When Simon Cowell
joked that semifinalist Ashley Hartman's performance reminded him of a lounge singer on a sinking cruise ship, the Santa Ana, Calif., 17-year-old naturally felt burned. "What I got out of it basically is, he said, 'You're pretty, but there's no talent there.' " But Hartman has made a nice rebound. "It was such a blessing to not make it to the next round," says the high school junior, who subsequently landed a costarring role on The O.C., a new FOX sitcom about Southern California teens. "If I had made it, I'd still be doing American Idol, and I wouldn't have this new job." The daughter of a schoolteacher mom and a Sprint PCS sales rep dad, Hartman had been intent on college and considering a teaching career. "I want to make sure I'm not limiting myself," she says. And while she's enjoying equally open romantic horizons—"I'm totally single and playing the field"—Hartman looks back on her Idol experience as "difficult and embarrassing and exciting." And one she wouldn't trade. "I feel like now my options are endless," she says.
Peacocking in a polka-dot tie and two-tone shoes during his semifinals, Patrick Fortson was feeling good about his Feb. 4 performance on Idol. That is, until Simon Cowell
offered his five-word critique: "I think the outfit sucks." "I was shocked," says Fortson, 22, a manager at a group home in Terre Haute, Ind. "I was hoping he'd say something about my voice." So was Patrick Sr., 42, who leaped to his son's defense. "I didn't think it was fair," says the elder Fortson, a factory foreman. "If people like your music, they adapt. Think of the Beatles and their hair; Michael Jackson—one glove?!" For his part, Fortson Jr., who has been invited to entertain at local benefits, basketball games and church festivities as a result of his appearance on the show, has no regrets. "People recognize me everywhere and stop me on the street," says the would-be entertainer. "They'll praise my singing and then, as they're leaving, say, 'Oh, and I like your outfit.' "
After wowing judges and viewers with her boomimg power-soul pipes, Frenchie Davis, 23, seemed bound for Idol glory. Then came le scandale. Turns out our Frenchie worked for an interactive adult Web site about five years ago. Dumped from the competition in February by producers who feared that images might surface on the Internet, Frenchie was "upset and disappointed," says Idol co-executive producer Ken Warwick. But she seems to be rebounding. She recently told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY she might be a casualty of an international diplomatic dust-up. "People," she joked, "are pretty mad at the French." And fans shouldn't count her out just yet. The Gardena, Calif., native—who's on hiatus from her senior year at Howard University, where she's a musical-theater major—is getting a helping hand from Idol creator Simon Fuller as she fields offers from producers and looks for a manager. As for her look, Davis told USA Today she sees no need to liberate her inner waif. "I like the way I'm shaped," she said. "I love my figure!"
Why rehearse when "you're already a superstar?" That's what Stephan Franklin wondered out loud the night he and running mates Alden Wynn and Corey Clark blew off group rehearsals and limoed into the Hollywood night. Famous last words. By the next day Wynn, 25, the owner of a Roanoke window-washing business, and Franklin, 25, a salesman living in Monrovia, Calif., saw their hopes for stardom curdle as Simon Cowell
dubbed their behavior "an insult to this competition." Though he's "supremely jealous" of Clark, who made the finals anyway, Wynn doesn't "regret going out that night. We had a lot of fun." Is it possible the crew encouraged them to party to add drama to the show? "Anybody with half a brain and no missing teeth would have realized that," says Wynn, who, like Franklin, still hopes for a career in showbiz. "Not all reality TV is real, people!"
The instant Keith Beukelaer went into his snake dance and began warbling Madonna
's "Like a Virgin" in a madhouse wail during the Atlanta audition in October, even Simon could barely keep from laughing. "You are quite possibly," Simon said with a grim smile, "the worst singer in the world."
A 19-year-old history major at the State University of West Georgia, Beukelaer admits he suffered a crisis of confidence after the experience and wondered if preliminary judges hadn't set him up for ridicule. "They said they liked my singing," he says. "No one told me I was bad until Simon." Adds his mother, Marianne, a homemaker in Long Island: "It hurt him bad. I can't even talk to him about it. He just gets so upset." Buoyed by words of encouragement from his brother Brian, 28, owner of a karaoke club, as well as his college roommate—"He has a lot of courage," says freshman Shane Weaver—Beukelaer is trying to put the episode behind him. He's even thinking about giving the next Idol contest a shot. "I wouldn't try those dance moves again," he says. "And I would most likely sing a song performed by a guy."
