American Idle

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

January 2003By Comments

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 who tuned in for the two-hour finale on September 4 made Idol the week’s most watched program. And the enterprise didn’t end there. After Clarkson’s triumph, RCA released her winning ballad—not a bad business decision considering she had a proven fan base more than a million strong—and “A Moment Like This” opened to the best first-week sales for a single in three years, unloading 236,000 copies in its first week. The top ten Idol finalists then embarked on a six-week, 28-city tour. RCA put out both a full-length CD featuring studio versions of songs performed by the ten finalists and a DVD of the season, complete with outtakes.

Of course, those waiting at the DoubleTree understood something more important: Idol wasn’t just a national phenomenon—it was a Texas phenomenon. Clarkson may have gotten the most out of her exposure, but Nikki McKibbin, of Grand Prairie, had made it to the final three as well. And Kristin Holt, of Plano, and Adriel Herrera, of Odessa, were also included in the original cast, which featured thirty members. For those not counting, that meant four of Idol‘s first thirty contestants—13 percent—were from the Lone Star State. Which might explain why, like gamblers who’d spotted a winning slot machine, 3,500 contestants between the ages of 16 and 24 eventually showed up at the DoubleTree by the morning of November 6.

RUMORS SPREAD THROUGH THE FIRST night like a game of telephone. Somebody said the judges were looking for more guys this time. Somebody else said more blacks. One contestant said she had heard that 10,000 people showed up for the auditions in Miami and can-you-believe-it-I-hope-it-isn’t-that-bad-here-but-it-probably-will-be. A couple of folks were convinced that the security guards on the line were really judges, and so it was in a contestant’s best interest to be extra nice to them. And then there was the master of all rumors, one that preyed on grim, competitive paranoia: The judges were going to come out in the middle of the night and hold auditions in the line so you’d better get ready. Like right now.

Lying down on pavement was hard enough, but this last rumor gnawed at the weary contestants, making it nearly impossible to relax. I had shrouded my head in a python-size wool scarf and was just dozing off among the first hundred contestants during a rare moment of quiet when a Louisianan named Holly drawled, “Joey? Joey, honey, it’s time to get up and refresh.”

“What time is it?” Joey responded.

“It’s a little after three, honey.”

Joey was confused: “Are you . . . are you . . . dressed?”

“I took a shower and I’m ready, honey. I think my cords are getting better; I sang a little bit and my voice hurts because I vomited.”

She might as well have blown reveille. All down the line contestants began trekking over to a nearby late-night diner’s bathrooms in the darkness to brush teeth, rub on lightly fragrant hair gel, hack up phlegm, and put on their audition outfits. One by one they shook off the cold-weather hangover, rolled up their blankets, and waited.

At eight in the morning—five hours later—Idol staffers finally herded the first six hundred contestants into a ballroom with salmon-colored carpeting. Once again, Dip took control of the nerve-racked crowd. “There’s three thousand people in this line, but just relax. No pressure,” he announced as the doors were opened. “Only one can win, but hey, you got it. No problem. No hates here.”

Not a single audition had taken place, yet some contestants, like Dip, were already emerging as clear standouts—effortlessly popular and instinctive entertainers with gregarious personalities. Farther down the line, a quartet of siblings from San Antonio—Andrez, 22, Isabel, 21, Cristabel, 19, and Clarissa Fredericks, 17—radiated a blinding glow of confidence, even in the bland hotel lobby. When asked to sing, they broke out in four-part harmony and struck stage-ready poses á la the Jackson 5 (naturally, since their dad had once been a member of the harmony group the Ink Spots). Their innate talent caused more than a little teeth-grinding down the row, and a few demoralized contestants began to mutter that they just wanted to get this whole thing over with.

Once everyone had signed an ominous waiver—”You . . . understand that your appearance, depiction and/or portrayal in the Program may be disparaging, defamatory, embarrassing or of an otherwise unfavourable nature,” and so on—a bearded and trim thirty-something Idol producer dazzled the crowd with its first bits of factual information. He told them that first-round auditions would take place from Wednesday through Friday. If a contestant didn’t make it, the judge would simply thank him and let him go; if the judge gave him a blue slip of paper, however, he would come back to the semifinals on Saturday. Those who made it past the Saturday semifinals would see Abdul, Cowell, and Jackson on Sunday or Monday at a makeshift studio on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Austin. And, of course, those who made it past those gatekeepers would go to L.A. for a shot at the real show.

“Judges will listen to one chorus and one verse of a song from each contestant,” the producer continued. “Now keep in mind: You can sing any song you want. But the judges have heard ‘At Last,’ ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Falling,’ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and ‘Hero’ a million times.”

The crowd gasped.

ANYONE WHO HAS EVER STOOD in a long line waiting for a roller coaster ride can appreciate the tone of the following six days. The sudden excitement of finally getting into the building didn’t take long to wear off, and as Idol staffers began calling out audition numbers, the remaining contestants in the ballroom were forced to make do in the monotony. Some napped. Some stared at their portable CD players as if they were trying to bend them in half. Others stretched or sang. Still others passed the time gawking at the fashion decisions of rival contestants.

