Wish Upon a Popstar

It’s 11 p.m. on Thursday, just outside Le Meridien hotel in Beverly Hills, and Frankie, Crystal and Melanie, three friends who’ve driven here from Las Vegas in a rented Mitsubishi sedan, are at the very front of a line that stretches a full block up La Cienega, winds around Arnie Morton’s steak house, then hops to the other side of the street. They are two girls and a guy here in the hope of getting into the Friday-morning open call for the WB’s music-based reality series Popstars. Last year, the show hand-picked five girls — weepy Ivette, anxiety-ridden Maile, stripper-sexy Nicole, bilingual child star Ana Maria and frequent voice loser Rosanna — and turned them into instant celebrities. Eden’s Crush, their self-named group, even had a No. 1 hit, the catchy pop-erotic admonition “Get Over Yourself.” This season, the producers plan on assembling a coed mix of 18-to-25-year-olds. But only 200 boys and 200 girls are guaranteed their 10-second song bite in front of the judges. By midnight, a block party of laughing, singing, shrieking and junk-food eating is in full swing. Will sleep occur?

“Probably not,” says Frankie, who is 21, white and soft-spoken.

“I can’t wait for 7 a.m. to get here,” says Crystal, 20, who is the chatterbox of the group and, like Melanie, black. “I want to go now

Melanie, who has rigorously studied Christina Aguilera’s performances of “Come On Over” for her audition, has a reason why being first is good. “I’ll set the standard,” she says, hoping for a confident tone.

At 6:30 a.m., the group — well, they’re not a group group, but if all three whizzed through each elimination stage, they’d be together in a group, and how cool would that be? — is more pumped. And on only 15 minutes’ sleep. The early-morning sun glints off Melanie’s pierced bellybutton stud, and Crystal keeps laughing as she relates the odyssey of moving their car three times during the night to avoid ticketing before a generous employee at Fatburger offered parking sanctuary. Frankie holds a quick prayer group — something he and Crystal always did before shows at the Las Vegas Academy of Performing Arts they attended together.

Then, suddenly, they are escorted into the hotel, part of the first 25 girls and 25 boys to be processed. And instantly, they are separated. Led to a backroom with numbers on the floor and energetic production assistants offering lyric sheets and free L’Oreal hair gel, Frankie is instructed to stand on number 25 while his friends are at positions 1 and 2. Then, a new numbering system takes effect: Melanie and Crystal are given pink cards that read 14 and 15 and are sent to a pre-audition area. Frankie, at number 36, has to sit by himself in a different waiting room with his lyrics to Joe’s “I Wanna Know,” his head hung low, looking lost.

“We sang together for six years,” says Crystal, sounding as though Frankie has been shipped to another continent. “Why does he keep having to be by himself?”

Melanie has other things on her mind. The version of “Come On Over” she has committed to memory isn’t the same as the one on the lyric sheet. Crystal tries to tell her it’s no big, but Melanie spends the next few minutes cram-practicing Destiny Child’s “Say My Name.” (Everyone chooses one of three songs; the third for the girls is Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird.”)

Are you ready, girls?

“I think,” Crystal says.

The first 50 hopefuls are seated in the camera-flanked audition set, arranged in a horseshoe around the five marked circles, which face the judges’ table. After waits of up to 15 hours, the five-at-a-time rollout is brisk and ruthless. Mere minutes after the cameras first roll around 9 a.m., Melanie and Crystal are passed over. Back in the hall, the show’s cameras focus on those who were asked to return tomorrow. Crystal starts crying. “I’m hurt and upset,” she says. “I don’t feel like I did worse than anybody in that room.”

“I think I sang the wrong song,” says Melanie. “But this doesn’t say whether I’m good or not.” She might go to the San Francisco open call next weekend.

Crystal is getting angrier. “These things are predetermined, I really do think that,” she says forcefully, wiping away tears. “I don’t like being sent through hoops. All I want to do is sing.”

Fifteen minutes later, no one is chosen from Frankie’s grouping. Greeted in the hallway, he is gathered in his friends’ arms. “I thought it went well,” mumbles Frankie. “It’s cool. We tried.”

