Always one to tackle the tough issues, I stuffed my fancy-cam into an overhead compartment last weekend and choked down salty peanuts all the way to Hollywood. The mission: accompany the globe-trotting Shannon Smith on a brief yet grueling American Idol press junket. It wasn’t easy. You try dragging a camera, lights, tripod, batteries, discs, and a half dozen other gadgets through a post 9/11 airport. Jostle your gear too fast and the TSA agents start calling for back-up. Add to that a crowded flight and you got the makings of one very long airplane ride. For photogs however, it’s the only way to fly. Besides, the accommodations often outweigh the conveyance. The swanky Beverly Hills hotel the taxi driver dropped us off in front of sure did: valet parking, room service and enough giddy American Idol finalists to out-pace any number of high-end ice machines.
There were 24 finalists to be exact, all hand-picked by Simon, Paula and Randy to face a nation of voting viewers for a once in a lifetime chance at global stardom. Twenty-three of the hopeful vocalists are guaranteed to lose, of course. But that didn’t stop a single one of the two dozen young men and women from beaming on cue as they waded into their very first full-fledged media circus. Almost as many camera crews waited in the top-floor ballroom; scores of swarthy lenslingers and their photogenic partners from around the country, all poised to poke and prod the nervous singers on their very public quest to become a household name. I didn’t have to understand everything about the Idol phenomenon, but I did have to keep it all in focus. And in color...
“I’m ready to get on stage and sing...”, said Chris Daughtry as he settled into our interview chair. The last time Shannon and I saw him, the McLeansville resident almost shattered the glass on my lens with his accelerated vocals. That was back in August, when American Idol was a just vague ambition of the Crown Honda service writer. Since that hot afternoon, Chris has wowed the celebrity judges, survived an exhausting elimination week and become the subject of countless adoring websites. So far the sudden acclaim hasn’t gone to his shaven head. In fact, he seemed genuinely glad to talk to someone from the Greater Piedmont Googolplex, where his wife and two kids are awaiting the outcome of his most unlikely journey. Unassuming to a fault in person, Chris’ blistering pipes take center stage whenever he takes the microphone. I can’t wait ’til the rest of the planet sees what this little dude can do. Hands down, your lenslinger's favorite.
“I guess you can tell from my accent, I’m definitely country...”, said Kellie Pickler - in a tone of voice that warms the hearts of mothers while sending heterosexual men into cardiac arrest. Soaring vocals aside, Kellie is absolutely stunning - as anyone who has seen her now famous audition segment can attest. In person, the 19 year old radiates naïve vulnerability - and with good reason. Abandoned by her mom as a toddler and continually let down by her incarcerated father, young Miss Pickler has a persona, a look and a back-story that makes reality show producers hyperventilate. As for how she’s handling all the attention, Kellie’s in something of denial. When I told her how much excitement her appearance had already generated on-air, on-line and by the nation’s water cooler, she looked looked at me with the innocence of a southern sweetheart and said “Ree-uh-lee?” Really, Kellie. Really.
“I tell ya, ya just ain’t been nowhere til you been to Rockingham...” With that, Bucky Covington cracked himself up, as he often does. So far, the ex-body shop worker from the Sandhills hasn’t gotten the Idol airtime that Chris and Kellie have received, but that will surely change when the show goes live next week. Lanky, quick-witted and intoxicatingly Southern, Bucky kept Shannon and me in giggles and tears the entire time we hung out with him. Whether he’s answering silly interview questions or lounging on the roof of his temporary Beverly Hills digs, Bucky is at home. But the lanky cat can’t open his mouth without some showbiz schmuck shooting bottled water out of his nose at his Richmond County twang. Not me. I recognize his accent as that of a certified North Carolina good ole boy - the kind of hillbilly I've made a habit of partying with all my life. Wait until American hears him rip through some Skynyrd, or - as Bucky promises - some southern fried Neil Diamond.
“I wanna build my mansion on our goat hill”, Heather Cox declared. The Jonesville native and recent graduate of Surry Community College is the fourth of the North Carolina hopefuls. Like Bucky, most of her Idol moments have ended up on the cutting room floor. But quick review of her Denver audition tape reveals a clear and confident voice, coupled with a personality that makes even the grumpiest of cameramen smile. At first glance, Heather appears to be just another hottie (nothing wrong with that!), but on closer inspection you soon realize she’s a small town girl, a minister’s daughter and a sincere fan of her family’s goat farm. You also get the feeling that, unlike Kellie, she grasps the signifigance of the vortex she finds herself in . Hip to the fact that it could all end next week, Heather knows her life is already, inexorably altered. But don't write her off. This chick’s got moxie.
Before the l-o-n-g day was over, Shannon and I interviewed every one of the 24 finalists. From the eerily composed Gedeon McKinney to the incredibly photogenic Ace to the gray haired and delightfully soulful Taylor Hicks. I liked them all, a strange reaction from someone as jaded as I. But I’d be lying of course if I pretended to be rooting for anyone other than our four North Carolinians, all of whom stand a damn good chance of moving many a unit. Before that happens however, they - along with the other 20 finalists - have to convince a fickle public they’re worthy of the coveted title. Meanwhile I’ll be watching closely, and pretending I’m tuning in merely for the psychological study of it all. See ya couch-side.