We took the bait. How could we not? Who would turn down press credentials to wander behind the scenes while MTV trawled the depths in search of the perfect candidate for one of the most coveted 15-minutes-of-fame slots on the planet: an MTV veejay, spokesperson for a generation of bored Celebrity Death Match viewers?
The scene: behind Union Station, downtown, just west of the Hard Rock Cafe near those immobile trains, Wednesday, April 12 -- a cattle-call cavalcade of twentysomethings, all dressed as they think a budding MTV personality should dress, all jitters and nerves, consumed with the throbbing hope that they've got ample star power to sweep a bored MTV-watching nation off its collective feet. Some have been camping out since the day before; others flub it by showing up late -- 8 a.m. -- only to be informed that the 1,000 lucky auditioners have already been tapped -- and had been by 7:30 a.m. Damn.
The party line, courtesy of Tony Disanto, vice president of production for MTV: "This year we wanted to give a different feel to the whole veejay search and not just base it out of New York or LA. We wanted to take it across the country. So what we wanted to do was take three spots across the country, each with its own distinct feel and vibe, and we settled on San Francisco, St. Louis and Spencer, N.C. Each one of those cities brings a whole different visual aesthetic, feel, different kind of people, and they all work well together and complement each other. Spencer's got a small-town vibe; St. Louis and San Francisco are big cities, but with different feels. We'd also never been here to do a big event."
In line, frat dudes stand next to club kids, mullets commiserate with Madon-nabes, leopard-skin platforms mingle with Converse low-tops. Some contestants are dressed up, some dressed down, some barely dressed. They come from South Dakota and Detroit, from Toronto and Chicago, from all over this great land of ours, a land that promises $25,000 and a Kia just for standing in front of a camera and introducing a Korn video. Some have driven all day, all night, to get here. Some don't stand a chance; no mullets will be picked today, nor, probably, will any ugly fat people, former veejay Matt Penfield's success to the contrary. Gray hair? Uh, no.
"There's two things that matter, across the board," says Disanto. "Music knowledge is really, really important -- we're MTV. They have to know music, be a music fan. Another important thing is to be comfortable in front of the camera. And the last trait isn't something definable, but you know it when you see it. It's a charisma; a person has a dynamic personality that just pops and makes you really want to watch this person."
The lucky 1,000 are each asked to fill out a four-page questionnaire while waiting in line. The questionnaire, which "Radar Station" also fills out (They patronizingly offer us a chance to audition. We condescendingly -- though not without a nugget of hope -- agree), contains, in addition to a load of "favorite music" type questions, the following ones (our answers in parentheses): "How did you get here today?" (Horseback.) "What's your guilty pleasure?" (MTV.) "What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?" (Loss of innocence.) "What advice would you give existing veejays?" (Your days are numbered; accept that soon you will be on the Home Shopping Network.) "Describe your personal style." (Bland and conservative.) "If you were to win, what would you try to hide from Hard Copy?" (The murder.) "Each veejay has something they're known for. What would you like to be known for?" (The "scandal-ridden" veejay.)
Those lucky enough to finally reach the front of the line turn in their questionnaires and signed release forms, then scuttle through the "makeup" booth, which is there solely to make the contestants feel special -- the makeup lady makes one fake swipe across each face with seemingly invisible powder.
Then comes the make-or-break your-whole-life-has-been-one-long-rehearsal-for this-moment moment as the lemmings are led into the train cars (can you say "forced-labor camps"?) where the auditions take place. Inside are a dozen well-lit voting-booth-size spaces, two camerapeople/interviewers and the cherished MTV microphone. Sit, relax, hold up your ID number -- the whole thing is like a mug shot, actually -- and say your name and where you're from. It begins:
MTV: "What's your favorite video on MTV right now?"
"Radar Station": "Uh, I don't have cable."
MTV: "What was the last concert you went to?"
RS: "The Gunga Din, last night at the Side Door."
MTV: "How was it?"
RS: "Dude, it rocked my ass off, dude."
MTV: "What's the last record you bought?"
RS: "I don't buy records. I get them for free."
MTV: "What's your favorite record right now?"
