NEW YORK (AP) _ "Even the juggling was pathetic." With that cutting blow, Simon Cowell ended Jason Anderson’s moment in the spotlight. Anderson, all of 16, stormed out of his "American Idol" audition into his family’s arms, obscenities flowing as freely as the tears.
High school can be vicious enough. But not as nasty as Cowell, who also told the would-be singer/juggler that he "summed up Minneapolis, mate _ useless."
The "American Idol" juggernaut has become ever more popular in this, its sixth season. But it sure seems meaner, too. At least that’s the talk this week as the judges _ not just the acerbic Cowell, but the usually genial Randy Jackson and the kind but loopy Paula Abdul _ up the torture quotient, taking train-wreck TV viewing to a whole new level.
Young or old, pretty or ugly, male or female: no category of contestant has been spared in this week’s audition coverage. The judges have even taken swipes at contestants behind their backs, making snide remarks after the singers have left. "Obnoxious," Cowell sniffed of one who’d just been voted into the next round. "What a strange guy," Jackson said of another.
And if you argue the contestants are asking for it by merely deciding to appear, consider the supportive boss of Dayna Dooley, who flew her and her sister to Minneapolis from California, so strongly did he believe in her singing. After panning her performance, the panel repeatedly insinuated to Dooley that she was inappropriately involved with her boss. Then they called the nice man in, told him his employee was "terrible," and proceeded to make the same insinuation to him _ while his wife sat just outside the room.
"It just seems like they’re being a lot meaner," says Jessica Rhode. She should know. After the 21-year-old makeup artist was given a thumbs-down by the panel, she collapsed to her knees and wept, begging the judges for some constructive advice. "It would take an hour," Cowell retorted. He told her to be happy: now she could move on, knowing she’d never be a singer.
"That was the worst thing, in my opinion," Rhode said in a telephone interview. "I expected at least one of them to say something nice. I was like, is this really necessary?"
The cruellest moment undoubtedly came in Seattle, where a spirited young man named Kenneth Briggs, who liked to compare himself to Justin Timberlake, was told by Cowell: "You look a little odd … you look like one of those creatures that live in the jungle, with those massive eyes … a bush baby." Once he left, the three judges were shown cracking up hysterically at the "bush baby" remark.
Their behaviour brought a rebuke from the hosts of ABC’s "The View." "The whole thing, it’s terribly sad to me," said moderator Rosie O’Donnell.
Even the doors were mean. In a malfunction that seemed expressly designed to deepen the humiliation, one side of the double doors to the Minneapolis tryout room was locked or jammed. That meant Cowell got to smirk or roll his eyes every time a poor soul _ Rhode was one of them _ knocked into the wrong one during a hasty exit.
At least Stephen Horst managed to pick the right door.
"That’s what my sister told me after the show," Horst says. It was the best thing she could think of, after the pummelling the 28-year old vocal coach took from Jackson.
Horst, of New York City, is a positive thinker if there ever was one. "I believe everything happens for a reason," he says. "I had a dream, and I went after it. Life is short, and you have to enjoy every sandwich."
So Horst, on his own dime, travelled to Minneapolis and stayed at a hotel during the audition process. He chose to sing Aerosmith’s "I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing." Maybe it was the song choice, or the singing itself, which veered into a sudden falsetto, or the fact that he was a vocal coach. Jackson went on a rampage.
"I thought it was awful," he said. "You shouldn’t be a vocal teacher. I wouldn’t take vocal lessons from you, I wouldn’t tell anybody to take vocal lessons from you." Cowell feigned indignation. "Are you going to take that, Stephen?" he baited Horst.
"I was stunned," Horst said. "Randy just didn’t like me." He’s moving ahead with his music career, and doesn’t plan to watch the show anymore. "I need to create a new past," he says.
That’s the kind of positive thinking that has helped Paris Bennett in her career. Bennett, unlike most of those at this week’s auditions, was an "American Idol" success story, coming in fifth last year and eventually earning a record deal.
Yet she, too, endured her share of negative comments. Cowell once told her that her speaking voice reminded him of Minnie Mouse. She was 17 at the time.
"You can let it knock you down, or you can take it as constructive criticism," Bennett said in a telephone interview. She said her grandmother and her mother, both singers, had taught her to look at the positive, not the negative.
"It all just depends on how you take it," she said. She obviously took it well. In March, her debut album comes out. The first single, "Ordinary Love," was released this week.