It's Saturday night at Mt. Scott Community Center. Elliott, a spindly blonde eighth grader at Hosford Middle School, steps into an arts and crafts classroom and prepares to sing—a cappella. He's auditioning for Portland Teen Idol, a contest run by Portland Parks and Recreation, and he's nervous. Clad in zebra-print Nikes, torn jeans and a colorful hoodie, Elliott delivers a slightly faltering take on John Lennon's "Revolution." And he giggles every time WW's camera flashes.
The private audition room is inhabited only by three judges, a chalkboard reading "Sing Big!" and the 11-year-old who persuaded her father, Portland Parks & Rec's Southeast Services Manager, Jeff Milkes, to initiate Portland Teen Idol a year and a half ago. And last Saturday, more than 50 regional teens aged 13-19 showed up (at the 12th of 15 first-round auditions), offering 30-second doses of their bare voices for judgment. Gals like 11th-grader Tori, who tore up Pink's "Who Knew" and cute brunette Kyla, who ably sang American Idol-winner Jordin Sparks' dynamic power ballad "Tattoo," made judging easy. Contestants are scored in three five-point categories: vocals, song selection and stage presence; they need to score at least 11 points on two of three judges' score cards to move on, and many do.
Others, who offered excuses and apologies ("My throat gets dry when I'm nervous") before even beginning, walk away with lots of constructive criticism and encouragement to keep singing and try again next year (we are teenagers for seven years, after all). Volunteer Coordinator Marlene Hope has the unlucky job of breaking the news. "I give everyone a hug," she says, adding that "most of the kids leave smiling." Milkes agrees, saying, "There are no Simons here. We try to be as positive as we can." Downstairs, where Jammin' 95.5 entertained waiting contestants with games and dancing, that positivity was apparent: The kids involved—who stand to win iPods, recording sessions, professional photo shoots and the chance to perform at Oaks Park and the Oregon State Fair (last year's winner, Jordan Thompson, has already appeared with big names like Heart and Storm and the Balls)—were singing together and trading hugs in the lobby.
From a "Ghetto Superstar"-singing Marshall High junior named Chas, whose black blazer with a homemade duct-tape cross stuck to the back recalled Boy George-on-goth; to eighth-grader Jennifer killing Etta James' "At Last"; and Tiffany, a skinny blond freshman who offered a soulful original song, Portland Teen Idol's contestants were refreshingly down to earth. These kids (one of whom was gently advised against singing Radiohead's "Creep" because of a slight curse: "What the hell am I doing here?") don't necessarily want to be famous; they just think it's fun to sing with their friends. As Milkes, channeling American Idol judge Randy Jackson, told the throaty-voiced, Pink-covering Tori, "I gotta keep it real: That was great!"
DO IT: Final first-round auditions are Friday, March 14, at Jefferson High School and Rosemont Ridge Middle School and Saturday, March 15, at Mt. Scott Community Center. Visit myspace.com/portland_teen_idol for info and to sign up.
Image: volunteer judges Gail Kiely, Tammie and Jeff Milkes (l-r) are all ears for Tori's take on Pink, taken by Chris Ryan.