Valentina Valentini | Longreads | April 2018 | 9 minutes (2,320 words)
After 16 hours, 5 hot dogs, 2 nacho bowls, 3 sodas, and 20,000 people, I felt more like an idiot than an idol.
Walking down the steps to Qualcomm Stadium’s field level, I wondered how I’d gotten there. Four days prior I was tuned into my go-to San Diego radio show, “AJ’s Playhouse” on 99.3 FM, when they plugged upcoming American Idol auditions. I cursed aloud to no one, because two years earlier — as an even younger and more attention-hungry woman — I’d promised myself that if they ever came to the city I was living in I would audition.
Ten years later, as a supposedly mature 34-year-old, seeking 15 minutes of fame is very low on my list of priorities, far below items like “find a great yoga studio” and “figure out which hair dye covers grays best.”
But back in 2008, there I was on that Saturday morning. I arrived at 9 on the dot to stand in line, eager. It took two hours — just to register.
I met sleek Barry and cherubic Rory while waiting in that godforsaken first line. (If only I had known what was to come.) They were a couple from Hillcrest, the epicenter of San Diego’s LGBTQ scene, hopping with gay bars and the city’s annual Pride Parade. Barry was auditioning, and Rory was there for support. I’d come alone, so my two new besties were a welcome addition to a morning crowded with narcissists. (Not including us, of course.)
Lacking for distractions in line — these were the days before cell-phones-as-mobile-entertainment-centers — we formulated theories about how it was all going to go down. Would we meet Paula and Randy? Would Simon deign to set foot in a stadium if he weren’t the halftime entertainment? Would it be filmed? Who were the crazies going to be? You know, the ones whose auditions are so ridiculous that they get aired for that reason alone.
We were excited — in retrospect, naïve is more like it — and never imagined the cattle call that was to unfold over the next 24 hours. The mastery of producing a show like this is to never let them see the wizard. But we were the wizards — all 20,000 of us, hundreds of thousands if you add up the people for all the other cities — and in my case, the wizard was a beaten-down twentysomething, mascara mixing with sweat, hopes of stardom ripped out of her sticky-with-junk-food hands.
Two years earlier — as an even younger and more attention-hungry woman — I’d promised myself that if American Idol ever came to the city I was living in I would audition.
After (finally) successfully registering, we decided to meet at Barry’s house at 3:30 a.m. — yes, a.m. — the next day to head to the stadium. I was glad to have joined up as Three Amigos and thankful that Barry and Rory were so welcoming to a near stranger. The rules explicitly said no camping, so we were confident there wouldn’t be too big of a crowd by 4 in the morning.
There were 5,000 people.
Someone with a loud bullhorn told us we’d be shuffled in by 8 a.m. They didn’t use the term shuffle, but I assure you, we were shuffled. And it wasn’t until 9 that the line — a disorganized mass, 20 bodies wide, each only centimeters from the next — began to trundle forward. Some cheered as the prospect of getting into the stadium became a possibility. The sound of those whoops coincided with the moment when excitement began to bleed out and embarrassment began to creep in.
Forty-five minutes and 50 feet later, we were at the front of the line. They were letting groups of about 100 through the side gate to the outer ring of the stadium, making us duck under a rope. Oh the horror of it. It felt like the start of the Boston Marathon, except these competitors were caked in makeup, some balanced on heels, some carrying pillows and curling irons and banjos; some with big hair and some with greasy faces. One person had even brought their own music stand. And as the cameras closed in on the overtly gregarious ones — answering our question from earlier as to whether or not this would be filmed — I wanted to be peppy like them and give a gorgeous smile for the camera. But the sinking feeling that I was a cow being prodded along just made me want to give the finger instead.
As is common for San Diego springs, the sun beamed bright by mid-morning, and after what felt like another two hours but was probably more like 20 minutes, it was our turn to go under the rope — one of the many inexplicable obstacles that day. As Barry, Rory, and I made our way, we suddenly realized we were not in fact at the entrance to the stadium, but instead on the side of it, on a cement patio area decorated with a few trees shading some cement picnic tables. As they got each group to squeeze together to fill in the dead space, it became clear what the producers had in store for us. Cameras on technocranes panned above our heads and the bullhorn instructed us to cheer on cue: “Welcome to San Diego!” and “We Love American Idol.” We performed this menial, exhausting task for an hour, yelling the same thing over and over. They needed their cutaways for the show, and they were going to get them from us whether we wanted to give them or not.
After take three I was pouting and rolling my eyes. I almost walked away from the entire embarrassing fiasco. But Barry’s strong arms and Rory’s reassuring words held me back. I should have known that if my attitude was one of disgust and intolerance at 10 in the morning, the rest of the day would not provide any relief to my annoyance.
I couldn’t understand why all these people were so chipper. Why did they feel the need to yell at a camera that panned past them so fast the color of their hair would be unrecognizable in the two-second shot it produced four months later?
We were excited — in retrospect, naïve is more like it — and never imagined the cattle call that was to unfold over the next 24 hours.
All the aggravation — and my now very-melted iced coffee — made my bladder full, and I squirmed my way over to the 30-people-long porta-potty line. (I wonder if Fyre Festival used the same organizers?) Twenty-five minutes later I made it into the claustrophobic, smelly blue box. Naturally, there was no toilet paper. Just as I was jiggling my bottom and pulling up my pants, I heard shouting and movement outside. We were finally moving, and I had my pants down.
I scrambled out of the stall and called Barry and Rory, who’d been watching my stuff and holding down our two-foot-by-two-foot square of concrete slab. At 5 feet 2 inches, I couldn’t see their position from where I stood, so I jumped up on one of the cement picnic tables and started waving madly. They spotted me and waved back. I jumped off the table, practically crowd-surfing for a moment, then ducked down low, squeezing through the masses to dart and dodge my way back to my Dos Amigos.
