What it’s really like to audition for ‘American Idol’

(A nostalgic look back at daughter Miki’s experience auditioning for Season 4 of “American Idol,” in Washington, D.C., August 2004)

Aspirants and antiperspirants

My daughter is THE next American Idol. (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004_

Could my daughter be THE next American Idol? (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004)

They come like immigrants, an estimated 21,000 dolled-up American Idol aspirants and their doleful escorts, to the cavernous Washington Convention Center, huddled masses yearning to breathe the same hot air as Simon Cowell. My 16-year-old daughter and I are two of them.

The air doesn’t smell so fresh after a 36-plus-hour, carnival-atmosphere slumber party, where b.o. and morning mouth mix with spoiled, spilled concessions and the vomit of those whose nerves get the best of them. Sensory relief is found in the unlikeliest place: the john, where hair product vapor hangs in the air like spa mist.

Tony Meadors, 24, is a solitary pilgrim from White Marsh, Md., “by way of Chicago,” who slipped away from his Bayou Cafe job to chase stardom. Equipped with only a backpack, bottled water and Bible — “all I need” — he’s directed to fill in as the horizontal grout between two rows of Eddie Bauer-outfitted campers. He sizes up this small plot of concrete as his last address before moving to Hollywood, and slips a staff worker $5 to rent an oval-backed, velour-upholstered dining chair from the storage closet, which he lies on its back to reserve more room, then trots to the Smithsonian for a carefree afternoon. Upon his return hours later, new vagrants have scrunched into his space, so he balls himself up on the floor, props his head on the chair seat, and attempts sleep.

Clockwise from left: My daughter Miki, Mark Hwang, Maria Dunckhorst andTony Meadors, all "Idol" hopefuls. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Clockwise from left: My daughter Miki, Mark Hwang, Maria Dunckhorst and Tony Meadors, all “Idol” hopefuls. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Lullabies aren’t cutting it

But sleep doesn’t come easily in this busy hive of bright lights and gospel peals. A jumbotron projects non-stop Fox broadcasts, and one wonders whether a stateside Abu Ghraib, where sleep deprivation followed by hours of standing, has been erected to weed out those who wouldn’t endure the stress of superstardom.

A true cattle call. Courtesy of MSNBC.com

Workers use bike-rack barricades and yellow police tape to extend the snaking line of sleeping bags, where sleep, like fame, is but another distant dream. They hawk “Idol” products — souvenir T-shirts, compact mirrors,  key chains and cardboard church-style fans advertising shows. They invite all to visit the karaoke station; no invitation necessary. Warehouse load lifters appear occasionally, atop which camera operators and producers rally the crowd, rock-concert style, to scream “I am the next American idol!” … “Again! I can’t hear you!” Perhaps it’s just another ploy to handicap the weaker voices.

Plenty of ‘Idol’ time

Clever Mark Hwang, 18, of Fairfax, Va., only mouths the words. Four years ago, when his name was Kun-Yeon, he moved here from Korea, not knowing a word of English. He still isn’t sure of all the lyrics to Lionel Richie’s Truly. But this detour on his way to college as a Virginia Tech freshman is just more education — sampling the American dream, as repackaged by Brits.

Co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe grabs the mike to reassure show hopefuls: “All you have to do is be you. But be your best you. We don’t want you leaving here with any regrets.” And “What we’re looking for is someone who can sing like Pavarotti and dance like a gazelle.” I survey the bodies and, though I see many with the heft of Pavarotti (this cross-section of America mirrors the 30% of Americans who are obese), the only prancers are those mimicking Clay Aiken, post-makeover.

From “People” magazine, Aug. 18, 2004

We meet people from the Deep South, New England and as far away as Minnesota, but most seem to be “representin'” B’more and the nation’s capital. One local boasts he’s 30 but secured a fake ID to meet the 16- to 28-year-old criteria. A man with a yellow wristband — signifying he’s a cheerleader for a red-banded contestant — hauls two small mattresses, still dressed with bedding, off the freight elevator, which he has dragged from his apartment to make things cushy for his woman, who herds him from in front. He makes it only five steps at a time before resting.

Penned-in superstars draw a lot of media attention. (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004)

Penned-in superstar wannabes draw a lot of media attention. (Photo by Terry Byrne, Copyright 2004)

A singer in sunglasses with a red-tipped cane feels his way to the bathroom. Two dwarfs vocalize. A red-headed wrestler shows off his medals and hoists a staff member onto his shoulders and spins for the cameras. Mary Katherine, in curlers and party hat, is celebrating her 21st birthday and lets everyone know with a hand-made sign.

Army enlistee A.J., whose deck of cards and blanket are “borrowed” by a neighboring pack, sleeps in his car with his girlfriend where at least it’s dark and not as cold as inside the hall. He doesn’t know what his audition song is called nor who it’s by, but “he sings it all the time,” complains his girlfriend. He guesses it’s Luther Vandross. I identify it as Ruben Studdard’s cover of Superstar, Season 2.

