California Dreamin'

updated 05/01/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

You waited on line for 36 hours in broiling Miami heat just to get that coveted plastic band on your wrist, your admission ticket to the whole shebang. You were called back two times before two different panels of judges. Both times you put your heart and soul into Etta James's "At Last"—not an easy thing when you sing it without accompaniment in less than 60 seconds. Now, at last, you're ushered into the presence of the great troika, Simon, Paula and Randy. Once more you belt out verse and chorus and—is it a miracle?—by the end you have Simon purring, "Isn't she the cutest thing?" Then the judges confer—in nanoseconds—and smile and beckon you to your future with the words you've been waiting to hear: "You're going to Hollywood!" You'll advance from this exhausting audition to the select pool of 234 contestants bound for Los Angeles.

So tell us, Jennifer Fuentes, how'dja do it? When she's done screaming, the 18-year-old from Homestead, Fla., offers a few tips. She made sure to wear her lucky colors, red and white. "And I was doing my whole hip-shaking thing," says Fuentes, who started as No. 147 in a line of 5,500. "I have a lot of soul and a great Latin vibe."

Alas, she lasts only until Feb. 12, far short of the big prize but still able to smack her lips at her taste of national celebrity. Meanwhile, since the show's seven-city auditions ended last fall, approximately 70.000 other wannabes have headed home, still convinced there's no business like show business, but wondering: How do you get into the talent factory at American Idol? For those of you who dare dream visions of pop stardom—and have a set of pipes that sound somewhat better than a wolf with its foot in a trap—here are some broad guidelines for auditioning, courtesy of this season's finalists:

Expect delays. This is what's called a cattle call—and the cows and steers far outnumber the ranch hands. In any given city, the show's staff of talent testers "can only see about 2,000 people a day," says co-executive producer Ken Warwick. "What we do on the queue, generally speaking, is the first 2,000 get a wristband." Then the winnowing starts—two auditions before various producers, and then Simon, Paula and Randy. "Those three," says Warwick, "can see about 200 people a day." In other words, it's the Ellis Island of talent shows: huddled masses yearning to be stars. Which is why finalist Rickey Smith, 23, languished out in the rain for a full day and a half in Nashville. "But I was motivated, so it didn't hit me 'til after I was done with all the tryouts. Then I got sick."

And pack some extra clothes—please. Or experience the dismal fate of Miami audition failure Candace Byrd, 21. By the end of three days of singing and waiting, "my outfit could stand up on its own. It's just gross."

Bring your entourage. Okay, at this point in your career they're still called relatives or roommates—but you'll need their help on that monster line. Kimberly Caldwell, 21, camped out on a dirty futon with a cousin, but at least her high-school friends kept up her spirits and energy with a supply of food and magazines. Unlike Kimberly and Rickey, Vanessa Olivarez, 21, wasn't about to risk her voice sleeping out in the damp: She asked friends to hold her place in line while she rested up at home. "They didn't think it was terrible to go and wait for their friend...who maybe possibly one day might be the next big superstar."

Imagine you're a one-hit wonder. And, no, we don't mean sing "Who Let the Dogs Out?" by the Baha Men. Corey Clarke, 22, recommends restricting your audition repertory to a single song. He packed a wallop—repeatedly—"Never Can Say Goodbye." "I did the same song all three days," says Clarke. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

But if you must break it—smash it with a mallet. Olivarez went into the auditions singing Irene Cara's "Out Here On My Own," but when she reached the top judges she switched to a nutty showstopper—Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." "They looked at me like I was crazy. But Randy said, 'Wow. That was great.' " Lesson? "If you want to be a star, it has to be big."

Have access to wheels or a Lear jet. If you arrive all set to audition only to find you've already blown it-line is too long, wristbands all gone-hightail it to another city for another try. Take the do-or-die example of Jamie Lee Stark, 20, who drove six hours from Pittsburgh to the New York City audition, arrived at 3 a.m., found herself shut out, drove home, slept a few hours, and then drove 12 hours down to Atlanta. (Ultimately she got rejected there-but you got guts, kid.)

Charles Grigsby, 24, didn't let a snafu snuff his ambitions: When he drove to Cleveland from Oberlin, Ohio, to try out, show organizers mistakenly informed him that the age cutoff was 23. (Contestants must actually be between the ages of 16 and 24 at the time of the auditions.) "It's very weird," he says. "I was like, 'Oh, you've got to be kidding me!' " Two weeks later he drove to Detroit for a second go. "It was only 2 ½ hours to get there. Not much of a sacrifice."

Trust in a higher power (other than Simon Cowell). Julia DeMato, 24, swears the difference between failure and success has swung on the invisible blessings of her rosary beads. Kimberley Locke, 25, had the faith to stay home in her own bed and avoid a miserable night on line. "I felt like if this was what God wanted me to do, me getting up early was sufficient," she says with a laugh. She was No. "1,580-something," but she got her wristband.

And remember: You are what this competition is all about. Even if you belong on The Gong Show. Producers look indulgently—up to a point—on anyone with the perseverance and/or perversity to stick out the humiliation of rejections in two separate cities, like Boston native Edgar Nova. "He did Enrique Eglesias in Miami and was dreadful, but he wouldn't accept that he wasn't going through," says producer Warwick. "So he combed his hair up and came to L.A. and insisted he was someone different." Not that he was any less dreadful, but he did make it on TV during the audition shows before his final rejection. Says Warwick: "I can quite confidently say that nobody made it a second time after failing the first."

But who knows better, some TV producer—or you, the next American Idol?

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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