'American Idol' in Portland: 'I'm just hoping that today's the day my dream will come true'
PORTLAND — Hundreds of eager performers from across the region flocked to the Maine State Pier on Wednesday morning for a chance to be the next "American Idol."
For the first time, the long-running singing competition show that made artists like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson into household names brought its official auditions to Maine.
By 7 a.m., a line of people representing a colorful cross-section of vocal styles, fashion senses, and talent levels snaked across the pier, as would-be stars waited anxiously with family and supporters for their chance to try out.
"It's a fun, festive atmosphere," said Robert McLeod, "American Idol" supervising producer. "People are excited to be a part of TV history and American pop culture. You've got people singing and dancing, people sitting in lawn chairs, people laying down sleeping because they've been there all day."
Portland was the first stop on the 2014 "American Idol" East Coast bus tour, which will also hit cities including Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia and serves as a supplement to auditions held in major markets like New York and San Francisco. Eventually, a dozen finalists will be chosen for the 14th season of the show, which is set to premiere on Fox in January 2015.
Mariah Conley, 25, was among the first in line. A marketing professional from Scarborough, Conley said she takes musical inspiration from Joss Stone and Beyonce, and that her soulful voice and spirited attitude would make her stand out.
"I'm a really driven person, and I've got a good story," said Conley, clad in an orange dress and dangling earrings, her brown hair sitting atop her head in a bun. "I've come back from a lot. I lost my only parent really young. I'm coming out here to make my own way, let go of fear, and just go after what I want."
Joe Hunt, of Madison, said he honed his chops singing karaoke and playing in local bands. A goateed, barrel-chested 26-year-old sporting sunglasses and a cowboy hat, he said his music channels country artists Toby Keith and Jason Aldean.
"I believe I've got the voice," Hunt said. "And I've definitely got the heart. You've got to have the heart and the tenacity."
Drive. Heart. Call it what you want, but that "it" factor, that je ne sais quoi, is what ultimately separates gifted singers from "American Idol" finalists.
"You want that full package, that star," McLeod said. "Obviously, they need to have the voice and the technical skill, but we're also looking for somebody who's got some charisma, some personality, who commands the stage. You're not going to see Jennifer Lopez onstage with her hands in her pockets, looking at the floor. She's engaging. It's like a job interview — it starts as soon as you walk in the door."
Several people in line said they hoped to make it on the show because they can't stand school. Some seemed to know they had no chance, but decided to audition for the heck of it. Other saw it as a chance to change their lives.
"I work two jobs and I'm a mother of a 3-year-old. Other than that, I sing constantly," said Mary Dishman, 20, who wore a black bow in her red hair and a striped dress with cutout sides. Walking down Commercial Street, the Rockland resident sang a spot-on rendition of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful."
"I'm just hoping that today's the day my dream will come true," Dishman said.
The beauty of a small-market audition tour for a hit show like "American Idol" is that it helps level the playing field. By broadening the geographic talent search, it gives that many more people the opportunity to make their dream come true.
"You just don't know where the next star is going to be," McLeod said. "They're not necessarily all in New York, or L.A., or Chicago. Carrie Underwood was from a tiny town in Oklahoma. Last year, one of our top three guys, Alex Preston, he's from a small town in New Hampshire, not that far away from here.
"So you never know. In places like Portland and Maine and New England, there is a lot of talent. We want to be the first ones to find it."