Over the last four parts of this story, you've read about my long journey to make it to the "American Idol Experience" stage.
It started months before, when I decided to audition for the show and make it a long-running bit on the CoasterRadio.com podcast.
So, it was very surreal to be standing backstage as the show began.
Immediately off the left-hand side of the stage is a holding area where the contestants wait until it's time to go on. They have a comfortable couch, a large flat-screen TV where you can watch the show and a very cool "American Idol" logo light pointed at the ground where you are standing.
The stage went dark and there was a director's voice that came over the speakers...
"Stand-by to cue the host. All right everyone, please remain very quiet. We're LIVE in 3...2...1..."
Then, imagine my surprise when I looked up at the video screen and saw an old friend opening the show.
Yes, it was Ryan Seacrest... the same guy who welcomed me to the Idol Experience (on video) and the same guy who also told me (on video) that I had made it to the show. He said...
"The Number One show on television continues its search for the next music superstar. But this time, we're taking you out of your living room and putting you in the middle of the action.... in an experience unlike anything we've ever done. Three Walt Disney World guests, just like you, hailing from across the globe, have made it through a grueling audition process and are now in the role of performer. And they're about to take their first important step towards pop stardom. Live from Disney's Hollywood Studios, THIS IS THE AMERICAN IDOL EXPERIENCE!"
I must admit that it was a cool concept and a great way to tie in the real show with the theme park attraction. And it worked.
The American Idol theme music started playing, the lighting on the stage came to life and the audience exploded into applause.
They even put the names of the three contestants on the screen one at a time. I remember thinking that it was sort of strange, because who out there in the audience really cared who I was? But now that some time has passed, I think it's a great idea.
The real American Idol show takes virtual unknowns and turns them into household names. This show manages to do the same thing, although on a much smaller scale. More on that later.
I could see on the backstage TV that the host, Greg Hutson, had made his way onto the massive set. He was saying hello to the audience and explaining what was about to happen.
I was just starting to get into the show as an audience member, when we were quickly rushed over to the stage entrance. I had almost forgotten I was one of the "guest performers."
Before I knew it, Greg said "Let's bring out the performers," and we were walking out on stage.
When we interviewed Stacey Lantz, an American Idol Experience contestant who had actually won her show, she said that the audience would respond to contestants who showed enthusiasm and who were excited to be there.
So, as I led the other contestants on stage, I pumped my fist in the air, pointed at the audience and smiled big. To my surprise, the audience was really cheering loudly for all three of us.
Backstage, the producers said that the audience would be behind us and show us support. They were right! None of these people had ever met us before, but they had bought in to the whole idea of "The American Idol Experience." The audience liked the fact that we were three average park guests doing something out of the ordinary.
Greg explained that each of the contestants would sing and then the audience would vote for the best one by using a keypad built into their seat. The winner would move on to a finale show that happens at the end of the day. Here, the winners from all six preliminary shows would compete for a "Dream Ticket." This would give the winner a chance to skip to the front of the line at any American Idol audition throughout the country.
Now, I'm 35-years old and past the American Idol cut-off age of 28. So I didn't have dreams of winning the golden ticket and becoming America's next pop superstar. At this point, I just wanted to do a good job and not make a complete fool of myself.
The host had us go backstage and he introduced the three judges.
This is where the show becomes really fun for the audience. The judges, while not exactly carbon copies of the hosts on the American Idol Show, are pretty damn close. You have the music expert (Randy), the nice one (Paula/Kara) and the mean one (Simon).
I was the third contestant, so my performance was going to be last. This gave me the opportunity to sit down backstage, relax for awhile and gear up for my song.
The girl from Wisconsin went first and sang "No One" by Alicia Keys. Before she sang, they asked her who was her favorite American Idol. When she said David Cook, he magically appeared on the screen to give her advice. It was a nice touch and again tied the show in with the theme park attraction. She did a great job, but you could tell she was really nervous. The judges were all very nice to her, except for the "Simon" judge who gave her a backhanded compliment at the end.
