Jessica Espinoza performs on "The X Factor." (Ray Mickshaw / Fox )
As if to prove we'd miss him if he were gone, Simon Cowell was absent from the first half of "The X Factor's" two-hour audition episode on Wednesday night, and the show really wasn't the same without him.
It was as if all the tension had been let out of the room and all that was left was some people singing and some other people issuing a few pleasantries before sending them off with either a yes or no. Which is to say it was as listless and lackluster as Britney Spears' uncombed locks. (Please, for the love of Christina, can't someone please stage an intervention and get her a better hair and makeup person? Or at least move her away from that glowy Demi Lovato?)
In fact it was Spears who broke the news that Cowell would be sitting out the Kansas City, Mo., auditions because he was sick and that "some guy Louie" would be filling in. "Louie" turned out to be British "X Factor" judge Louis Walsh, who seemed a kindly enough sort, but was, it must be said, no Simon Cowell. (Who is?)
"Are you missing Simon?" Walsh asked his new besty L.A. Reid at one point during the show.
"Of course I'm missing him," Reid replied, "but not that much."
Reid did his best to keep the auditions moving along in Cowell's absence, but of course, he wasn't Simon either. And the veteran producer may have been a little distracted by the fact that it was his birthday, a milestone duly noted by Lovato and Spears, who brought him a modest cake (Cowell would have conjured a showier celebratory confection for sure) and breathily serenaded him in a moment that was vaguely reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe's "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."
When the auditions moved on to San Francisco and Austin, Texas, Cowell returned, triumphantly, strolling in confidently in his trademark white T. And not a moment too soon. Simon? We can't abide you, but please don't ever leave us again.
Rizzloe Jones: This Kansas City 18-year-old called himself an "ADD animal of freestyle rap" and unleashed some on-the-spot lyrics for the judges. Personally, I wasn't impressed, except maybe by the fact that he worked the word "marshmallow" in there at Lovato's request. The judges, though, picked up what Jones was laying down. Reid said he liked Jones' "flow," and Spears compared him to "Vanilla Ice ice baby," favorably, it seems. Four yeses.
CeCe Frey: The producers set us up not to like this leopard-face-painted, fiercely competitive 20-year-old mail clerk, showing her trying to gaslight other contestants awaiting their auditions. "I'm not in this thing to make friends," she said, echoing the sentiment of many a reality-TV show villain. "I'm in it to win it." Surprisingly, she got one step closer. The judges complimented her on her "ambition" and "attitude" – Lovato even said she had a "girl crush" on the short-shorts-wearing singer – and she made it through.
Vino Alan: If Frey was soft on the outside and steely within, this tough-looking, tattoo-headed dude may be precisely the opposite. Alan, who plays shows for the military, said he was working to bring stability to his 15-year-old son's life, and then proceeded to sing a moving, emotional "Trouble." The judges found it "interesting" and "unique" and even "inspired," but warned him "Don't let us down, man." Why would they think he'd let them down?
DeAngelo Wallace: Speaking of trouble, this mouthy contestant got into a heap of it. First, he ticked off the judges so extremely with his nasty talk and off-key singing that they simply stood up and walked out. They're "too scared to face me," Wallace said afterward, calling them devil-worshipers to boot. Then he took off with a $3,000 microphone and had to be tracked down by police. As he was cuffed and shuttled into the cop car he sang that he'd be out of police custody in just a few hours. He turned out to be right. Perhaps DeAngelo has done that sort of thing before?
Tate Stevens: This cowboy-hat-wearing 37-year-old road worker and dedicated dad was packed with personality, saying he'd throw himself a big ol' party and invite everyone to come if he won the show's $5-million prize and saying "Thanks, mom" to an appreciative heckler. He said he'd been "waiting for a chance like this" his whole life, and he took full advantage of the opportunity, wowing the crowd and the judges. Reid said he was "mad" at Stevens for waiting so long to go for his dream and declared him to be a "true country star." Lovato predicted, "I am going to be listening to your record one day, over and over again." Yes, the man in the hat's going to Boot Camp.