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I want to be an ‘Idol’: Truth behind auditions

On the day of my "American Idol" audition, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with high expectations and to a torrential Seattle September downpour. Today I might meet the Holy Trinity of rock star promise — Randy, Paula, and Simon.  By Whitney Henry
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On the day of my "American Idol" audition, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with high expectations and to a torrential Seattle September downpour. Today was the day that I might meet the Holy Trinity of rock star promise, the guardians to the gate of all things Hollywood hip — Randy, Paula, and Simon. 

Pondering the greater questions in life (like how I would tell Paula that “Forever Your Girl” was my favorite album growing up), I donned my cute outfit, moussed my hair, and hurried on my way.  When I got to Key Arena, home of the Seattle SuperSonics and Audition Central, it was 6:30 am, it was still pouring down rain.

I began to wonder what the point was of waking up early and trying to make myself look good if I was just going to stand for hours and have my face melt off.  Perhaps the rain was a test of endurance, or a baptism, cleansing my mind of all doubt and fear. 

I walked all around the complex trying to find the back of the line, and after what seemed like a mile, I took up my place at the end.  The line continued to build for what looked to be several city blocks behind me.

While waiting in line, I met a pretty blonde girl named Jessica, who had flown in from LA for the audition.  She had auditioned once before and was more than willing to share her experiences.  When I asked her for any advice, she looked at me with serious eyes and relayed a message that I shall share with you, the reader: Remember that first and foremost this is a reality TV show, not a talent show.  At Jessica's previous audition, she reported that a girl dressed up like the Statue of Liberty was ushered in to see the producers without even having to audition. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses desperate for fame.

At eight o’clock, they began letting people in the auditorium, but it was still another hour before everyone got inside.  Once everyone was settled, people began to chat excitedly — were they there?  The Randy, The Paula and The Holy Terror? 

Rumors were circulating rampantly, and I heard from one girl that William Hung had been outside distributing donuts.  Apparently we were already in the midst of warbling royalty, and I had no idea.

We built this city on 50+ takesWe expected the auditions to begin immediately, but alas, that was not the case.  No, first we had to film the crowd shots for the show that would air three months later, in January.  A man on a mike explained to us that the cameras would be making large sweeps of the crowd and that we were expected to follow his instructions. Several people around me began to complain. The three girls in front of me slumped down in their seats and napped.

At the ticket distribution, the "American Idol" staff had informed contestants that we should be familiar with Starship's 1985 "We Built This City." (Named the  "the #1 Most Awesomely Bad Song Ever" by Blender Magazine in 2004, though that fact wasn't mentioned.)

If we weren’t familiar with the song when we got to the auditions, we were definitely well acquainted afterwards. We sang the song all the way through, standing and cheering as the cameras passed overhead.  And then we sang it again.  And then we sang it fifty more times, just for good measure. 

We built that city on rock and roll for what felt like hundreds of times, and we were tired.  None of us were there to become carpenters or construction workers — we wanted to be rock stars, and this was just a repetitive means of keeping us from our destiny.  Once the song was over, there was a collective sigh of relief, but the producers were nowhere near done with us.

The crowd was also told to repeat phrases that the producers thought would make catchy introductions to the show or advertisement teasers, such as, “Cheer up, Simon, it’s only rain,” and “I’m the next American Idol,” where we had to point at ourselves as the camera swooped overhead.  Apparently several of us had difficulty pointing on cue, because we did that take several times. 

Inspired by the liquid sunshine falling outside, one of the producers went out on a limb and made the oh-so-original decision that we should sing "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head." The last-minute decision unnerved some singers, who didn't know the lyrics. The boy next to me kept singing, “raindrops keep falling on my head, but that doesn’t mean my life will soon be over, dead.”

We sang that song, too, over and over and over again, and then we were asked to open our umbrellas and twirl them about.  Then we moved them from side to side with the cadence of the song.  And then we twirled them some more.  I wondered how Fox would feel about getting sued when someone inevitably poked their eye out given the tiny space we were squeezed into, but there was no bloodshed, just grumbling.

