Idol Worship

Andrea Roberts, 28 Nick Cabral, 23 Leilani Otero, 19 Carissa DeCou, 17 Lindsay Rice, 18 Wendy Raney, 28 Demetrice Fed, 18 & Cassie Novek, 19

On August 26, tens of thousands of wannabe American Idol contestants lined up outside the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. Paired with a photographer for a series of exclusive interviews with the singers from our area, we uncovered something bigger in the process. The real story wasn’t about the show — it was about their disappointments, courage, and determination. And their dreams.

By Dean Blinkhorn • Location Photos By Steve Floethe

Over the last three years, American Idol has become nothing less than an international phenomenon. In America, the show’s ratings are so huge that many contestants — whether they won or not — have become overnight celebrities. Kelly Clarkson has released two million-selling CDs, Ruben Studdard became America’s velvet teddy bear, and Fantasia is so big she doesn’t even need to use her last name. Even novelty act William Hung has channeled his 15 minutes of fame into an album deal and a series of TV performances. Surely, a movie must be in the works.

But the biggest American Idol success story has to be Clay Aiken. And he didn’t even win! Clay, the plainest-looking of the finalists, literally transformed himself in front of an audience of millions. Within weeks, he dumped the geeky demeanor of his early performances and adopted a hipper, more contemporary look. Who wouldn’t flat-iron their hair for a chance at a guaranteed recording contract?

But Clay is more than just the most successful American Idol finalist; he’s one of the hottest pop singers right now, period. His fan base straddles two key demographics: tween girls and their Volvo-driving moms. Three hit singles and more than 5 million album sales later, Clay is now poised for an even greater run with his true follow-up CD, expected in fall 2005. He may not be the only American Idol contestant with hits, but he’s the only one right now with legitimate staying power.

So when FOX’s hit reality show announced that it would be auditioning contestants for season four in Orlando on August 26, we knew that many hopefuls would make the short trek from home for a once-in-a-lifetime chance at fame — just like Kelly, Clay, Ruben, and Fantasia.

When I asked American Idol press representative Ally Johnson how many winning contestants might come from the Orlando auditions, she quickly replied, “It could be five. Or five thousand.”

And although none of the local contestants we talked to made it past the grueling first round, each had their own unique American Idol story to share.

Andria Roberts, 28

Despite having a steady job at a doctor’s office in Leesburg, Andria Roberts knew she had to make the short drive to Orlando for a chance to be on American Idol. With husband Vance along for moral support, the young couple left early but found “thousands of cars” had already lined up ahead of them. Andria didn’t let that stop them.

“I’ve sung ever since I can remember,” she offered. “I just love music — I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

With a track record of performances at the Weirsdale Opry, Andria knew she would have to stay focused in the monotonous hours leading up to this career-defining audition. While the other contestants passed the time by singing karaoke and swapping stories, she “didn’t talk much” and “saved her voice” for the judges.

When her number was finally called, Andria was part of a group of four that sang one at a time to a panel of three judges who stopped many singers mid-line or asked others to sing another tune on demand. She considered the process as a “good experience, but very tiring.”

In the end, though, her rendition of Fiona Apple’s slinky “Criminal” didn’t impress the judges. At 28, the age limit for the show, Andria knows that she won’t get a second chance for American Idol, but she has no regrets. She even dedicated this special audition to her daughter.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime shot, but it was worth it.”

Nick Cabral, 23

For Nick Cabral, a graduate of Belleview High School and currently a patient care technician at Munroe Regional Medical Center, trying out for the show was a lark, something his friends and family told him to do.

With a singing background limited to high school chorus, trips to Daytona for karaoke, and a stint in a hard rock band that played parties “just for fun,” Nick knew he had some obstacles before him. He also knew that he had to try anyway.

Nick ultimately decided to sing a favorite song, Boyz II Men’s early-‘90s hit, “In the Still of the Night” — while waiting in line.

“I didn’t know what I was going to sing until I got there,” he explained. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I felt most comfortable with that one.”

Noting the complex arrangement of the song, Nick replied, “I just sang the lead part and didn’t worry about any of the harmonies. But the judges said it wasn’t what they were looking for.”

One judge had screened last season’s winner, Ruben Studdard, two years before and told Nick that he wanted something “different and better.”

Nick realized it was still quite an experience, though, one that he’ll always be able to share with friends and family.

“Although people were tired, everyone got along. It was just fun to meet new people. It was great.”

I asked Nick if he’d heard anyone that might become this season’s William Hung. “No,” he laughed, “I didn’t hear anyone that bad.”

Leilani Otero, 19

Leilani Otero certainly had the look of an American Idol. With strikingly exotic features; dark, flowing hair; and a naturally upbeat personality, she had all but one thing going for her in the auditions — a voice the judges wanted.

With a background that included belting out the national anthem at her graduation but no formal singing lessons, Leilani knew trying out for the show was a long shot. She “just always liked to sing.” However, the obvious talent of the other contestants was significant enough for her to notice right away as she listened to others warming up for their one big moment.

Leilani even found the waiting to be positive, talking to the others in line around her and witnessing no real diva moments. She explained that the environment was more supportive than competitive. In fact, every time contestants rode the elevators to the waiting area clutching a prized orange sheet that meant they had made the next round, a spontaneous cheer would erupt from the crowd.

“I’ve always loved to sing, so this has definitely been a good experience for me,” she said, noting that she planned to return to her biological science studies at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville right after the audition. “But now I can watch the show and know what they have to go through to get up there. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Carissa DeCou, 17

Contestant Carissa DeCou didn’t camp out overnight like most of the other contestants. She and her mom, Shari, stayed at a nearby hotel instead. Hailing from Leesburg, Carissa recently graduated from a home-schooling program and was really looking forward to coming down to Orlando to audition.

