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Reality Bites

Editor Katy Vine sucked it up and sat around the auditions with a bunch of young vocalist hopefuls keyed up with the prospect of becoming...an American Idol.

By January 2003Comments

texasmonthly.com: Can you define what an American Idol is? What does the term mean to the masses versus what it means to the teenage contestants?

Katy Vine: I think the term means superstardom for masses and the contestants.

texasmonthly.com: What did you think about the concept of American Idol before you began your story? Has your opinion changed much?

KV: When I got the assignment to cover the try-outs, I had never seen the show. I assumed it was your basic talent show and talent shows aren’t new—even on this grand a scale. Many nationally known singers participated in talent shows when they were young: Frank Sinatra was on Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour in the thirties, and Patsy Cline and Connie Francis were on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in the fifties. So I tried to put the Idol auditions in that context.

Then I watched the season finale and a lot of last season’s clips online, and my assumption was right: I came away from the program feeling that American Idol was just like the old TV talent contests—just more manipulative. The Idol staff is very candid about this manipulation in the auditions.

texasmonthly.com: American Idol is a part of an onslaught of reality TV shows, but these shows often lack a sense of authenticity. Did the auditions capture a sense of reality?

KV: Ironically, people who looked more natural through a lens appeared staged when they were being taped. Most candidates posed a little bit in front of the cameras. There were some contestants, of course, who didn’t know how to act in front of a camera, and their awkwardness felt very authentic in the room. But I don’t know how that translated on the tape.

texasmonthly.com: What aspect of American Idol first generated interest in this story?

KV: The editors became interested when Kelly Clarkson and three other Texans were counted among the show’s thirty contestants. Texans have a tendency to pop up a lot on reality TV shows.

texasmonthly.com: Did the contestants band together with a sense or camaraderie or was the atmosphere competitive from the outset?

KV: Generally, the contestants supported each other. Some contestants got cranky, but I didn’t see any maliciousness.

texasmonthly.com: Were there any emotional moments that affected you?

KV: I was blown away by a group of contestants who bided their time in the waiting room by singing gospel music songs for about two hours. The impromptu concert ended with a call-and-response crescendo of “Amen” that made my arm hair stand on end. Their singing evoked emotional sobs in at least a dozen singers and parents. That was a very real, moving moment. I don’t think that scene was caught on camera. Many of the outstanding singers from that circle were rejected by the show.

texasmonthly.com: What were the best and worst moments, from your perspective as a journalist?

KV: I had the best time the night everybody slept outside. Yes, I was hungry and cold and miserable but I was on a high because the material was so good.

As for the worst time: It was difficult to watch contestants intentionally humiliated on national television for purposes of entertainment—even if that was a known risk. I guess that sounds gushy but watching the crying on TV is very different from watching it happen two feet away. Despite the refrain of “television” and “packaging,” rejection had the inevitable effect of a meat tenderizer on more than a few fragile egos.

texasmonthly.com: Most contestants used popular or very well known songs to audition. Did anyone sing an original song?

KV: I think some of the contestants sang original songs. Most of the contestants, though, were in their late teens and were imitating other singers. I kept thinking, Well, of course they want to sound like Aretha Franklin or Stevie Wonder; Aretha and Stevie are great singers and these contestants are young and they’re searching for themselves somewhere in the canon. But Aretha and Stevie weren’t that much older than these contestants when they started recording huge hits with distinctive flair. I wondered if young folks who had unique voices were auditioning at all. Perhaps anybody who had that kind of talent and confidence and independence would be the type of person who would pursue another avenue.

texasmonthly.com: After losing much sleep and waiting many long hours, did any contestants seem to forget the cameras were on them?

KV: There were times when the cameras blended into the woodwork like surveillance. Most of these contestants, though, were very camera conscious. They were the type of people who looked for the front of the stage even when they were standing in a parking lot. They loved to perform.

texasmonthly.com: Any predictions or personal favorites for this season?

KV: Second-season reality television shows haven’t done very well, so I’ll be interested to read about the program’s ratings. But I won’t be calling in to vote.

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