At one point midmorning, we had our own little ray of sunshine — "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest strolled into the auditorium.  Everyone got excited and moved around craning for a glimpse.  A glimpse was all we got; from where I was seated, Ryan Seacrest looked more like a walking stick figure.

He grabbed the microphone and welcomed us, and we were all tricked into thinking that the auditions were about to begin, but as was par for the course, they did not.  For the umpteenth time, we were required to pose for the camera.  Mr. Seacrest had to do his own takes, and we were his wallpaper.  We had to sit silently and wait for his session to wrap, and occasionally, cheer on cue.

One poor guy was called out in front of the entire auditorium for wearing a hat with a logo on it.  The producer told him to remove his hat and spoke into the microphone that the show is “sponsored by Ford, not Honda.” Ford tough, indeed.

It was now almost 11 a.m. and not a single person had sung before a judge. 

Finally, we were done with Seacrest’s shots, and a new media titan joined the group: Nigel Lythgoe, producer of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” After he plugged his upcoming documentary about running a vineyard ("Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes"), he told us about the audition process.

There were supposed to be 12 stations of judges, two to each booth (in reality there were only 11 because they either couldn’t make the tables fit across the floor or else they’d forgotten to pack one). We, the contestants, would be brought down in sections and placed in groups of four at one of the 12 (11) booths. We eventually would have about 15 seconds to perform a song of our choice. 

For those of you who are poor at math, that’s 48 (44) people auditioning every minute or so.  From there, we would either receive a Golden Ticket to advance to the next round, or we would have our wristband cut off, our dreams crushed, and be sent on our merry way. 

It became apparent that there would be no rubbing elbows with the Immaculate Three.  Simon, Paula and Randy were not in the building.  We would, however, get to audition for Mr. Lythgoe if we made it past the first round.  Mr. Lythgoe wished us luck and encouraged us to argue with the judges if there was a camera nearby. Then we were off.

Fifteen seconds of fameI was in a middle section, so I knew I’d have a bit of a wait, but nothing prepared me for the five hours I was about to endure in a cramped seat, still soaked and now being blasted with Key Arena's fine air-conditioning. 

I entertained myself by watching the Crazies.  There were people with signs, people in costumes, people dressed like ladies of the night and their brokers. My favorite sign claimed that if they didn’t let a  certain girl on television, her boss would fire her. I saw Wonder Woman, Uncle Sam, and Madonna from every decade.  The Crazies were selling indulgences, but instead of money they were rationing out dignity, and instead of Heaven, they got a ticket onto television.  And several of them did get that elusive Golden Ticket.

But I did not.  After overhearing a couple singers (a horrible version of "Can You Stand the Rain?" and a dynamite take on "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," which did earn its crooner a golden ticket), I was finally up before two judges, to sing second in a group of four women.

The woman in front of me was terrible (and didn't even bother to wear anything classier than sweatpants), but at least she smiled.  I had originally planned to sing “Sin Wagon” as my audition piece, but eventually decided not to sing a Dixie Chicks song in front of Fox producers. 

I picked Eva Cassidy's version of "At Last" instead.  I sang my fifteen seconds, and I was pretty pleased at how I sounded.  The two singers that sang after me weren't terrible, but there wasn’t anything flashy or fancy about the four of us. The male judge took a moment to consider and then delivered his verdict, “I’m sorry ladies, but I’m going to have to pass this time.”

As I left the audition I wondered — should I have worn a costume?  Dressed up like a Madonna? The Madonna? Should I have made a sign announcing that my hometown was hundreds of miles away? Should I have done cartwheels or handsprings like some of the other contestants?  I then remembered that I can’t do cartwheels or handsprings, and reality set back in.  Reality.  Reality television, and not a talent show.  Jessica’s words came flooding back to me.  I could have done any one of those things sacrificing my dignity, and perhaps gotten on television, but was it worth it?

I had walked through the gates and come back out again, not with a Golden Ticket, but with the knowledge that I had done the best I could and there’s some pride in that.  Perhaps the reality is that I’m just not cut out for reality television.  I rather like my dignity, and prefer to keep it intact.

Although, I do wonder when "The Apprentice" auditions are coming up.

Although being the next "American Idol" is not in Whitney Henry's future, she will graciously accept a record deal from another company.