RS: "A compilation of electronic music called Clicks and Cuts."
MTV: "Is it good?"
MTV: "Cool. Now. I'm going to hold up a cue card, and I want you to read it. OK? Ready?"
RS: "Do it."
MTV: "Here it is."
(Now imagine the worst telemarketer ever making his last pitch of an 18-hour day. This is the tone of our voice.)
RS: "It's time to ... OK ... It's time ... uh ... It's time to rock out now, so lock your parents in the basement, turn up the volume on the remote and check the guys from Korn, landing at No., um, 33, onTRL."
Then it's over, and we're told to return at 4 p.m. for the taping of Total Request Live, when they will announce the winners. (Yes, apparently they tape a show whose title contains the word "live.")
This, it turns out, is bullshit. They announce the winners, all right, but in the behind-the-scenes action to which no one at MTV will admit, during the 1,000-person cattle call, MTV has been cherry-picking the "best" of the lot, and these people have been ushered into second and third interviews. That's fine -- it makes sense. They couldn't possibly zip through 1,000 audition tapes in an hour-and-a-half. The problem: When asked about this rumor, MTV workers deny it.
"Certain people got a second interview," says an exasperated hopeful, Jennifer Chemayne, who has driven down from Chicago for this, "and everybody's lying about it, saying, 'We don't know anything about a second interview.' We see people go in one side of the car and then come out and go into the other side of the train. And it would be random people. But (MTV) was like, 'No, there's no second interview.'"
An MTV media contact feigns ignorance when asked, says she doesn't understand the question, then says, "Uh, let me get back to you on that. I can find out for you." She never does.
Jim Weggemann of St. Louis is picked for a second interview, which takes place just after his first: "They just pretty much asked you the same thing as they asked you before. I think they just had different people looking at you. Some of the guys got to see the actual veejays and things. They just gave me a different cue card. So that time, instead of introducing, like, Korn, they had me introduce Bizkit, like, 'Here comes Limp Bizkit.'"
Around 5:30 p.m., after R&B girl group Blaque has performed as part of Total Request "Live," all-American veejay hunk Carson Daly (rumored to be "totally making out" with some girl from the movie American Pie at a Laclede's Landing bar the night before) pumps the crowd, then introduces veejay Dave Holmes, himself a St. Louis native and runner-up in the search two years ago, and it is time. The long day -- the blood, the sweat, the tears -- is climaxing, and the crowd is giddy; most don't realize that those picked for the follow-up interviews are all standing near the front of the stage.
"They've been here all day. Let's just cut the crap and do it," shouts Holmes. "The first finalist is ... Jodi Rosenthal, from St. Louis! Come on up! Where is she? She's right here in front -- that's handy. Come on up here, sister. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jodi Rosenthal!"
Immediately you can tell that Rosenthal is a natural. She doesn't seem nervous at all: "Oh my God, all you guys out there are my new best friends, because we slept out here all night long, freezing our thongs off all night long."
Winner No. 2: Raymond Munns of Fort Collins, Colo. He turns purple as he walks onstage -- there's no way in hell he's gonna win.
It's all over that fast, and people split, all disappointed that they've gotta go back to work at Taco Bell tomorrow. Behind the stage, though, the chosen two are immediately bathed in limelight. Cameras are snapping pictures, local TV-news geeks are interviewing them -- Roche Madden of KTVI (Channel 2) is there in a goddamn trenchcoat. Rosenthal, 23, who went to Webster University and now lives with her parents in Chesterfield, is having a blast. She's finally where she belongs, and she admits as much: "I love this. I love this. I try not to be vain at all, but I love being in front of the camera -- I don't know why."
It turns out she's a veteran of this stuff and has been chasing the dream for the last few years. "This is my second go at it. It's always been a dream of mine, and last year I won a radio-sponsored contest here in St. Louis, and they flew us to New York -- it was really rad -- but I didn't have to wait in line. But it didn't work out for me. Then when I heard MTV was coming to St. Louis this year, I was, like, 'Crazy. Hello, this is a sign from God. They're coming for me this year!'"
Send local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to "Radar Station," c/o The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130; or radarstation@ rftstl.com.