One Friday night almost four months ago hundreds of young men and women camped outside the Holiday Inn on Ohio Street in hopes of scoring an audition spot for the new season of Popstars, the reality-based TV show that last year transformed five no-names into a hit pop girl group. Those in line who watched the show last season saw how thousands of young women ages 18 to 25 from across the country shared their goal: to get a chance to sing a cappella in front of three cruel judges who would size up their aptitude and ambition in a mere ten seconds. They saw that after eight weeks only five were left, and how those ladies underwent rigorous reeducation, waking up early in the morning so some short-tempered singing coach could bemoan their inadequacies, then going to dance class and cabbage patching their asses off to Mariah Carey. These celebs-in-waiting lived together, secluded from the world, for four months and duked it out over the band’s name–they settled on the evocative Eden’s Crush–and who was to be head diva. The people in line saw the challenges one faces when about to become an instant pop sensation, including the time Rosanna lost her voice right before the big performance for talent agents and record label executives. She panicked not only because she might not get her break, but also because she realized that the others were still going to perform without her. But she got her voice back at the last second and was able to wow the corporate audience.

Eden’s Crush was spoon-fed to a public waiting with wide-open mouths. According to SoundScan, the first single, “Get Over Yourself”–released two months before the album–was number one in sales its first week. Eden’s Crush was the first all-female group to manage this. The band eventually obtained opening slots on bills with ‘N Sync, headlined a free outdoor concert here over the summer, and last month played the mall circuit on the Dreamchaser Tour with Jessica Simpson. And the people in line said they fantasized about all this–being yanked from their dull, entry-level office jobs, leaving their parents’ houses, or dropping out of school to satiate their burning desire to become overnight celebrities adored by prepubescent girls.

This season’s auditions were just as rough as last’s, or at least that’s what it seemed like from watching old episodes. They were held in just six cities, began at 7 AM, and only the first 400 people in line were guaranteed a chance to show off their stuff, so many hopefuls drove long distances to camp out on concrete. By 10 the night before, the first 400 were already in place, but that didn’t stop anyone from joining the line around the building. If the judges didn’t like enough of the 400, or there was extra time, they might come outside and handpick some more.

The women in line wore warm-up outfits, T-shirts bearing college names or slogans like “Diva” and “Princess,” bandannas, and pigtails. When the camera crew shone a huge floodlight in their greasy, tired faces and tried to get them to say something exuberant about the audition process, a few passed on the chat session. Most were more accommodating, however, singing Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants” in spastic glossolalia or gushing about determination and destiny. Like last year, everybody was allowed to bring along one person for support–so about a quarter of these adults coerced their mothers into sleeping on a city sidewalk in a tent or a fort made of blankets stretched across chairs. There was only one difference between these auditions and those of last season: instead of sticking with women, the producers thought it’d be spicy if they mixed in some testosterone. But there would still be five band members, so no matter what the sexes would be unbalanced, and oh, wouldn’t that be fun?

By 7 Saturday morning everyone had washed up in the lobby bathroom sinks. Most of the girls wore ill-fitting pants that pulled at the seams and sagged in the butt and tight, sparkly, belly-baring halter tops; their frosty highlights matched their frosty lip gloss, and their shoulders were dusted with glitter. The guys, in baggy jeans and white undershirts, looked like they had been dipped in Vaseline and strategically rolled in pubic hair in an attempt to get their tiny, flat beards and ‘burns sculpted just right. Bleary-eyed staff members emerged from the hotel and passed out 400 wristbands, 200 to each gender, then led the hopefuls inside to sign forms regarding their rights and fill out a questionnaire: Do you play an instrument? Have you had vocal training? Who is your agent?

I was there but I didn’t have to camp out. I went as a reporter with a predetermined audition slot, and my special treatment got me dirty looks. One Popstars employee, a gray-haired woman with a soft smile, told me to shush any complainers by explaining what I was doing. I did, and then a production assistant with sharply bobbed hair and bright red lips smiled and hissed through clenched teeth that I should shut my mouth. The publicist assured me that I was really auditioning, that I had the same chance as anyone at making the first cut. Would I go through with it if I made it? Sure, I reasoned, if only for the free apartment and excuse to quit my day job. While completing the paperwork I got a little carried away. Do I play any instruments? Why yes, I play them all (they didn’t ask if I was any good). Have I had vocal training? No, but I’ve had some real moments singing along with the radio in my car.

A feeling of dread washed over me. What if they don’t pick me? How humiliating. I continued with the questions, answering with more gusto in hopes of setting myself apart from the crowd. What makes me unique? What would be the hardest thing for me to give up if I became a Popstar? I paused, and then had a more horrifying thought: What if they do pick me?

