During the second round of American Idol, 200 singers get cut down to 24. Richard Rushfield talks to Idols past about being recognized by John Mayer, hugs from Paula Abdul, and being denied the bathroom.
From top to bottom, the American Idol experience is a harrowing journey for all who embark upon it. But at no stage is the tension more acute than in the Hollywood Week episodes, where the contestants stand at the crucial threshold between stardom and oblivion. In the episodes airing this week on Fox, audiences will see the Thunderdome of the Idol experience, when fighting at close range, the field is winnowed down to the final contenders.
Each year after Idol's massive audition tour, between 150 and 200 singers are flown to Hollywood for the final culling before the live semifinals. As heady as the experience is for those called forth, that first thrill is tempered by the fact that for the majority of them, Hollywood Week will be their final stop. After a merciless series of tests, their ranks will be cut down to a mere handful: some years to 36, some, as is the case in this Season 9, to 24.
Carly Smithson: When I got on the plane, I was walking through first class and looked down at a man and saw John Mayer. At that moment, he looked at me and his eyes lit up and he yelled out to the whole plane, "Hey that's the girl who's going to be on American Idol!"
A year ago, Alexis Grace and Jackie Tohn were two of the singers selected to join the Hollywood Week ranks— Alexis flew in from Memphis, while Jackie made the voyage from down the block in Silver Lake. A year after having made it to the semifinals and finals respectively, the pair took a break from the lives as working ex- Idols (planning concert tours, auditions, lining up representation) to look back at the most insane week of their lives.
"I live in Hollywood," Tohn remembered. "And I'm a sarcastic little thing and I didn't expect I'd be into it. But once it got going, you're saying, I'm one of the Top 175. This is happening. It's exciting."
Throughout a night of reminiscences over dinner, Grace and Tohn guided us through that fateful week. Along with their memories, Idols from throughout the years called in to share some of their Hollywood Week moments, including Season 5 alums Mandisa, Bucky Covington, Kevin Covais and Taylor Hicks, who are all featured on the syndicated American Idol: Rewind.
Step 1: Keeping the Secret
After winning their Golden Ticket to Hollywood, contestants are instructed to tell no one outside of their immediate family where they are heading.
Jackie Tohn: I remember telling my friends that I was at a songwriting retreat because I wasn't allowed to tell anybody where I was. A friend of mine knew that Hollywood Week was happening because his friend was a PA there so he kept texting me the whole time: How's songwriting camp? What are your songs? After I got through he said, "I knew you were at Hollywood Week." So I asked, why did you keep nudging me about the stupid songwriting retreat? He said, it was fun to see what you came up with.
Alexis Grace: I just kept saying, "Mom, I'm not doing anything. I'm nowhere. Don't call me." And they'd still call and ask, how is it, and you just say, "It's fine!"
Step 2: The Undercover Journey
Carly Smithson, Season 7: Because there was a shot of me in the ads for the new season, I'd been warned to come in disguise, to put on a baseball hat and cardigan. Well, my flight stopped in Vegas where I became very hot, so without thinking I took the cap and sweater off, but tried to keep my head down because I was terrified that someone would recognize me. When I got on the plane, I was walking through first class and looked down at a man and saw John Mayer. At that moment, he looked at me and his eyes lit up and he yelled out to the whole plane, "Hey, that's the girl who's going to be on--" when i shushed him, cut him off and raced back to my seat. I was petrified that I was going to be disqualified. At the baggage claim, he sent his people over to ask if it was really me. When I got to the theater though and confessed it all to the producers, they laughed and said it was the funniest thing they'd ever heard.
Step 3: Checking In
Grace: You're just in the hotel lobby and right away it's 175 kids in one room, and you're like–aaahh!! I had no make up on. I'd gotten off the plane and I was a hot mess. It was so overwhelming.
Tohn: The headgames start right away. You never have any idea why anything is happening. We were told when we got there that we couldn't bring our luggage to our room. Go right to the registration room!
Taylor Hicks, Season 5 winner: You're out in L.A. for the first time—it's a really hectic, crazy week, and you really don't know what to expect.
Step 4: Picking a Solo Song
Upon registration, the singers are given a packet explaining the rules, which includes a list of cleared songs from which they must choose their numbers. They begin to do their first performances in front of the judges since the auditions, and the first wave of singers is sent packing.
Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Season 5: The song that I chose was "If I Ever Fall in Love Again" by Shai. This was really unconventional for me, because everyone thought of me as this sweet baby-faced kid. But I wanted to go that way to mix it up. I get up there, I'm just nervous as can be in front of the judges and my fellow contestants. I'm just a wreck. I'm just clutching the microphone. My feet are just planted to the stage, I'm not moving. My knees will buckle if I do. So I give it my all. Simon [Cowell] was the first to comment—I can't remember exactly what he said, I was too nervous. Something about me being not unique in a good way, because he never had anything nice to say about me, but about me being the weird dog in a dog show. Some crazy analogy. And then Paula [Abdul] had something sweet to say, and then what Randy said, dude, what you did on the stage was so cool… That was really an ice-breaker performance, and after I got all the feedback, especially from Randy [Jackson] who is definitely my favorite judge, it was awesome to hear. It was a thrilling moment for me.
