"I feel awesome," said Sarah Diamond. Awesome feels like an understatement. Just minutes before, she was jumping up and down while waving a yellow piece of paper, her "golden ticket" to the next round of auditions for ABC's American Idol reboot. The country singer is one of a handful of performers who made it through this preliminary round of auditions in Franklin Square on Thursday.
Would-be Idols had been lined up since midnight Wednesday for one of the 26 stops on the American Idol open-auditions bus tour.
Auditions started at 9 a.m. Thursday and were to continue until 5 p.m. — "if the heat doesn't melt us," joked Patrick Lynn, senior supervising producer for the show. Jittery musicians as young as 15, many clutching guitars, queued in groups of four around the various producers' tents, waiting to be called forward to sing. In many cases, entire groups were turned away, but a few "diamond in the rough" auditioners were asked to perform another song or speak to a producer, finally receiving the coveted yellow form.
"We're looking for people that are good singers and good performers… people that have great stories, but it all starts with being able to sing and being able to perform," said Lynn, who has been with Idol since its first season on Fox.
There are a few obstacles in between these Philly Idol hopefuls and an audience with this season's celebrity judges — Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie. After receiving the "golden ticket" to enter the winner's circle at the bus auditions, contestants register and go over their backgrounds on camera. Within the next month, they will each interview with executive producers for the show, either in person or via Skype. Pending the producers' green light, they will get to audition in one of the five "judge cities" (exact locations are unconfirmed, although they will likely include New York and Los Angeles) where Perry, Bryan, and Richie will give them a real golden ticket to rep Philly on the show — or send them home to await their 15 minutes of fame in the audition segment of the show's first episode.
>> PHOTO GALLERY: Hopeful contestants audition for 'American Idol' in Philadelphia
Diamond was one such contestant with a good story. The 24-year-old from Downingtown auditioned with Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman." After she belted with a vibrato that rose above the hum of hundreds of nervous singers warming up, the producers called her forward. "They asked me what I do. I was a nanny for a little while, but I had a series of concussions that resulted in post-concussion syndrome, so I lost my job without notice or anything," she said. "I just got out of rehab a month ago. So I'm back."
Another way contestants leave memorable impressions is through their appearance. Farrah Thorne, a 25-year-old from South Philly, attracted attention for her stage-ready outfit — bedazzled black lingerie, a bleached-blond Marilyn Monroe wig, and a face full of drag-inspired makeup with nary a speck of glitter or fanlike fake lash out of place.
"I'm actually a drag-cabaret-burlesque performer, so this is kind of just my usual showgirl getup," she explained. It was her second time auditioning for the show — the first time she auditioned, she didn't dress as flamboyantly.
"Because I look crazy, they wanted to shoot with me," she said. "After they got some video, they pushed me to the front of the line, so I wasn't ready at all. They kind of just rushed me into it, and the first time I did this, I waited eight hours, so I was really nervous because I wasn't prepared. But the producer that I auditioned for was like, 'I can tell you're really nervous, but I'm going to go ahead and give you the benefit of the doubt.' "
Even without an inspirational personal story or style that doesn't literally shine, there is still another way to get an edge on the competition. "I sent an online audition tape first, so I got to cut the line and sing immediately. I've been here for half an hour," said Joe Lee, 23, a Fishtown resident who was riding the high of securing his golden ticket just moments earlier. "I've always wanted to do it but didn't have the guts."
"I sent in a video of a song that I wrote three or four years ago. It was an old video, too — I was surprised they liked it," said Ayanna Martine, a 20-year-old from Otisville, N.Y. "I actually got a little scared because these people are so good at singing! You stand there and you're waiting for your turn and you're like, 'How am I going to top this?' " she laughed, nervously fiddling with the strings of her cherry-red acoustic guitar.
She previously auditioned for America's Got Talent, but "she just made the second round of producers, she didn't get as far," said her mother, Irma Martine. Her parents were beaming from the sidelines as their daughter spoke to reporters and sang for cameras.
Martine and her fellow Philly contestants stand a good chance of continuing on to the real show, if the last season of American Idol is any indicator. Four out of the five Philadelphia-area contestants on the show made it to the top 14 competitors. Dennis Lorenzo of West Philadelphia, Michael Woodard of East Falls, and Catie Turner of Langhorne even made it all the way to the top 10.
"Very high hopes for Philly," said Lynn. "We've always gotten good talent here."