Review and Tidings reporter Nicole DeCosta sets journalism aside for a weekend of waiting, more waiting, a brief audition and too many other wannabe American Idols
Honey drips from small plastic bears into panicked throats. Complete strangers hold hands. One room is filled with more hum's and oom's than a slue of trapped Catholics singing Gregorian chants. And I realize far too many people study the words and voice inflection of Britney Spears.
Two weeks ago, I - along with nearly 10,000 other hopeful Americans - tested my fate while trying out for the Fox television hit show American Idol at the Key Arena in Seattle.
With amateurs competing for a record contract and unlimited promotion, the show searches for America's next superstar. And attendees at Key Arena were thirsty for tinseltown.
But how did I - a small town newspaper reporter who grew up in Lake Oswego - end up in Key Arena's Section 122, Row 8, Seat 5?
Because I had to.
The family's starlet
As a kid I'd make up my own radio shows at home and recorded them with friends. We'd interview each other and sing along to songs by Paula Abdul, Madonna and Mariah Carey.
In junior high I started guitar lessons - and later drum, piano, dance and acting lessons - and stayed up far too long after my bedtime studying the moves and voice of Gwen Stefani.
I started writing songs, lots of songs.
And I never stopped.
Correction: I will never stop.
High school was challenging for my parents.
A once-basement media room was transformed into a music studio and longhaired boys started disappearing with me for hours at a time downstairs. We wrote and recorded songs. We pretended to be MTV heartthrobs. And now I realize we were training for the rest of our lives.
My music was featured in three movies while I was in college, I came in second place in a campuswide songwriter competition at Oregon State and I released a demo CD. My friends supported me.
One of those lifelong musician friends - and now boyfriend and band mate - was Travis Hendricks from Lake Oswego.
And two weeks ago, Travis and I sat in Key Arena laughing about why we were there, what would happen to our band if one of us 'made it' and the trials and tribulations of trying to 'make it big.'
Singing in the rain
Like bats out of hell, Travis and I took off at 5 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, to race to Seattle to get registered for the Tuesday audition. As we sang to Bon Jovi's 'Living on a Prayer,' we sped into the unknown - to be at the whim of producers we'd never met and who knew nothing about us.
The hour-long registration line beneath the Space Needle quad seemed simple enough. A guy on crutches with a broken foot told us to break a leg during the competition and I realized we had two days before we really had to do anything.
Organizers slapped paper wristbands around each of us, gave us seat assignments and some paperwork and we were on our way.
My sister, Alicia, and my mom, Johnyne, drove up from Portland to hear all of our immediate adventures. I told them how I had to shower with a bag on my wrist in order to not ruin the paper wristband. We got them registered to attend the cattle call with us and I drowned myself with NyQuil so I could fall asleep quickly Monday night as to get up at 3:30 a.m. and try to look decent.
Tuesday morning came too soon. My mom said she never slept. As I clumsily tried to straighten my hair, bleach my teeth and gather far too many pieces of personal identification to prove I was 23 years old, thousands of routine-ready patrons were already lining up outside Key Arena.
And then the rain came, typical Seattle.
By 4:45 a.m. all four of us - Travis, my mom, sister and I - disappeared into a sea of umbrellas and swarm of vocal warm ups. Future pop stars looked more like soccer coaches and my hairspray was really getting its 'maximum hold' test.
Around 8 a.m. the sea of people snaked its way into the arena and we took our seats, Travis and I on one side, my family on the other. It was then we realized that none of us had to wait in line since we had assigned seats. Some people waltzed in after a full night's rest and sat right next to us.
And so the waiting began.
After an hour of group sing-a-longs to (Jefferson) Starship's 1985 hit, 'We Built This City,' everyone in section 122 was growing restless. We had to leave our food outside the arena and auditions were far from starting. I picked at a secret bagel in my backpack.
Soon, the group sing-a-longs turned into cheers as the show's host Ryan Seacrest paraded around the floor of the arena to film a few opening segments of the TV show after countless make-up touchups.
Say, 'Welcome to Seattle,' the director would say. And like robots we all smiled and cheered and chanted into the camera, which swooped and swiveled from a large crane in the center of the court.
