'"Dare to dream."
That's the motto of the country's most popular television show. And for some Lawrence hopefuls, the dream to appear on "American Idol" has been realized.
The sixth season of the series began in January with the initial round of auditions held in seven major cities. Lawrence resident David Mills was selected from thousands at the Seattle cattle call to showcase his skills in front of judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. The incident was shown on the Jan. 17 telecast of "American Idol."
"It was the best and worst experience of my life," says the 21-year-old Mills.
A native of Ottawa, Mills moved to Lawrence three months ago to work as a card packer at Hallmark. He was unable to get off work to attend the geographically closer Minneapolis audition, so instead he headed to Seattle by himself.
"I've always wanted to do it. I've been a big fan since the beginning," he says of the program.
About 10,000 people showed up on a rainy November morning at Seattle's KeyArena. Mills recalls hanging out there for about six hours before the crowd was let in.
Then he was escorted to a spot where there were 12 booths that each housed two producers. The competitors were herded in four-by-four rows where they auditioned for 10 seconds each. After Mills delivered his rendition of the Bill Withers classic "Lean On Me," he was accepted into the second round.
"We had to memorize two songs: 'Don't Cha' by The Pussycat Dolls and 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head' by BJ Thomas. We performed for (series creator) Simon Fuller. Once we performed for him, we got to perform for Nigel (Lythgoe, executive producer). He decided if we got to see Randy, Paula and Simon."
Of that first day's crowd, only 28 people were chosen to audition for the famous trio of judges ... and Mills was "lucky" to be among them.
Decked in a button-down shirt and oversize tie, Mills walked in to face the panel.
"I told them I was here to become the next American idol," Mills says.
The judges exchanged pleasantries and asked a few questions about the singer's background.
"I said I was from Ottawa but I live in Lawrence. And I told him I was working at the Hallmark production center. Randy said, 'You're surrounded by love.'"
Then Mills launched into his unique version of "Lean On Me." The feedback was not what he expected.
"Randy said, 'You're just bad.' Paula the whole time didn't even look at me. She had her hands covered over her forehead, shaking her head," he remembers.
When Mills was interviewed prior to the session he told producers he wanted to pursue songwriting. That information was passed along to Cowell.
"Simon said, 'It says here you want to become a songwriter.'
"I said, 'Maybe a singer-songwriter.'
"He told me, 'You should hire someone to sing your songs.' He never really insulted me. What everyone saw on TV was just edited for him to look good and me to look bad."
From the viewers' perspective, Cowell was heard quipping during the telecast, "This has been one of the worst days we've ever had, and you are probably the worst we've had today."
Mills ended the broadcast by admitting, "This has been a major wake-up call."
Sumayya Ali represents the flip side of the audition equation.
The 28-year-old performer tried out in New York and was winnowed from 20,000 to the handful who got through to the Cowell cabal.
Ali says, "I sang 'It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)' by Duke Ellington. Then they found out I also belly-danced, so I sang 'Next Lifetime' by Erykah Badu and belly-danced to it. Then they found out I was an opera singer, so I sang 'My Man's Gone Now' from 'Porgy & Bess.'"
Unfortunately, viewers at home weren't able to enjoy any of Ali's eclectic performance.
"They didn't show my audition. They just showed me at the end saying 'YES' as I held up my piece of paper," she says of her reaction after being told she would move on to the next round.
Ali was born in Lawrence and lived here until she was 11. (Her mother taught at Lawrence High School for about 15 years). She is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and continues to sing professionally on the East Coast.
What are Ali's chances of becoming a household name because of the competition?
She says, "All I know is I'm going to Hollywood."
While Ali is still in the running to win "American Idol," Mills' pop-star career ended for all practical purposes following the audition.
"I think everyone thought I was joking," Mills says of the response after his show aired. "They didn't take me seriously."
However, Mills did get some encouraging words from family and friends.
"They thought I really did a good job, and they thought I shouldn't stop chasing my dreams just because people said I was bad."