"Come on, Simon," Cedric Hunt, the man in the banana-yellow zoot suit, ad-libbed mid-song. "Reach out." Cowell threatened to "reach out with a hook" if Hunt didn't end his rendition of the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" then and there. But it was Cowell's curt judgment on Hunt's attire—"Hideous!"—that seemed to leave Cedric in tears at the end of his Nov. 27 audition in Austin. "I feel real bad," the downcast singer said afterward. "I feel like everything was in vain. I feel alone."
& Co. slammed the door on Hunt's American Idol
dream, however, other doors have swung open for the 19-year-old sophomore at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kans. On Jan. 22 he was hired part-time by a Wichita radio station to do man-on-the-street interviews, as well as participate in local idol-inspired talent shows. "Before, I was struggling," he says of his attempts to launch a career as a songwriter and producer. "This was an answer to my prayers." Even better, Hunt, one of 12 children of divorced parents—his mother is a cosmetologist; he has little contact with his father—gets to wear those neon suits while he works. "Cedric is very entertaining," says his friend Kristy Draxler, 19. "Those suits fit his personality perfectly."
With his ponytail, heavy metal tees and studded wrist bands, rocker Patrick Lake stood out among Idol's auditioning divas and disco boys like an outlaw biker at a Gap sale. But he proved his versatility when Simon asked him to sing the decidedly nonmetallic "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." "I was lucky it just happened to be one I sing to my friends," says Lake. "To annoy them."
He made it to the semifinals before getting the hook. "Sure, I was a little disappointed," says Lake, 24, who had split from the rock band he formerly fronted and later quit his assistant manager's job at an Athens, Ga., Kmart to compete. "I figured I'd gone as far as I could. It was a good chance to get a taste of stardom and fame."
Now back in Athens, where he shares an apartment with a roommate, Lake is job-hunting—the Kmart closed in his absence—and trying to put a new band together. No need to ask why. "Now that I've been on television," he says, "I want to be discovered again."
After he made the cut to the final 32 last December, Jaered Andrews found himself starring in a different sort of reality show: facing criminal charges for assault.
Trouble began for Andrews, 22, of Austintown, Ohio, on Nov. 15, when he was hanging out with friends at the Blue Ribbon Grille in Farrell, Pa., across the state line from his home. Later that night he and a pal (who was also charged) got into an altercation with another patron, Thomas Blakeley, 39, who died the next day of injuries suffered in the fight. Andrews told police that he acted only in self-defense. "I swung," he said in a statement. "I hit the man one time.... I never knocked anybody out in my whole life. I didn't even think I had the strength to."
Dumped without comment from Idol competition in January, after the incident came to light, Andrews, an unemployed graphic artist who faces up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine, has had to put his music career on hold while awaiting the outcome of his legal troubles. "In the meantime," he says, "I'm on the unemployment line."
After six weeks of practice, practice, practice, Terra Daddona felt well prepared for her big moment. But "the minute the lights went on and I saw all the cameras, I freaked out," says the Boca Raton, Fla., mural painter. "I couldn't control my voice. I was trying to keep eye contact with the judges, but it made me more nervous to think, 'What is Simon thinking?' I just blew it."
The judges agreed. "They were actually very kind," says Daddona, 22, "even Simon. They just said that I wasn't ready. They're really not trying to crush people's feelings. They just tell the truth." While she initially felt "disappointed and hurt," Daddona, who had never sung in public before auditioning in Miami, chalks it up as a learning experience. "Even if I never become a famous singer, I had the opportunity to try for something."
The highest praise Danny Rodriguez heard from the judges came, unfortunately, at the end of his quest. After earning the panel's ire by spacing on lyrics during the callbacks in Hollywood, the Sinatra-channeling singer redeemed himself by crooning a few bars of "My Way" after getting the ax. In appreciation, Simon applauded him for displaying dignity in defeat.
A computer science major at Rutgers University, Rodriguez, 21, is intent on reprogramming his career path. "I definitely want to be a singer," he says. Trouble is, the Jackson, N.J., native isn't sure which road leads to stardom. "People seem to think I have opportunities, but there's nothing much I can do until three months after the show [due to Idol contract restrictions]." Of course, Idol
's multilayered audition process taught him all about patience: "We were joking that it should have been called American Waiting."