The Pastor from Houston was up next. Before his performance, they played a video where they showed him auditioning and celebrating with his family when he got through. He sang "Go the Distance" and did a really great job as well. The judges all liked what he did, except for the "Simon" judge. He said "since talent skips a generation, your kids are going to be superstars!" Ouch! Funny, but ouch!
Then it was my turn.
While the Pastor was being judged, the stage manager pulled me aside and reminded me of exactly what I needed to do and where I needed to go. She said "don't forget to breathe and don't forget to have fun!" Then, I heard Greg say "Let's welcome Mike Collins to the stage!"
It was showtime.
Since I was the third contestant, I got to sit down with Greg and do a short interview. This part of the set we were sitting on was pretty amazing... complete with a multilevel platform and several flat-screens.
I didn't realize it at the time, but they were showing the Coca-Cola swish behind us... just like they do on the real show.
I figured that I needed to win the audience over with my personality because my voice wasn't going to do it alone. So, when Greg asked me how I was feeling, I shouted...
"Greg, I'm so happy to be here at the American Idol Experience! But I'm really happy to be performing in front of this beautiful crowd!"
Yeah, it was a cheap move. But the audience liked it and applauded.
Greg said, "Smart man! Getting the audience on your side early! Who are you here with today?"
Then I pointed over to my brothers in the VIP section and said, "I'm here with two of the best brothers ever! Greg and Ryan! We came here in 1985 and we're back 25 years later! Look at them! They're beautiful!"
I was going on like a maniac!
The crew put a shot of Greg and Ryan on the big screens and they showed a mix of amusement and embarrassment. I was really laying the cheese on thick, but this was my moment... so what they hell, right?
The host said that while my brothers were there along with the rest of the audience for support, there were also some other people who were in my corner.
Then they showed a video of people outside the attraction chanting my name, "Mike! Mike! Mike! Mike!" They even had a little seven-year-old girl look at the camera and say "Mike is MY American Idol!" Very cute. The audience was eating it up!
Greg the host then said, "All right Mike, it's time to show us what you can do. Here performing "Sway" is Mike Collins!"
I had made my way to center stage and my song began.
Now, maybe it's best to let the pictures tell the story. But let me say this. I've had the chance to perform on a lot of different stages, but none was better than this.
The lighting and sound system was EXACTLY what they use for the real American Idol show. I'm not sure if this will make sense to any non-performers out there, but I was actually able to draw energy from my surroundings.
This was as close as I'd ever be to performing on American Idol, so I was going to make it count.
I sang my heart out. I followed all of the advice of the coach who I had worked with 45-minutes earlier. I pointed and winked at old ladies in the audience. I raised my fist in the air during high notes and closed my eyes and swayed during the "tender moments." I moved and performed with a purpose.
I basically did exactly what I had seen people do on American Idol. (Let me stop here to say that if you want to hear what I sounded like, you can listen to Episode #437 where we play the whole thing!)
As I look at the photos, the only thing that takes me out of the moment is that I'm wearing shorts and sneakers. But you have to remember, it was 95 degrees in Orlando that day! Our plan wasn't to do The American Idol Experience and go home. We were going to head out into the park after all this was over! So I wasn't going to dress in uncomfortable clothes.
But now that I think about it, I wish I had brought a pair of jeans to change into. That would have completed the illusion.
Anyway, if I had to grade myself on my performance, I'd give myself a B. I missed a few notes and could have done better on my last high note. But having not performed on a stage in 5-years and with all of that Disney pressure, I think I did OK.
The judges mostly agreed.
The "Randy Jackson" judge said that out of all of the performers, I brought the most energy and brought the most fun to my performance. He also said that I sang one of the hardest songs they had to offer.