Crystal says, “Well, we’re officially Eden’s Fallout,” which makes the others laugh. Before long, she’s crying again, harder than before.

Melanie gestures to the stud in her navel. “I did this just for Popstars, and my dad doesn’t know. I slept on the ground.”

Crystal puts her arms around her friends and says, loudly, “We are officially Eden’s Fallout!” Frankie adds, “Right here!”

This draws the attention of the camera people, who now turn and swarm the rejected bunch. Crystal spins her tale of hungry, bug-bitten, rental-car-relocating, sidewalk-sleeping woe for the Popstars documentary crew while Melanie shows off her sacrificial piercing. When an E! interviewer encourages Crystal to show the world what she’s got, she rips through a pitch-perfect chorus of “Say My Name” that is all indignity and sass and righteousness, capping it off with her own last line, unsung: “And I didn’t get picked!”

—Robert Abele

Ritual: Among the Cleansers

I’m flopping around the polished wood floor of an airy mid-Wilshire flat, thinking how weird it is that when a perfect stranger tells me to act like a frying fish, I not only do it, I know how to do it. At least, my trout-on-a-hot-griddle looks like everybody else’s in my yoga cleanse class.

It’s Day 3 of my venture into detoxification, or cleansing, part of the current Hollywood “wellness” buzz. Cleansing emerged out of the enema-bag-and-juice-fast fog of California’s food-faddist history. Strangely, it’s enjoying new life on the spa circuit.

The theory is that stress and pollution accumulate in the body as toxins that must be purged or they will surface as fatigue, malaise or disease. I’m skeptical. Quackwatch Web site describes detoxification as “unscientific” and “irrational.” Cleansing also has disturbing ties to the Christian Right (“With God as our main Partner,” one colon-cleaning product advertises) and to multilevel marketing. And many cleansers harbor an odd fascination for their own bowels and body wastes.

On the other hand, I’m not one to pass up a shot at “a state of optimal health, vitality and aliveness” just because the ad copy sucks. Besides, my cleanse coach, Becky Levin, does not give off that irritating Santa Monica yoginazi vibe. She’s charming. And I always wanted to try kundalini yoga, with its exotic promise of “unleashing the serpent” energy within. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds cool.

Day 1: I consult the supply list in my cleanse manual and go shopping. I can’t find umeboshi-plum vinegar (why do health-food people like weird food?), but I locate nearby Cuban and Mexican juice bars to drink my three-cup-a-day allotment of freshly squeezed (within 20 minutes) juice.

When I walk into yoga class I’m surprised to see several men among my fellow cleansers; yoga retreats are usually estrogen-rich affairs. The guy next to me wears a maroon sweatshirt with the words Truth Seeker. He introduces himself as “Zen.” He and two of the other guys have a ä clothes-design business; another cleanser is Will Smith’s chef. No one else mentions work, which is good, because cleansing turns out to be pretty much a full-time job: making or buying fresh juice, whipping up special cleanse beverages, popping handfuls of homeopathic and nutritional supplements, and cooking vegetables and grains.

The kundalini is less a workout than an ordeal: deceptively simple arm and leg motions repeated over and over until they hurt very, very badly. I’m not used to music with my yoga, and world Muzak at that.

Day 2: Today I try to buy cleanse-approved grains: millet and quinoa. Why not spelt? I wonder bitterly, eyeing the medieval-sounding labels on the health-food store’s bulk bins. Quinoa — pronounced, annoyingly, “keen-wah” — cooks up into a soggy mush. There’s a reason normal people eat rice and wheat, I grumble.

Day 3: I open my cleanse book to find in bold letters: NO MORE NUTS OR SOYBEANS. I don’t care about the nuts, or God forbid, the soybeans, but I hate dietary admonitions. Our other yoga teacher, Guru Tej, keeps issuing warnings about healing crises. I don’t want to have a crisis. I feel great. As class ends, several people start a pillow fight. I’m beginning to feel comfortable.

Day 4: Millet couscous! A cleanse dish I can love. At yoga, we play a clapping game where we have to stare at each other for several minutes; it’s surprisingly hard to maintain eye contact.