More filming. The director would yell, 'Umbrellas up. Umbrellas down.'
Cheering. Waving. Just smiling. And more touch ups for Seacrest. Didn't people know it was bad luck to open an umbrella indoors?
Now it was noon. Not one person had auditioned. And we had no food.
Just before 1 p.m. black partitions with numbers lined the center of the court. Progress was being made.
Each section - all 20 of them - was dismissed one at a time to make its way onto the floor and audition in front of a judge at a table. As our section waited for hours, it was entertaining to watch the hopefuls' audition process.
Between six and eight people auditioned at one time on the floor of the arena. If you were stuck next to an amplified Aretha Franklin wannabe it was tough luck. There were no microphones. No cameras filming. And you got mere seconds to share your very being with a stone-faced stranger.
It seemed some people ripped the vocal chords from their favorite singer - I heard amazing Alicia Keys and Aerosmith renditions. Other attendees had never sung to anyone but their own reflection in the rear view mirror - shy, hands in their pockets, holding bulky purses and one girl tripped walking up to the table.
I felt confident. After a $5 hot dog, pep talk with my mom - 'make sure you smile, sing loud, yada, yada' - I took my seat. It was nearing 3 p.m. and our section was being called.
I listened to what songs were being sung around me so I could choose an appropriate one. I had a strategy. They had heard pop songs all day. I wanted to add some soul - blues singer Jonny Lang's song 'Touch' was going to set me apart, a rock/blues ballad with lots of wailing and sultry undertones.
Everyone marched in front of the judge and stood like statues. I was going to use my five-foot standing area as a stage.
Travis and I marched in, sweaty, hand in hand. I became silent. He started telling jokes. This was it.
I looked into the stands and to my surprise my mom became Santa Claus. Hauling oversized black garbage bags of wet everythings from the morning, she and my sister lugged our worldly possessions through rows of people so they could get a clear view of us auditioning.
Travis sang Eve 6's 'Here's to the Night' before being excused.
I was next. I was called up and told the woman, while smiling, 'I'm going to mix it up a bit. I'm going to sing you guys some popular blues by Jonny Lang.'
I started the chorus. I smiled. I waved my arm around like a brunette Christina Aguilera. I walked around but kept eye contact. I belted it. I pretended like I was on stage at the Tonic Lounge in Portland and all my friends were swinging pitchers of beer and singing along.
'Thank you, that will be all,' the woman said.
I took my place in line next to Travis to hear the results of our performances.
'Thank you but I'm going to have to pass today,' she said.
Within a minute, a man had snipped our wristbands off and we were led to an exit door. We were outside. Done. Finished. Nothing, but was it a complete waste of time?
Waiting on hope
I suppose there are a lot of people like me - dreamers, living on hope and confident that whatever happens is for a reason. It wasn't time for my big break.
But what is it about American Idol that entices so many young people? Is it the fame? The prestige? The record contracts? The award shows? The parties?
For me, it was the challenge. I've always wanted to make a difference in the world and be a positive role model. And if I'm not tired at the end of the day, I've wasted time.
I think everyone does some soul searching in life, trying to find their niche, their sense of belonging and something they're truly good at. For many, this American Idol audition may have been that search. I found my niche a decade ago with writing and performing music.
And although I am not the 2007 American Idol, I am more motivated than ever.
My band, Macadam, is releasing a new demo CD within weeks, we've got more shows lined up and I seem to be getting up earlier and earlier to write lyrics at breakfast. I know my strengths, my weaknesses and am excited for my musical journey ahead.
How well can you get to know someone in a 20-second audition, anyway? It took me 11 hours in a crowded entrapment of pop songs to find out who I truly am. And I am completely comfortable with that.
So, what is an American Idol?
Someone who does something they love whether they get paid for it or not. I've got a passion that drives me, positive progress behind me and goals in front of me. It's all in good time. And when that time comes, I just hope it doesn't take a rainstorm, starvation and one chorus for someone to discover what I have to offer.
Editor's note: To listen to Nicole DeCosta and Travis Hendricks perform, visit their Web site at www.myspace.com/mac