I Auditioned for American Idol and All I Got Was Heat Exhaustion

The Idol bus
The Idol bus Minhae Shim Roth
I’m sitting at a painted wooden booth at Gramps in Wynwood, sipping one of the bar’s cool Rosemary’s Baby drinks, cheerfully recounting an intense day at Miami’s American Idol open auditions with two hopefuls I met earlier in the day.

Suddenly, I’m drenched in sweat, my breathing is shallow, and my mind spins. I feel as if I’m suffocating, my heart palpitating. Reeling, I shakily stand and attempt to walk cooly to the restroom but ultimately sprint into a graffitied stall and spew clear liquid into a porcelain bowl. I wobble to the sink and splash water on my face.

Panicking, I consult Dr. Google. WebMD says my symptoms are consistent with heat exhaustion, the precursor to the medically dangerous heat stroke. I look at my haggard, sweaty face in the mirror, my eyes bloodshot and swollen, and realize the day has come full circle.

At 9 a.m., I had arrived at Key Biscayne's Miami Marine Flex Park. An Uber dropped me off in front of a large truck with a flashing screen: “GOOD LUCK on Today’s American Idol Audition." This was not my first rodeo. Last December, I auditioned for the Broadway show Hamilton. I didn’t get called back, but I grew from that experience and will have the lyrics of “My Shot” forever engrained in my memory. Now I consider myself somewhat of an expert in undercover auditioning, which I undertake with the gusto of a seasoned Method actor.

I spot a long line, where hopefuls form a multicolored sea of open umbrellas that shield them from the beating sun. There’s not a single cloud in the bright-blue sky and no palpable breeze. Steam seems to rise from the black asphalt of the open park. Suddenly, a police car cuts through the area. A pixie-haired woman is on her knees, heaving. The heat claims its first victim. I swing my metal water bottle and take a swig.

I walk to an electrical box, the one oasis of shade in the entire park besides the producers’ tents. Two curly-haired women with big smiles flank a slick young man, Frankie, who tells me he plans to sing “Despacito" with his pals Stichiz and Carolina on backup. I'm pretty sure back-up singers are against the rules, but I just nod.

The trio coaxes me in front of a nearby parked American Idol bus. We’re all singing into our iPhones, taking footage for Instagram and Snapchat stories. I give a short facetious sample of my prepped song, and then Frankie belts out "Despacito" out of tune and out of time. We all burst out laughing. And the jig is up. Turns out I've been hanging out with radio personalities from Miami radio station Y100. I reveal I’m a writer for New Times. We've both been duped. They excitedly show me footage of singers in line hamming it up for the camera and introduce me to Idol producers.

I take a stroll along the barricades lined with caution tape and scope out the contestants. A tall man clad in a full gold lamé outfit, large metal-rimmed sunglasses, and good grills tells me he drove here from Wisconsin to audition. He’ll sing “I've Told You Now” by Sam Smith. I walk farther down the seemingly endless line and take my place behind a lively group of contestants. A young man dressed in a red high-necked crop top and a gold spiked necklace layered over a short sequined red dress with red suede knee-high boots smiles shyly. ABC network rules prevent us from using his name before the series airs, so we'll call him Val, and he plans to sing Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time.”
click to enlarge The audition tents. - MINHAE SHIM ROTH
The audition tents.
Minhae Shim Roth
A rotund journalist in a button-up linen shirt walks down the line, spots Val, and asks him to sing a sample. Val belts it out skillfully. “My loneliness is killing me/And I, I must confess I still believe…” Out of habit, I back him up: “Still believe!” And I’m not alone. A cheerful blonde wearing white-rimmed Ray-Bans and a flannel shirt over a black tank top joins in. We all high-five and complain about the heat. Jolie, who says she’s still figuring out what song to sing, drove from Fort Lauderdale to audition.

I’ve been here less than an hour, and my water bottle is already empty. A young man behind me offers a bottle of ginger water as beads of sweat drip into the drink. I’m parched and tempted, but I decline. Hours pass. Herded in a thick line, our cohort of contestants sings along with a brother-and-sister duo with a guitar to pass the time and distract ourselves from the heat, which grows stronger every minute. We sing Jason Mraz, Train, Sublime, and Alicia Keys until a burly security guard approaches and tells us to stop. We’re all in the same boat: hot, nervous, and hoping we’re the next Idol star.

Val shares his polka-dotted umbrella with me as we wait in line for hours. Uniformed security guards regularly pace the barricades. There are no provided fans, water, or shade, but we brave it for our chance to make it big. We all commiserate about the inhumane conditions forced upon us during the hottest season in Miami. “They did this because they know we want this, so we’ll come and wait in the heat for the audition,” I overhear a contestant complain.

