CORAL GABLES – Amanda Puyot may be the most laid back auditioner in this zip code.
As thousands of vocalists packed into the parking lot of the BankUnited Center here Thursday, in a frenzy to audition for onetime American Idol star Simon Cowell's new talent contest The X Factor, Puyot pecked away at her Gameboy DS, intent on racking up points in her Pokemon game.
Yards away, a crowd of more than 7,500 people screamed for the show's cameras, greeting a surprise appearance from pop star Gloria Estefan with waves of applause and chanting "Let us in," as the wait to enter ticked past two hours. But even though she'd packed into the family minivan and driven here from her St. Petersburg home with her parents, grandparents, aunt, aunt's boyfriend and a nosy reporter, the 15-year-old talent show veteran wore an impenetrable mask of indifference.
"I'm not as excited as my mom, because she's crazy," Puyot would later joke to a camera crew. "My nerves are very, very deep inside."
Last week, she won a "front of the line" audition held by Miami Fox affiliate WSVN-TV, guaranteeing her and three other acts would be among the first to see producers screening talent.
Puyot, her family and other winners joined the physically disabled auditioners, allowed to wait for hours in a shaded area while producers whipped the larger crowd into a frenzy for various camera shots before auditions began.
As others wondered whether Cowell would be among the 25 producers judging talent (he wasn't), Puyot wondered whether making the show's second round of auditions Friday would keep her from an important dance rehearsal. Her family says this is just her way; quiet before an audition, dynamic onstage. Still, sometimes even her relatives aren't sure how much she wants to win contests like these. And while the clock ticked down to her rendezvous with X Factor's producers, the question loomed:
Can you beat thousands of other singers if you're not focused as they are?
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If Amanda is the reluctant star, her mother is the quiet force, scouting opportunities and prodding her daughter to enter contests and showcase performances. It was Janella who saw the e-mail with details of WSVN's contest and entered her daughter; at the audition, she is the one who hands the family all the permission forms Fox requires.
"Five million dollars; that's what changed my mind," said Janella Puyot, who almost ignored WSVN's e-mail until she saw the show's grand prize. "It's securing her future."
Janella believes singing saved her daughter's life, noting how Amanda sang so much as a baby, when the singing stopped, her mother ran out to discover she had gotten into her grandmother's medication. At age 15, she has sung for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Lightning, competed in a world showcase in Las Vegas, performed with local Philippine cultural groups and more.
As a student in St. Pete High School's demanding IB program, Amanda Puyot worries about missing too much school. Ask if it helps to have her family here, and her sassy side emerges: "No!"
But as grandfather Nick deJesus looks on, recalling his emigration from the Philippines in 1976 with six children, he sees his journey to America fulfilled.
"It was God's work," he said, looking heavenward. "That's what it was."
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Amanda got about halfway through Smokey Robinson's Who's Loving You before producers stopped her. They needed her back at 7 a.m. Friday, in the same clothes she wore Thursday. After talking with the press Thursday, she will not be allowed to reveal if she goes further.
Turns out, the family didn't see her audition; only one person was allowed to squeeze into the small, black curtained audition cubicles. And, of course, Janella was there. "I was praying," the mother said, laughing and cheering. According a Fox spokesperson, the show's previous audition in Los Angeles only put forward 10 percent of auditioners.
And Amanda Puyot was still coolly confident. "They just gave me a golden ticket and my mom was very happy," she said. "I guess I'm happy too. Very, very deep inside."