MY X FACTOR X PERIENCE

Aug 6th 2013

In September of 2011 while watching the opening episode of the new, The X Factor, I was filled with mixed emotions and bittersweet feelings. I’d like to share my own X Factor experience with you:

Earlier that year I began watching promos for the American debut of Simon Cowell’s highly successful British show, The X Factor. At some point, I began to feel a surge of enthusiasm for a vocal competition which had no age limitation other than having to be at least twelve-years-old, my very own son’s age. It was upon turning the age of twelve, myself, that I got my first guitar. I had seen it in a shop window on Main St. in Wynberg, Cape Town, South Africa, and dreamed of owning it someday. My parents duly obliged me and my life-long love affair with music began.

Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, I remember entering a vocal competition at a beach resort in Cape Town, South Africa where I grew up. I won an ice cream voucher! As welcome as the prize was on a hot summer afternoon, it paled in comparison to the thrill I got from entering a competition and winning it. I entered a few more competitions in my teens and was fortunate enough to win a nationwide vocal and songwriting competition called Crescendo in 1976—the very first year TV was introduced to South Africa. You might even say that I was the first “South African Idol” winner, although the prize was hardly the five million dollars being offered on America’s X Factor today.

It had been many years since I had entered a competition, but my interest was piqued—and there was no way I could shake it loose. I made some inquiries, filled out the necessary application forms, and then waited for Audition Day in Los Angeles set for March 26th.

The preceding week found me anxiously choosing and rehearsing my audition songs and feeling an exuberant sense of synchronicity. On one occasion, I was listening to Prince’s Sign ’O The Times on a local radio station in my car, and then I got out of the car and walked into a Trader Joe’s store only to hear, yes, Prince’s Sign ’O The Times! It was playing on their satellite radio system, no less. On another occasion, I was performing at a local hotel lounge where I started playing The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. A stunned lady sitting right in front of me got up, walked over to me and said, “Do you know that I was just about to ask you to play that song?” We both flashed delightful grins at the obvious serendipity. Moments like these made me feel like I was in synch with a subconscious natural order, which gave me hope that I just might avoid Simon Cowell’s scowl. I began daydreaming of progressing through the various stages of the audition process—and well—who knows??? I had already received nice compliments from Paula Abdul when she heard me perform locally. I think she used the words, “Wonderful, Wonderful, Excellent!” I guess I had reason to believe that she would be the easy “YES” vote. I would only need two more “YES” votes to pass the audition and be instructed to “pack my bags,” and be told, “You’re going to Hollywood.”

On the Friday night prior to the audition, I was still searching my wardrobe for a hip outfit which would defy my age. This was no easy task, as I’ve never been too fashion conscious. I settled on something black and a hat. No need to show anyone the receding hairline.

On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 4:30. What the hell? I’m a musician, for goodness sake! That’s supposed to be my bedtime when my beauty sleep should start, not a wake-up call to disrupt it! I can’t even talk at that time of day, let alone sing. It wasn’t so long ago that my fellow musicians and I would be having breakfast at 5:00 before going to bed! I made my way to downtown L.A. in the dark on deserted freeways which soon began to clog up as I was nearing the L.A. Sports Arena. I couldn’t believe I was in a traffic jam at 5:00 a.m. with other X Factor hopefuls. I thought I was arriving early, but upon being guided to a parking spot and making my way to another parking lot to join the throes of humanity already waiting in long lines, I realized thousands of these people had been waiting and camping-out there all night. And this was just to register as an entrant and be given a seat assignment for the “real” audition taking place the next day.

I settled into my spot in line at around 6:00 a.m. and, gradually, my vocal chords started to wake up. Soon, I began conversing with my fellow stardom junkies: there was the singing cowboy who was already a star in his hometown, but wanted to take it to the next level. There was the young opera singer student from Pasadena with big dreams. There was an older cool-looking Jazz singer who spoke eloquently and confidently about his vocal abilities. It turns out that he’d seen me perform somewhere before—what were the chances of that? Was this synchronicity at work again? We helped each other pass the tedious waiting time by telling stories and convincing ourselves that we had as good a chance of winning The X Factor as anyone else. Yes, even at our advanced ages, and even though we both risked being told, “You’re no Susan Boyle.”

The general peaceful, artistic spirit and camaraderie was pierced by a woman telling me I was wrong when I commented that the Sports Arena probably held around fifteen-thousand to twenty-thousand people. She had worked in the arena for a commercial recently and was adamant that it held seventy-thousand to eighty-thousand people. It’s just not in my nature to allow ignorant people to mouth-off untruths without some kind of retort, so I kindly responded that if she rechecked her facts she’d find I was right. At this point, her even more aggressive son/bodyguard/pimp interjected and told me to “Shut Up” and “Stop Being So Rude!” Not a good situation to be in, especially since we were all huddled as one huge mass of humanity with no place to go or run. Needless to say, that soured the morning. I was not about to allow some gang-banger street surgeon to give me free cosmetic facial reconstructive surgery, so I bit my lip and turned around. I know there’s a song in that line somewhere...