The "Paula Abdul" judge said that she rememberd my brother from the earlier show and that it must be fun to come to our family reunions with all of the singing we do. She also said her one critique would be that I needed to dance around more and "shake what your mama gave you."
Finally, it was time to hear from the cranky "Simon Cowell" judge. He said,
"After watching your performance, I'm convinced that you could sing on any cruise ship in the world!"
The coolest part is that the audience had my back. They booed the faux-Simon really loudly. But, It was a good dig. Very funny.
I responded by glaring at him and pointing at my own two eyes and then back at him as if to say, "I'm watching you!"
I continued to do this even as Greg, the host, was telling people to push the number 3 on their keypad if they wanted to vote for me. I could hear the audience laughing at my antics, which I hoped might get me a few more votes.
Now that my song was over, they brought the other contestants out again and we all sat down on the interview set.
They played back 20-seconds from each of our performances to remind people of what we had done. It was really, really weird to see myself on video.
I had seen shots like this a hundred times on the real American Idol show. But this time, it was me! I was on the stage! I was singing to an audience of 1,000 people. It was like being in a weird dream or even a nightmare!
Then it was time for the audience to vote. From my seat on the interview set, I could see that a lot of people had voted for contestants 1 and 2. But strangely enough, I saw that a lot of people had voted for me too! This was going to be close!
While they tallied up the votes, they played a music video with Jordin Sparks that was shot on location at Disney's Hollywood Studios. During the video, they cut in shots of the audience and even a shot of me lamely dancing.
Then it was time to find out the results. The host brought us all out to center stage and reviewed what the judges had said about our performances. Then it was time for the verdict.
Greg did a great job building suspense and finally announced that the winner was..... not me.
The girl from Wisconsin had won and deservedly so. She was good and actually looked like she belonged on American Idol.
All of the judges came over to congratulate us, except for the "Simon" judge.
I guess he was really into method acting because the dude stayed in his character throughout.
The "Randy" judge came over and said that I had done a great job and should be proud. The "Paula" judge came over and gave me a big hug and said that I was one of the funnier performers that she had seen.
When we got off-stage, the whole crew was there to congratulate us and tell us how well we had done. I was wanting to hang around and savor the moment, but they needed to get ready for the 3pm show. So, before I knew it, I was back outside the theater where my brothers were waiting for me.
Here's where the most interesting part of this journey happened.
Just like after Ryan's show, people were coming up to me to congratulate me on my performance. People were saying "I voted for you!" and "You should have won!" and "Don't listen to that Simon guy! He was a jerk!"
One girl in her 20's, who was wearing the skimpiest tube top ever and looked like a supermodel, came up to me and gave me a giant hug while saying "You were the best!"
I was so shocked I yelled "Oh My God!" which sent my brothers into hysterics.
Thanks to the American Idol Experience, I knew what it must be like to be a rock star.
But the taste of fame didn't end there, for the rest of our trip people recognized Ryan and me from the show. The next day we were in the elevator in our hotel and some guy pointed at me and said "Hey! Look! The American Idol guy!"
While we were walking through Frontierland, a rough looking biker dude with a beer belly and a gotee stopped Ryan and said "Nice job singing yesterday buddy!"
These were just two of several other instances like this during the days following our Idol performances.
This made me realize what a unique attraction "The American Idol Experience" has become. It gives an average park-goer like me the chance to feel what it must be like to be an unknown one minute and then a star the next. It also gives the audience a chance to see how the number one show on television is produced.
It's been about a month since I sang on the Idol stage. It was really one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once... a feeling I'm usually only used to experiencing on rides like Tower of Terror or Space Mountain.
Amazingly, I found myself watching the last few episodes of American Idol this season. For some reason, I felt like I had something in common with those contestants.
We all went through a similar "American Idol Experience."
If you liked what you read, you can listen to the podcast episode where I tell the whole story!
Monday, June 07, 2010
Over the last four parts of this story, you've read about my long journey to make it to the "American Idol Experience" stage.