Egypt’s customized belt — the one she’s wearing, not her vocal technique — spells “Egypt” in rhinestones, offsetting her stiletto boots. She checks on her 2-year-old son, Jatawn, by cellphone between choruses of such oldies as Seasons Change by Exposé — which, I point out, was No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 the week my daughter was born. “Gosh, she’s just a baby!” she squawks. She’s my baby.

Survival instincts kick in

We break bread (a $2.50 giant cookie, using the last dough we have) and exchange Balance bars, Rice Krispie Treats and fruit rolls with strangers. We teach Mark to play Yahtzee and War. We loan Tony a sleeping bag and the pillow my sister crocheted, and I resolve to sleep in the folding chair. I borrow a pen from Jessica’s mom, Marva, from Suffolk, Va., to write this.

Miki and Mark try to catch some Zzzzzzzz's, but it is next to impossible here. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Miki and Mark hope to catch some Zzzzzzzz’s, but it is next to impossible here. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

And we lose track of time. We’re told “quiet time” (but not lights out) starts at 10 p.m., when boomboxes and singers must be silenced. Yet babysitters have no authority here, and the white noise produced by 10,000 hyped vocal cords and even more rollover cellphone minutes is unlikely to ever be reproduced as one of Sharper Image’s soothing nature sounds.

The impossibly high-pitched refrain of Minnie Ripperton’s Lovin’ You is rehearsed to death. “Who’s from Massachusetts?” a man screams down every row. “I’m looking for anyone from Massachusetts!”

I adjust the blanket half-covering my daughter, who was only pretending to sleep, and she coos: “Thanks for coming, Mom. Thanks for doing this. My audition is dedicated to you.”

Miki, after just a few winks of skeep, ready for her big shot at the big time. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Miki, after just a few winks of sleep, is ready for her big shot at the big time. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

At 3:48 a.m. on the big day, the P.A. system crackles awake and announces our wakeup call. A moot point, but thousands who have restlessly vocalized and moved out of sync for two days suddenly have a single-minded mission: to use the bathroom. Lines are hours long, and two girls in PJs decide to brush their teeth in the water fountains. As they walk away, an unsuspecting young man fills up his water bottle in their spittoon.

I give up on the bathrooms and hunt for breakfast, but the line is twice as long — plus they’ve run out of muffins and yogurt, and the fruit is past ripe. Our tight-knit group, now a dozen strong, must stretch three remaining Balance bars.

A fight breaks out among divas

It”s a diva smackdown!

As I walk down the back aisle searching for my new homies, I hear ugly words exchanged to my left. One young woman has insulted another, calling her ugly, fat and talentless. I hear, “Where is that bitch? Let me at that bitch!” A makeup case flies through the air and hits the aggressor in the head. Return fire: sleeping bag. I dodge a fold-up chair. In seconds, the entire back of the room thunders to the scene, cameras aloft, many murmuring, “This I gotta see!” I try to escape, but instead turn back and see the big girl getting pummeled by both women and men, red wristbands flailing.

I’m ashamed to be American.

The troublemakers are ejected, red wristbands snipped, and they’re barred from auditioning. An hour later, when Ryan Seacrest, surrounded by bodyguards, laps the hall, the crowd stampedes with equal enthusiasm. Mark snoozes, no longer so interested in American icons, only interested in sleep. Tony leaps like a gazelle across idle bodies to get within six degrees of Seacrest’s hair. “I just wanted to see what all the hype was about, if it’s for real,” he says.

At last … the moment of unreal

Mark heads off for his audition, after a sleepless night. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Mark takes in the cavernous convention center. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Not much is for real on Audition Day. The building goes into lockdown mode as producers spend hours staging outdoor scenes with Seacrest and hand-picked contestants. Then the grinding, winding hike toward the audition chambers begins.

We pick up our gear and trudge, some for 10 hours, through the debris of others, automotrons in a macabre Disney World line, many on empty stomachs, most on a few minutes’ sleep, inching toward daylight and freedom. Organizers warn people not to cut in line or face wristband-snipping.

Many grow snippy. Some threaten that even if they make it past this round, they won’t come back for Round Two. But my daughter’s droopy eyes still sparkle, and she squeezes my hand as we get close to the moment of separation, when contestants go one way and faithful fans another.

“The sweetest of all sounds is praise,” her T-shirt had read. I attempt to give her all the praise she deserves, easily all of it, secretly hoping her pursuit of the American dream won’t prove a nightmare.

Finally facing the panel, she sings three lines of a pop-ified The Nearness of You, and the British judge tells her “lovely.” It isn’t Simon, and she isn’t picked.

But neither of us leaves with regrets. There’s always Season 5.

Mark Hwang, Tony Meadors and Miki Byrne gave it their all. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)

Mark Hwang, Tony Meadors and Miki Byrne gave it their all. (Photo by Terry Byrne Copyright 2004)