Active pursuit of `Idol' dreams

Real Life

January 21, 2007|By Chris Yakaitis | Chris Yakaitis,Special to The Sun

As I stood alone in the horde of teenagers and young adults outside the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., for more than two hours, I had plenty of time think about what led me there. In a sense, it was the culmination of a lifelong journey -- or lifelong fantasy, at least.

More immediately, I could trace it back to a night at Kelly's in Fells Point. It was there, after a Natty-Boh-induced rendition of "Total Eclipse of the Heart," that a bar server told me it was the best version of that classic Bonnie Tyler tune she had ever heard at karaoke night.

That little bit of encouragement was all I needed. I knew I had to audition for American Idol.

So on a warm Monday morning five months ago, I stood in the throng with an iPod in my pocket, hope in my heart and delusions in my head. At least I wasn't alone.

About 11,000 fellow dreamers had descended on the Meadowlands for the sixth-season tryouts for Idol. There were young girls with their stage moms touching up their mascara, rocker dudes with studded leather jackets and acoustic guitars slung on their backs, hip-hop aspirants with cockeyed hats and low-hanging pants.

The only thing we all had in common was that we knew -- just knew! -- that we were the next American Idol. And we had shown up at 6 a.m. to prove it.

But what would it take to stand out in this massive outpouring of American optimism?

I felt I had an answer: I would sing in Japanese.

I had lived in Japan for two years after college, teaching English and -- more often than not -- singing karaoke. There, it was less a drunken diversion than a way of life. And over time, I learned enough Japanese to be able to sing a few songs, including the crossover tune "Sukiyaki," which hit No. 1 in America in 1963 -- one of the first non-English records to do so.

The song guaranteed that I would stand out. But just to make sure, I wore sandals and Japanese pajamas.

Around 8 a.m. we started to move toward the doors. They checked our tickets and our admission wristbands and told us to take our seats in the arena, which ended up about three-fourths full.

A producer appeared about an hour later to greet us from the floor. He reminded us to complete our release forms so that Fox could allow us to

make fools of ourselves without threat of a lawsuit. He made us sing Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You." About 15 times. (The self-inflicted humiliation, it seemed, had begun.)

Next came the bad news: We'd each have about 10 seconds in front of the Idol producers.

"So don't hold back!" he said. "Get right to the best part ... Wow us."

In 10 seconds? I'd need about that long to get in tune with myself. But that was the deal, and you couldn't fault them. Tens of thousands of people across the country wanted their chance and would be showing up in Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., Minneapolis and Seattle. Over its five years, Idol 's staff had reduced the audition process to a model of efficiency. They needed only 10 seconds to crush you.

After assembling makeshift audition booths at the center of the arena, the producers called down the first section. It was time.

For the rest of us, it was time to wait some more -- and to watch, analyze and try to figure out what they were looking for. Who would they take?

But for the first five minutes -- totaling hundreds of singers and scores of good ones -- no one made it.

Excitement took on a shade of dread as singer after singer was told "Excellent job" and "Thanks for coming" and "Go home."

Working in two-person teams, the producers torpedoed classic '80s songs, show tunes and Bette Midler ballads.

And then, from the far end of the stands, came a cheer. A girl with long dark hair came sprinting past the tables with a yellow sheet of paper held aloft. That was the sign -- someone had survived the first cut.

For the first few hours, the people in my section kept quietly to themselves, watching the drama unfold on the floor below.

We cheered any time someone within earshot scored a yellow ticket. We booed when they rejected a scrawny white guy who managed to get half the arena clapping along to the heavy downbeats in "Tainted Love."

I eventually mustered the nerve to talk to the attractive woman next to me. She introduced herself as Trish Cleveland and proceeded to show me her head shot, which she brought along, you know, just in case.

I should have guessed: She was an underwear model. She told me she sings in a few bands and I thought, "I'm screwed."

About 3 p.m., the slow crawl around the arena hit our section. As I headed toward the floor, I realized there was only one thing I could do to improve my odds: Get away from the singing underwear model. They lined us up double-file at the rear of the line. I politely let Trish go in front of me and stood immediately behind her. It was my only chance.

But it backfired. They sent both of us to the same audition table, along with a 15-year-old girl and a 20-something guy.

Finally, after nine hours, it was my turn.

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