As we approached the three-foot-wide door that was to funnel down the hundreds of people we were standing with, a glimmer of excitement crept its way back in. This was it. We were going to get our shot soon.
“Yes, we have to learn it by heart,” I overheard a faceless and placeless voice say. “I have it on my iPod.”
This innominate voice box was explaining that we were supposed to have learned The Mamas and the Papas’ iconic song “California Dreamin’” for another filmed segment. Shit. The Three Amigos did not know this. I panicked. I’ve always panicked when I’m told I have to do something in a certain amount of time; I think it’s a remnant of the school-age test anxiety that got me extra time on my SATs.
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Someone generously let Barry, Rory, and me each take a turn on their iPod to see if we couldn’t remember this song from our distant childhoods. Since it was released in 1965, 18 years before I was born, I had a difficult time. I knew the tune, I’d heard it here and there, but the words weren’t coming as quickly as I’d hoped. Damned test anxiety! We rushed to memorize, agonizing over it as we stepped into the stadium. (Nowadays, if “California Dreamin’” comes on within earshot, it conjures hives and sweaty palms.)
Squeezing through the small archway, big guys dressed in black T-shirts with their biceps bulging told us to toss any food and drink we’d brought. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought.
Backing them up were guards making sure everyone threw away whatever sustenance they had for the long day. It was almost more than I could take. These days, that kind of thing would be the last straw for me. Take away my freedom and my dignity, but do not take away my food. It was clear this was their way of getting us to spend big bucks on overpriced hot dogs, bad pizza, stale popcorn, and $7 bottles of water. Water from Dasani. Owned by Coca-Cola. A major sponsor of American Idol.
Finally, we were inside. But inside where? As people walked speedily to their seats, the Three Amigos realized we had no idea how to navigate a football stadium built for 60,000 people. I’d never been in one before. For future reference — in case anyone cares — Qualcomm’s seating system is stupidly complicated. At least the San Diego Chargers are now the Los Angeles Chargers, preventing hordes of people during football season from getting lost in that concrete maze.
It took about 30 minutes to find our seats.
It was noon.
The sun was directly overhead.
There was no breeze.
We had no idea how soon it would be before we got to sing and proactively decided to change into our audition outfits and primp ourselves right away. The bathrooms were packed with girls hogging mirrors, the floors were already wet, and again there was no toilet paper. I maneuvered into my bell-bottom Seven for All Mankinds, careful not to get the hems soaked in whatever liquid stood in pools on the floor. I slipped on my heels and a baby tee, fluffed my hair in the three inches of mirror I could squeeze my reflection into, and walked back to the seats.
And then it was my turn. I took a deep breath and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” drawled out nice and slow and sultry, just as I’d practiced.
Again, the cameras panned over the crowd and we sang “California Dreamin’” over and over and over again. I refused to sing, choosing instead to apply mascara. I knew those cameras were never going to capture me or my essence, so why try? A woman behind me mumbled something about not being enthusiastic as she pushed her child to sing louder and put more emotion into it. I turned slowly, wand in hand, sweat beading down my chest, and sneered. She didn’t say anything else to me the rest of the day.
By 3 p.m, our section still hadn’t been called. We’d watched as 100 Idol hopefuls trotted down the stadium steps every 40 minutes. They lined up in the end zone and waddled down the sidelines to be stopped at intervals where white pop-up tents were set up with three “judges” (read: interns) inside.
4:45 p.m. Still no movement in our section. The sun had begun to lower and had finally left our burning heads, cheeks, and the tops of our thighs alone. Impatience doesn’t begin to describe my state.
6:13 p.m. Rory and Barry’s wittiness withered, dying fast with the setting sun. I was almost drunk with anger — at myself, at Simon and Paula and Randy. At Seacrest. At Fox. At the system. At America.
At 8:20 p.m., our section was called. Unbelievably relieved and annoyed all at the same time, I managed to muster a smile and spunk, and I started doing some scales. Do-Re-Me-Fa-Shit-Shit-Shit-Shit. The stadium lighting was doing nothing to help my wearied face.
Barry and I decided to put some distance between us so that we wouldn’t end up at the same tent, just in case it gave us a better chance at both getting picked to advance to the next round. Which by the way, was not auditioning for Paula, Simon, or Randy. That wouldn’t happen until about five more rounds of auditions with lower-level producers (Read: higher-level interns).
I made it to my tent, after waddling down the field in spiky heels. Thankfully, amazingly, excitement started to drip through my veins again. The intern-judges gave us a spiel they’d repeated probably 65 times already that day: “Just relax. Be yourself. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get picked. If you do get picked, we’ll hand you a yellow piece of paper and ask you to go into another holding room.”
And then it was my turn. I took a deep breath and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” drawled out nice and slow and sultry, just as I’d practiced. I built it up, using the crazy in my head to bring out the crazy in the song, finishing raspy and low. The intern-judges took about 30 seconds, exchanged some notes, and briefly looked me up and down.
No one handed me a yellow piece of paper.
“Thank you for your time,” a skinny blond boy said to us. “Goodbye. Please exit to your left.”
Postscript: I never saw Barry or Rory again. This was before Facebook and Instagram, and something about the dejectedness of the entire day stifled my feelings of ever reaching back out to them again. I hope they got their American Dream. I know I did. I moved to London.
More than a decade after that uneventful day and a year after “retiring” from Fox, American Idol has returned for its 16th season, now on ABC.
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Valentina Valentini is a freelance journalist writing for Vanity Fair, Variety, Vulture and other publications (not necessarily starting with the letter V). She’s currently based in London completing her Masters in Creative Nonfiction.
Editor: Sari Botton