Dressed as if they were already pop stars -- in plastic high heels, glittery halter tops and rhinestone-studded belts -- the last 300 "American Idol" television show contestants divided into 12 audition lines inside the Pasadena Rose Bowl on Sunday afternoon.
A crowd of 6,000 had begun gathering outside the stadium's gates at noon Friday. Nearly 3,000 of them were 16- to 24-year-olds waiting to impress producers by singing their favorite gospel, pop or R&B tunes. The rest were friends and family members who had come to cheer on the aspiring stars.
Only 395 made the cut.
Pasadena was the first stop in a five-city tour to recruit talent for the third season of Fox's hit show, which will air in January 2004. From Pasadena, producers will head to Houston, Atlanta, Honolulu and New York.
To kill time over two and a half days in the sweltering heat, contestants played board games and rehearsed on an outside stage in front of an audience of radio station representatives, television crews and fellow Idol-wannabes. When nightfall came, they unrolled their sleeping bags and pitched tents.
But by 3 a.m. Sunday, they were jolted awake by American Idol staff members with bullhorns, telling them to pack up, clean up and get ready to sing.
"I started getting ready in the dark, on the asphalt," said Sasha Evans, a 23-year-old college student from Sacramento. Her twin sister held a blanket up as she changed pants. She applied her lipstick and styled her hair with beauty products she kept stashed inside a shoulder bag.
Evans sang Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," in a sultry voice that was mostly in key. Nevertheless, she was cut.
The judge "kind of just looked at me and looked away. Then she told me, 'you're not what we're looking for.' "
"American Idol" producers say they are screening for "interesting" and "unique" talent. The show's first "American Idol" winner was Kelly Clarkson, a Texas cocktail waitress whose single shot to No. 1 after the show ended. Last season's winner, Ruben Studdard, is now on tour with other "American Idol" finalists, and his album is expected to be released soon.
More than 25,000 contestants turned out last year to audition, and producers say they expect even more this year.
Inside the Rose Bowl, there were twelve auditions going on at once -- each in an individual tent with three judges. In front of each tent, a throng of contestants waited for numbers to be called. They wore bell-bottom jeans, army fatigues and silver hoop earrings.
As contestants from each group performed, the stadium filled with the overlapping echoes of tunes popularized by Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler and Luther Vandross and lots and lots of Whitney Houston.
Family and friends fanned themselves and tried to shade themselves under umbrellas as they waited in the faded red bleachers, surrounded by banana peels, empty water bottles and peanut shells, remnants of the long wait.
On Sunday, one aspiring singer, LaQuisha Iverson, 18, of Duarte, said she had dropped out because she had a migraine headache after getting only two hours of sleep and not eating for 24 hours.
But others couldn't afford to miss a shot at pursuing their dreams.
"I would love to be a big star some day," said Ruggy Joesten, 21, of San Diego, who quit his job at a retail clothing store just days before driving to the auditions with his girlfriend.
Joesten, dressed in a hot pink terry cloth jacket, vintage black shoes decorated with big white stars and orange-tinted sunglasses, belted out an off-key version of Toni Braxton's hit "Unbreak My Heart."
He made it to the next round of auditions, which will be held on Wednesday at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood.
"I think they noticed I had good stage presence," Joesten said. "They said, 'how can we pass you up?' "
But some scoffed when they found out that Joesten had made it.
"That was a joke. He looked like a circus act," said Travis Brady, 21, of Santa Monica who hadn't made it past the first round. "I don't think this process is fair."
His friend, Melissa Phillips, 19, of Inglewood, who was also cut, added, "They're not picking according to good singers. They're picking for an entertaining TV show."