On the official American Idol Web site, potential contestants are encouraged to stand out from the crowd by dressing “uniquely.” Many had obviously taken the advice to heart. One young man strutted around in a gigantic yellow suit and do-rag. A young woman wore beige sweater sleeves unattached to her white T-shirt. Two other young women wore black tube tops over ironed white cotton shirts. Eighties fashion had infiltrated the room in the form of fingerless gloves, berets, black Joan Jett eye makeup, and zippered Michael Jackson “Beat It” jackets. I got the sinking feeling that in the future, a few dozen of these kids were going to be sorry that so much videotaped evidence existed of their prized American Idol ensembles.

As a journalist, I was unable to enter the audition rooms, but I was welcomed to become a fixture in a bare, carpeted lobby area that served as the contestants’ “on deck” circle. From my perch on a couch, I watched groups of five file into the three audition rooms—looking at the ground so they wouldn’t get psyched out by previous contestants passing by—and file back out ten minutes later. After having waited sixteen hours or more, the contestants had fate delivered to them in a matter of two to four minutes, and it was there in the lobby area that their bottled-up emotions exploded in full view of the American Idol and TV news cameras.

Winners came out squealing, skipping, and pirouetting through the hallway, stopping briefly to report to a camera that they were so-excited-they-couldn’t-believe-it-oh-my-god-thank-you-thank-you-thank-you (then they’d turn to a friend who had a camcorder and say they were so-excited-they-couldn’t-believe-it-oh-my-god). Included in this category were Dip, who exited the audition room and did a cartwheel in the lobby, and all four Fredericks siblings, who each ran to their mother, who squeezed their arms and scrunched up her face with a huge, proud smile.

More often, however, it was rejected contestants who emerged. These unlucky ones would walk away with a shrug, stopping politely to talk to a cameraman, or pouting with a hand held up to the camera as they rushed past, or maybe weeping and embracing in trios under camera lights to show the world their sincere solidarity. Others were more demonstrative. At one of the day’s end, a silver prayer locket was found torn from its chain on the floor outside the audition room. Inside, on a tiny piece of scrolled paper was written: “Lord, help me make it to Hollywood.”

BUT THE RIDE WASN’T OVER. By the start of the event’s second round, on Saturday, two thousand contestants had been processed like cattle (at least another one thousand were told there wasn’t room), and they had been trimmed down to a much more manageable herd. But because of the tedium of the process, whatever enthusiasm and energy had arrived here on Tuesday night seemed to have gradually been sucked out of the entire venue. Dip, as always, remained one of the few highlights. On Saturday morning he ran out of his semifinal audition, struck his pose, and triumphantly held up a blue sheet of paper. “I just did a shoo-be doop doop and sang from my soul; hey, ain’t nothin’ but a Super Bowl,” he announced to the cameras. Then he shouted “Di-i-i-p!” a refrain that by now had caught on, and those present responded in kind. The Frederickses, meanwhile, who had sat in near silence for most of the day, emerged one at a time from their semifinal auditions, with varying results. Andrez held up his blue paper and said, “One down, three to go!” Isabel walked out, smiling and nodding to her family. But when Cristabel stepped out of the room shaking her head “no,” Clarissa burst into tears just before entering the judging room herself, sealing her fate before she choked out her first note.

Throughout it all, the Idol cameramen continued to document each post-audition high and low in the on-deck room with tabloid-press urgency. For many of the remaining contestants, however, the five-day American Idol tryouts had become an unanticipated bore. To help pass the endless downtime, they began engaging each other in deeper conversation or circulating stories of the day’s audition highlights. Thus, it suddenly became thrilling to hear somebody report that she once ran somebody over with a car or that somebody could recreate an uncannily convincing turkey gobble. They dished the rumor that somebody actually wet a chair out of nervousness. (No word on whether this was filmed or not.) And though they scoffed at the claim that some contestant had allegedly sung the familiar java jingle, “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup,” the news that one brown-nosing competitor sang a Paula Abdul medley prompted looks that betrayed—I’m almost certain—envy.

ON MONDAY, THE WHOLE THING came to a merciful close. Following the final auditions in front of Abdul, Cowell, and Jackson, the Idol staff reported that around thirty contestants from the Austin auditions would be members of the two hundred or so quarterfinalists in Hollywood. Andrez and Isabel Fredericks wouldn’t be joining them. Their American Idol fantasies had ended. They, along with their two siblings and most others, would return to their classes and retail and waitress jobs. But there was still hope. Fox’s rival networks are so stirred by Idol mania that they have adapted their own versions. Nashville Star, Today’s Superstar, and an all-new Star Search will be on the air soon. And you can bet they’ll be heading to Texas to round up some new talent.

As for Dip, he emerged from his final audition and held court in front of the local network cameras after the announcement. Reporters from all over the state scribbled furiously as he described his winning schizophrenic rendition of “My Girl,” hopping to the side with each harmony part as if he were a one-man Motown group. “Simon said my voice is better than I think it is,” he boasted, “and Paula said I was cute. I’m going to Hollywood. I ain’t in Kansas no more. I’m out.” After the cameras turned away from him, he fidgeted for a few moments, shifting from foot to foot, then he swung his backpack over one shoulder and warily headed outside, where anonymous hotel guests mingled—not a cameraman in sight.

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