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A kind-of connection to a sort-of, almost idol

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002

I have had my brush with fame.

I have had my brush with fame.

It was heady and fleeting and not to be forgotten.

It lasted as long as the last two overwrought episodes last week of American Idol.

It lasted as long as Justin Guarini had a serious shot.

For as long as Justin had a shot, I could go around saying I was related to America's No. 1 boy toy. People would take a step back, take a hard look at me and say, Really? You?

Yes. This is how we are related. He is a cousin by marriage, not blood, part of another branch of my father's family, its third, maybe fourth, generation in America.

Okay, so I'm more closely related to a Tibetan monk.

I obtained this information from my 90-year-old uncle. Uncle Paul is the family genealogist. For years, at every family gathering, he would present the latest discovery about the Guarinis' hard trek from Italy to America in the early 1900s.

One year he came with my grandmother's dowry list, in Italian, which included a description of the straw-packed mattresses she brought to her marriage.

What a difference a generation or two makes.

I missed the last family party, in June. I missed the wonderful food, the hugs and kisses, and the visit from a newly discovered cousin, Justin's proud stepfather. He handed out information on how everybody could vote for Justin on American Idol.

Then, as if by magic, American Idol fever overtook even the most sober members of my extended family -- even Uncle Paul, an artist and journalist.

He watched.

My sister watched.

Cousins twice removed watched.

Whatever sense they had, whatever inclination they had to watch the History Channel or Major League Baseball, disappeared like a punctured soap bubble.

They were watching a relative. A sort-of relative, to be sure -- but in our big Italian family, the more relatives the better. (Although I still have trouble keeping straight the names and relationships of some of them).

Now you will ask if I watched.

This is a difficult question for me. I have a certain hard-nosed image to uphold. What would people think if I, too, had been swept up by the national craze that thrives while the country prepares to invade Iraq?

This is what I did. I cheered Justin's throwback-to-the-'70s (the last time any man wore an Afro) good looks. But I drew the line at voting. Some 15-million people voted, some of them as often as Chicago aldermen. Justin wasn't going to miss me. And I probably was never going to have to face him at a family party and explain myself.

"I thought he had some class," my artful uncle, Paul, said after the show ended. "He didn't show his belly button."

He thinks Justin belongs on stage, as an actor. "He does have talent. He moves nicely."

But my wise old uncle had nothing good to say about the music. "They carry a tune for a little while," he said, "then they start yelling."

I would not go so far. I would say the songs in the last two shows tended to sound the same.

You could hear how they will fit into the playlist of every soft-rock radio station from Tampa to L.A. And you could see how Justin and Kelly Clarkson, who defeated him, were being as carefully packaged as a cereal brand.

The strangest part of the American Idol craze is that this sort of obviousness doesn't bother people. The last 10 survivors of American Idol, my kind-of-cousin included, are about to go on a national tour. It stops in Tampa on Oct. 23. You can catch the glitter then.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com.

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