As Bay Area resident Brad Estrin tooled around in his car one afternoon this past spring in Los Angeles, little did he know destiny was about to reach out through the radio and preapprove him for stardom. He caught the tail end of an ad calling for auditions for American Idol, a new television show that billed itself as the search for a star. Oh, sweet fate! The clean-cut and tanned 24-year-old was a struggling actor who'd recently graduated from SF State's film program and headed south for the land of bilk and money. Estrin had arrived armed with his résumé and the naive exuberance that slickly groomed hopefuls share for maybe a month before recognizing the truth of their situations. But on that Friday, our hero was still aglow with the fire of the ol' might-be, and although he had virtually nil experience as a singer, he decided to show up for auditions at the Wyndham Hotel the very next day. "I went on a whim," he says. "I went because I had nothing better to do."
Yes, Estrin was about to embark on the summer's runaway hit, the TV show that has brought us the UK's talent judge, Simon Cowell, aka "Hannibal Lecter without the charm," an acid-tongued dandyboy whose zingers have destroyed the will to live for more than a handful of generic, talentless boobs. That's right, Simon is a complete dick, but he's always right. His finest moment was when he asked a young girl who'd just destroyed "Lady Marmalade" if she had a vocal coach. "Yes," she said hopefully. "Do you have a lawyer?" asked Simon. "No," she replied, confused. The judge then suggested that she hire one and sue the vocal coach. Youch! It's irresistible to watch, though truly, the pain that these victims felt at his viciousness awakened in all of us viewers memories of our own public shame and feelings of worthlessness ...
Nahhh, this shit was just straight-up funny.
Estrin showed up at the tryouts ignorant and expectant, like all the rest of 'em. One by one the contestants entered the audition room and exited soon after, either in ecstasy or in tears. Whatever they were up against in this Room 101 must've been heavy, man. "I saw people come out crying and just devastated," says Estrin. "There were a few times when the judges came out for breaks. Simon came out and was talking about how disappointed he was with the American talent pool." Great. Estrin knew he was second to last, and that at that point the judges would be really tired of hearing people. And what were Simon, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson -- the other judges -- saying to these kids to make them so distraught? It was like A Chorus Line or something. Estrin took a deep breath and headed in, ready to sing a Marc Anthony song and "Unchained Melody." When he was done, he poised himself for the gauntlet. "Randy was on the fence about me," says Estrin. "Paula said she had a really good feeling that I would make it far in the competition. Simon had this smug look on his face and he looked at the questionnaire that I had to fill out. He was like, 'So, you haven't had any sort of singing experience whatsoever?' And I'm like, 'No.' He says, 'Well I've already made up my mind.' And in my head I'm thinking, 'Crap, I'm going to get cut.' And he looked at me with a smile and said, 'I completely disagree with Randy. As far as I'm concerned, you're actually the best audition we've seen in Los Angeles. ' I'm like, 'Holy shit!'"
Estrin had made it into a pool of 122 semifinalists, and then, miraculously, into the top thirty. By that time, America was already hooked on what was basically a glorified Gong Show without the Unknown Comic, but with hotter bodies and lots of Coca-Cola product placement. Simon is Chuck Barris with less spittle, drunk on hubris instead of Chivas. Paula Abdul is the plucky JP Morgan, and the heavyset tastemaker, Randy Jackson? He's Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.
Once the thirty were chosen, stylists from the show swooped in and gave everyone makeovers. "They made a lot of us look ridiculous," laughs Estrin. "I hated what I wore! I looked like a Bible salesman." The newly coifed performers began practicing in earnest for their live auditions in which the viewers would vote their favorites. This was also the point where the true nature of some of the contestants began to show itself. Bitches and A-holes, divas and dickshines, they all began to cluster by type. "There were a lot of phonies in the top thirty," says Estrin. "There was a lot of backstabbing going on." Example? "There was a girl in my group," he confides. "She came up to me about a half-hour before I was to perform and said, 'Oh my God! Did you know that the show's not going to air in your hometown?' It had been preempted by a Giants game. I'm like, 'Yeah ... ?' And she goes, 'Well, maybe that's better because I know you've been struggling with the song all week, and so your family's not going to see it, which'll be a good thing.'" What a beeeatch! Estrin was a gentleman and didn't name her, but he did give this hint: "If you're a fan of the show and you've been following it from day one, you'll probably be able to pick out which girl I'm talking about really easily. She was a baby about the whole thing." Some in-depth investigative work on the part of the Express points to one Kelli Glover, who was not only in Estrin's group of ten contestants, but bawled into her hands when she was voted off, and shoved someone who tried to console her.
Brad was considerably more professional. He came out onto the stage and strained through "Just Once" by James Ingram, a song that was out of his range. The judges were harsh. Randy said, "Brad, Brad, Brad. Dude, I didn't like that." Paula gave him a thumbs down. And Simon? Here's what Simon said: "You know what came into my mind when I watched that performance? You were on a local Chilean variety show in South America." Ugh. Double youch. "I kept a smile on my face," says Estrin, "and walked back into the Red Room and interviewed with the hosts. I said I was praying to God that the people in Chile were allowed to vote!" It was this upbeat personality that led Simon to dub Estrin "Smiley," but even Estrin had some tears after his dismissal. "Honestly? It did hurt me, because I'm human. I don't have a lot of respect for Simon in that aspect. Anybody can sit up there and throw out a cheap insult. It's not hard. It takes a bigger man to give somebody constructive criticism."
Well, at least our hero had the bonds of friendships with the other contestants. Of the final ten, Estrin admires Tamyra the most -- she's his odds-on favorite to win. He also has become close with RJ, who frankly has no business being in the top ten, and the rock 'n' roll, Hot Topic poster-girl Nikki. As for the others? "I think a lot of what you see on camera isn't necessarily what you get," confides Estrin. "Certain people's personalities, like Justin's, are starting to show." Oh! Snap! Justin, for those of you who do dumb things like read instead of watch TV, is the show's golden boy. Or should we say, was the show's golden boy. In the beginning he was unstoppable -- achingly handsome with tight corkscrew curls and a guileless charm that melted all the ladies. His eyes literally sparkle in the camera, as if he has tiny flashbulbs going off in his retinas. And man, can he sing. But then came the day, the one time when Simon ragged on his performance, and for a split second we all saw the real him. He gave Simon a snotty look and then turned to the crowd and said, "But what do you-all think?!" The crowd of course went nuts, and Sir Smug-a Lot shuffled offstage. What a phony. Most of us were probably willing to give Justin the benefit of the doubt, but then he came back the next week and made a sickening apology, which just made things worse for him. He had, you see, basically admitted that he was a cocky bastard, confirming all our suspicions. The next week he was almost voted off.
But what about Ryan Starr, Christina Christian, and Kelly Clarkson, the girl with the strongest voice in the top ten? She's all sweetness and light. "I plead the fifth," says Estrin of the first two, but of Kelly he says: "I'll leave it that I don't know her well enough, and she made absolutely no effort to get to know me. So if that explains anything to you ... " Damn. Ol' cuddleshine is really a stuck-up princess! Awesome.
Winning the show means a recording contract, but we all know that being the champion doesn't mean fame. Most Star Search contestants who went on to glory weren't the show's winners. Estrin is banking on this theory, and has already landed an agent who has gotten him auditions for stuff like a lead role in X-Men II, plus he's working with a "big-time" producer on his first album. "All I was concerned about on the show was enjoying myself and doing my best," he boasts. "I never thought I'd make it that far." Brad Estrin, you really are a winner.
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