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‘American Idol’ looks beyond the looks

Unconventional-looking singers wow the judges in Cleveland and Orlando. By Craig Berman
/ Source: contributor

Apparently bored with the glamour of Las Vegas, and not yet ready to leave their voices in San Francisco, “American Idol” took the show to Cleveland and Orlando. Not only did that double the pleasure of the tourism bureaus, it doubled the potential Ryan Seacrest jokes. Although, given the amount of Cleveland puns and lyrics worked into the 35 or so minutes the show spent in the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there wasn't enough time for him to work in the really good Magic Kingdom material. Kind of a shame, given the potential for Goofy and some other characters to make an appearance among the contestants.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of course, is where the glamour boys and girls of music are enshrined in permanent tribute. But the city is also the home of Drew Carey, the portly comic who won't be on the cover of fashion magazines anytime soon. While Kelly Clarkson may have the look of the traditional pop star, sometimes the judges seem to forget that neither Ruben Studdard nor Clay Aiken were matinee idols. While Simon snipes at contestants about their weight, or Ryan comments about how they dress, the voters have shown that if people can get past the auditions, they don't care about looks nearly as much as talent.

It's probably fitting, therefore, that in Carey's hometown, the spotlight was stolen by those who looked nothing like the homecoming king and queen. Much like the Vegas longshots that made it through last week, a number of contestants who look nothing like a future pop star sang like they could be one, and as guest judge LL Cool J might sing, were going back to Cali.

Of course, at the rate LL Cool J was passing people through the ranks, maybe he just wanted company on the West Coast.

‘Dude, you can blow’The Cleveland auditions began in rainy Browns Stadium, and they began like they normally do. Jaclyn Crum was first up, certainly not hurt by her figure or her blond hair. She sang with a nice voice, and her arms at her sides like she was scared to death. Randy was unimpressed, but everyone else said yes, and she was onto Hollywood.

Sarah Sue Kelly was the next to get airtime, the opposite of Crum in every way, shape and form. Overweight, with glasses and funky hair, she rocked the stage with "I could have danced all night" from My Fair Lady, complete with hand gestures and a strong stage presence. Simon was blunt, saying her looks were putting the judges off, and Sarah responded by saying "I wanted to show I didn't have to be a Barbie."

Maybe not, but she was turned down anyway, and it looked like business as usual for the Idol judges.

But everyone gave her kudos for the Barbie comment, and perhaps that stuck with the judges. After a break — and six snippets of rejects most memorable for Andre Pittman causing Randy to dismiss him with a "Dude, you shouldn't ever be singing. That's not for you" — Scott Savol took the stage. The pride of Shaker Heights, a young man who said his dad had told him he was never going to be anything, Savol proved his father wrong and got the ticket to Hollywood.

Savol won't make anyone forget Enrique Iglesias, but he had a great voice and made it through. So did Patrick Norman, who showed up in his overalls, said he worked on a farm and enjoyed camping and square dancing, and got the coveted "Dude, you can blow!" from Randy and a ticket to the next round. He also seemingly threatened to pound Clay Aiken into the ground, which may not be the greatest way to woo what proved to be a very large and dedicated fan base a couple of seasons ago.

But Briana Davis was the one who epitomized the show. With her blue hair and funky makeup, she looked more like someone you'd see in a smoky club than a pop contest, and her choice of Phantom of the Opera music seemed to guarantee the usual "you should try theater" dismissal that accompany may who try out with musicals. (In Orlando, Marissa Ganz would get that comment after screaming out a song from "Hair").

Her voice showed enough range to cause the soda glasses to shudder, but the judges all loved her. She made it in.

So did Anthony Fedorov, this night's medical miracle. After breathing problems as an infant forced doctors to perform a tracheotomy, he was told he would never speak again. Instead, the singer who reminded the judges of Clay Aiken was picked to advance to the next round.

Not exactly the happiest place on earthAll the Cleveland performances didn't leave much time for Orlando, but Vonzell Solomon wowed the cameraman with her karate kicks in the waiting room, Paula with her fashion, and all the judges with her singing. With one pink shoe and one green shoe, she sang Aretha Franklin well enough to move on.

Apart from that, Orlando was as unexciting as happy hour in one of the Disney hotels. However, we did learn that as cruel as Simon is sometimes, he doesn't have anything on the contestants. In a "Meet the Fakers" interlude, candidates fooled their loved ones into thinking they got the boot, only to triumphantly wave their golden tickets in the air. Particularly memorable was the guy who picked up his cellphone and said "Grandma, I didn't make it," paused, and said "I'm just kidding! I'm going to Hollywood." Sadly, no cameras were at the scene to determine whether the poor lady needed to restart her heart with medication.

Of course, there were those who tried the gimmick route, and those with legitimate aspirations who Fox turned into gimmicks. In Cleveland, Jennifer Page sought to prove that even mimes can be pop idols, and instead showed they really can't (though Simon did say she was one of the best acts he'd seen in the competition). The Jackson sisters, Lashunda and Leandra, were shown in film clips arguing with each other about which of them would be the next American Idol. The answer, of course, is "neither," with both denied a trip to Hollywood.

And then, there was Dezmond Meeks. The singer and dancer entertained the judges in Orlando with his version of James Brown's "I Feel Good."

It was a little too entertaining for Simon, who quickly voted no.

Randy seemed to be leaning no as well … and then petulant Paula Abdul went ballistic. Finally uttering the "I feel like quitting the show" soundbite that viewers had been hearing all week on the promos, Abdul went onto say that Meeks did James Brown "better than James Brown."

Randy objected that he didn't see Meek to the splits, and when Meeks subsequently hit the floor, that persuaded Randy to send him onto Hollywood. That, or he believed Paula would indeed take her scarf and go home. In a show that went from the Hall of Fame to the Magic Kingdom, he undoubtedly knew every good story needs a happy ending.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.