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Penn researcher studies 'American Idol' losers

After four - failed - auditions for American Idol, Junhow Wei got the message that he probably wasn't going to be a pop star.

Junhow Wei singing karaoke in 2010.
Junhow Wei singing karaoke in 2010.Read moreHandout

After four - failed - auditions for American Idol, Junhow Wei got the message that he probably wasn't going to be a pop star.

But Wei, who is now on the verge of getting his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, has found a way to turn his rejection into something positive: a study on how Idol losers deal with bad news.

Wei's own reaction the first time he was rejected - anger - was a common one, he said. But, like lots of others, he also decided to try again, a tack he considers more in line with the "meritocratic" ideal that hard work and talent can triumph over lousy odds.

This approach, he said, has implications for everyone who faces rejection. Outside of reality TV, that's a common fate, he pointed out, due to "increasingly precarious and uncertain labor conditions."

"I think that people need to see a path forward to cope with rejection, in terms of persevering," he said.

Wei's study was published this month in the journal Symbolic Interaction.

Wei, an Upper Dublin High School grad who went to the University of Chicago, has always liked reality shows and pop-culture stars such as Britney Spears.

"I genuinely liked them," he said, "and I also was fascinated by why it was shameful to like them."

While many of his friends urged him to try out for Idol, he remembers one who didn't. "Do you really want to be part of something that's destroying good music?" the friend asked.

For his Ph.D., Wei worked for a year each at two companies that produce reality shows, examining how they get their ideas, how they deal with ethical issues, and how they treat their employees. You would recognize their work, he said, but he can't say who they are.

He's watching Idol this year, plus two Real Housewives franchises (Beverly Hills and Atlanta) and Married at First Sight.

Idol's odds are better than Powerball's, but still daunting. Wei said tens of thousands pack stadiums to audition every season but only 2 percent make it past the initial screening by about 13 sets of producers. Among the 10,000 who audition in a particular city, only about 200 advance to the next round, where they are judged by the show's executive producers. About half of those get to sing before the show's celebrity judges.

For his study, Wei interviewed 43 people around the time of that first round of judging in four cities in 2009 and 2010 and followed up with about half of them within a month. None is now famous.

Wei himself auditioned in 2004 - he sang U2's "One" and Maroon 5's "This Love" - and then three times later while he was doing the study.

He got far enough the first time to see the show's original judges, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson. Paula Abdul wasn't there.

Both Simon and Randy said No. They did not suggest that Wei try again.

"I thought that I was going to make it. I was really, really confident," said Wei, now 33.

"I think the reason Simon and Randy weren't like, 'Oh you should come back' is that I was a little pissed."

Wei, who said he got about a second of airtime, is sure he was not one of the awful-and-clueless singers who are a staple of Idol audition rounds. He just wasn't good enough.

Carrie Underwood also auditioned that year. "I was sitting next to her in the audition and heard her warming up and I was like, 'Oh, this girl can sing.' "

After that, Wei got voice lessons, but never again made it past the first round. He entered a karaoke contest and lost that, too. Dreams of pop stardom fizzled, replaced by hope for a tenure-track position. He recently sang at the sociology department's holiday party.

While contestants generally saw the show as a meritocracy, the fact that poor singers were chosen to advance caused a lot of grumbling, Wei said. People thought those slots should have gone to good singers, but it also became another rationale for failure.

Wei said many coped by reasoning that they had just had a bad day or sung before the wrong producer or at the wrong time of day or chose the wrong song. Others, like a woman who claimed small disappointment when her brother got through and she didn't, said they were just doing it for fun.

Almost all said they planned to audition again, a strategy the show's producers encouraged. Seven of Wei's interview subjects had already tried out more than once; some seem to think experience would put them over the top.

Throughout the article, Wei uses the "cooling out" metaphor, a term used to describe how confidence scammers help marks save face after learning they've been conned.

But he said he doesn't really think Idol is a scam. Yes, the producers encourage some people to think they're better singers than they are. A con artist would leave them with nothing but the contestants found the feedback and experience valuable. "It's like going to an amusement park or something" Wei said. "You're not really walking away with nothing."

This year - Idol's last year - failed contestants will have to find another way to console themselves. There are other reality shows, Wei said. And many would-be stars now hope that they can skip the shows altogether and ride a viral video to instant fame. "That's the new frontier," Wei said.

215-854-4944 @StaceyABurling