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They came. They sang.  But only a handful will get to the big show.

In case you've been living in a television, magazine, Internet or newspaper void, auditions for next season's American Idol (search) have been underway the past few weeks. Friday I joined the rest of the entertainment press for my shot at Simon, Randy, Paula and Ryan, for a feature airing on this weekend's FOX Magazine.

Thousands upon thousands of hopefuls showed up at New York City's Jacob Javits Center last week, many of them camping out on the concrete for more than four days for their shot at pop stardom (Atlanta, Honolulu and Chicago, among other cities, are also hosting auditions).  Only about 100 hopefuls were invited to the Waldorf-Astoria to audition on-camera, to find out if they were going to Hollywood.

More tears than cheers prevailed.

"It's the same exact process as we've been doing all along," said acerbic judge Simon Cowell. "But still ninety-percent of them are awful," he said.

Indeed, from what I could hear while waiting outside of the audition room alongside  Entertainment Tonight (search) bureau chief Michelle Becker, many were awful. But a few did emerge triumphant, screaming with seemingly uncontrollable excitement.

With AI camera crews taping everything by that point, it was hard to tell when the performances actually ended.

But what struck me most about my interviews with the judges and the hopefuls, however, was how optimistic everybody is, from one Idol wannabe dubbed "Scooter Girl," to host Ryan Seacrest.

"People just think this is a gimmick so I can get in," said "Scooter Girl," a NYC woman who showed up for her audition on her Razor scooter, hence the nickname.  "But I have the chops to back it up," she said.  We'll have to wait and see about that.

Meanwhile, Seacrest says the show is getting easier to do.

"It's gotten to be a lot more fun," he said. "But what we really love is the live portions of the show, the spontaneity of it," said Seacrest, whose own star has certainly risen along with that of the three judges.  In fact, all four of the show's stars are working on either new shows in addition to AI, or on writing books.

"I'm working on a show that hopefully will do better than Cupid (search)," Seacrest said, poking fun at Cowell's CBS reality show, much to Randy's and Paula's delight. Both Simon and Randy have book deals.

Cowell bristled, but it was payback for his earlier remarks about the failure of American Juniors. Cowell had jokingly blamed Seacrest's performance as host of Juniors for the program's failure to connect with audiences the way American Idol  had.

It's hard to tell if this group even likes one another, or if the back-and-forth is just what audiences have come to expect from them. I suspect the latter.

"The weeks felt like years," Cowell said sarcastically of the show's hiatus. Then again, sarcasm and brutal honesty is what's made him the man America most loves to hate.

In spite of his reputation, it's pretty clear to see that the contestants, co-stars and even the press can't help but like the guy. In person, his eyes convey a kindness that is rarely seen on the show. He wears success well.

American Idol comes back to FOX for its third season in January. The winner of the singing and image competition gets a million dollar record deal with Simon's label. Previous winners Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, as well as runners-up Justin Guarini and Clay Aiken, are all enjoying newfound wealth and stardom.

Unlike other reality television stars, at least AI winners do more than eat bugs or go out on dates before earning their celebrity. Contestants are subjected to a virtual bootcamp of pop, a mini-Juilliard of the MTV arts, if you will, with Simon Cowell as its Dumbledore, or more appropriately, its Professor Snape (afterall, the world of Pop music has a "dark arts" quality to it).

Ultimately, America chooses the winner anyway, and we do have questionable taste when it comes to judging competitions. As much as I liked "Last Comic Standing" (search)'s  Dat Phan for his go-getter attitude, he was not the funniest comedian on the show.  America voted him the winner anyway, despite the fact that he used the same material day-in and day-out.

Similarly, the cabaret-like songs that are performed on AI would make it difficult for most modern stars to win the competition. Imagine Mick Jagger singing "On The Wings of Love" to Simon's satisfaction? Doubtful.

Than again, it is called American Idol, with an emphasis on Pop, not Rock Star.

Mike Straka is the project manager for FOX News' Internet operations and contributes as a features reporter and producer on FOX Magazine (Sundays 11 p.m. on FNC) and as a reporter and columnist for Foxnews.com. 

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