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Idol 2: Freaks and peaks

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

Just how fair are the auditions for American Idol 2?

Ask Jessica Justice, a 24-year-old Brandon native picked Thursday for the Fox talent show's final tryouts in Los Angeles, and she'll recount a tough process that lasted several days but worked out fine.

"You had to give everything you had in 60 seconds, or you're gone," said Justice, who traveled to Idol's Miami auditions Nov. 2, performing for producers and judges last Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday before learning she'd head to Los Angeles for the finals.

"There definitely wasn't a pattern to how they were picking people," said the singer, who won her spot singing Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive and Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot. "I'm just glad I can be a part of it all."

But others who didn't make the cut in Miami are buzzing on the Internet and elsewhere with complaints about a disorganized "cattle call" process, in which producers had to cull through more than 1,900 hopefuls -- sometimes advancing singers whose biggest talent seemed to be performing badly enough to spark the judges' insults.

"This is not what people see it to be -- a talent show. . . . It's more like a freak show," said Tampa resident Lisa Jones, whose 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, auditioned Sunday and Tuesday before being eliminated from the contestant pool.

"I know they were weaning out (overweight) people. . . . I took it to mean, 'Image first, talent second,' " Jones said. "They were picking people who had no talent at all . . . hyping you up, just to drop you when you get in front of Simon."

The "Simon" to whom Jones referred is Simon Cowell, the black-clad British judge who earned instant fame during the first edition of American Idol for his merciless put-downs of untalented aspirants. Based on the British Pop Idol series, American Idol became a summer TV phenomenon, attracting more than 40-million viewers to the Sept. 4 finale, in which Texan Kelly Clarkson won a $1-million contract with Cowell's record label.

Unlike the show's first edition, on-camera judges Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson didn't see American Idol 2's Miami applicants until they'd passed two auditions before various producers and staffers. Justice, for example, didn't face the three judges until Thursday, when Fox taped footage that may air on the series.

Fox spokesman Jason Clark denied that the show automatically rejected overweight contestants, but he did admit that producers were looking for both "the really great and the not-so-great" performers.

"The nature of the show is to present the different array of people who auditioned and then show the people who have talent," Clark said. "It's a look at all these people who think they can be famous. And for every negative story that you've heard, there are kids who think they got a great opportunity."

WFLZ-FM 93.3 personality MJ Kelli, who convinced intern Rose Angelina Mendola to try out in Miami (she was eliminated at Thursday's auditions), said applicants should realize American Idol focuses on extremes.

"Some of the funniest clips on the last American Idol were (of) these idiots who shouldn't even think about picking up a microphone," said Kelli, who featured Justice, Jones and Mendola on his shows last week. "You have the really good and the really bad, but the mediocre doesn't make it."

Still, aspirants who thought they were competing in a more conventional talent show might not agree.

"I met people who flew in from New York and Georgia to audition," said West Palm Beach resident Laura Vivas, who didn't make the cut in Miami but said she saw someone who forgot his lyrics and sang in the wrong key advance past the first audition round. "People are trying so hard . . . and (producers) don't care. It's really taking advantage of people who have dreams."

About 20 people picked in Miami will join hopefuls picked in New York City, Detroit, Nashville, Atlanta, Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles for auditions scheduled in Hollywood later this year. Producers, who must still complete open auditions in Austin and Los Angeles, expect a total of 200 contestants for the next level, Clark said.

Justice, an aspiring singer who had taken a yearlong break from performing, now finds herself on the cusp of her life's dream. And what did the notoriously acerbic Cowell have to say about her performance?

"He said he'd heard a lot of people sing (I Will Survive) . . . but he'd never heard anyone sing it like they mean it," she said, pausing before letting the other shoe drop.

"Then he said, 'To tell you the truth, I don't think you can sing,' " said Justice, who says her voice is less Mariah Carey pop than Pat Benatar rock. "I don't think he's been properly introduced to rock 'n' roll. But I'm going to show him."

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