Thousands try out but few are chosen

`Idol' judges can make - or break - hopefuls

August 21, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - When the time comes to sit in the purple chair next to the entrance to the Grand Ballroom in the Renaissance Hotel here, when you are next in line to be ushered into the makeshift studio where the American Idol judges will determine your destiny, there is only one thing left to do.

You pray.

And so shortly before noon yesterday, Constantine Maroulis of New York, a young man in a denim jacket and cowboy boots, sat in the purple chair and made the sign of the cross. Then he tucked his long brown hair behind his ear and waited for the door to open.

When it did, out leaped Natalie Weiss, a 19-year-old from New Jersey, clutching a yellow sheet of paper and shouting, "Oh my God!" The others waiting behind Maroulis stood and cheered, as Weiss hugged her mother and father. She would be going to Hollywood, one of about 20 to be chosen yesterday and today to advance to the next round of American Idol.

This is where dreams come true: in the soulless bowels of a big-city hotel, in a ballroom where a parquet floor has been brought in and where lights and cameras have been attached to the mirrored ceiling panels. The hit reality show wraps up four days of Washington auditions today, with the show's famous TV judges making the final picks.

"I just blacked out and I sang and I wasn't sure what was going on," said Weiss, from Manalapan, N.J. She sang "Band of Gold," a Freda Payne song from 1970, and she doesn't remember a thing about it until it was over and someone told her she had good pitch. Probably Paula Abdul, she said. Paula's so nice.

But then judge Simon Cowell, the scourge of undiscovered talent everywhere, told her, "I didn't like you. I don't think you're very good. There's a saying in England - amateur dramatic." That's what he called her. "Whatever," Weiss said later, recounting the experience for the media and her adoring parents.

"I was afraid she'd faint," said her mother, Harriet Weiss. "She's just meant to be at this level - to sing in front of the three judges. And the rest is gravy. She's our only child, and she's the best."

Washington is the third stop on American Idol's eight-city audition tour and, according to Cowell, it's the best so far. ("Cleveland was disappointing," he said, surprising no one.) About 9,500 people showed up to audition Wednesday, along with 11,000 friends and family - the biggest crowd in Idol history. By yesterday morning, only 117 hopefuls remained. They sang for Cowell, Abdul, Randy Jackson and guest judge Mark McGrath, the one-time alternative rock heartthrob and lead singer of Sugar Ray.

"Ninety-nine percent of these people sing way better than I ever have," McGrath said, a statement that drew no dissent. "To see the real, genuine enthusiasm has been exciting for me."

Asked if any of the hopefuls had broken out any awful dance moves, Cowell said that the girls seem to be into spanking themselves during the performances, a practice he found curious but unobjectionable. But unlike last year, when a contestant threw water onto Cowell, everyone behaved yesterday. (The biggest rule-breaker yesterday may have been Cowell himself, who was smoking in the audition ballroom in violation of hotel rules.)

"You're never going to get a city full of fantastic people," he said. "But you look for one or two, and there's one or two today with real potential, and that's enough for me."

Among about a half dozen Marylanders in yesterday's pool was Ryan Parker, a 28-year-old former music teacher from Laurel. He tapes American Idol every week when it's on the air and watches the videos "over and over" in the off-season. And he's quick to note his Idol connection: He went to college with the 2003 winner, Ruben Studdard.

"I'm one of those ones who watches every week wishing I could be there," Parker said. "This is dream for me to be at this point. Did I expect it? No. Did I believe? Yes."

While confidence is not in short supply among American Idol applicants, many said yesterday they were just grateful to have advanced this far, and there were small signs they didn't expect to be here. Some said their friends and parents, who stood in line with them earlier in the week, had left to go back home. Others had run out of clothes.

Carrie Zaruba, 22, who grew up in Brooklyn Park and now lives in Philadelphia, said she ran out to a Nordstrom Wednesday night when she learned she had advanced to the second round. She bought the jeans she was wearing yesterday and a blazer she wore Thursday. As she applied makeup in the hotel yesterday, cameras zoomed in and white lights turned her way.

"It's real surreal," said Zaruba, a bartender who doesn't watch the show and came to audition on a dare. "I'm no one every other day, but today I'm in this extraordinary situation. But I can't refuse a challenge, and I have nothing to lose. Except maybe some dignity."

But, instead, last night, she gained her ticket to Hollywood.

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