Being an “American Idol” contestant is incredibly nerve-wracking — even when there are no stakes involved. For the show’s 13th season, producers have added a new element into the final week of preliminary competition: a workshop/boot camp with judge-turned-mentor Randy Jackson.
To experience this new round firsthand, I spent a cloudy January day going through each station in the “Idol” bootcamp. I wasn’t even a real contestant, but it was one of the most terrifying professional experiences I’ve ever had. (Putting things into perspective: I spent the day at a luxurious beachside Southern California resort on the set of one of my favorite television shows. This is clearly a first world problem.)
I knew I’d have to sing eventually. I was sort of prepared, in that I sang in high school choir and I am acquainted with the inside of a karaoke booth. But I wasn’t actually ready to sing for two professional vocal coaches first thing in the morning with a spirited car singalong to One Direction on the drive down as my only warmup.
Michael Orland and Dorian Holley might not take much B.S. from “Idol” contestants, but they’re also two of the most encouraging people you’re likely to encounter. Their blunt criticism springs more from necessity than anything else — they have very limited time with the contestants, so they need to get down to business right away.
I chose a karaoke standby — Lady Gaga‘s “You and I” — but I am no Haley Reinhart,
even after a few drinks. The first run-through involved staring at the
lyrics on my phone and cringing at the end of each line. Then Orland and
Holley called me out on my first crutch — if I know every word by
heart, why was I mumbling my way through the song?
We nixed the lyric sheet and ran it again. I still couldn’t stop listening to the way my voice sounded coming through the speakers, but after a few more rounds of encouragement and the advice to stop thinking so much about how the song was coming across to everyone else, I’d improved dramatically.
Why the stage fright? It didn’t actually matter and no one was actually listening. Well, clearly my own insecurities were coming into play — but there’s also something about being in a room with TV lighting, a sound setup, and a bunch of crew members hanging around you that really ups the stakes.
By the end of our short time together, I left with a CD of an instrumental track and one of me singing — something that will never be heard by another human, except maybe my mother when she reads this and realizes it exists and bugs me to send it to her. That’s what each contestant receives to help them rehearse.
The next stop was much more fun: hair and makeup with Lynn Tully and Marylin Spiegel. They started our session like they do with each “Idol” hopeful — by asking what I like to do and what kinds of tips I’d like to receive. I got some new braiding tips from Tully and a little touchup by Spiegel, something I think they enjoyed almost as much as I did. In the interest of continuity, they hadn’t actually been able to work on the contestants that day, but I was thrilled for a new hairstyle.
Having professional hair and makeup artists assess you is kind of intimidating. Tully and Spiegel, too, were pros at making me feel comfortable and explaining everything they were doing. I’ve actually re-created Tully’s braid myself multiple times since our session. Success!
Next up was styling with Nra Kudelka and Seth Chernoff. Kudelka takes care of the girls and Chernoff the boys, and their philosophy also seems to be taking stock of what the contestants feel comfortable in and then trying to elevate that look. We didn’t spend much time together, but I did try on a ton of jewelry and then accidentally almost walked off with a really cool necklace. (It was an accident, I swear. Really. Why didn’t they believe me?!)
The last training session was with staging expert Melissa Garcia, who popped in my CD, handed me a mic and told me to go to town. Uh-oh — after all the progress I’d made in the previous stations, I resorted immediately back to my shy caterpillar stage and swayed in place, occasionally pointing at a mystery point in the distance on the word “you.” Ouch.
Garcia then brought me down from the stage and forced me to really look at what I was doing — literally. I sang to myself in the mirror a couple of times, gaining more and more confidence in my completely irrelevant performance skills and forcing me to actually listen to the lyrics of the song.
By the end of our time together, I still wasn’t over how goofy I felt putting myself out there, but I did have a newfound appreciation for how stressful performing in front of even the smallest group of people can be — whether it’s a couple of crew members who aren’t even paying attention or millions of TV viewers at home. I also got a helpful reminder of how important it is to carry yourself with confidence no matter what you’re doing. If you look like you’re in control, people believe it. That’s a reminder most people — especially women — should take to heart.
Finally having completed each station, I was ready to meet with the Dawg himself, Randy Jackson. Instead of the typical pep talk and advice he gives the contestants, he discussed why he decided to take on a new role in the “Idol” universe.
“I feel like this is the next evolution of what I want to do,” he says. “I did my time as a judge. I don’t need to judge again ever. I love this because I can make this workshop and this mentoring role a bigger, broader thing and actually help the kids. Because as a judge, you get no interaction. … Now, I get a chance to actually talk to them and help them and I can see the things that are wrong and suggest to them, ‘Hey, maybe you want to try this.'”
You’ll be able to see Jackson’s input at work in packages that will precede each Top 30 — soon to be Top 20 — finalist’s live Rush Week performance. Jackson will stick around to give each singer tips throughout the season. The Top 13 contestants will be announced in the first live results show of Season 13 on Thursday (Feb. 20) at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.