Although a few years younger than most of the contestants, Carissa, like Leilani, also looked like an American Idol. But despite her best efforts with Christina Aguilera’s demanding ballad, “Reflection,” she didn’t advance to the next round. In fact, she barely got to perform at all because the judge cut her off almost before she started.

“She only had me sing the first verse and part of the chorus,” Carissa explained. “I thought they were very nice about it, but I just wanted an explanation.”

She couldn’t say the same for a few of the other contestants, though, offering that she’d “seen a couple of tantrums.” But, overall, Carissa described the backstage-like environment of the waiting area, where contestants would burst out singing at almost any time or could be seen primping and changing clothes in the nearby restrooms, as “very supportive.” She’s considering trying out again next year.

The teen’s background was very similar to many of the other contestants: parts in the school choir and performances with her local church. Her upbeat personality and easy good looks would certainly have charmed the show’s cameras and perhaps the nationwide audience. But not this year.

Still, Carissa recognizes that she’s young enough to pursue anything. She plans on auditioning at Walt Disney World and is going to be a vocal performance major in college.

“I’m a singer,” she offered. “That’s what I do.”

Lindsay Rice, 18

For Lindsay Rice, an Inverness resident for more than a decade and a student at nearby Withlacoochee Technical Institute, staying at a nice hotel wasn’t an option.

“We actually slept on the side of the building until we got kicked out,” she laughed. “But I really wanted to do this because I’ve liked the show since it first came out.”

However, she quickly realized the judges had high expectations for this year’s preliminary auditions.

“They were looking for something extraordinary,” she explained, “because a lot of these people were really good and didn’t make it.”

Lindsay chose to perform Jewel’s “You Were Meant For Me” to the pair of judges at her audition table. But despite similarly styled straight locks, she didn’t share the singer’s distinctive voice and was cut. She admits that nerves may have affected her performance, but that the judges “were very nice” about telling her the bad news. Her mood afterwards was laid back and reflective.

“It’s cool,” she said. “I’ll come back next year.”

Wendy Raney, 28

By day, Wendy Raney is a warrantee administrator at the Bo Williams car dealership in Ocala. At night and on weekends, she’s a singer. Hailing from New York, she developed a deep love of performance from her classically trained upbringing. Auditioning for American Idol was simply something she “had to try.”

We first spotted Wendy’s support group waiting for her to return at the top of the escalators in the expansive waiting area. Her husband, James, described her love of music in detail and was obviously proud of his wife’s persistence and talent. When Wendy returned empty-handed, they shared a lengthy embrace before agreeing to a quick interview.

Like the others assembled in the convention hall, Wendy knew this was an almost-impossible hope. With an estimated crowd nearly 20,000 strong, the odds of making it out of Orlando alone were not very promising. Add to that number the contestants trying out in other cities across the nation, and one could probably play the lottery with more hope than even appearing for a second on any part of the American Idol telecast.

Wendy chose a Disney classic, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, perhaps hoping that the tender song might be a hometown favorite. It brought no luck at all.

After the audition, Wendy remained upbeat and promised to still watch the show when it returns on January 18.

“I’m okay with not making it. And honestly,” she offered, “I’m a good singer.”

Demetrice Fed, 18 & Cassie Novek, 19

For friends Demetrice Fed and Cassie Novek of Leesburg, auditioning for American Idol was an experience that needed to be shared. Self-described “best friends” from middle school, the pair came down early together and camped out in one of the hallways.

A graduate of Eustis High, Cassie chose to sing an original composition, “Baby You’re the One,” to the judges. Despite her cute, girl-next-door appearance and friendly smile, the tune failed to chart with the judges.

“I thought I was going to make it because I have a good voice,” she said, “but I guess it’s not high enough for the show.”

Demetrice, a senior at Leesburg High, also sang an original, but his performance of “I Want More” also failed to get him past the preliminary audition room. He still had big plans after graduation, though. And of course they include Cassie.

“We’re going to go into the studio to make a demo, a little bit of everything,” he confided. “We thought this was going to work, but they were looking for something else.”

Meanwhile, Cassie was impressed with the behavior of the other contestants.

“I thought they were going to be snobby or something,” she said, “but they’ve been very sweet.”

Both noted that the judges broke the news to them in a very professional manner and were relieved that none were as blunt as Simon Cowell (see sidebar) on the actual show.

“They were really good about it,” said Demetrice, intimating that he plans to audition again next year. When I asked him why, he answered simply, “Because I came here to live my dream.”

Simon Says

American Idol judge Simon Cowell’s outspoken tips on how to make it in the music industry.

Create a platform. “Justin Timberlake correctly established himself long before his solo career ever began. His main move, of course, was being in ‘N Sync, although dating Britney Spears didn’t hurt.”

Use your connections. “From the start, Eminem used his professional connections as well as his rivalries to elevate himself. His timing was immaculate, his songs are sensational, he has tabloid appeal, and he cuts across all races.”

Get representation. “A good manager is an absolute necessity, because I have never, ever met anyone in my life who got a record deal by sending in an unsolicited tape. It’s a complete waste of time.”

Put in the hard work. “This has always been a problem on American Idol, particularly in the first year. The contestants moaned constantly. I have very little patience for anybody who isn’t prepared to put in fifteen-hour days at the start of their career.”

Find good material. “You need to find your way to the best songwriters and producers in the world. Most good songwriters are whores — they go where the money is.”

Don’t bother. “The odds of succeeding are absolutely astronomical. Have you ever met a hotel bar singer who tells you, ‘Yes, I entered the music business so I could end up singing in a hotel bar’?”

Excerpted from Simon Cowell’s bestselling book, I Don’t Mean To Be Rude, But…

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