Fake Seacrest, coded golden tickets, and other American Idol audition secrets

Late last July, a woman identified only as “Maria Saint” auditioned for American Idol 10 in New Orleans, and she has blogged the experience. It’s the most-detailed account of the audition process I’ve ever seen, and while most of it consists of specifics about things we’ve heard before, there are some fascinating revelations, from a fake Ryan Seacrest’s exit interviews to the fact that the contestants are coded from the very start of the auditions so producers will know how to treat them: as a great singer, an okay singer, or a bad singer who will be featured for that very reason.

Most readers of my writing and fans of the show, never mind those who just pay close attention to the audition episodes, are aware that the audition process is not at all what it looks like on TV. It spans multiple days and stages, and involves more people screening contestants than just the judges–who weren’t even hired when auditions started last summer. Maria Saint wrote about the start of her experience last summer, but didn’t resume until the auditions started airing, writing, “I was so saddened and discouraged by this entire experience that I was unable to bring myself to think about it until I was forced to do so this week.”

Her account reveals that, after the first audition–on day two, groups of four sing in front of producers on the floor of the stadium or arena that is hosting the cattle call–contestants receive a golden ticket (i.e. piece of paper) that includes the name of the producers who auditioned them, notes about the audition (which camera operators use to identify people to get their stories in the crowd), and codes that tell an auditioner everything they need to know about how well they’ll do in the auditions:

“The first mark is a letter, either an N, a K, or a Y. The Y means that you are a good singer, a yes, and will likely make it all the way to the final round if you play your cards right. K I call Keeper, and it is also a mark of a good singer. K’s are not as impressive as Y’s but is good nonetheless, and anything good is good, right? N’s are another story. N’s are no’s and it basically means you are bad. You’re not a bad person and you may not even be a bad singer but in the idol world you are a bad singer to them and that’s what you’re going to be made to be. Take my advice carefully: if you’re an N and you want to see the process and you’re okay with the fact that you may be humiliated and that’s alright with you, then by all means, take the chance-of-a-lifetime experience. You might even be able to change the judges minds later on down the line. But, I promise you, if you are marked as an N, they already have their minds made up about you and it will not change.”

Maria Saint has images of those coded golden tickets, including her own. After detailing the audition process, she reveals that, after being rejected by executive producer Ken Warwick while auditioning on the exact same set the judges will use, “there was an exit interview, just like you’d have if you were actually in the judges round of the show.” But instead of Ryan Seacrest, “you were asked questions by this production person (I called him fake Seacrest) or the camera men, but fake Seacrest was never seen on camera,” and the producers lied and “said it was yet another way to screen test us and see how awesome we looked on camera.”

In other words, the show gathers footage of auditions that are not in front of the judges or Ryan Seacrest but has the ability to edit them to make it look like those people sang in front of the judges (combined with reaction shots from the judges) and then said something to Seacrest, when in fact, none of that happened.

Maria Saint’s account of her New Orleans American Idol audition also details the song that producers had everyone learn later in the process, which is how they construct the montage of people mangling one song. Big surprise that people mangle a song they’ve just learned! Interestingly, she says producers lied about what this was for: “We were told that the reason we were given this song to learn is that if we made it to the actual show and were given one or two days to learn a song choice they would want to be assured that we could do it.”

Here are the audition episode posts from her blog:

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.