 million viewers

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