Troy sawyer first auditioned for "American Idol" in 2002. He drove from his home in Kansas City, Mo., to Detroit, where he performed the country ballad "Tonight I Want to Be Your Man." A producer rejected him, but Sawyer wasn't about to give up. "I saw a lot of gimmicks people used to make it," he says. In 2003, he trekked to Houston to perform "Rockin' Robin." Rejected again. In 2004, he dressed in Pillsbury Doughboy pajamas--"I figured I needed to stick out"--and crooned "Soul Man" in St. Louis. "I was told I had a really good voice, but I should take it more seriously and not dress up," he says. That same year, with money he raised washing cars and selling bubble gum and taffy, he hit Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and San Francisco. No luck. The next two seasons are a bit of a blur, but they included stops in Austin, Denver, Chicago, Las Vegas and, finally last summer, Memphis. In case you've lost count, that's a total of 11 auditions . "I don't have the Justin Timberlake or Christina Aguilera voice," says Sawyer, 22, "but I do have the personality that will charm America." Either he's right, or he really can't take a hint.
Actually, a lot of people can't. This week, "American Idol"--the No. 1 (Tuesday) and No. 2 (Wednesday) most-watched show of the past TV year--returns for its sixth season, and Paula, Simon, Randy and Ryan aren't the only familiar faces you'll see. Sawyer is part of a growing "Idol" supergroup: the recidivists, people who audition over and over with the unquenchable--and perhaps foolish--hope that this is finally their year. "If I had the money, I'd go to every single audition," says Tya Moore, 22, who was rejected for the fifth time at the Rose Bowl in August. "Every year I get better." Will she ever make it? Only the judges know for sure. But to a certain degree, it doesn't matter. For young people raised in the era of YouTube, bloggers and reality TV, anyone can become a star, and if you're not at least trying to get in the game, you're a loser. According to a new book, "Fame Junkies" by Jake Halpern, 43.4 percent of teenage girls said their No. 1 career goal was celebrity assistant--just being close enough to smell the red carpet has become its own reward. "Anybody can be famous now," says Paula Abdul. "It's like a disease."
"Idol" idolatry does have some benefits. The repeat offenders have seen how the auditions work, and they know all the high and low notes. For instance, on TV it looks as if the judges happily parade across the country, listening to every single person waiting in line. In truth, more than 100,000 crooners auditioned for "Idol" last summer, and there are stages to the stages before you face off with Simon Cowell. It begins at an auditorium, like the Rose Bowl, where you can pick up a wristband several days before the event--the recidivists know to arrive early, but not to stay up all night because your wristband number is like a booked reservation. Inside, producers are seated at tables on the ground floor. Slowly, the singers are lined up four in a row, firing squad-style, and allowed less than 30 seconds to perform. They're dismissed quickly, in clumps of hundreds. "You have to have thick skin," says Christine Bonilla, 19, back for the sixth time, as she watches the process from the bleachers in East Rutherford, N.J. Most of the seats around her are empty. Many of the auditioners head straight to the bathrooms and hallways to practice, as if you can cram for a singing test like the SATs.
Why do they keep returning? To dream the impossible dream, if only for a day or two (or three ... ). According to a recent poll, 31 percent of teenagers believe they will be famous when they grow up. "At this point, 'American Idol' is so institutionalized and well respected," says Halpern, "if you can tell your friends you made it to the second round, it's almost a credential." Many of the youngest kids who audition come armed with cell phones and digital cameras, to film their own little "Idol" movies. You can see the results on You-Tube, the world's largest platform for bad karaoke. On MySpace, Sawyer (the 11-time loser) has song clips for his 2,884 friends, including "Idol Reject," an online community that proudly counts "Dreamgirls" star Jennifer Hudson among its members. Its founder, Larissa Jaye, 30, is a recidivist who auditioned twice in 2004. "I've since started my own record label that will release my first album this spring," she says. "My whole philosophy is do-it-yourself. I'm not going to be held back."
Though on "Idol," failure isn't always so terrible. The show has revived a favorite Hollywood archetype: the talentless celebrity. Three years ago, a Berkeley engineering student named William Hung banged up the Ricky Martin song "She Bangs" and was ripped to shreds by Simon. Overnight, Hung was catapulted to fame because of his own cluelessness, eventually landing a record deal and tour for "fans" to mock him. "We laugh more at the deluded than we celebrate the talented," says "Idol" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, explaining why the show "looks for the very best and very worst in each city." "Idol" (and Paris Hilton) has taught Americans that while fame is nice, infamy isn't a bad consolation prize. "Every time we go to the Emmys," says "Idol" judge Randy Jackson, "I see the thespian actors--the real actors--and then I see the 'celebrity' actors, who are famous for I don't know what."
Still, the time comes when even the most stubborn recidivists call it quits. Usually it's when they've gotten older than 28, the "Idol" age limit. Sometimes they just come to their senses. Rod Snyder, a 26-year-old agriculture lobbyist, came back for the third time this year, after making it to the final 100 in Hollywood in 2004. But he got cut in the New Jersey prelims. "This show is a dream, but I feel like I've exhausted it," he says. "I'd be surprised if I ever auditioned again." But "Idol" dreams die hard. After a failed audition in 2002, Jessica Gordon lost 30 pounds and tried again. Last year she made it to Hollywood, where she landed in the top 60. "The judges told me, 'You should come back'," she says, shrugging. "I was thinking about going to business school, but I realized it's not too late for me to be a singer." This year she made it far enough to sing for Simon, Paula and Randy again. "I'm not worried," she says as she walks into the audition room. And why should she be? On "American Idol," there's always next year.