The minutes and hours dragged by as periodically and more and more incessantly, the organizer cheerleaders broadcast positive messages and sing-alongs through the huge speakers surrounding us. Between the cheerleading sessions, some contestants near me chose to share their vocal gifts—but mostly their “non-vocal” gifts. I had to keep retelling myself that as much as I wanted to remind them this was a vocal competition and not a Comedy Central audition, such was the display of laughable content. If you watched part of the premiere show, you know what I mean. How did those people get past the first audition screeners if not for the Comedy FACTOR?

One of the reasons I wanted to arrive early was because I needed to be back home by 12:30 p.m. My son was having his twelfth birthday party at a local Laser-Tag venue and I needed to provide transportation for six kids. I had never missed any of my son’s previous birthdays and I just couldn’t conceive missing this one. Considering the thousands of people still ahead of me, I had decided that if I couldn’t register by 12:15 p.m., I would have to forfeit my place in the annals of The X Factor history and walk away from my chance at stardom. At around 11:00 a.m. the line finally started moving, e v e r - s o - s l o w l y. My chances of making it on time were weighed with every small step taken. Finally, an hour and a half later, I registered and received my ticket and seat assignment for the following day’s audition; and then I raced home to enjoy my son’s birthday.

Needless to say, it was hard to sleep that night with thoughts of auditioning running through my head. We were told that we needed to be in line again by 8:00 on audition morning. I figured that I’d arrive by 7:00 to allow myself enough time to park and walk over to the huge waiting area once more. I left home by 6:30 and arrived at the parking structure around 7:00. I casually began walking to the waiting area, when the realization that I had done the unthinkable hit me—I had left my assigned seat ticket in my wife’s car which was parked at home some thirty minutes away! I would not be allowed into the arena without it. Panic or anxiety is obviously too relaxed a term for my emotional condition at this time. As I raced back to my car like a possessed mad man on the verge of a heart attack or a nervous breakdown, I called and woke my wife to confirm that I had, in fact, left my ticket in her car. As I darted into the parking structure, I realized that trying to back out of my parking space into all of the thousands of cars now arriving in the structure was going to be a challenge. Easier said than done. I eventually found some walking folk and asked them to direct traffic while I backed out, much to the chagrin of the irritated and honking drivers. Where was all of my fellow-artists’ peace and love and patience when it was needed most? Once I exited the structure I found myself having to convince traffic officers that I didn’t want to get in—I needed to get out! After annoying the officers—and even more drivers—and having some traffic cones moved out of my way, I was finally able to hit the road back home. I think there’s another song in there somewhere...

I don’t remember either the drive home or the return to the L.A. Sports Arena parking structure; but I did manage to find a way to make it back with the rest of the late arrivals. Was this perhaps a sign that this was meant to be after all the previously mentioned synchronicity? We proceeded to stand and wait in line, sometimes under pouring rain, until about 2:00 p.m., which is when I finally made it to my seat inside the arena.

By the time my row of seats was called it was after 7:15 that evening. I had been the L.A. Sports Arena resident for twelve hours. On the floor of the arena, there were twenty-four little 6’ x 6’ booths where the auditions were being held. If you were successful, you received your yellow confirmation sheet which read “YES,” and you were escorted to one end of the arena; and if you were not, you were simply told “NO” and escorted out of the building. The walks were, for the most part, in full view of the waiting crowd of thousands. You could see and hear the thrills and shrills of victory, but you could also feel the silent, bitter disappointment and sad ending of a dream as the unsuccessful endured the walk of shame out of the building. I nervously waited for my turn.

After making my way down to the floor of the arena I was asked to stand in line outside Booth Number 9. Hey, that’s the day of the month in my birth date! Was this another synchronized moment to fill me with confidence on my way into the audition booth? My moment had arrived. After all of the anticipation, nerves, anxiety, racing, sweating, soaking, mental and physical exhaustion—and, of course, the near beating in the parking lot—I walked into Booth Number 9 and proceeded to sing my ‘a cappella’ version of Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend. Two lines into my audition a rapturous roar erupted. I was under no illusion that this raucous applause was in appreciation of my brief performance, although clearly you could be heard outside of your booth. I think Simon Cowell had entered the arena. After the crowd simmered down, I was asked to sing again, although it hardly felt like an encore to me. I proceeded to sing a few more lines until I was abruptly cut short before even hitting the chorus. I had neither been good enough nor bad enough to make it to the next round of televised auditions for my fifteen seconds of fame. Oh, why couldn’t I have auditioned for Paula Abdul? I know she would have liked me. I picked up my belongings and retreated out of the booth, out of the arena, and out of contention for the next round of The X-Factor. Dream over.

My spirit drained and my mind and body X-Tremely tired after two days of intense immersion in the auditioning process, I walked back to my car and wondered what I might have done differently in order to succeed. I couldn’t think of anything except that I was glad and proud that I had taken up this challenge. I was determined not to let a failed audition define my success. I would rather carry the pangs of disappointment than forever regret not having given myself an opportunity to audition and experience the magnitude of such an event.

I drove home to hugs and kisses from my cherished family; and the next day I went back to work singing, playing guitar, and entertaining folks as I’ve done most of my adult life. I feel blessed and successful—but funny, I still don’t feel like a senior.

In Harmony,

Hugo 
 

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