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American Idol: What really goes on behind the scenes? (+video)

American Idol: After years of watching from home, this writer joins the American Idol audience and gets a glimpse of what goes on during a live show. Required wardrobe: Hip clothing and tennis shoes.

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Stepping behind the scenes at American Idol, while a totally altruistic endeavor - as Mariah Carey might say, "I did it for my fans, darlings" – was also a long time coming.

Phillip Phillips had just stepped onto the scene (and into my heart) early in 2012 when a campaign to cover a live taping of American Idol started to take root. One might think that a contributor at a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, with a popular American Idol column, would be able to snag some press tickets with ease. Well, let's just say that American Idol was not about to give herself up so easily. While FOX was quick to respond to requests and even forward them along to the necessary people behind 'Idol lines,' Idol management was less-than responsive.

In fact, it became clear that neither The Christian Science Monitor's reputation nor whatever clout my weekly Idol coverage bestowed was going to get me a ticket. 

Setting aside all semblance of professional pride and delusions of grandeur, I did what any other Idol fan might do to get a seat at the show: I filled out an online application with the gatekeeper; otherwise known as On-Camera Audiences, Inc.. To be clear, this wait-list was not for tickets; rather, it wasn't even really a wait-list to receive a voucher that may or may not get you a ticket to the show; it was a wait-list to get an email to notify you when vouchers - that may or may not get you into the show - became available. These vouchers were on a first-come, first-serve basis so once you got an email saying they were available, one needed to run, not walk to their nearest Internet connection and claim a voucher.

For a fan who lives 3,000 miles away from a taping of American Idol, the prospect of a voucher was viewed with ambivalence since the only thing a voucher guaranteed was entry into the waiting line at the studio, where you would line up hours and hours beforehand and hope that your number was called. The idea of spending 6+ hours in metal tube hurtling through the sky without so much as a pretzel to keep me entertained, only to be turned away at the stage door was a very real possibility and not an appealing one at that. 

But, no guts, no glory.

Fast-forward one full year. Repeated emails, with varying degrees of tact, went unanswered by Idol until one fair day in March a response was received. But the response from Idol contained but 17 noncommittal words: 

"Just to clarify, are you looking for press ticket to a live taping or just the finale?"

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Well, the waiting game had taught a valuable life lesson: beggars can't be choosers. I replied: "I'd be happy to have either." It would be nice to offer a life-lesson at this point, a reminder that being patient and polite, always pays off, in this case, with coveted press tickets. Instead, the ever-so-humble and grateful email went unanswered. 

The only way this writer was getting to see a live-taping of Idol was through luck of the draw.

By this time, gone was the opportunity to further cultivate my unrealistic fantasies of meeting Phil Phillips – the slightly awkward, but supremely talented, Season 11 pretty face that stood on that stage week after week, a true renaissance man with superior intellect (despite the evidence to the contrary - namely his compilation of inane, poorly crafted tweets). Yet, my determination did not wane. So when the email came from On-Camera Audiences announcing that there were American Idol vouchers available, it was immediately answered by completing an online form, which led to actual vouchers to a live show.

Metal tube sans pretzels, here we come!

There was no way to know that becoming a member of the live studio audience of American Idol would require the loss of all humanity. The first hint that audience members were no longer people – but props in a carefully crafted play designed to sell an image – was the rules that were printed on the voucher. The disclaimer stated that neither Idol nor their On-Camera Audiences, Inc. affiliate had any obligation to get you into the show and even if you did get in, you might be required to stand the entire show.

Then, there were the wardrobe rules: Absolutely no high heels of any type are allowed in the audience, nor were audience members allowed to wear any open-toed shoe. Flats were requested, tennis shoes recommended. Are Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj aware of this rule? How they can allow fellow women to be stripped of their God-given right to hobble around on torture devices that so effectively lift the derriere and elongate the leg, is a mystery.

Not only were multiple outfits immediately taken out of the running with this near-fatal blow to fashion, then Idol had the nerve to say that "hip - upscale clothing" was required. Preferably in bright spring colors. Remember, the vouchers gently reminded, "When you look good, the show looks good!"

Welcome to Hollywood.

After days spent struggling with the puzzle of how a female could dress hip and upscale and wear tennis shoes at the same time, and why FOX was filming at CBS studios, the time was at hand. A long line had already formed and was being wrangled by a very efficient looking twenty-something with a headset and a gaze of steel. Because my faithful sidekick, the cream to my coffee, the Robin to my Batman, is handicapped, we were given a pass on standing in line and quickly lead to the outdoor corral where there was an abundance of seating and an abundance of scantily clad youths. It was like floating in a sea of brightly colored fabrics while being lulled by frequent squeals and exclamations. 

It was quickly apparent that there was a division of tickets - some of us - the more worldly, experienced and wise individuals (who would later, be affectionately referred to inside as "Old-schoolers", defined by those being born before the year of 1986) tended to have tickets, while the young, whippersnappers in bright plumage and shocking hemlines were given a large, square decal to place on their clothing. Most of them weathered that challenge with surprising success, considering.

Once in line, the audience was then notified that their transformation from humans to stage props had really begun when it was announced that not only was no food, drink, gum, or mint allowed inside the studios, there were also no bathrooms available once inside. Hours later, witnesses would attest to the crowd quietly bleating as they were shepherded indoors.

