“You’re going to see my name in lights some day, I promise.”
A teary eyed brunette looked into the camera and made this infamous declaration that would later bring her 15 seconds of fame across the country, let alone across the campus.
Senior Jessica Harwood made it to the third round of auditions for “American Idol.” Harwood said she became an addict to the first season of the show and started checking the “American Idol” Web site for audition dates for the second season.
“I’ve been singing since I can remember. I was always a ham in front of the cameras,” said the animated Harwood.
Pre-Audition, Oct. 23
Harwood, a Long Island native, decided to go to New York last October for the first round of “American Idol” auditions. Her family drove her into the city the day before the auditions so she could get a place in line at the Regent Wall Street Hotel.
“By the time I got there, about four in the afternoon, the line was already wrapped around two corners of the building,” she said. “There were people with tents, sleeping bags, lawn chairs, portable DVD players – people were ready to be camped out.”
Harwood said that the police department was not prepared for such a large crowd, as people in line pushed and tried to cut in front of others. Harwood waited in line until 1 a.m. when staff members of “American Idol” came out and gave people audition bracelets.
“It was a really great ambiance throughout the night – kids were singing, kids had food delivered to the line, little kids (around 8 or 10 years old) that lived in the area came out with hot chocolate,” said Harwood.
First audition, Oct. 25
“We had to get there really early because the line to audition was whoever got there first got to audition first,” Harwood said.
Harwood prepared the song “Can’t Make You Love Me,” by Bonnie Rait, as her audition piece.
“It was very different, I didn’t hear of anyone doing it – Ron Deshay, the producer in the audition room commented that it was a really unique choice,” she said. Deshay also told Harwood he liked her outfit.
“A lot of thought went into the outfit because look is a basis (for how the producers choose you),” said Harwood, who wore a black lace, off-the-shoulder blouse, a pair of black pants and green “earthy” earrings.
At the audition, everyone was herded into a giant room where Deshay made an announcement telling everyone to follow their dreams, no matter what happens at the day’s auditions.
“It was a really nice, positive gesture that got rid of a lot of people’s nerves,” said Harwood, who waited three long hours in a room where everyone had to sit in their assigned chairs before her audition.
“You were not permitted to stand until your row was called,” she said. “It was military like, insane, a lot of the behind the scenes stuff was agony.”
In the audition room, groups of five went into the room and sang one at a time. Harwood was called back to the second audition the next day.
Second audition, Oct. 27
In the second round of auditions, also held at the Regent Wall Street Hotel, the contestants were all given a packet of songs to choose from. Harwood picked “The Greatest Love of All,” by Whitney Houston.
This round of auditions was similar to the first round, but much more intense. The order of auditions was picked completely at random. Harwood arrived at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t actually audition until 5 p.m. The only break the contestants got during the day was a 10-minute break at two.
Ken Warwick, the executive producer, judged the day’s auditions and told Harwood she made it to the next round. He told Harwood to choose an older song because everyone sang “The Greatest Love of All.”
The camera crew followed her outside to film her telling her family that she had made it. A producer also interviewed her.
“During the interview, they ask you questions like ‘have you ever had anything tragic happen in your life?'” Harwood said. “They really like to make a story – they want personalities that are conflicting and stories that are memorable.”
the Big Audition, Oct. 28
The “American Idol” New York auditions that were seen on television took place in the Rhiga Royale. Like Executive Producer Warwick had advised her, Harwood chose an older song by Etta James called “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons” to perform in front of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.
She had chosen the song with a little help from her GW voice instructor, faculty member Millicent Scarlett.
“I called her and she coached me through every audition – as soon as I got the list (of songs), she was on the phone with me selecting the best song for my voice, I am forever thankful,” Harwood said.
The day began stressfully for Harwood because she was 30 minutes late to the audition because of traffic. Her sister, Lindsay, drove her to the audition that morning. She was relieved to find out that she didn’t miss anything, but didn’t look forward to the waiting process.
“We all waited in a bigger room – it was a really nice room, still not enough chairs,” Harwood said.
“This guy named Cash was the guy in charge of the room, he kept our energy up,” she said. Cash was also the person who told everyone waiting whether the person who just auditioned was either accepted or rejected.
Harwood’s first brush with fame took place during a bathroom break. She came out of the stall and found herself face to face with Paula Abdul.
“She was like, ‘how are you girls doing,’ and she was really reassuring, telling us to keep our energy up the best we could,” Harwood said.
At 6 p.m., her number was called and she had to wait in another room before she could audition in front of Randy, Paula and Simon.
“To be honest, I was almost like, ‘get me the hell out of here,’ but it was so exciting and overwhelming,” she said.
Thirty minutes later, she entered the audition room and discovered it was filled with Fox producers that aren’t seen on camera. Harwood introduced herself and her song and then began to sing. She said that Simon didn’t look up at her at first.
“Because my performance is such an important aspect of my work, my ability to perform a song as well as sing it sets me apart from others,” she said, noting that Simon finally looked at her halfway through her song. Two lines before the end of her song, Simon cut her off to give her the verdict. Jessica reiterated, word for word, what Simon told her.
“He said, ‘Jessica, look, you have a great voice and a great look, but you’re not for the recording industry. You’ll have a career on Broadway or acting in film or television, but you don’t have a sound for the recording industry,'” said Harwood, mimicking his British accent.
Randy told her that he agreed with Simon and asked her if she had ever auditioned for Broadway. Harwood said that Paula came off slightly flaky during the audition.
“Paula’s comment was, ‘You are so beautiful, young and stylish. I’m surprised that you picked such an old song,'” Harwood said. “I flat out said, ‘your producers told me to sing this song.'”
All three laughed and Simon forbade Paula to continue speaking.
“Then Simon said, ‘even if you would have sang “The Greatest Love of All,” I would have told you the same thing. Don’t be upset, unlike most of the kids in this competition, I’m telling you that you’re going to make it,” Harwood said, noting that he wasn’t mean to her.
“It’s an act. It’s just for the cameras and you can tell. He actually was a really nice guy. I really don’t have any negative things to say about him,” she said.
Harwood said that she left the room teary eyed because of the whole process – the cold rooms, the amount of preparation and practice and the sleep deprivation – not because of anything they said. Her mother and sister were waiting outside of the room for her.
“My sister tried to block the cameras from video-taping me, I opened the door to go downstairs, not remembering that I was on the 85th floor,” Harwood said.
Ryan Seacrest, the host of American Idol, asked Harwood if the panel was mean to her. She responded by saying that they were all nothing but nice. When he asked her if she was upset about not going to Hollywood, her sister stepped in.
“She’s going to Hollywood, she’s just not going with American Idol,” said Lindsay.
Harwood wiped her tears away, gave Seacrest a hug, waved goodbye to the camera and then left.
“Overall, because it is something that I want to do in the future, it was one of the most amazing, yet overwhelming, experiences of my life,” she said.
This article appeared in the March 3, 2003 issue of the Hatchet.