20/20 Goes Behind the Scenes of 'American Idol'

In nationwide auditions, a pack of 50,000 pop star wannabes sang their hearts out, hoping to win a spot on American Idol, Fox television's wildly popular talent search show.

Only 234 contestants survived the initial cut. This past Wednesday 32 hopefuls were culled from that pool, and they'll begin squaring off for this year's title next week.

Just like last season, television viewers will dial in to choose this year's American Idol, who will receive a million-dollar recording contract, a manager, and instant fame. But before America can cast its votes, contestants who want to sing on national television must win over the show's three judges: Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and the sometimes ruthlessly critical Simon Cowell.

The Simon Factor

American Idol's biggest draw, perhaps more than the contestants themselves, is Cowell. A one-man hope-seeking missile, Cowell is known for his brutal criticisms of the contestants.

Cowell said he doesn't worry about what he's doing to the psyches of the contestants. "They do it to themselves," he said, "They know exactly what they're letting themselves in for."

This rationale makes Cowell comfortable saying things like, "You look so awful, your dress sense is dreadful. You need a suntan" to the hopeful stars.

Music producer Randy Jackson is back this season to keep things from getting to nasty. To soothe the contestants' wounds, "the anti-Simon," recording artist Paula Abdul, is also back.

When Abdul tells a contestant, "I think you did a superb job on that."

Cowell counters with a sneering, "Well then, Paula, you have just created a medical fact — which is, women hear differently to men."

"Last season all of a sudden … nice became an accusation and — you know what? I've been on both sides, and I'm rooting for them," Abdul said.

'Way More Uniqueness'

American Idol gave 20/20 unprecedented access to the competition, as the stress kicked in.

Judge Randy Patrick said, "I think we got way more uniqueness in my eyes this year than we had last year. And I think just the people who showed up are actually quite a bit different."

But will "different" win? The show remains a magnet for mainstream beauty and pop allure, but three contestants are hoping their uniqueness qill help them stand out.

Equoia Coleman from Memphis, Tenn., has been a singing sensation in her hometown since she was 12 years old. But she hasn't reached her ultimate goal of having a hit. "I want to be in the top 30, the top 30 baby. So if I get in there, you know, the exposure, and all the publicity will be enough for me," Coleman said.

"In singing, God has really, really blessed me to like glide through it. So anything works for me. It doesn't matter. I can learn a song in an hour, throw me three."

But the woman who "glides," entered her first audition on crutches.

Coleman said the week has been nerve-wracking and fun at the same time. She's trying to keep the pressure from getting to her.

Then there's Corey Clark, who dreams of being a professional singer, just like his dad.

But the night before his big audition he went out for a night on the town.

"You've got to let your hair down sometimes. You can't be all uptight all the time," he said.

Unfortunately, his late night showed in his performance and Cowell noticed.

"That was appalling," Cowell said, "Your worst audition by a mile, Corey."

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