Many successful writers choose to embrace a hefty dose of cyncism in their craft. Like hip, upscale clothing, it makes us feel cool and aloof when behind the scenes we're usually wearing closed-toe tennis shoes. But walking into the studio for the first time and seeing the scene that, until then, had only been viewed through a television was truly an overwhelming, out-of-body experience.

Well, either that or it was the exhaustion and jet lag.

Seated in the front row, mere steps away from the judges table only reinforced what so many people have told my husband since he became disabled and able to snag prime parking spots, "You're so lucky!" With more than an hour left until taping we watched as the kinfolk of the head-phoned, steely-gazed twenty-something out front, hand-picked those that would be best suited to be closer to the front of the audience. As the younger and more attractive people began to migrate forward, we watched as our peers slowly made their way to the back of the studio audience. With his cane as our talisman, we avoided the migration.

We then became acquainted with the person whose job it was to act really enthusiastic and ask us 243 times if we were there to have fun. Yes, Mr. Enthusiasm, we are here to have fun but instead we're stuck helping you "find the beat" to every song blasted over the speakers! No one told us we'd have to work so hard at being energetic. And shouldn't we, the old-folk here in the front row, get a pass?

No?

How about a voucher?

Anyhow. All of the choreographed enthusiasm gave way to genuine, unbridled excitement when Ryan Seacrest took his rightful place upon the Idol throne. Many things were surprising to learn when getting the opportunity to watch American Idol live. The one thing that shouldn't have been a surprise was Ryan's natural ease, grace and palpable charm. Now, don't get suspicious - this writer's heart is still holding on to hope that Phil Phillips's tweets will come to show signs of superior intellect as he matures - but it's tough not to be captivated by Ryan when in his presence. Having now seen both Ryan Seacrest and Brain Dunkleman live, the theory of survival of the fittest comes readily to mind.

Just as Ryan rose in esteem, so too did Mariah Carey. We were seated on the Mariah-side of the judging table (a bonus for me because being as perceptive and astute would have been much more of a challenge with Keith Urban as a distraction). The man seated next to us was purportedly the biggest Mariah Carey fan to ever grace the earth, his frequent, guttural screams of her name whenever the cameras stopped rolling were offered as proof of his adoration. Mariah, who it must be said, is stunning in person, returned the affection of her fans by frequently blowing kisses, waving, and even sticking out her foot for us to admire the stilettos we were denied, when psycho-fan bellowed out his appreciation of her shoes.

Nicki Minaj, on the other hand, kept her eyes to the front for most of the taping. The pleading screams from her fans went seemingly unnoticed by Nicki, even when yelled out in the sweet voices of pre-teen devotion. With Keith Urban stopping to give autographs on the way out and Randy Jackson making his way into the audience during a commercial break, even if it was just to see Idol Alums Hollie Cavanagh and Josh Ledet (seated just two seats behind us) Nicki ended up looking like the diva of the bunch and, despite her spirited and witty comments, she definitely lost some of what little appeal she had.

Unlike past judges, who reportedly frequently left the stage during commercial break, these four stayed at the judges table throughout the taping. When the cameras stopped rolling they were descended upon by hair and make-up artists who operated under the belief that without their intervention every five minutes, the judges would atrophy into ghoulish creatures. Producer Nigel Lythgoe also took advantage of the commercial breaks to approach the table and enter into unheard but emphatic counseling of the judges as he gesticulated dramatically with his hands and facial expressions. When he wasn't at the judges table, he sat behind them in the front row, nervously fidgeting whenever they were speaking. The poor man looked as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders - is the decline in ratings to blame or is he just willing Mariah to be succinct? The world may never know.

It wasn't just the judges, Ryan, and Nigel who seemed different from a live perspective; the contestants also became multi-dimensional and far more vulnerable than they seem on television. Even Lazaro Arbos, who has been visibly shaken on the show more than once, seemed more frail in person. Of course, it may have just been that it is far easier to judge and withhold empathy when you are not in someone's presence. Something we could all benefit from remembering. (Yeah, I'm talking to you, Mr. Learn-How-To-Use-A-Comma blog commenter!)

Viewing situations from various perspectives can often lead to an adjustment of one's beliefs or opinions, but in some cases the new outlook can serve as validation for their existing positions. Such was the case with Candice Glover. Going into the live show, Candice was at the top of my list - after hearing her sing live - there can be no doubt that she has the most incredible voice of all of the other contestants. Even the judges commented on how her voice has the power to take people's breath away and she did that more than once on Wednesday night, although it's probable that she does it every time she opens her mouth to sing.

Unfortunately, this newly granted perspective did nothing to solve the mystery of why the judges continue to venerate Amber Holcomb's vocal abilities. While Amber was even more pretty in person, her voice was not enhanced by hearing her perform live - leaving me more confounded when three judges gave her razor-sharp performance of "What About Love," which ended with a string of screeching missed notes, a standing ovation. Tempted to approach them and ask what the deal was during a break, I was dissuaded by the line of burly security guards who quickly formed a blockade behind the judges' seats every time the cameras stopped rolling. Randy Jackson's poor bodyguard was beside himself with anxiety when Randy went rogue and visited Hollie and Joshua in the audience. Thankfully, it seemed like those planning Randy's demise weren't good looking enough to get seats. Disaster averted.

But just as my magical time on the studio (and with Ryan) had to come to an end, so too does this article. My thanks to all those who assisted me in this journey of self-discovery (I learned that I too make stupid, awkward faces when being filmed) including my generous and patient editor and my sweet husband, who helped make my magic moment on camera with Ryan Seacrest a possibility. 

Bradbury out!


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