LOS ANGELES - Looking down the line of soap-star wannabes wrapping around the studio parking lot, one is reminded of a comment by singer Chris Isaak: Every American, he said on the eve of the premiere of his Showtime series in 2001, believes it a birthright to be on TV.
And now here they are, some 500 of them - the young and restless, the bold and beautiful, and others decidedly neither - out to claim their birthright.
In this case, it's a chance at winning a 13-week contract on the ABC daytime serial, "One Life to Live." That's the grand prize being offered to the last person standing in the third season of SoapNet's reality competition series, "I Wanna Be A Soap Star," which starts June 8, 11 p.m., EDT.
Only 10 will make the cut at the end of this cross-country audition tour, which drew thousands in New York and Chicago. The finalists will then be sequestered on a soundstage for several weeks in coed bunkers - with one bathroom and a matchbox closet between them - to engage in an arduous series of melodramatic soap stunts meant to whittle them away.
They came here, to Prospect Studios, by planes, trains and automobiles (and a hitchhiker from post-Katrina New Orleans); students, teachers, businessmen, blue collars, housewives, grandmothers. The afternoon auditions were filled with simulated catfights, death scenes, car crashes and one very steamy May-December love scene.
"They come because the prize is real," says Lisa Bourgoujian, the executive producer of the series with Eric Schotz, for LMNO Productions. "It's a life-changing prize. In this show, you don't win a date. You don't win a million dollars. If you're lucky enough to win this, you can turn this into a career."
"It is a shot at a dream," says "One Life to Live" star Catherine Hickland, who traveled from New York to be here with the hopefuls.
But, she concedes, "people believe being on a television show is about what it's going to do to their lives and it really could go either way. The whole trap of fame is that you're living in a world that's not real... One day that will end."
SoapNet, a division of the Disney-ABC Television Group, says that "Soap Star's" second-season nine-week run lured a million new viewers to the network.
"What we've heard from the fans, consistently, is that they enjoy the reality contest of the show, trying to figure out who will win and why the judges will choose one contestant over another and what they look for, says SoapNet president Deborah Blackwell, in a phone interview from the Burbank, Calif., headquarters.
"But they also appreciate the informational aspect, because they really see what it is authentically like to be an aspiring actor."
Not everyone who waited three or more hours for less than 15 minutes of face time with the casting panel was motivated purely by the love of acting.
"Number one, I'm doing this for my mom who is a big soap-opera fan," says Ayinde Jones, 26, of Gary, Indiana. "She's thinks I should be some kind of star."
Jesselyn Desmond, like many at the tryouts, got hooked watching soaps with her mom - the unending family drama of the characters on-screen often providing them special moments.
"My mother died when I was 14 and the only time I remember us being together was when we were watching 'General Hospital' - it was like family time," said Desmond, 27, who was one of the top-20 finalists in last season's "Soap Star."
"I'm doing this for my granny," said Tanedra Howard, a 25-year-old El Camino college student who arrived at the auditions less than 24-hours after burying her grandmother, a devoted "One Life to Live" watcher.
"She was always asking me, 'When am I going to see you on a soap?' And I told her, 'One day, Granny. One day,'" she says. "I wish I would have taken it seriously earlier. But better late than never."
For bespectacled senior Doris Webster, it was simply the chance of a lifetime. "This has definitely been unforgettable," said Webster, following a breathtaking kiss from a young actor. "It was nice. He had really soft lips."
Can ordinary people really expect to make the cut?
"What I hear from the judges mostly is: 'I don't see you as a soap star,'" notes series host Cameron Mathison, soap stud on ABC's "All My Children."
"They're looking for someone who can have serious longevity and (being good looking) is part of it - right or wrong. It doesn't mean that they have no chance."
"I'm looking for great actors," says casting director Neal Konstantini. "At the same time, we are casting a reality show. So sometimes we have to think about how personalities will mesh, and if we can find a great actor, someone who really can perform and will bring something unique and special, it's all the better."
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