They started coming on Sunday night, even though they weren't supposed to start lining up until noon Monday, bringing with them tents, coolers, umbrellas, sleeping bags, air mattresses and dreams of being the next Kelly Clarkson or Ruben Studdard. They came from all over -- from tiny towns in the Rio Grande Valley to sunbaked burgs in the Colorado plains. Oklahomans and Louisianans seemed especially thick on the ground. By Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 2,500 starry-eyed hopefuls and another 3,000 or so friends and family sitting in the stands at Minute Maid Park or camped out in a maze of steel pens outside.
The area around the stadium's east side looked like a day at the beach, with asphalt taking the place of sand and the racket of traffic on the nearby Highway 59 viaduct taking the place of crashing waves. About 3,000 people had been allowed to camp in the stadium, with the 2,000 or so other would-be pop stars pitching bargain-basement tents in the parking lot. This gaudy tent city was augmented by the blooming oleanders nearby -- unnaturally fluorescent color abounded. In fact, as one local wag put it, it looked like a Wal-Mart had exploded outside Minute Maid Park.
Oddly, there was a shortage of things for the waiting contestants to do. Subway set up a booth, at which bored contestants could win prizes by throwing little footballs into the waistband of Jared's big blue jeans. KRBE (104.1) set up an adjacent booth, from which it blasted the milling thousands with the strains of Uncle Kracker's eminently non-essential remake of Dobie Gray's "Drift Away."
And as it happened, a few of the contestants did just that. Not all of them were content to sit in the parking lot or in the stadium, baking like Mom's apple pie. A few less-wholesome sorts wandered across the street to B.U.S., a cavernous sports bar that normally earns its crust slaking the thirst of rowdy Astros fans. (What was this bar's owner thinking? He's got thousands of wannabe singers, probably half of them of legal drinking age, camping on his doorstep for three days, and it doesn't occur to him to have a karaoke night?) In the far back corner of the bar, a few contestants were knocking back longnecks and sucking down Marlboro Lights at a fairly good clip.
There was Jessie Rasinger and her sister Kelly Bragg, natives of the tiny northeast Texas town of Seagoville, where they grew up on a bull-breeding ranch. Rasinger said she entered to carry on her father's stalled singing career. "My dad was doing the whole singing thing but the guy who was paying for it passed away, so I felt it was my job to finish what he started," she says, and adds that the success of Joshua Gracin last season was an inspiration. "He was country, and he made the top ten, but if this doesn't work out I'll try Nashville Star."
Bragg had intended only to drive Rasinger to the event but decided to enter somewhere along the way. "I'm 21 years old and I'm married and I have two kids, and I just wanted to flee!" she says.
Then there's Jay Calderon, a native of Brownsville and a long-time resident of Houston. Calderon is immaculately dressed, and is seated with a male companion who is not a contestant. Calderon got started young -- singing mariachi songs in Mexican restaurants in the Rio Grande Valley and in Houston. "I want to do this because it's my only opportunity," he says. "It's my last chance -- I'm 24." (American Idol contestants have to be between the age of 16 and 24.) "If I don't do okay here I'm gonna go on that show Fame," he adds.
Someone points out that he would have to dance on that show.
"Naw, I can dance, honey, I can dance," Calderon says, laughing and snapping his fingers and waving one arm at his side.
Dennee' Dimiceli and Brian Murphy round out the contestants at the table. Like Calderon, Dimiceli is hearing the ticking of the "Idological clock" -- she's also 24. "This is my last excuse to get famous," she says. Murphy's a medallion-wearing guy with frosted, spiky hair from California on his second try at this brass ring. Last year he competed in Los Angeles.
"We're sitting back here because none of us wanted to sing in front of everybody else," says Rasinger. "We decided we would critique each other." But it seemed they had richer quarry to carve up right about now, namely the producers of this clusterfuck of an audition.
"You stay over there so long, you just have to get away," snarls Dimiceli. She's an alluring brunette with a degree in fashion, and, by her own admission, expensive tastes to match. She's also the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who is now an organic farmer just outside town, not to mention cousins with Eddie Vedder. "The American Idol people are so mean. They are so rude. They treat all of us like we are animals!"
"Like three-year-olds " chimes in Rasinger.
"The only people they are nice to are the parents," Dimiceli continues. "They cater to the parents. I'm a 24-year-old -- I don't have my mommy with me."
"Mommy, will you come with me?" Rasinger mocks.
"They treat you horribly," Dimiceli says vehemently. "I had a tent and an air mattress and I was gonna be so comfortable but they made me come inside Minute Maid 'cause they said it was gonna be better. And they had us sleeping on the ground in the stadium between the rows of chairs. Yeah, the ground was clean, but if you looked up at the bottom of the chairs, it looked like people had vomited all over the bottom of the chairs. Then at three in the morning I wake up to all these people around me singing. They were going 'Which song sounds the best for me?' or they would just start singing whenever they saw a camera. I'm thinking, 'Save it for when it really counts.'"
"We were told to sit down in the bleachers and they would give us a place to sleep," says Rasinger. "Then they never came back. So we just started making beds. Well, the bathroom is at the top on the concourse. And we are laying down side by side. And there was no way you could get to the bathroom with climbing over about 20 people. So there was a lot of bickering back and forth."
"It's exhausting," Dimiceli says. "It's an emotional roller coaster. One minute it's a rush being here. The next minute you're like, 'Why am I sitting in this frickin' baseball stadium?' But then you look around at your competition, and yeah, there's 7,000 people here, but honestly, there's probably only 2,000 of them that are real competitors. (The parking lot rumor mill had churned out some grossly exaggerated numbers.) And it's very scary. But I'm 24 years old, and this is my last chance. I live a few miles from here, so why not? Why not try to be the next American Idol? But even living this close I can understand how the people that have driven here from Nebraska and Colorado and everywhere else get discouraged, because when they said we could go home I got a break. I went home and took a shower -- it was like time away from jail, basically. They treat you like you are in line to go to hell."
