Walking into the Reliant Stadium lot reminded Art Attack of the livestock show we'd seen there months earlier. Thousands and thousands of people packed together in the parking lot by 5 a.m. this morning -- we'd guess between 20,000 and 30,000 -- to audition for American Idol, and thousands more filed in over the next few hours. People were fenced in like cattle in seven or eight different groups; once a group was full to capacity, the fence was secured and blocked off and another area was opened.
We patrolled the area in darkness as thousands of vocal chords woke up together. A few people brought guitars and formed campfire circles, singing Tom Petty and Alice in Chains. Some people who had been in the lot since 4 a.m. brought blankets and chairs and were dozing off, preserving their voices for another five hours.
Most of the Idol hopefuls we spoke with were between the ages of 15 and 17, and were accompanied by supportive and curiously energetic family members. Some of the parents seemed more excited than their vocally inclined children.
Tracie Dawson was one of the more memorable parents. She was impossible to miss, with a neon pink wig and a large pink sign that was at least double her height. From far away, we figured that she was the one who was auditioning, but as we approached, the photograph glued to the sign indicated otherwise.
"Oh no! I'm too old to audition! This sign is for my daughter, CeCe," she said.
The Dawsons flew out from a small town in Missouri to chase 15-year-old CeCe's dream, a dream she's had since she sang "Honey I'm Home" with Shania Twain onstage at a concert.
"We're from Kearny, which is a small town north of Kansas City," Tracie Dawson explained. "Because it's such a small town, we were able to put on a fundraiser on Facebook and get the whole town behind her."
Another parent, Susan Stuart, was fixing her daughter Kenzy's pinup-girl curly locks as we approached. "Hold on, let me fix her hair. Sorry, I'm such a stage mom," she laughed.
The pair drove to Houston from Arizona, where Kenzy attends school. The 19-year-old is majoring in a very specific vocal style at Arizona State University: German opera.
After she gave us a preview of her best opera voice, she explained that her interest all started from watching Fiddler on the Roof and other movies that "moms force you to watch."
Ryan Seacrest made a cameo around 7:30 a.m. and did a brief introduction for Fox. He's shorter in person, but not much different than his TV presence. He shook hands, signed autographs and took pictures while the cameras weren't rolling.
He even laughed uncomfortably when a contestant in the front row of the group shouted, "RYAN, YOU CAN GET IT!!"
When the cameras stopped rolling, people were finally allowed inside the stadium. After the last group trudged in, we caught a crying straggler. We didn't think we'd see any tears until after the auditions.
Samantha Humphrey from Huntsville arrived at Reliant Stadium at 6 a.m. and waited for hours to get through the gates. When she arrived at the front of the line four hours later, security wouldn't let her through; she forgot to register and get a wristband. By that time, registration was closed.
"This was my one shot, this was my golden ticket and I missed it," mumbled Humphrey through her tears. She hung around contemplating whether to break in through an opening in the gate, asking us not to tell, but eventually gave up and went home.
The first Idol contestants we caught leaving the auditions were the winners of the Disney Dream Tickets. The small-scale American Idol pre-contest was held in Orlando and the winners were given the "dream tickets" to avoid waiting in line at the official tryouts.
Laura Coubillon was one of the first dream ticket winners out of the gate whose heart started racing when the judges instructed her to step forward and sing another song after her first try.
"First I sang 'Crazy' by Taylor Swift. We all stepped back and they asked me to come back up and sing another song, so I started getting excited. When they asked me to smile, they put their folders up and started whispering," Coubillon recalled.
"They asked us all to come back up to the desk and told us we all had talent, but it wasn't what they were looking for. But one of the judges looked at me and said, 'Make sure you come back next year.'"
The second aspiring star to leave auditions was Erica Appel, a Dream Ticket winner from New Jersey who has Broadway experience and spoke to us with a calm assurance we weren't expecting.
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"I came all the way down here and I didn't make it. They told me, 'It's not what we're looking for this year'," said Appel.
"I sang 'Alone' by Heart, so I assume they're not looking for rock. Judging by the girl in my group who got in, they're probably looking for someone more bluesy."
Like many of the other contestants Art Attack spoke with this morning, Appel didn't seem fazed by the events of the morning or by the fact that she wasn't what the judges were "looking for."
Before she left to find her mother and get ready to fly back to Jersey, she pointed toward the giant stadium, smiled and asked, "What is this, anyway? It's just a reality show."