This year's "American Idol" audition rounds presented a veritable baby boom of young parents aiming for their shot at stardom, often with a newborn or adorable moppet on their hip or clutching too-cute-for-words crayon pictures for the judges.
From the hyper-focused Andrew Garcia, himself the son of former Los Angeles gangbangers, who is in search of a better life for his own young boy, to hulking personal trainer and expectant father Michael Lynche, who might have already washed out because his father allegedly blabbed about his Hollywood experience to a local Florida paper, moms and dads were featured in nearly every audition episode for season nine.
There was scratchy-voiced rocker girl Danelle Hayes, who wanted to make it on "Idol" so she wouldn't have to sing crummy corporate gigs to support her 3-year-old son (but who reportedly didn't continue on in Hollywood, for unexplained reasons). And Kimberly Kerbow, a 24-year-old college student who brought along her 5-year-old daughter, appeared to be wearing a wig as she made Rogaine jokes to Simon.
What's up with the avalanche of "Idol" wannabes in a family way? While a spokesperson for "Idol" declined to comment for this story, MTV News went to one of season eight's most visible parents to find out what the deal is.
Last year's show had its fair share of family singers, with four parents — Megan Joy, Alexis Grace, Lil Rounds and Michael Sarver — making it into the top 13. For Joy, the single mother of a now 3-year-old son, having other moms and dads around helped ease the pressure of the show.
"For us, it was incredible to have that bond," she told MTV News on Monday. "I encourage any family to audition for 'Idol,' because it can change your lives."
Joy said the show has given her the financial freedom to quit her stay-at-home computer-based gig, so she can travel to Los Angeles four days a week to work on her debut album. "Besides the financial part, which is huge and life changing, the show changed how I feel about myself," said the quirky tattooed songbird. "I got my confidence back, I learned so many things and built so much strength, and now I can teach my son so much more. I can show him that whatever you want to do, you can do it. It's a beautiful dream in a hard time."
Though she felt like she was in the minority as a young parent out of the tens of thousands of people who tried out last year, Joy said she can totally see why tough economic times appear to have led to an "Idol" baby boom.
"When I come back from L.A., I can do nothing but raise my son and love him and still have enough money to travel and make music too," she said, thanks to the money she banked by making the top 10 on the show and touring with "Idol" last summer.
Media critic Robert Thompson — a fervent "Idol" watcher and director of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University — said he thinks it might also have something to do with the maturation of a generation that has been watching "Idol" since they were kids. On the other hand, it could also be partly due to clever editing.
"They have 100,000 people try out every year, and there are all kinds of demographics, so we only see a small number of them, and they've chosen to show us a lot of parents with their kids coming into the room and drawing pictures for the judges," he said. "My guess is that since 2002, there have probably been a pretty high number of people who have kids, but for some reason they're emphasizing it this year."
Parents have been on "Idol" for years, from single-mom Fantasia to stepdad Chris Daughtry. But, as Thompson suggested, we could be seeing parents like Seth Rollins and Jack Black lookalike Mark Labriola take a shot this season because producers might have decided that their stories keep the show relevant during tough economic times. Everyone can relate to or sympathize with young parents looking for a potential way out of hardship.
"There was that young woman who said 10 times or more that being the Idol would allow her to raise her child and support him," he said. "There have probably always been people like that, but the show is emphasizing it more in these times because it makes for a good story."
Plus, while "Idol" always looks for the young and attractive contestants to appeal to teens, the show also happens to have one of the widest demographic spans on TV, so stories about struggling parents (single or otherwise) can appeal to a broad range of fans.
The first "Idol" mom, Nikki McKibbin, who finished third in the show's inaugural season, said that unlike this season's baby brigade, it was a lonely world for her back in 2002.
"I was the only [parent] that year, and I kind of felt like the mom of the group because I was the oldest and only one who was a parent," said McKibbin, who was 23 at the time and left then-4-year-old son Tristan at home in Dallas. "It was really difficult for me, because I've always been around my son and always been there for him, but the thing that kept me going was the thought, 'Wow, if I win this, it will be a great opportunity for my son. I'll have enough money to set up a college fund and take care of things for him.' "
And sure enough, like Joy, McKibbin — who has just released a new single, "It Matters to Me," on iTunes and is working on an album with Dallas hard-rock band Wicked Attraction — said her run on "Idol" allowed her to rent her first home and buy a new car. "I was living in an efficiency [apartment], and I moved into a four-bedroom house, so I had a bedroom and my son had a room, and I got a car and was able to give him the things he wanted that I wasn't able to give him before, like video games and a TV in his room," she said.
While parents understand they will be away from their kids for a long time if they make it beyond Hollywood, McKibbin said the payoff if you make it to the top tier is totally worth it. "When you look at it, you think, 'This is going to be amazing at the end of it, when I have all this money, and I can actually provide for my family and not just give them what they need in life, but also the things they want.' "
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