4am May 1, Tuesday-Kernersville, NC
What possessed me to have bangs cut before summer?! Summer in the south? Humid, humid summer that makes my hair curl? Change. I wanted change. But now I am cursing myself for not learning from history. My hair curls in summer humidity. The shorter, the curlier. It is humid at 4am in my room with air-conditioning in NC. I’ve brought a hat to wear, but as I am dressing this early morning–I have reconsidered. The hat is black. It will be warm–and at 4am I think it is adding years to my mature face. In the end, I pull the sides of my hair up into a topknot and leave the back down. It will curl but it will be better with sides up than the inevitable frizz infused tent of hair it will become if I leave it all down.
As on the first day of school, or a new job, or a big presentation, I have laid out my clothes the night before. I have a very dark outfit, mostly black. Leggings, tank dress, swing sweater and long, gold dangle earrings. The fabrics are thin and stretch and will be hot in the sun— but I look thinner and that boosts my self-confidence. The one wild contradiction is the black and white polka dot with red heel stillettos—oh, and white- rimmed cats eye glasses. Everything that can be put on in public is loaded into a small workout bag along with water, paperwork, ID and money. At the last minute, I take the DSW bag holding my hat. Options are good.
I am ready. Or as much as I’m going to be. A bit self-consciously I walk past the front desk. Do they suspect my secret life? I don’t look outrageous, but this isn’t typical me either. Oh, right, they don’t know that.
Room-brewed coffee in hand I put all my necessities in the car and I am off. Black as midnight and roads as bare, I get to the Greensboro Coliseum in 15 minutes. Things look different. Flags with the X-Factor logo. A portable stage emblazoned with the Pepsi crest, but not the ridiculous crowd of thousands I’d speculated about. I am about the 24th person in line. Will it be good to be first? I registered the second day. Somehow I suspect my place in line today will make no difference to when or if I audition.
“C” is for “crazy.” “X” is for nuts.
Let’s face it. Show business is about a step out of reality. A segment of fringe. And I learn that, besides me, it is the fringe who shows up early for things like this. Ahead of me is the smart talking exhibitionist who is trying to get noticed by leading cheers. He shows all the signs of rampant hyperactivity—plus he’s holding a super grande (or whatever the biggest size is called) Starbucks. If he is not already making his mark in sales, he will. He’s flirting with the girls, chumming up the guys. Intent on inposing his charm on everyone, he even shoots a wink my way. Clearly, nothing is beyond him. The whole act is cleverly crafted to pull producer attention his way. The kid’s no bumpkin.
Behind me, in his best “communing at a folk festival” demeanor is “the artiste.” Ordinary kid who alternately sits on the ground playing his guitar and lays there sleeping in his leather biker garb. His repertoire this morning is deep coming of age songs sung to no one in particular. He has one intent fan—the older sister of a young girl planning to audition.
There’s a decent representation of stage mothers. The one directly in front of me has the longest gold nails I’ve ever seen and one of the skimpiest tops, too. Her son is a plump, African American kid about 13. I see Mom’s influence in his lime green t-shirt, ball cap, and glass frames. He’s sweet and looks a little clueless, but Mom knows the game. 10 to 1 this was her dream.
After getting the lay of the land, I look to my right. A girl with sweatpants and dark-rimmed glasses is hunched over shivering. There is nothing distinctive about her. She looks like a wholesome midwesterner. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Memphis,” she says exhibiting little interest in being asked or in answering. I ask another standard question or two and she responds with single word answers. Timid is not the vibe she gives off as much as inconvenienced. End of conversation. When the television cameras start circling the crowd, she peels off her sweatpants to reveal very short turquoise shorts and dons high heels and a
bright lemon yellow jacket. Noooooow I recognize
her. She got as far as the TV show last year but was cut in round 1 or 2. She’s wearing the exact same outfit she wore then. In quite a transformation, she turns sex kitten and is working the male production crew. Soon the cameras are only a couple feet away. Everyone but me is trying to catch the lens. It has all the frenzy of people clamoring for ration tickets.
Miss Yellow Jacket is now very social and singing with the cheerleader. The producer has found the soldier in fatigues to my left. What better story than the dreams of a hero. The producers quickly pick him to join Yellow Jacket and the cheerleader. I witness first hand the producer prompting them about what to say and do. All engineered to look “authentic and spontaneous.”
For the next hour and a half, I watch the producers look for the most outrageous, strangest, and loudest people and do the same thing. They are scouting for the “wild cards” that they will use to make the talent show interesting television over the 10 weeks it airs in the fall. These 100+ people don’t audition. They are handpicked to enter the Coliseum two hours before the rest of us. None of their faces appear in the cattle call in which the rest of us participate.
What I didn’t do for Pepsi.
We were told that we’d enter the Coliseum at 8am. At 10am we are standing in an increasingly more intense sun being asked to jump up and down to music and act wild when 4 SUVs pass us by. We are told the judges are inside. The cars restage their entrance four times. I was a television producer for 7 years. Believe me. Simon Cowell, LA Reid, Paula Abdul, and whoever the new judge is this year—none of these people were behind the dark tinted windows. None of those people were anywhere to be seen during the auditions.
After the staged SUVs, we are asked to wave to the sky and continue jumping wildly up and down while a helicopter with videographer make pass after pass for a half hour. When the chopper finally disappears, the crowd is clearly tired of the “Simon says” stuff. The producer promises in her charming British accent that if we just do this last bit for Pepsi, the sun torture will end and they will finally let us enter the air-conditioned building. It is 11am. Everyone has been here at least 4 hours. I have been here standing in line or sitting on blacktop for 6. If I want to have a chance to audition, I cannot leave or I will not be allowed in the Coliseum. OK. I will not leave, but I can refuse to be free talent for Pepsi.
In the next half hour, the crowd is asked to go crazy screaming the names of 4 new Pepsi products. I sit on the ground and I’m not alone. People are tired, hot, and fed up with screaming.
As more and more of the crowd get quiet and sit, the producer starts to realize she has squeezed out of us as much as she’s going to get. Finally, at 11:30am, they begin to let us enter the Coliseum. Of course, we must divest ourselves of any food or beverage. They will hold us hostage for another 9 hours and make us pay for anything we consume. 10,000 people for 9 hours. It is a sweet deal for the Coliseum. Who knows how much of a cut goes to the show. You see, if we leave the venue, we can’t get back in to audition.
Like so many, I let go of being incensed about the situation. All I care about at the moment is bringing my core body temperature out of the stroke range. Yes, I walk with the lemmings into this ridiculous situation, but it’s ok. I know what is happening. This is not as much about a talent show as good TV. I see it up close and personal in part 5 and MUCH more.