‘American Idol’ Atlanta auditions at Infinite Energy draw first and second-round hopefuls

Originally filed Friday, September 21, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

“American Idol” Thursday held its final early-round auditions at Infinite Energy Arena before the three celebrity judges start vetting the talent.

Patrick Lynn, the supervising producer who has overseen “Idol” auditions since the show’s launch in 2002, said in an interview that the audition date was added on the schedule as a “catch all” situation primarily to pare down hundreds of the more promising candidates from more than a dozen previous East Coast bus audition stops.

But the show also opened up the day to first-round singers. As a result, several hundred new hopefuls showed up for the opportunity to be on the 17th season of the show on ABC next year.

“Idol” has not yet announced which cities the celebrity judges - Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan - will be attending. (Atlanta is not on the list, I’m told. Last year, they used Savannah, among other cities.)

Infinite Energy has been home to many “American Idol”-related events. (It has been called Gwinnett Arena most of its time since it opened in 2003.) In 2013, first-round auditions were held there. Most “Idols Live” tours have stopped there. And alums such as Chris Daughtry and Carrie Underwood have headlined shows at the arena.

Lynn has warm memories of Atlanta, where “Idol” has held early-round auditions multiple times over the past 16 years, including the first three formative seasons. He recalled April, 2002, when they drew a few hundred to AmericasMart fora show nobody had yet heard of. 

“I remember we would bring people in groups of five,” Lynn said. “It was not going well all day. Then this girl comes in named Tamyra Gray [who would finish fourth that year.]. She blew us away. That’s what we’re looking for. It’s a big relief when we saw her. She was the first one we saw we felt we had our bearings and we knew what we were looking for.”

The show became so popular, it used the Georgia Dome season three, drawing 10,000-plus. As captured in a Lifetime movie, Fantasia auditioned there but only got in because a kind security guard took pity on her after she got there late.

Over the years, the celebrity rounds have also stopped in Atlanta as well, including at Callenwolde Fine Arts Center, the Georgia International Convention Center and in the latter years, the W Hotel in Midtown. 

Lynn said the youngest contestants know only of a world where “American Idol” exists. “It’s kind of strange,” he said. “It’s now a mainstay. I kind of like that feeling. We’re still getting people in. This why we come out on the road. This is people’s way to be part of the show, no matter how big and small. Most people try out to get on the show.  People try out for the experience. A lot of people try out because it’s my favorite show and it’s in my town. We’re the only show to go out in buses.”

He stays on the show because “it’s really gets down to fun. These early rounds are my favorite part.” During the two-year break between the Fox and ABC runs, he said, “I did a lot of sleeping. I did a lot of time off. What’s real life like outside of a television show? I really got into drones.” Coming back on ABC was a no brainer. 

The audition process in these early stages has not changed much over the years, he said. “We take a lot of people and try to focus on everybody. We’re looking for the diamond in the rough, the needle in the haystack. Yes, we say no to people who can sing well. We are looking for people who can sing well and perform well. That’s the trick. I don’t want you to stand there to sing but to stand there and perform.” 

On an unusually warm mid-September day this year, “Idol” brought the possible contestants into the air conditioned arena by 8:30 a.m. and placed the first-round participants (with blue wristbands) at one end of the arena and second-rounders (with gold wristbands) in another.

Given how large the arena is, the place looked empty and especially loud singers could be heard  from all corners. The relative quietude was broken up on occasion by applause from the attendees whenever a singer made it to the next round. By 3 p.m., the producers were largely finished.

One Greenville, S.C. resident, 28-year-old Aliana Ramalho escaped a brutal cult called Word of Faith.  Her family had been trapped with the insular group for 17 years until she was 26.

“It was 17 years of psychological abuse,” she said. She grew up being told pop music was for the devil. But once she was out, she decided to pursue singing. She hired a vocal coach to remove the religious twang she picked up from church singing and has been catching up on decades of pop music she had never heard before. 

Now married with a young child, she and her husband run a subcontracting company. She is still adjusting to the new world and “American Idol.” 

Ramalho, while sitting in the arena awaiting her turn, understood her chances of winning were slim but she wants to show people that “you don’t have to be a victim of your past.”

She planned to sing the Carpenters’ “Close to You” with Emilie Sande’s “Read All About It” as a back up. 

In a follow-up interview after her audition, she said she was one of the last to audition and by then, the producers were wrapping up. She didn’t even think the producer who listened to her had read her application and was aware of her compelling back story. In the end, the producer simply told her to try again next year. 

The problem: she can’t try again next year. She’ll be too old since the upper age limit is 28. 

She hopes to try out for other shows like “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” which allow performers of all ages.

I also ran into Isaac Cole, who made it to the top 51 season 15, the final year on Fox. Here is his original audition he did three years ago when he was 15. “I was that crazy kid on the four wheeler,” he told me. (see video below). 

He lives in Emlenton, Penn. (population: 600) but plans to move to Nashville to pursue a music career, with or without “Idol.” He was there for a second-round audition and hopes to get another audition shot. He likes old-school country and among the songs he plans to sing included Shenandoah’s “If Bubba Can Dance” and Diamond Rio’s “Meet in the Middle.” 

Cole also sold off his four wheeler and is now taking part in cowboy fast-draw shooting competitions. (They don’t use real bullets, thank goodness.)

Another second-rounder, 22-year-old Minneapolis artist Chirmain Yang was filling out an application, awaiting his shot to move to the next round. He described himself as an R&B singer and planned to perform Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” with Lauryn Hill’s “Eyes of the Sparrow” and Rihanna’s “Stay” as back up. 

“I come from a family of musicians,” Yang said. “I feel like I’m the only one who got to chase the dream.” 

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