Fans of the popular talent show American Idol vie for chance to make their 'dreams come true' in La La Land, writes Chris Wright. What number did Ruben Studdard wear on his shirts? If you know the answer to this question, you just missed out on a huge opportunity. In mid-January, the pan-Arab television channel MBC4 launched an online competition for fans of American Idol, aimed at people who are not only able to recall that Studdard was on the show seven years ago, but who can also remember what he wore. There are, apparently, quite a few of them. Every Friday night for six weeks, around 25,000 Idol devotees - ranging from Egyptian college kids to Saudi housewives - logged on to the MBC website to compete for the contest's grand prize: a trip to Los Angeles to attend this season's finale!!!
For those who took part in MBC's so-called "Biggest Fan" competition, those three exclamation marks would not be considered excessive. In fact, you could reasonably add four or five more. These are people, after all, who have not only watched the show since its debut in 2002, but who have compiled an internal library of Idol-related trivia. Like this: Ruben Studdard had the number 205 embossed on his shirts, the dialling code of his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. There must be members of Studdard's own family who would have a hard time pulling this fact from the archives.
Despite the difficulty of the questions, the online portion of the competition was the easy part. The real test came a little over a week ago, in MBC's Dubai studio. Here, six finalists had to sit before an audience, without the benefit of internet access and phone-a-friends, and compete in a televised quiz show. The contestants had already beaten tens of thousands of similarly avid rivals, and while the stakes weren't quite as high as they are for actual American Idol contestants, the mood in the green room before the show was fraught. In the studio itself, things were merely chaotic.
The MBC studio - about the size of two squash courts placed end-to-end - isn't large enough to accommodate an actual audience, but there were plenty of media people there. Along one wall, a bank of TV screens aired an Arabic soap opera, but no one was paying attention to that. The show's hosts - the MBC presenter Raya Abi Rached and a radio DJ named Majed Fasi - took to the stage to rehearse their lines, and the photographers in the room jostled vigorously. "Ouch!" said one attendee who had been beaned with a zoom lens. "Ouch!"
Eventually, the six finalists took their seats behind a blue and white Idol-branded panel and began to fondle their clickers. The contestants ranged in age from the mid-teens to early 20s, and were evenly split between male and female. They were all from the region (the online phase of the competition was posted in Arabic) and they all wore expressions of anxious amusement. Seconds later, as spotlights wheeled about the stage, the show began. "You've got to be first and you've got to be right!" said Abi Rached, while Fasi nodded in agreement. "Of our six incredible contestants, only one will win the biggest prize!"
The taping for the show took about an hour. In addition to five rounds of questions, there was the occasional interlude, in which the hosts conducted mini-interviews with the contestants. "So you're a fan of Michael Jackson!" they asked a large Saudi guy named Manaf. "Can you do a Moon Dance for us?" Manaf replied that no, he couldn't. They also asked him to sing, but, again, no. They had more luck with a Lebanese teenager named Mazen, who, after some robust encouragement - "Trust in your talent!" - warbled a few bars of a love song. The audience members who weren't holding cameras clapped, or at least slapped their notebooks. "I love to sing," Mazen said after the show, "especially when I'm sad."
As it turned out, Mazen had plenty to sing about. "I knew most of the answers, but I was too nervous," he said. He extended his hand, as if holding an imaginary clicker, and prodded his palm. "I kept pressing the wrong buttons." Nearby, cameramen formed a scrum around the show's winner, a 23-year-old Bahraini woman named Abeer Jassem. "In the end, we're all winners," Mazen said. "I didn't lose." The finalist who really didn't lose, meanwhile, stood before microphones and digital recorders, clenching and unclenching her hands. "I'm excited," Abeer said. "I'm excited." She paused for a moment and added, "I'm excited." Later, away from the crowd, she revealed that this wasn't her first quiz show: "I was on two Jeopardy-type shows before." And how did she do? "I won." When asked what made her such a formidable contestant, Abeer shrugged. Her occupation, at least, provided a clue: "I'm an exam co-ordinator. I organise tests." As the event wound down, Abeer was told she had one more responsibility to fulfil: recording a station promo. Anyone watching the show on TV (it aired last night) will not have seen what happened next - which is for the best. Abeer had remarked earlier that her favourite part of American Idol is the early auditions, "all those people seeking their five seconds of fame." But, as she was about to discover, even fleeting celebrity comes with a price.
"Thank you MBC4 for making my dreams come true." This was Abeer's line, which had to be delivered to a camera while the rest of the room looked on. "A little slower, please," said the producer after the first take. "Thank you MBC4 for making my dreams come true," Abeer said, a little slower. "More enthusiasm, please." "Thank you MBC4 for making my dreams come true. LA, here I come!" "OK. Now with even more enthusiasm."
Things went on like this for a while. Abeer flapped her arms, waggled her eyebrows and adopted a legs-akimbo stance, like Peter Pan. Someone produced a giant boarding pass, made out in Abeer's name, and she practically shrieked her line while standing behind it. "Terrific!" the producer cried finally. "Let's do it again!" * Chris Wright