Since its 1934 debut, Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater has been billed as the place "where stars are born and legends are made." In the '80s, Amateur Night went national via the televised Showtime at the Apollo. By fortune of its location in Harlem, the show has been described as an African-American Star Search, and attracts primarily black audiences and performers, such as the Jackson 5, Chris Rock, James Brown, and Billie Holiday. It also boasts about having "the world's toughest audience."
For the fourth consecutive year, judges from the Apollo Theater were traveling to Seattle to select 12 acts for a Showtime at the Apollo production at the Paramount Theatre. The winner would receive two round-trip tickets to New York and $1,000, along with the opportunity to compete at the Apollo's famed Amateur Night in New York.
I can't dance pretty. I don't sing, unless you count being forced to Christmas carol with Christians through Seattle neighborhoods (another Our Worst Enemy assignment). My only hidden talent is a cluster of moles shaped like the constellation Andromeda on my butt. "You've got three days to prepare for your audition," my editors gleefully told me.
Voice lessons began the following evening, when I spent several hours drinking with a friend before renting a private room at Seattle's Best Karaoke, a downtown joint that resembles a maze of dilapidated motel lobbies. We were the only customers, we weren't allowed to bring in any liquor, and the teleprompter kept running the song lyrics in Korean instead of English. Nevertheless, I soon confirmed that I am tuneless and tone deaf. I was not surprised.
"Um, try singing louder," my friend helpfully suggested. I SANG LOUDER. It didn't help.
For an hour, my Korean renditions of Madonna's "Dress You Up" and Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me" (AKA "Bangin' on the Bathroom Floor") echoed down the empty halls of SBK. The less drunk we got, the more depressing SBK became, so my friend suggested we walk to the Crescent Tavern for my public musical debut. Every night is karaoke night at the Crescent. Shudder.
I hadn't been to a karaoke bar since I was forced to witness several drunk girls turn Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" into an erotic delight by humping their audience. That song was my childhood favorite. Stevie Wonder made me fall in love with love—and phones. Watching his romantic classic reduced to drunken screeching and rhythmless humping was traumatic. I yearned to put the singers out of their misery hard and fast, with a hammer. I fled before singing and have avoided karaoke bars ever since.
The Crescent was packed. Singing alone in a private room had not exactly been pleasant—I still had to listen to myself—but stepping onstage was like having an audience watch me masturbate for the first time. I was nervous, sloppy, and bellowing Boys II Men's "I'll Make Love to You" to the tune of Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole."
"Oh. My. God," one stunned stranger said as I left the stage. He looked angry.
I needed to inspire pity, not hatred. To hark back to my childhood, I decided that if my untrained voice singing "I Just Called to Say I Love You" didn't inspire pity, my accompanying choreography would.
When audition day arrived, I donned my high-school prom dress for good luck. The dress is black and lacy, and still bears the ancient stains of my ruptured virginity. These stains wouldn't be noticeable unless the judges decided to sniff my ass, which, actually, I would take as a good sign. My breached hymen is far more impressive than my singing voice, and at least as lucky as a severed rabbit's foot.
I arrived at the Broadway Performance Hall at eleven in the morning. Predictably, there were only four white girls amid a sea of talented African-American men and women. I was like a blinding white beacon of panic.
As I watched a 9-year-old dancing machine with eyes like Tammy Faye Messner wrap her legs around her forehead and tap dance on her own face, I realized that not even 1,000 hymen-splattered garments could bring luck or talent to a tone-deaf girl like me. I was fucked. As I marched slowly in line toward the audition room, my emotions cycled between hope, resignation, and despair: Maybe I can pull off a Disney miracle to the thunderous applause of everyone. No, fuck that, I'll be lucky not to shit myself and cry onstage. Oh god, I'm going to shit myself and cry onstage. I'm glad Stevie Wonder isn't here to see this... and so on.
I reached the door to the audition room. The tap-dancing child prodigy in front of me emerged from her meditative pretzel and entered with her mother/talent agent. I imagined her onstage, stamping out pleas for help in Morse code: My-mother-made-me-do-this. Please-help-me. I-am-on-steroids. I-have-the-facial-hair-of-a-16-year-old-boy-and-I-can-bench-press-a-donkey. Poor little girl. Clap clap clap.
All too quickly I was being ushered into the nearly empty theater.
There were maybe 15 people present, and they were staring at me politely. Expectantly.
I stepped up to the microphone.
"I am number 256, and I'll be singing Stevie Wonder's 'I Just Called to Say I Love You.'"
I nailed the first three lines: "No New Year's day/To celebrate/No chocolate covered candy hearts to give away..." And then I looked out into the audience and choked. Singing karaoke in a noisy bar was torturous—until I was onstage singing a capella with people judging me instead of groping each other. My voice cracked. My pitch turned squirrelly. I panicked and began making shit up: "NO APRIL FLOWERS/NO, UM, WINTRY SHOWERS/NO SATURDAYS WITHIN THE MONTH OF JUNE," I shouted aggressively.
Skipping to the chorus didn't help: "I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU. I JUST CALLED TO SAY HOW MUCH I CARE..." My hands frantically pantomimed making phone call after phone call. It appeared that I was dialing half of King County, just to say I love you.
Eventually, I stopped. The room was silent. The majority of my audience looked stricken, as if they had been forced to watch a romantic comedy about child pornography. I briefly considered tap-dancing "I-am-very-sorry" to the judges. Maybe I could nail the encore, I thought. Instead, I was brusquely guided offstage.
"When should I expect to hear back?" I asked at the door.
"Honey, I don't think you need to worry about that," my escort replied.