Becky turns out to be a Midwestern Jewish girl (Chicago; both parents were high school teachers; her father later opened a head shop). She came to L.A. to be in “talent relations,” hated Hollywood and found kundalini instead. Landing at the American Sikh headquarters in New Mexico, the big cheese, Yogi Bhajan, told her go to India. Her final image before leaving was of her mother, reaching her arm through the window of her rental car, screaming, “Don’t go!”

Becky lasted a year, returned to the U.S. and decided against becoming a full-fledged Sikh. Instead, she’s using cleanse “technology,” as she refers to it, to become financially independent for the first time (she’s 32). Her parents are pleased.

Becky assures me the cleanse is “scientifically grounded” and based on “thousands of years of research,” but when she talks about the 10 subtle bodies, becoming pure light and contacting the infinite, my eyes glaze over. And yet, I’m beginning to get those kundalini buzzes they talk about. We close with the kundalini theme song, a syrupy soft-rocker, the kind of music I usually hate. Becky tells us to sing it for someone we love. My eyes well up.

Day 5: So much for my high energy. I spend the day either eating or sleeping. I dream I’m a silver ball in a revolving wooden box, trying to keep from falling through the hole.

Day 6: It’s greens day: green vegetables and limited fruits only. I was cooking for myself, but today decide to order from chef Elisa Gross, of L’oven Life, a caterer, also a friend of Becky’s. Stuffed artichoke with dipping sauce, salad with dressing, broccoli-leek soup, baked apple — what was I waiting for? Still, after dinner, I chug herbal tea to stave off hunger pangs.

Day 7: My healing crisis finally strikes. I’m driving in 95-degree heat to Tarzana, and my jeans feel so tight I develop a cramp from my stomach to my neck. Could I be the only person in history to gain weight on a diet of millet and salad? I walk back to my car and discover I have a flat tire.

Becky has organized a Saturday-night potluck, which is nice, because I don’t have friends who will eat millet casserole. The food — sautéed beet greens, Punjab okra — is great, the jazz the same. We laugh about the endless pill popping and the foul concoctions we have to drink. “It’s great drinking with the guys, because they say, ‘Just throw it down like a shot,’” says our hostess, Bunni Lezak. After, I try to visit a friend, but the air is vibrating with white balls of light.

Day 8: Becky calls on us to awaken our colons. The only thing that wakes in me is my chronic shoulder pain. Instead of quitting, I stick with the arm spinning. My hurt arm shakes like a jackhammer, but later, I am pain-free for the first time in years.

Becky talked to Dr. Robert, as she calls Robert Abbietello, the creator of our cleanse program, about my bloating. It seems I am so toxic my stomach has to expand to accommodate the heavy lifting inside. Charming.

Day 9: “I am so over this,” Zen says, smacking his yoga mat down on the floor. “Yesterday brought up a lot of anger for me,” Freddy agrees. “Who knew you could miss millet?” Becky says gently. I burst into tears during the kundalini anthem.

Day 10: We’re back to nuts and grains; I feel like a voluptuary. I am also struck by an important insight: You will lose weight on supplements because you become so tired of putting things in your mouth you stop eating.

Day 11: I decide to join the 30-day follow-up program, seduced by the promise of changing my eating patterns forever. Two weeks later, a friend arrives from France, dangling chocolates and Burgundy, and accusing me of turning into a yoga nun. A night at Boardners takes care of that.

Still, I lost 12 pounds. My skin glowed. My allergies vanished. I felt happy. And now? My little store of quinoa sits untouched, my allergies are back, and my weight is normal. But I sometimes drink carrot juice instead of latte. I take kundalini weekly. Next year, I’m thinking about an out-of-town cleanse retreat.

—Gale Holland

Commodification: Wango Tango, Brought to You by . . .

It is a Humbert Humbert wet dream: Dodger Stadium is packed with prepubescent girls in Roxy short shorts and tight tanks reading “Sugar Sweets,” “Too Much Princess for One Boy” and “I Walk All Over My Mother.” The show starts on the dot of 3 o’clock, with the host of The Weakest Link, her nostrils enormous on the two giant monitors, welcoming us to Wango Tango. Next comes the helmet-haired male host of Entertainment Tonight, giving soundbite summations of the upcoming acts: Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Ricky Martin, Shaggy, Jessica Simpson, Nelly Furtado . . . Wayne Newton? Then there’s a two-minute spot featuring KIIS-FM DJ Jojo, telling us to “shop at The Spot at Robinsons-May, so you can look sweet all summer long.”

