Why Contestants Go on American Idol

Last Editorial Review: 2/20/2008

Is it only fame and fortune? Experts explore the motivation of American Idol contestants.

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Your knees are shaking, you're trying to decide whether Paula Abdul is flirting or smirking, when you meet Simon Cowell's steely gaze. Uh-oh, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

Not everyone has the talent of a Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, or Carrie Underwood. So why do people go on American Idol, the reality TV show for the show-biz obsessed?

"I do believe some people think they have talent," Marjorie Brody, co-author of the book on networking titled You Can't Do It Alone and president of Brody Communications in Jenkintown, Pa., tells WebMD. And some do have the talent to showcase.

"The second group, I believe, are those who don't have a lot of talent and may know it, but who crave a lot of attention." People in this second group, Brody says, may think about themselves a lot but, paradoxically, may not have a lot of pride.

Brody also identifies a third group of aspirants. "I think people try out on a dare," she laughs. "I don't have evidence of that. But I think they say, 'What is the worst that can happen? I could not get on TV? I could get on but be booed off? Hey, I was on TV at least.' They are not into the vanity part of it."

Following Your Dream

David Brownstein, a certified life coach and president of Hollywood Coaching, once worked with a client who tried out for a different reality show to replace a member of the band INXS.

"I think it's healthy to go after your dream," Brownstein tells WebMD. "If you always wanted to be a singer and you're a secretary, this is one way to go after it."

Carole Lieberman, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Dreams Interrupted: Psychological Survival Guide for Coping With Terrorism, worked with contestants on Big Brother and Survivor. She tells WebMD that most people who go on American Idol want a fast track to fame. "Even if you don't win, you still get opportunities," she points out. "Just being on once gets you seen by more people than would see you in 10 years of trying to break in."

Do such people have something missing? Psychiatrist Lieberman says she thinks people who want to be entertainers in the first place often crave love and attention they did not get in childhood. "I treat a lot of entertainers. Part of them feels rejected," she says, "so they may suffer from a repetition compulsion, meaning they keep setting themselves up for rejection again and again."

However, part of pursuing a dream may be risking rejection. For people on American Idol, rejection has a face. "Simon may be mean," Brownstein says, "but he is not unfair, in my opinion. He gives accurate criticism, although he lacks a little in bedside manner."

Alternate Ways to Stardom

"Everyone needs goals, a dream," says Lieberman. "You can set your goal as high as you want -- don't let anyone tell you not to -- but then you need to be able to do what it takes. You need to take the lessons, work two jobs to get singing lessons. The problem is not setting unrealistic goals, but not working as hard as you can to realize them.

"If you want to be a singer," Lieberman continues, "you need to start as early as possible, take lessons ... pay your dues by singing in a choir or working backstage. Some people want to be a star, but don't want to do what it takes. Some people won't sing at the old folks home or work a second job to pay for lessons."

Brody agrees. "People fail not because they don't have goals, but because they give up too quickly."

So don't let that first American Idol audition get you down, the one in a city near you, with the long lines and cold or hot waits. Most people don't even make it to a heart-to-heart with Simon.

Published Jan. 2, 2006.
Medically updated February 2007
Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.
SOURCES: Marjorie Brody, co-author, You Can't Do It Alone. David Brownstein, certified life coach; president, Hollywood Coaching. Carole Lieberman, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, UCLA; author, Dreams Interrupted: Psychological Survival Guide for Coping With Terrorism.
© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.


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