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`American Idol' fan rides her tears into the spotlight

March 22, 2007|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

FIRST things first: Who was the crying girl in Tuesday's "American Idol" audience? After the show, I chatted with "Idol's" newest superstar, Ashley Ferl, 13, from Riverside. For some long minutes after the show, Ashley remained in a state of inconsolable sobbing, unable to choke out a single word. However, through an interpreter (her mother) we were eventually able to learn some facts.

The family, I was told, obtained tickets on a website to attend a taping of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," a day passage that included the dress rehearsal of either "5th Grader" or "Idol." The fates were kind, and the mother and daughter found their way to the "Idol" rehearsal, where Ashley's waterworks began. Her prowess was quickly brought to the attention of "Idol" producers, who summoned the clan to a ringside seat of honor at the final taping.

Her powers of speech slowly returning, Ashley revealed that while she was on stage she had been thinking that "this was the coolest thing ever." Asked whom she was supporting in the competition, she named "Sanjaya, Melinda, Gina and Jordin" as her picks. All my journalistic powers of persuasion, cajoling and insistence that on her vote might turn the entire competition, that "Listen to reason, young Ferl, there can't be four American Idols," would not convince her to name a single favorite.

Then there was the quiet, almost unnoticed entry Tuesday night of ousted contestant Alaina Alexander. The obvious but too-cruel-to-ask question (how awful is it to be sitting here just watching?) hung in the air as she sat, all but unrecognized. Finally, mercifully, a young girl approached. As Alaina signed an autograph, the girl broke into sobs of joy. For Alaina, the ride is not completely over.

You have to be something of a sociopath to win "American Idol"; the ability to absorb criticism without being affected by it, to exude "fun" while delivering highly controlled performances, to supposedly not care about winning while caring deeply about each performance -- these are not skills learned by the average person.

It also is an open question whether it is better to be a "normal person," as Melinda Doolittle seems to be, or to act like a normal person, at which last year's champion was very skilled. And can someone who doesn't even try to be a "normal person," like Lakisha Jones, whose diva-ness grows with each episode, stand a chance on a show which is, as much as Simon Cowell may insist otherwise, much more than just a singing competition?

Drawing on my years of experience as an unlicensed clinical therapist, I made a study of the contestants' reactions to the judges' criticism.

* Haley Scarnato. Grows more confident but still susceptible to the judges' every word.

* Chris Richardson. Subdued. Seemed confident enough with his performance to enjoy the praise but not need it.

* Stephanie Edwards. Feels every word the judges say. Struggles to pull back to the gracious manner she prides herself on.

* Blake Lewis. Results-oriented. The inner wheels are exposed as he adds up where he falls on the positive/negative scale. Listens to their words just for their value, but doesn't absorb their meaning.

* Lakisha Jones. Does not care one bit what these fools think.

* Phil Stacey. Listens respectfully. But his good humored, normal-guy persona crumbles when given criticism.

* Jordin Sparks. Constantly giddy and giggly. Too much energy and good spirits to stay serious very long.

* Sanjaya Malakar. Squirms through the judging, as if he wants to go out and play.

* Gina Glocksen. Was her most nervous. Visibly shrank in stature before her lukewarm notices.

* Chris Sligh. Gets very very serious when being judged, belying his earlier wiseacre persona.

* Melinda Doolittle. Lights up when praised; awed by being well received.

There is an interesting distinction between how Melinda and Lakisha end their songs. Lakisha steps away as if she is shrugging out of a boxing ring, leaving her opponent a rotting vegetable behind her. Melinda, in contrast, commands the room with such seeming ease but then, as soon as the song ends, seems almost embarrassed by what she's accomplished.

But there is a masochism in the human species that somehow makes us enjoy having our deepest flaws exposed and ridiculed. At least if you are Alaina. No contestant has ever been judged more harshly, but there she was at the breaks, racing forward to chat with Simon and Randy Jackson.


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