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'American Idol,' at a Mall Near You

Local imitations of the hit TV show have sprung up in small towns across the U.S. They range from high glitz to homespun.

August 24, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

VICTORVILLE — Holding up signs written in glitter glue, girls shrieked for the hunky 25-year-old construction worker in the black cowboy hat and tight white T-shirt.

A group of women clapped in time as their 42-year-old friend, clad in blue sequins and spandex, belted out a version of Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

But the judges declared that a 14-year-old blond with soaring high notes had captured the title of "High Desert Idol" after performing on a three-foot-high stage set up in front of racks of sale-priced tank tops and bikinis.

From Victorville to Wichita, Kan., at least a dozen towns across the country have launched local versions of the blockbuster television show "American Idol."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Idol contests -- An article in the Aug. 24 California section about towns staging local versions of the TV show "American Idol" incorrectly reported that one contestant, Mary Estes, was from Wellington, Kan. She is from Derby, Kan.

In California, wannabes have taken -- or soon will take -- the stage in Apple Valley, Bakersfield, Oakland, San Diego and Visalia.

While Fox-affiliate stations around the country are staging sanctioned regional contests, the local shows have sprouted on their own.

Productions range from high glitz to homespun.

"Apple Valley Idol" was a small affair, staged in June and featuring a $2.50 spaghetti dinner cooked by staff of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.

"We couldn't offer anything huge. It was just a family event, so kids could showcase," said Scott Gorman, who helped organize the event.

About 150 parents, grandparents and friends crowded into the James A. Woody Community Center auditorium to videotape and photograph the 21 kids who crooned Broadway numbers and Disney tunes.

The judges, including a high school music teacher and a college-age songwriter, awarded plaques to nine standouts.

But every contestant took home a felt star emblazoned with his or her name that had adorned the event's long white banner.

Representatives of the Fox television show said they appreciate this unprompted idol worship.

Although David Goffin, a supervising producer on "American Idol," joked that his lawyer might gripe about the copyright, he said, "Anything that keeps our show in the public consciousness can only help."

Organizers of these hometown contests said they are just harnessing the popularity of "American Idol."

"We have youth committee meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month," explained Ramsey Ochoa, one of the organizers of "Visalia Teen Idol," staged recently.

"Halfway through the meeting, they would want to rush home" to watch the TV show.

"So we asked, 'Do you guys want to have an "American Idol"-type show in Visalia?' They were just jazzed about it."

Some of the contestants acknowledged that they also hoped to bring a little fame to their hometowns. After all, the hometowns of "American Idol" TV show finalists received loads of media attention.

"Bakersfield Idol" may not be connected to "American Idol," said Nick Elliot, program director at KISS-FM (96.5). "But we're so close to L.A., and the prize happens to be studio time in L.A. under a top producer, so who knows? The next idol could be from Bakersfield."

Big or small, the aspiring idols take the contests seriously. Many have competed since they were old enough to sing along with the radio.

"I think 'American Idol' would be really fun to do when I'm older," said 10-year-old Mary Estes, one of the winners of "Derby Idol" in Kansas.

She competes in five to seven events yearly.

In her hometown, Wellington, she is the reigning Little Miss Wheat Queen.

Winners bask happily in all the attention.

Amy Adams, 24, who won the first "Bakersfield Idol" contest last year, said residents tell her, "You're the most awesome thing in Bakersfield."

Contest winners in other cities have had similar experiences, as in Oakland, where the school district's cable channel aired the program.

The performers "all said they were recognized on the street by people," said Gabriel Diamond, who oversaw "Oakland Idol."

"They all felt like celebrities in town because we reach some 75,000 homes in Oakland. It made the kids feel pretty special."

James Nickerson, a self-described "honky-tonk" singer-songwriter who judged "Apple Valley Idol," said that, while it was not fair to compare kids competing at the local level with those appearing on "American Idol," the Apple Valley event was not just a throwaway karaoke night.

"You're going to take your name and put it on a program, whether it's in front of 10, 100 or 10,000 people," he said. "How serious are you? Do you want to giggle and laugh through your performance or give 100%?"

Contestants in "High Desert Idol," sponsored by local radio station Y102-FM and Victorville's Valley-Hi Toyota Honda dealership, definitely had high expectations.

"I hope to actually get discovered as an artist," said the winner, Christina Rivera.

"Of course, I will have a backup plan -- education and college. But I'd like to do something, like, pop-ish with a little hip-hop in it."

Cherish Whisner, 15, who prefers country songs and placed third, said she also hoped to hear from a talent scout.

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