There is no doubt that Brooke and Leah Barrettsmith of Spring Grove had the adventure of a lifetime competing on Fox’s megahit TV show American Idol. Before we explore their experiences, here is a short description of how the show works in case you’ve never seen the show.
Before getting a plane ticket to Hollywood, a contestant must first endure three days of grueling auditions in one of the major U.S. cities chosen to host the preliminary auditions. The producers of American Idol are well aware that the success of the show is based on people without talent as well as those who have IT. Many people tune in just to see the judges ridicule a contestant to the point of tears or to watch the contestant’s angry reaction to being sent packing. For example, in this year’s show two male twins are feature because they are very outspoken about the judges and verbally protective of each other. Another contestant called “Cowboy” jumped on the judges’ desk to sing part of his song.
The camera is focused on the expressions of the American Idol judges, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson as much as on the contestants. Cowell’s scathing comments are now ritual and crowd-pleasing. Abdul and Jackson regularly criticize Cowell. At times the contestant’s talent is so obviously second rate that all three judges can barely contain their laughter.
Contestants must be U.S. citizens and between the ages of 16 and 28. This year 16 year-old contestant Kevin Covais revealed that talent transcends age. At the opposite pole is prematurely gray 28 year-old Kevin Hicks whose unique voice might carry him to the finals.
The top 24 semifinalists are removed from public contact much like a secluded jury. The must take drug tests. Some contestants have been disqualified during the show for failing these tests. All contestants must sign a contract that prevents them from using cell phones except for family calls and emergencies and the Internet where they might discuss the show in a chat room. They may not watch TV news shows or listen to radio shows or read the newspapers. TV fans take over the voting on the phone at this point. The judges are consulted and make comments on performances but they no longer vote at this level.
The “finalists” are the last 12 contestants. The drama heightens after weeks of further eliminations until a single contestant is chosen as the winner
The adventure of Brooke and Leah Barrettsmith began on a cool day in September, 2005. They arrived at Soldier Field in downtown Chicago at 5:00 am escorted by their father, Rev. Scott Barrettsmith. “We needed to be there early enough to get a good place in line,” said Brooke. Nearly 20,000 contestants auditioned in Chicago that day. Some of them were from New Orleans because that city was picked as an audition center but it was washed away by Hurricane Katrina.
Contestants were led into the Soldier Field in groups of 300. Brooke and Leah wanted to audition together so they held hands. “Don’t separate us!” they said to American Idol employees.
Only 300 hopefuls survived the first day. Brooke and Leah were relieved to be one of them. “There were thousands of totally depressed people there,” said Scott. The Barrettsmiths spent their nights at a nearby hotel. “We literally got the last available room,” said Scott.
Days two and three were as hectic as the first. American Idol executive producers told the Barrettsmiths the “needed personality” to move on. “I had no problem showing personality,” said Brooke. Brooke befriended Mandisa, a semifinalist from Tennesse. “I can tell you are a Christian,” said Mandisa. “Girl, let’s pray!” When told that Leah planned to sing a Christian song called “Blessed” the producers said they preferred secular songs. “They did not want to show favoritism,” said Leah. During the audition, though, Leah sang “Blessed” anyway. “I was having trouble with my first selection and just stopped and switched,” said Leah.
“We asked to go into the audition together,” said Brooke. In an unusual move the producers permitted that. In an televised interview Leah said, “I believe in my sister and she believe in me just as much so I love her and we are going to do this together as much as we can.”
For the first time Brooke and Leah confronted the now famous American Idol judges, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.
Brooke led off and sang a short section of her Shoop Shoop song. Then Leah sang. Randy said to Leah, “I like your voice I think you are good. I would say yes to Leah.” Paula Abdul said, “I think you are both talented and different in your own ways, so I’m either going to say ‘yes’ to both, or ‘no’. Simon said, “Well, I would say ‘no’ to both of you.” There was a short silence. Then Randy said, “We have a quandary, judges.” Simon said, “I am going to apply Randy’s ‘yes’ to both of you, so now it is down to Paula.” Paula said, “I love my sister. I love the fact that you are here together supporting each other. I think you both need to work, but you can do that and come back to Hollywood.” Brooke and Leah reacted with happy exclamations and a big hug. Meanwhile Randy said, “Welcome to Hollywood, sisters, sisters!”
Brooke and Leah told the producers about the Richardson corn maze. Sensing a good story the producers sent a camera crew to Spring Grove to film the sisters playing in and around the corn maze. “The filming took about 10 hours including dinner with the crew,” said Brooke. “All that for a two minute segment.”
The next stage of auditions began on December 4th in Hollywood. “About 200 people out of tens of thousands made it to Hollywood,” said Brooke. Brooke and Leah made the trip without parents or relatives. They spent the first day touring Hollywood with half of the contestants while the other half went through auditions. They wore distinctive American Idol tags to promote the show in Los Angeles. They stayed in a hotel, two to a room. “The show did not skimp on the accommodations,” said Leah.
Both were successful in their first audition. In the second audition Randy said to Leah, “You didn’t bring it today. It’s the end of the road.”
Leah was surprised by the action. “What you see on television is not always the way it actually happened,” said Leah. “They do a lot of editing to make the show more dramatic. When I was singing, for example, it appeared that the audience was bored and quiet on TV. Actually the audience was cheering and clapping while I sang. They were yelling ‘let her through!’ ” At another point you see Leah looking startled on TV as though she was reacting to the negative decision. “That shot was totally taken at another time and edited into the space,” said Leah.
The show puts the contestants into small groups for one segment. “I don’t know why they make us sing with a group,” said Leah. “It really has nothing to do with why we are there. I think they are trying to put a lot of stress on the contestants for the TV cameras. They are very strict. You better not be a minute late for a meeting. They treat you like dogs.”
Brooke backed up Leah’s concerns. “They love the crying and the drama. They love to frighten you,” said Brooke. “Sometimes the judges are totally acting. They seemed to be faking.”
“I think they are pushing for a guy to win this year,” said Brooke. “They are focused on guy talent.”
American Idol rules say that a contestant cannot be signed professionally. The show makes the contestants sign a contract that restricts their professional activity for one full year. “We are locked up until August,” said Brooke.
Leah will soon be moving to Nashville to continue her singing career. “I will be doing more mainstream music,” said Leah.
Brooke is committed to remaining in the Christian music scene. “Christian music is much more relevant now,” said Brooke. “My career has taken a turn for the better. God used American Idol to change me. I am now even more into music ministry.”