Lining Up to Be the Next 'Idol'

Times Staff Writers

By 6 a.m., the line for the concrete bathrooms outside the Rose Bowl was positively undulating as contestants hopped from foot to foot, waiting. They entered wrapped in blankets. They emerged resplendent in sequins and bright slashes of red leather.

Auditions began Monday morning for the second season of Fox's surprise television hit, "American Idol," transforming the Rose Bowl into a glitter-dusted refugee camp for pop-star wannabes. Contestants began assembling last Thursday and, by sunrise Monday, they were almost 7,000 strong, 4,000 fresh-faced crooners with entourages of parents, friends and cranky siblings.

Dino Yazzie, 21, drove to Pasadena from a Navajo reservation in Arizona, telling no one where he was headed, especially not his father, who would have called the trip "a waste of time and gas." The reservation gets only one mainstream radio station and the No. 1 single recorded by last year's winner, Texas cocktail waitress Kelly Clarkson, plays on it nonstop.

Joe Warrick, 22, of Merrillville, Ind., came to the Los Angeles tryout after being rejected last year in Chicago and again this fall in Detroit.

"I'm determined. I'm going to get it one day," he said. "When I sing for people, it is a love inside, a love like no other." Besides, he added, "there's no need to say it, but the paychecks are not too shabby."

Los Angeles is the final stop on a seven-city recruiting tour that will yield about 30 contestants for the televised talent show, which will air from January to April. The winner gets a $1-million recording contract. The losers get ridiculed publicly by British judge Simon Cowell. The tryouts have drawn about 25,000 amateur vocalists nationwide, with the turnout in Los Angeles larger than any other city, organizers said.

Hopefuls passed the nervous, slow hours of waiting by chewing raw garlic and drinking olive oil to coddle their vocal cords. Aged 16 to 24, with taste buds to match, they ate endless boxes of Cheese Nips and tubes of Pringles. They spoke earnestly about their musical influences (Britney vs. Christina, Justin vs. the Backstreet Boys).

But mostly, they sang. And sang and sang.

Late into Sunday evening, teenagers clustered in circles, singing songs such as Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" to each other. Most eventually succumbed to exhaustion, but even at 2 a.m., the parking lot continued to echo with cover tunes. At least one contestant left his place in line to drive to the gym for a midnight workout.

The Palmer family, including contestant Jennifer, her twin sister Jessica and parents Bill and Yvette, brought propane heaters from San Diego, but they were forced to turn them off after security officials deemed them fire hazards.

Stephanie Nilsby nestled down between her mother and her mother's friend under a mountain of bedding, trying to stay warm.

Nilsby said she has wanted to sing, "Omigosh, since I was little! I did my first solo when I was 5 at church." She traveled from Salem, Ore., for the tryout and her hometown newspaper has already written about her journey.

As the auditions drew nearer, rumors whipped through the crowd: Wristbands would be handed out at midnight. No, at 2 a.m. No, it would be 8 a.m.

Senior producer David Goffin laughed. "I told people nothing," he said. He spent the night in a golf cart, circulating through the crowd. "We wake everyone up at five."

Why? Because it took two to three hours for the bedraggled campers to transform themselves into proto-rock stars.

Many emulated the provocative fashion stylings of their own American entertainment idols.

"You look at some of the kids and you think, 'It's a talent show. Don't be nude,' " said Sharon Mongalo Johnson, of Long Beach, who accompanied her son Alejandro Mongalo. Contestants under 18 needed to be accompanied by parents or guardians.

Johnson said she initially resisted her son's desire to be on "American Idol." She envisions him at a top-rated university next fall, and says proudly that he has the grades to get there.

But she said she saw "that sparkle in his eye" and decided she didn't want him always wondering if he could have made it if his mother hadn't held him back. She almost changed her mind, however, when she found out she would be spending the night on cold asphalt.

At about 8 a.m., organizers began to issue numbers for contestants to wear on their bellies. The first thousand walked through the Rose Bowl gates. They were led single-file like ducklings to a white tent, where they waited, again, to sing for the show's producers.

Then, they were taken into rooms to perform for the judges. If they did well, they went upstairs in the stadium and sang some more.

Katie Smith, who came from Iowa for the tryout, glowed with metallic glitter as she waited for her chance.

"Singing is the only thing I've ever envisioned myself doing," she said. "All my friends, my professors [at Drake University] ... they call me rock star."

The roughly 3,000 contestants left in the parking lot did not get formal auditions Monday. They sang for producers who listened for as little as three or four seconds before deciding their fate.

About 1,200 of them received blue or orange wrist bands and an invitation to sing for the show's producers today and Wednesday at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.

One producer, who would not give her name, held hopefuls' pillows, sleeping bags and makeup valises while they belted out their hopes and dreams.

"No, I'm sorry," she said, over and over. "Thank you very much."

Veronica Necochea and Tahphi Braswell, both 18, came to the audition together from San Diego.

"Did you get a wristband?" Veronica asked.

"Yes," Tahphi said.

"I didn't," Veronica said. "Is that bad? That's it? That's it?"

Goffin said the producers pick finalists based not only on singing skill, but on personality and charisma. "You know it when you hear it," he said. "You look for someone you can't take your eyes off."

Goffin pooh-poohs accusations that producers select people based on their looks or deliberately include a few tone-deaf croakers. The producers are conscious that "these are kids' dreams we have out here," he said.

Some of the contestants burst into tears as they received the bad news. Others took it with a stoic shrug. Yazzie, who came from the Navajo reservation, sang just a few seconds of Whitney Houston's "Miracle." For a moment he allowed himself to ponder the possibility of winning, of quitting his job in the human resources office of a Bureau of Indian Affairs school for a life of tours, music videos and starlight.

As he wandered off into the parking lot late Monday morning, he wore a blue wrist band.

"My voice is kind of shaking," he said. "I'm excited. I need to drink like a gallon of water."

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