Another anonymous staffer gave me a number, grouped me with two girls and two guys, and told us to stand in a long line. We’d each picked a song from a preapproved selection including Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over,” Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird,” and ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.” We were quickly led into the waiting room, where maybe 200 pre- and postauditioners and their support people milled about, eating crisp, delicious Lays brand snacks and drinking refreshing Coca-Cola beverages. Cameras were everywhere, attempting to capture both the dejected people exiting the studio and the excited ones bursting into song. Those of us who hadn’t yet had our chance were nervously rehearsing. Some who weren’t auditioning gossiped: one mother told another she heard a rumor that one guy grabbed his crotch and was laughed out of the studio. A balding employee shouted, “Uh, can we please refrain from smoking? Some people are taking these auditions very seriously and do not wish to have their voices damaged by your cigarettes!”

After about 20 minutes my group was called into the makeshift studio–an enormous room wallpapered with the bubbly purple Popstars logo–and ushered into the front row of folding chairs. About 30 groups were before us, so we got to see how it was done. A cantankerous sound guy would call five consecutive numbers, and those five would quickly walk from the dimly lit seating area up to the front of the harshly lit room, where the three judges sat primly behind a table: Brad “Riprock” Daymond, a big-name record producer with artfully gelled hair, wore stonewashed jeans, a matching denim jacket, and sunglasses; Jaymes Foster-Levy, an A and R honcho for 143 Records–the same label that released Eden’s Crush–with ultrahighlighted shaggy auburn hair, had on a graffiti tank top bearing the words “sweet and delicious” and stopped the production every ten minutes to have her nose and forehead powdered; Tony Michaels, a bitchy choreographer for Jennifer Lopez, wore a sheer embroidered blouse. They tried to be friendly with every group, but with each new quintet the smiles were shorter and more forced. One by one, each auditioner called to the front would introduce him- or herself, then start singing–with no musical accompaniment–and continue until a judge said, “Thank you, that’s enough.” Quite a few untalented, unfashionable wannabes got up there and bombed, so I can’t say I blame the judges for laughing into their sleeves, rolling their eyes, doodling, and whispering to each other. One guy embarrassed himself by saying, “Yo yo yo, whuz up? I’m Seany Sean from Chi-town. Brad, dude, love the jacket–it looks awesome on you,” and then letting rip a stilted, breathless rendition of a forgettable song, accompanied by an obviously prerehearsed jumble of gesticulations. But sometimes the judges were downright mean. A girl from Minnesota started singing “Come on Over” like it was “Hello, Dolly!” and Brad interrupted her, telling her to “pull back.” Then Jaymes just told her to stop, and Brad said, “See, that’s exactly what we’re not looking for. You’re singing like this is Broadway or something.”

After a while it seemed that the more uncomfortable the candidate, the longer the judges let him or her sing. One girl in a tropical sarong and tank top froze; she could barely say her name, yet the judges coaxed her into trying to sing. When she whispered the words one snapped, “Speak up! We can’t hear you.” Maybe it was a twisted form of amusement, or maybe it was tough love–these adults had totally unrealistic dreams and they needed to discover they had no chance of seeing them come true. In any case, it made good TV.

After each person in a group took a turn, the judges would deliberate for a few seconds, sometimes longer, then more often than not announce, “Thank you all for coming out. We will not be seeing any of you tomorrow.” The next day was dance auditions, and anyone who made it past those would be flown to LA for an intensive four-day audition. Unless I feel like being sued for $5 million, I’m not allowed to say who got called back, or even how many, although some were revealed on last week’s season opener. But I can say that those who did were kind of mousy–one might even say malleable.

My group was the last one called before the lunch break, and I was the last one to audition. The guy right before me did the most idiotic thing I’d seen all day–he pounded on his chest to keep the beat, his voice violently surging with each thump–so I really wasn’t worried about looking like a fool. I’d been sick with a sore throat for a couple weeks, and anyway I’d be lying if I said I can sing in tune. Still, I belted out the chorus to “I’m Like a Bird,” pretending I was a canary, not a crow, and smiled graciously when the judges said “Thank you.” Then I was dismissed.

I walked shakily back into the main waiting room, laughing in nervous hysterics. A cameraman got in my face and started asking me questions. I grinned like a moron and babbled about feeling humiliated but relieved because I had better things to do the next day. Then the publicist grabbed me and asked if I wanted to meet the judges. Sure, why not? They were much friendlier this time around, at least to me. They asked if I wanted to pose for photos with them, and since there were only three chairs Brad politely offered me the seat on his lap. I was still noticeably shaking and they asked me how it felt to be up there. I said it was nerve-racking but liberating knowing you can live through having done something so asinine, especially given the chance that it’ll be shown on national TV. One of the judges said the producers would put my performance on TV but–luckily–I only appeared in last week’s episode for a flash, sitting poker-faced behind an auditioner. Then Jaymes chirped that each of the judges should audition for me. One by one they went into the spotlight while I sat at the judges’ table. But instead of putting their hearts into it like those of us who tried out–no matter how awful the result–the judges imitated the particularly comic events of the day. I laughed because hey, the really clueless ones were pretty hilarious, but it was creepy discovering that those who were calling the shots weren’t as brave as the ones taking them.