For weeks my own sweet girl, Tafv, and her friend Lisa have been squealing, as only 11-year-old girls can, that Wango Tango is “the biggest concert of the year!” Now they’re not so sure. “When are they going to play music?” Tafv asks. The answer: after more ads for Cerritos Auto Square, Adohr Dairy products, AT&T wireless and, because the show is sponsored by KIIS-FM, several silly videos of the DJs spoofing Billy Elliot and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

At 3:45 the opening act, 3LW, appears, singing three songs and urging the girls, “If you have a good man, never let him go.” Because the Budweiser DiamondVision megascreens are out of sync, it’s impossible to tell whether 3LW is actually singing. There aren’t any musicians onstage, either, rendering the experience almost exactly the same as watching MTV, except with a higher commercial-to-content ratio. The audience responds with commensurate passivity, applauding only in short, subdued bursts. Sensing the pervasive apathy, 3LW begins a ritual that’s continued by every act to follow: They invoke the Lakers. “Yay!” we scream, before the next set of commercials, for Cover Girl eight-hour lip color, Rio Suites Hotel, and toejam.com.

Nikka Costa, with a voice pitched between Chaka Khan and Janis Joplin, belts out “I Wanna Take You Higher.” Though she implores the audience to sing along, not one person in the orange section is going, “Boom chaka-laka-laka.”

“Is it overrrrr?” Lisa whines.

Don’t the girls like Costa?

“We don’t know who she is,” says Tafv, crossing her arms.

After more promos and a video of someone else the girls don’t recognize — Christopher Walken, jauntily tap-dancing to a Fatboy Slim song — here comes Jessica Simpson, whose wholesome face, torn from the pages of Twist magazine, fills Tafv’s bedroom.

“She’s trying to look like Britney Spears!” Tafv says, protesting the singer’s mass of vixen curls, her white leather bustier and rhinestone-studded hot pants. “That is so disappointing.” She slumps in her seat.

While I expected to be bored out of my skull, I didn’t expect the girls to be. This should be a seminal concert experience, a crazed, combustible, dance-around-like-a-kook blastoff. The only excitement the girls evince is when batting around a series of beach balls (emblazoned with the KIIS-FM logo) that intermittently carom through our section.

The hours drip by: Wayne Newton, an utter cornball; Noxzema facial pads; Shaggy, nicely funky if a little too macho for this crowd; Tony Roma’s ribs. A young woman two seats away reads the Cliffs Notes for Brave New World. And then I sense a palpable frisson: Two lanky teenage boys are standing in the aisle, doing some very provocative hip dipping. The communal temperature in our section spikes. Another guy and a girl get up and pantomime some sexy moves, and the crowd roars its approval. People lean over the balcony above, pumping fists in appreciation. Kids run from other aisles to join in, until there is a tango line of 50 writhing beside us. The sound in our section is deafening, and Tafv and Lisa are giggling and jumping out of their seats, finally charged, finally party to something spontaneous.

When the Backstreet Boys take the stage, the girls are on their feet, screaming out the names of the five heartthrobs carefully hitting their sequence of aerobic-inspired steps, yet Tafv keeps her eyes on the two boy dancers in the aisle. She takes their picture.

At 9 o’clock, with at least another hour before Ricky Martin is to appear, I whisper to Tafv that we’ll leave after Nelly Furtado. She is a breath of fresh air: In jeans and sneakers, and no complicated choreography, she’s free to work the entire stage, and is the only featured performer to play an instrument. Still, the girls are flagging, and we split before she’s through.

Once outside, where the air is clear and cool, Tafv perks up.

“Mama, listen!” she says, as Furtado begins her catchy, sweet hit “I’m Like a Bird.” “I’m like a bird, gonna fly away,” the girls and I sing, lifting our arms and running through the parking lot, finally getting that out-of-body release. I tell Tafv this is my favorite part of the show.

“Mine, too,” she says, then blushes. “And those boys.”

—Nancy Rommelmann