It seemed like just another dead-on-arrival "American Idol" audition: Nick Mitchell lunged into the popular Fox singing competition's New York tryout, performing not as his unassuming self, but as a saucy character he'd named Norman Gentle.
Decked out in a terry cloth headband, oversized glasses and a sparkly shirt, he wailed "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls." It was clear from the start that this guy was not here to advance a serious singing career.
But after some candid banter — some of it funny enough to make Simon Cowell laugh out loud — and an almost-earnest "Amazing Grace," the judges actually voted to put Mitchell through to Hollywood Week.
Kara DioGuardi said he didn't have "a shot in hell," so his improbable ascension seemed destined to end on the West Coast. But the 27-year-old crooner from Brookfield, Conn., has kept going and going in the competition.
The judges have bought the schtick so far. Will America?
Mitchell — or perhaps Gentle? — is scheduled perform for viewer votes Wednesday for the first time. The crowning of such a jester has left many in the "Idol" audience wondering: Who the heck is this guy?
Bob Appleby, a friend and former classmate who started the "Brookfield Loves Nick Mitchell" group on Facebook, said Mitchell is "a natural entertainer."
"Growing up, he got along with everyone," said Appleby. "He would always sing and make everyone laugh. He was known for doing spoofs. He was always entertaining everyone in elementary school, junior high and high school — and he still is. I think a lot of us in Brookfield are excited that the rest of the country gets to see how entertaining he is."
After graduating from high school, Mitchell studied at Marymount Manhattan College and Western Connecticut State University, and he took classes at the Singers Forum and Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, according to his MySpace page. His family owns Mitchell Oil in Danbury, Conn., but by all accounts, he's just another struggling performer.
"I decided to audition for 'American Idol,' to be honest, just to hopefully get on camera and see if I could possibly get some work out of this or an agent," Mitchell said in a video posted on AmericanIdol.com. "I'm not the normal contestant, I guess you'd say. I hope that's OK. I'm a sketch comedian, but I also am a singer."
Mitchell said he crafted the Gentle persona a few years ago to be able to "get away" with singing Whitney Houston and "Dreamgirls" tunes.
Seeing Gentle was a first for Julie Gabriele, who attended high school and starred in a production of "Little Shop of Horrors" with Mitchell.
"I didn't know what it was," Gabriele, who now lives in Chicago, said of Mitchell's alter ego. "Since I've never watched 'American Idol' before, I wasn't sure if creating an alias like that was something that other contestants did. I'd never seen that character before, so I know that he didn't really sing like that. Nick can sing really well, actually."
The show's four judges have agreed, selecting Mitchell as one of the eighth season's 36 semifinalists after Mitchell performed as himself and as Gentle during Hollywood Week. For the record, they preferred Gentle. No other intentionally over-the-top contestant — Sanjaya Malakar was never this self-aware — has ever achieved such "Idol" success.
Like the judges, Appleby believes that Mitchell needed Gentle to put his "good" singing over the top.
"Seeing as how they were basically interviewing 103,000 people, he might have been overlooked," Appleby said, "but by going in there and having an edge, using comedy to get noticed, I think that was the deciding factor that got him noticed during of all his auditions."
The "Idol" stage isn't Gentle's first moment in the spotlight. Mitchell appeared as the character on "The Wendy Williams Show" last year after sending in an unsolicited tape of himself dancing around his living room while lip-syncing to the syndicated talk show's theme song. Executive producer Rob Dauber said he knew Mitchell deserved a second look.
"Right away, his sense of humor and sense of fun came right through that screen," said Dauber. "We all loved it, and Wendy loved it, so we decided to book him to come and open the show. He was beyond excited. He came, and he stayed in character the entire time he was here. It's obvious he's wanted this for a long, long time."
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