It’s a friendly, diverse group of hopefuls, all between the ages of 16 and 28, the enforced age restriction for this reboot of American Idol on ABC after Fox cancelled the show in 2016. A young Brazilian mom with two kids practices her song choice of Amy Winehouse. She recently injured her back while doing CrossFit, she says, but she’s braving the pain for the chance to sing. “I took a bunch of pills this morning,” she laughs. She admits she considered bringing a little bottle of tequila for liquid courage. A cameraman wielding a canteen comes over to us and asks if we’ll douse ourselves in water for the camera. It seems too close to a wet T-shirt contest, so it’s a no for me, dawg — but I was tempted because of the intense heat.

After four hours of chatting and singing a cappella, we’re at the head of the first line, where producers check our IDs to confirm our age and fasten green wristbands on us. We can see a row of tents where producers listen to vocalists vying for a spot in Idol’s 2018 season in groups of four. I'm usually uninterested in making it to the next level, but this time my heart flutters with anxiety.

And then we’re herded to a set of four lines, flanked on two sides by the separated friends and family who have come to support. The sun beats down even harder on this spot, and there are no sporadic gusts of wind for relief. Dispositions grow annoyed, and the complaints become louder. A large producer wearing a safari hat and long sun-protective sleeves barks at us. “If this audition means that much to you, you better turn off your phone. Or you can be on your phone, and that tells us about what kind of person you are,” he threatens. “Don’t make me come back and tell you not to take a picture or video. You owe it to yourself to turn off your phone and have total concentration.” I roll my eyes: a very weak argument and strange logic to spew to contestants, I think. But I’m hot and tired, so maybe my reasoning is laced with irritability.

We hear cheers, and a contestant emerges from the tents, his hand holding a yellow piece of paper raised high in the air. Someone has made it to the next round of Idol. Of the hundreds of contestants, I hear about five cheers like this.
click to enlarge Singers stay cheery despite the heat. - MINHAE SHIM ROTH
Singers stay cheery despite the heat.
Minhae Shim Roth
I’m almost at the head of the line, and Jolie, Val, and I huddle so we can audition together. A producer picks Jolie and me out of the line and tells us to go to one tent; Val is escorted to another. We promise we’ll meet up after our audition.

Jolie and I get in a four-person-wide line with two other women. Jolie tells me she’s finally chosen her song, and she shows me her paperwork — she’ll sing the Pokémon theme song. I nod and rehearse my audition song, the Beatles' “Let It Be,” in my head. The group in front of us is dismissed; no one made it through. I can feel that everyone in my group hopes we don’t meet the same fate.

At the tent, we place our belongings on two high-top tables that surround the producer, who sits behind a plastic table. We each hand him our paperwork, a strict release form, and a story sheet that asks us to identify our background, struggles we’ve been through in our lives, and singers we idolize, and take our places on yellow marks.

“You guys know the drill. You’ll sing for me one by one. Good luck,” the producer says in an almost friendly Australian accent.

I’m first. I step out of line and directly in front of the producer. “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be,” I belt. I watch the producer flip through my story worksheet as I sing. And then I’m done and filled with relief. Not too bad, a much more successful try than my Hamilton audition last year, where I was shaking and sweating. I was covered in sweat this time too, but for different reasons.

The producer nods, looks at me, and says thanks. And it's Jolie's turn. “When you’re ready,” he tells her.

I wanna be the very best/Like no one ever was/Pokémon, you gotta catch 'em all/It’s you and me/I know it’s my destiny,” she sings. The producer stops her and says thank you. She’s disappointed with her performance, and I pat her on the shoulder.

The next woman, waring a loose Afro and an olive-green dress, sways as she sings a gospel hymn. The final member of our group, a blonde with highlights wearing cut-off shorts, belts out Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’.” The producer stops her and puts the paperwork down. As he taps each pile of paper with his fingers, he pauses and then says, “I’m gonna say it’s a no for me. As you know, at this point of the competition, the standards are very high. But you guys should all keep singing. We’re having auditions in a couple of days in Atlanta if you’d like to try again. But thank you for coming out,” he says.

We collect our belongings and spot a glittery Val walking toward us. “How did it go?” Jolie asks. “I think it went well, but obviously not well enough,” he says. A camera crew approaches Val and asks him to recount his experience and sing another sample of Britney. We sing along and cheer. He didn’t make it through, but he was definitely a star of the show. A distant cheer emanates from the tents, and we crane our necks to see another hopeful who has made it through.

In the course of four hours, I was duped by radio producers, apprehended by security guards when I got too close to the tents to photograph, sang a Beatles tune, given a firm no from an Idol producer, and thoroughly dehydrated. In the end, I suffered from a bout of heat exhaustion but made a couple of new friends. All in all, it wasn’t a bad day. And who knows? Maybe I will hit up that Atlanta audition — but only if it's in an indoor, air-conditioned venue.
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Minhae Shim Roth is an essayist, journalist, and academic.
Contact: Minhae Shim Roth