Michael Sarver, Season 8: I remember seeing so many talented people and thinking, "Can I stand out?" What a great group it was. But the one—and favorite—memory that stands out would be when Randy called me the best of the day. It was pretty special, and it really boosted my confidence as I moved forward.
Bucky Covington, Season 5: I auditioned with the song "The Ride" by David Allan Coe. After I finished, Simon asked me who sings this song. I replied David Allan Coe, and Simon said, "Who?" I knew right then and there that Simon wouldn't be the one pushing me through!
Step 5: The Group Performance
After the stress of the solo numbers, those who have made it through immediately have to find partners to prepare for the dreaded group number.
Tohn: We never went to sleep.
Hicks: Choosing who's in your group, you have to surround yourself with talented people who make you look good. You have to be cognizant and aware the whole time. You have to listen for voices that you like that you want to be in a group with.
Tohn: My friend Alex said, "Dude, we've gotta do 'Mercy' by Duffy." I said, I know eight of these songs out of 10 on the list. We're not doing "Mercy," which was one of two I didn't know. He said, "We have to—I thought up a sick arrangement." When we perform it, everybody in the group gets cut but me. Simon says, "So Jackie, I see you used your feminine charms to convince these boys to sing a song that's perfect for you."
Step 6: Packing Your Bags
Grace: When people are cut, they are told by the producers: "Gimme your papers and your number. Go up to your room. Pack your bags." And then they slip your itinerary under your door for your flight the next day.
Tohn: There's a lot of awkwardness. They kept switching roommates on me. I didn't know why, and you don't know who you're getting until someone walks right into your room.
Step 7: The Process of Elimination
Phil Stacey, Season 6: I roomed with Chris Sligh. He became one of my best friends, but Chris is brutally honest. I just remember winding down each day with Chris' predictions of who was going to make the Top 24—or at least the Top 12 guys. The list made minor changes every day, but it never included me. I would just laugh and ask him why he didn't think I'd make it. He'd chuckle and say, "Well, you've got the voice... You just need confidence." That is why to this day, I still rub it in that I stuck around long enough to meet Bono during Top 6 week and well... he didn't.
Grace: Every single one of us became mathematicians, figuring out how many people had gone and how many were left.
Step 8: The Room-by-Room Group Elimination
On the final day, the producers usually devise one last particular torture for the singers. The singers who remain are divided into several rooms. As they have seen on previous years' episodes, at some point the judges will appear in the room and announce that the entire room has made it through to the next round (The Green Mile or "chair" episodes that follow Hollywood Week) or that the entire room is being eliminated. With that in the balance, they wait and look around the room, attempting to judge, Am I surrounded by winners or losers?
Mandisa, Season 5: We were separated into four rooms to be told whether we had made it into the Top 44. I'm sure the producers were purposeful when they made us sweat it out for what seemed like hours before sending in the judges with the news. All of that tension that had built up was released in the loudest most piercing shriek of joy you've ever heard when the judges announced that our entire room was SAFE!
For the victims of Season 8, the producers had one weapon that they employed diabolically: controversial trainwreck-in-progress Tatiana Del Toro. Throughout the pre-season, the shows had been dominated by the unhinged ups and downs of the former beauty queen, whose not insignificant vocal abilities were overshadowed by her breakdowns, tantrums and her bizarre laugh. As the contestants awaited their fate they were forced to decipher: Was the presence of the clear non-contender Del Toro a harbinger of doom, or was she such a compelling drama queen that the producers were actually thinking of putting her through?
Tohn: They put people in the rooms. And you want to talk some Temptation Island stuff, they keep switching the room that Tatiana is in. So how's that for messing with our heads? So the room that she's in knows they're going home, or maybe she's so crazy, they're going through! Whichever room she's in is scared.
Grace: We sat there for hours; you can't go to the bathroom and you can't talk either. If you whisper, they say, no, no. The guy sitting next to me and I were just looking at each other thinking, man, what is going to happen. For hours.
Tohn: When Randy, Paula and Kara [DioGuardi] finally came broke the news that you've gotten through, so much tension has built up, people just went crazy. Everybody was crying and screaming. People were like, punching each other, not in a bad way but they're saying "Oh my God"! Adam [Lambert] and I were crying. Adam was holding me like a baby and we're sobbing. And Paula's hugging us, saying, "I'm so excited to see how this unfolds for you."
Grace: Everybody's crying, The crew is so happy. I mean, you don't realize, you think the producers don't have souls, they are just watching coldly. But they're so happy for you, they are all crying, too.
Tohn: They've seen that journey from the nervous kid on that big stage to the end of Hollywood Week, you can sing with that band behind you, you can play your instrument, you can show what you're made of. In this industry, you don't have many times when people make you feel good about things. But at the end of Hollywood Week, I really was feeling, this whole thing is wrapped in a bow. I felt love from the producers. Love around, me, I felt supported. I felt confident and hopeful I would get through each stage.
Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.