LAKE BUENA VISTA — From her spot across the lawn, Sasha Orihuela studies her son.
Jeremy Joshua Dorsey is laughing at the front of the line, flipping his bottle of water, fanning himself with his palm. He doesn't look nervous, but then, he is 16. He never does.
Orihuela pulls out her phone.
Go over your song, she texts. Start going over your words.
No response. She calls him twice. He doesn't answer.
"Yep. He's ignoring me. It begins. This is the hard part."
It's all hard, this day. Orihuela and Jeremy were up at 5 a.m. to haul from West Tampa to Lake Buena Vista for the first day of auditions for ABC's reboot of American Idol. Up to 4,000 singers would wait hours in 90-degree heat for a chance to audition in tents at Disney Springs. Just as many moms, dads, loves, siblings, managers and well-wishers bit their nails nearby.
Every now and then, a voice pierces the heat — an intimidating, belt-it-out warble, the kind that has earned singers like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood tickets to Hollywood.
"Ooh," Orihuela gasps as a young woman wails. "Oh my gosh, that's beautiful."
Orihuela once again checks her Samsung.
"Your mother's freaking out," she says, watching Jeremy off in the distance. "Please answer your phone."
• • •
American Idol's luster has dimmed in recent years. Its last few champions have tanked, at least in comparison to past breakout stars like Jennifer Hudson or Adam Lambert. Ratings plummeted, and so did water cooler interest. Viewers turned to The Voice and America's Got Talent.
But Idol is still Idol — "it still has a ring," Orihuela said. "It's the singing competition."
When Fox dropped American Idol last spring, a bidding war arose among the other networks to snap it up. ABC emerged victorious, its reboot featuring Katy Perry and two other unnamed judges set to premiere early next year. Disney was an obvious place to launch auditions; former Idol champs Jordin Sparks, Ruben Studdard and Kris Allen were on hand to drum up publicity.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
For years, Jeremy talked about singing for Simon Cowell, even after Cowell left the show. Idol premiered the summer after he was born; he's never really known a life without it. Idol was just one way to make a living singing.
Jeremy attends Blake High School, Tampa's magnet for the arts; and studies voice and performance at Hands in Motion Music, a talent development, management and publicity boutique in Brandon. That's how the Idol audition came about — the show's casters put out a nationwide call for young talent, with those pre-selected, like Jeremy, receiving front-of-the-line passes.
Slight with intense eyes and curly hair dyed blond, Jeremy is often taken for much younger. He just had a Harry Potter-themed birthday party; he has yet to apply for his learner's permit. But on stage, under the moniker JJosh, he emulates flashier heroes like Prince and former Idol finalist Todrick Hall. When he was younger, he would moonwalk in church. He once made a fingerless glove from backpack netting and the strap from his mother's purse. He wanted to bring it to Orlando. Orihuela talked him out of it.
Before a producer insists they separate — singers in line, parents in the shade — Orihuela retrieves a packet of paperwork. Jeremy breaks from texting friends and snapping photos, and leans on a trash can to consider a questionnaire.
CHARLIE KAIJO | Times
How has your community supported you? What well-known singer(s) do people compare you to? Are you closely related or a good friend with someone who is famous?
Orihuela laughs. She drives Lyft for a living; before that she taught English as a second language; before that, the Marines. They live with her mother and Orihuela's 18-year-old daughter.
Famous friends? "I wish," she says.
Orihuela, 45, is adamant about not becoming a stage mom. "Don't be Joe Jackson" — that's her motto. She is protective. Her first daughter died after a medical treatment she says resulted from a misdiagnosis. After that, she homeschooled Jeremy for three years.
But at some point, you still have to stand back.
"That's your questionnaire, baby, not mine," Orihuela tells him. "You handle it. It's your story."
• • •
There's an emergency. Jeremy forgot to bring his questionnaire packet to producers.
"Give me the sheet!" Jeremy pants, racing from the front of the line. "I need the sheet right now!"
Orihuela pulls the packet from her purse. Jeremy grabs it and races back.
Orihuela swipes through baby photos on her phone. There's one with Jeremy at six months, turning away from his hugging sisters. Always doing his own thing.
It would be wonderful if Jeremy made it to Hollywood, but the way she sees it, the Idol audition process isn't about that. It's a test: How many singers — how many parents — are willing to sweat out this first, difficult step? And how many will take the next? And the step beyond that?
"Raising kids has been like that," Orihuela says. "They're always going to test your boundaries and see how far they can go, and then they grow from there. And then they test again, to see how far they can go, and then you go on from there. That's kind of what I'm trying to instill in him. A lot of what we go through in life is testing you to see if you can make it to the next level."
CHARLIE KAIJO | Times
In the tent, Jeremy sings Bruno Mars' That's What I Like. It's over in minutes. His whole group walks away empty-handed. When he sees his mother, he shakes his head.
"They said that we were good," he says. "It's just the energy wasn't what they needed."
"Ah," Orihuela said. "All right, then. I guess I've got to give you coffee next time, huh?"
It's not yet noon, but it's time to go home. Jeremy wants a strawberry lemonade. Orihuela wants a nap. The drive west to Tampa is about 90 minutes. Hollywood will take a little longer.