On Monday, the day before this interview, an afternoon thundershower ripped through Houston, and Idol organizers shepherded the contestants to shelter under the Highway 59 viaduct. The line that had formed was destroyed, and those that were near the front were not amused by this development.
"When I first got here there was probably about 700 people in front of me and after they moved us under the bridge, there was maybe a thousand people in front of me," Dimiceli says. "And they gave us one hour to get back in line after the rain. They tried to tell 7,000 people to come back and find their same place in line. It was like a herd of cattle -- people were just bomb-rushing [sic] the front of the crowd. I started out maybe number 700 and after all that I was probably 2,500. All you care about is getting to the front and all you can pray is that they listen to everybody."
"They-will-get-to-eve-ry-bod-y," says Murphy, enunciating every syllable. Hearing his aggrieved tone, one wondered if he had crossed swords with Dimiceli over this point in the recent past. (Days later, Murphy was proved right.)
Dimiceli continues. "Yesterday they told us that they might not "
"This number on your wrist means nothing," Murphy says firmly holding up his wristbanded arm. "In L.A., they got through 3,000 people in two hours. It will be so--"
Dimiceli cuts him off for the first of many times. "They told us yesterday--"
"Once you get in the stadium, it will just go boom! It will clear out--"
"Yesterday they told us, they go, 'Everyone will get to audition.' Well then 104, the big radio station in Houston, comes out and they go, 'Yeah, we're here live at American Idol! There's 7,000 people in line, so if you're planning on coming, you better get down here, because they're only gonna do about 3,000 auditions.' Well, people like me who had waited in line all freakin' day and had lost their spots--"
"There was also 7,000 people in L.A.," Murphy says tensely.
"I heard that only 2,500 auditioned in L.A.," rejoins the ever-pessimistic Dimiceli.
"No!" Murphy exclaims, shaking his head. He was there, dammit, he should know.
"Jessie got it on tape that Fox said that they were gonna audition everybody," Dimiceli says. Rasinger nods, smiling. "It might be a lawsuit waiting to happen," Dimiceli says. "But on their Web site it does say that just because you are waiting in line doesn't mean that you will get through "
Murphy just shakes his head. He knew they'd all get to sing, so he decided to tell them how it would go down. Murphy speaks about what was about to happen with all the world-weariness of an old soldier who had spent too long at the front.
"About one in the morning they'll tell you the time you've got to audition," he says, as if telling them about an impending enemy ambush. "Be ready. About four they'll start moving you like a herd of cattle. You walk up in groups of three and they said, 'We'll keep you, we'll cut you, we'll keep you, we'll cut you.' You sing, but they're judging you on looks too. You sing for 30 seconds. They might say no thanks before you're done. They might give you five notes or the full 30 seconds."
"And then what?" Dimiceli wants to know.
"Then they put you in front of a camera and they give you a list of songs," Murphy replies.
"What if you don't know any of the songs?" Dimiceli asks. Her religious parents allowed no rock and roll in the house, so she's worried she won't know any of the tunes.
"Well, if you've been around music for a while, you're gonna know one of those songs," Murphy says, a tad condescendingly.
"And you have to sing one of those songs?" Dimiceli is clearly scared.
"Yeah," Murphy says. "But they give you a few hours to learn 'em."
"And that's the same day?" Dimiceli again.
"That's the second round," Murphy clarifies. "The second round's the same day."
"But it's not Simon and Paula and all them, right?" Dimiceli has visions of getting in front of cruel Simon and not knowing a word of any of the approved tunes.
"That's the last round, after you go through all these auditions," Murphy says. He hadn't made it to Callow, Jackson and Abdul on his first try.
"So if you get a callback, then you go? So after the second round, they're like, 'All right, we'll let you know?'"
And so on. Murphy thinks he has an advantage this time, that he has honed his act to a razor's edge after not getting through last time. "They don't want a lot of like oh-oooh-whooaa-ooooh," he says, half-heartedly attempting to recreate a Mariah-Whitney style of melismatic, oversouled singing.
"Everybody on the video tape I made last night sounded like that," a smiling Rasinger says, clearly comforted by the notion that all of them are likely doomed.
"They don't want you to wail," Murphy says. "They want you to sing it straight through."
"They want to see your voice as it is so they can see if they can adjust it," Dimiceli opines, though she states it as fact.
"That's kind of why I thought I would have an advantage if I came back " Murphy says before Dimiceli cuts him off yet again.
"That's good because that's how I am. I don't know all that wahhh-ahha-oooh stuff," she says.
" I thought that at least I would know a little more and I would be a little more prepared to--" Murphy continues. This time Rasinger interrupts his musings.
"Yeah, they want to hear a song, so that's all I'm gonna do," she says. "Sing a song."
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Later, Murphy abandons his attempts at enlightening his fellow competitors. He punches up some numbers on his cell. "Hey, Jason," he says into the mouthpiece. "I got you a girl right here," he says, indicating Rasinger. "She's gonna sing for you, someone from Texas! With a Southern twang! She's gonna say something real twangy, and then she's gonna sing for you!"
Rasinger laughs. "A twang? Want me to say, 'Howdy, y'all'?" she asks the table.
Murphy hands her the phone. "Hi, y'all," she says. "Does that sound Texas? 'Cause it is."
Outside the bar, it starts to rain again. The kids in the tent city are getting all wet again. Twenty-four hours to go.