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Sept. 5, 2003, 6:13PM

'American Idol' hopefuls go before Simon, Paula and Randy

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Buster Dean / Chronicle
With moderator Ryan Seacrest, left, the panel of judges -- Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell -- laments how poorly the surviving Houston contestants performed Thursday at the Hotel InterContinental.
They strode into the InterContinental Houston on Thursday, confident and vivacious. Their faces and attitudes said: You can't touch this.

The first round of auditioning for Fox's American Idol show was behind them. Thursday's round surely was just a formality. Their parents, friends and family stood by, ready for the word to pack for Hollywood.

And they were all going to Hollywood, right?

No way.

Most stormed out of the hotel in tears, many refusing to talk to reporters. A few stuck around, trading war stories about Simon Cowell's attitude, Randy Jackson's comments or Paula Abdul's advice. Many stuck around to see just who made the final cut.

Record meanness apparently was recorded in Houston Thursday. The current round of American Idol auditions kicked off with a visit with the show's on-air judges: Jackson, Cowell and Abdul.

The show's moderator -- Ryan Seacrest -- was there in his usual good-cop role, congratulating and consoling.

About 120 people who survived the mid-August auditions at Minute Maid Park made it to this round. That number will be pared over the next few days to about a dozen who will travel to Hollywood for the final round. Another trim will be made before the show's third season begins in January.

By mid-afternoon, the judges had been through more than 20 people. Only two had made the final cut as of late afternoon. By the end of the day, just eight had received word they were headed for Hollywood.

Buster Dean / Chronicle
Elijah Hill celebrates his advance to the next round in Hollywood.
"Houston is letting us down," said Jackson. "What is going on here? We haven't been happy with anybody who came through here."

Cowell was, as usual, blunt.

"Appalling," he said of the talent. "Really appalling. I've never seen it this bad."

Try telling that to the confident crooners waiting outside the audition area.

"Nervous?" said Queensley Felix, 16, from Houston. "Not really. I'm actually ready. I'm so ready to sing right now I can't even wait. I can't wait to get in there."

And couldn't wait to get out.

About a half hour later, she left the audition room in tears and ran into the arms of her best friend, Candis Cushinberry, 16, who'd also been rejected.

The girls were ushered into exit interviews and left the hotel without comment.

Tiana Woodruff, 24, of Pueblo, Colo., said Jackson was harsh.

"He told me I had a theater voice," Woodruff said. "Community theater, at best."

Woodruff sang Tina Turner's What's Love Got to Do With It?

She said she was a bit nervous before her audition.

Buster Dean / Chronicle
Candis Cushinberry, 16, left, comforts Queensley Felix, 16, after she was cut.
"I took a Valium after I came out, so I'm fine now," she said. "I probably should have taken a Valium before I went in there, huh?"

Brandon Eden looked like he could use a Valium. The 25-year-old truck driver from Iowa City, Iowa, sat stonefaced outside the audition room, staring at the floor. He had written two songs, Hawkeye Fever and a backup.

"I'm nervous about what they might say about the fact that I wrote my own songs," Eden said.

Eden said his job as a truck driver keeps him on the road, and he has a television in his truck and has watched both seasons of Idol while driving.

"I've been down every road in the United States," he bragged.

Well, he wasn't ready for Randy, Paula and Simon Boulevard. Eden stormed out of the hotel about two hours later, refusing interviews.

It wasn't all bad Thursday. Houstonian Elijah Hill burst out of the audition room, holding a gold piece of paper.

He's going to Hollywood.

"I'm still in shock," Hill said, as friends and family surrounded him. "I don't know what to say. Paula liked me a lot. Randy liked me. And Simon ... well, he had a few words."

Such as?

"He told me that he saw me in a group. Of people. In the back. Not singing," Hill said. "How am I supposed to respond to that?"

Still, he made it, with Jackson and Abdul overruling Cowell.

Not surprisingly, Cowell talked about the importance of being harsh. Cowell, who dubbed Abdul and Jackson "Mr. and Mrs. Hopeful" for their liberal standards, has earned a reputation as a tough critic.

"There's a stunning number of people singing out of tune," Cowell said. "What are they thinking when they walk in here? One guy did an impersonation of a cat being strangled."

Abdul, typically the helpful, reasonable one of the group, was so disgusted by the first auditioner that she refused to let him sing.

"He said he only had a one in four chance of making it anyway, so what was the point? We just sent him away," Abdul said. "That's a waste of time."


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