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‘Idol’ contestants’ relatives sacrifice to be there

Leaves of absence, cheap hotels, friends’ couches all come into play
/ Source: The Associated Press

Millie Hundley is shelling out for airline and hotel costs. Clyde Pickler Sr. is getting by with a little financial help from friends, while Kenneth Daughtry's boss gave him time off and even paid his way from Virginia.

A seat in the studio audience for "American Idol" is free, but contestants' family members — and sometimes those around them — are paying a price to lend moral support to their favorite singers.

Hundley said it's worth the weekly trips from Atlanta to the soundstage at CBS Television City in Los Angeles to see her stepdaughter, Mandisa, perform each Tuesday on Fox's hit series and to be on hand Wednesdays when a contestant is voted off.

"My daughter, who has an awesome singing voice, now has the opportunity to show it to the whole world. She's traveled a lot, she's sung a lot, but now she's on national TV and I get to watch my daughter live my dreams," said Hundley, a church choir soloist.

Her pastor is "so supportive. He's as excited as I am," said Hundley, who works part-time at the Greater Travelers Rest Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., But the expenses are adding up, she said.

"Hey, you want to sponsor me?" she joked, after hearing that Daughtry, brother of contestant Chris Daughtry, had received financial help from his employer and co-workers at a sawmill in Blackstone, Va.

Kenneth Daughtry said he was eager to come because his brother's wife, Deanna, who's caring for two children and recuperating from surgery, couldn't make the trip from McLeansville, N.C. His boss felt the same way.

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"It was something he wanted to do for me because he felt like if it was his brother, he'd want to be out here and support him," said Daughtry, who flew out for a recent show. "I couldn't afford it any other way."

Pickler, grandfather of finalist Kellie Pickler of Albemarle, N.C., is a semiretired electrician and only had to worry about Kellie's dog back home (the pooch is being tended by his girlfriend, Clyde Pickler said.)

He's staying at a Howard Johnson hotel near the airport and friends have helped out with the cost, he said. But he's been using taxis to ferry him the long distances around the city "and that gets kind of expensive," he said.

Neither Daughtry or Pickler are in pricey digs: a room at Howard Johnson goes for about $90, while Daughtry's hotel, the Tradewinds, lists rates from $39.99 to $79.

Elliott Yamin's mother, Claudette, who said she left behind "my volunteer work and maybe a dead battery in my car" in Richmond, Va., has been crashing with various friends in the Los Angeles area.

"I've had good couches and good extra bedrooms," she said. It's more than worth the disruption: "Someone asked me have I pinched myself yet. I said, no, I'm afraid to. It's like a dream. I'm very proud of my son."

Bucky Covington's wife, Crystal, had come out from Rockingham, N.C., for a two-week stay earlier in the contest but now wants to stick it out. The emergency-department nurse said understanding employers gave her the OK.

"I'd just taken a week to come back out for the show and they said, `No, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Just take a leave of absence and come back when you're ready,'" Covington said. "I'll go home, I guess, when I run out of money."

She's staying near the studio and gets to visit only briefly with her husband, who's tied up with rehearsal and promotional duties as well as performances. Their time together is generally limited to dinner, she said.

So how does she spend her days? "I've pretty much done the touristy things. Now I just look for different shops, things we don't have at home."

For a few family members, attending the show requires only a drive. Los Angeles contestant Ace Young's lookalike older brother, Ryan, lives in the area, as does Katharine McPhee's mother, Peisha, and they are usually in the audience.

Meanwhile, the singers themselves are bunking in apartments provided by the show. Also taking advantage of the free housing are the relatives of minor contestants who, by law, must have a guardian with them.

Among the parents keeping a watchful eye is Jamecia Bennett, mother of Paris Bennett, 17. A professional singer herself (she's worked with Janet Jackson and others), Bennett said she's put her own work on hold and considers it worth it.

"This is really the first time I can be settled and just enjoy her," said Bennett, who lives in Deep Haven, Minn., but travels to Los Angeles and elsewhere for recording work. "It's given me a lot of time to do mother-and-daughter bonding."

She also offers parental advice to Paris.

"I tell her, take advantage of this. We didn't have this ('American Idol') machine back then. ... It can give you all the publicity you need," said Bennett.

Another local-area mom on the set was Eleanor Tucker of Anaheim, who stayed with daughter Lisa, 16, while husband Stan Tucker minded the home front. Lisa was voted off last week but her mother's job as show-business chaperone shows no sign of ending.

The day after Lisa lost her shot at winning the show's record contract, the pair were shopping for an outfit for the teenager to wear on NBC's "Tonight Show" and preparing to fly to New York for her appearance on "Live With Regis & Kelly."

Lisa appreciates the support she's gotten from her parents and two older brothers, Eleanor Tucker said.

"She says that all the time. Sometimes at night, when I'm already in bed, she will come to me and say, 'Mom, thank you. I know that you're giving up so much for me.'"