Around 15,000 people filled the Los Angeles Sports Arena parking lot early Sunday morning to audition for Simon Cowell’s new talent search, The X Factor. As the show’s title suggests, contestants must not only be good singers, but also possess that certain, elusive je ne sais quoi. They’ll need that special something to captivate audiences and snag the grand prize: a $5 million recording contract with Sony.
Based on the incredibly popular British singing competition, X Factor differentiates itself from American Idol in a few ways, aside from the cool $5 million deal. First, both solo acts and groups are welcome to audition. Second, as long as they’re at least 12 years old, artists of any age may compete. (Despite the wide age range, most of the contestants in L.A. still looked to be young adults.) Finally, the four judges act as mentors for the finalists, suggesting song choices and acting as coaches throughout the contest.
From an elevated platform, a spirited emcee warmed up the crowd, which arrived at 6 a.m. under drizzling skies. It was the first day of auditions, and the announcer exhorted contestants to have winning personalities, not just vocal talent, if they want to become the next Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga or Black Eyed Peas. The mass of aspiring pop stars waved “Simon, pick me!” posters and joined in sing-alongs of numbers like Teenage Dream and Forget You.
Sunday’s throng of hopefuls included San Diego singing duo Toni & Becca, best-friend students who are 16 and 15 years old. They performed Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato songs, which landed them a call-back. “We have a connection. We’ve always dreamed of doing something together someday,” the cohorts told EW, asserting that their close relationship is their “x factor” that sets them apart from the pack.
Similar to Idol, this preliminary round is a cattle call in which contestants perform in front of a small group of producers. If the contestants are impressive enough, they’ll return later in the week to sing for the show’s judges: Cowell, L.A. Reid (a record exec who’s worked with the likes of Mariah Carey, Pink, Usher and Kanye West) and two others who have yet to be named publicly.
Justin and Nathan, teenage brothers from Temecula, Calif., passed the initial rounds of auditions when they sang “Wagon Wheel” by the bluegrass string band Old Crow Medicine Show. “We’re a brother harmony duo, and we’re really young,” the boys told EW, adding that their “x factor” is their “natural ear for harmonies.”
Jennifer from Tucson is a 37-year-old real estate appraiser who has “wanted to be a singer for a long time.” She listed her “x factors” as “a good look and stage presence.” After performing Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Sneaking Up On You,” Jennifer got through to the next stage, despite butterflies: “I was very nervous. But the adrenaline kicks in, and you do what you do.”
The show is slated to premiere on Fox in September, avoiding direct competition with American Idol. Whether caustic Cowell discovers the next Lady Gaga remains to be seen, but with X Factor still set to hold auditions in Miami, Newark (N.J.), Seattle, Chicago and Dallas, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to spot budding stars.