“We saved the best for last,” Ryan Seacrest enthused at the start of American Idol‘s eighth episode. The previous seven episodes, covering something like eight hours of primetime television, had apparently been a tease.
“We’re saving the best for last,” Seacrest said, another 50 minutes later.
After nearly nine hours then, covering auditions in seven cities that collectively drew more than 100,000 Americans desperate to demonstrate their worthiness, American Idol had something left to show us. Something we needed to see, to hear.
And so here was Hope Johnson, a pretty 19-year-old waitress and bartender from Arlington, Texas.
Hope, we learned, had grown up with six sisters and a brother. And they were poor. “I didn’t know we were poor when I was little,” she said. “I thought a lot of kids didn’t eat dinner.”
She said used to take food from her cafeteria tray at lunch and bring it home for her little brother. A photo of her brother flashed on screen as she explained how he would cry when he was hungry.
“I felt like, you know, there’s always tomorrow,” she said. “And things are always going to be better. Just make it through tonight.” She bit her bottom lip, apologized and wiped away a tear.
“There’s a lot worse things than just going without it. There’s a lot worse,” she ventured.
“Music’s my escape,” she said. “I can sing a song and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.”
She said she hoped the judges would know she was a “star,” and flashed a crooked smile.
Hope stood in an audition room in Dallas. She wore pearls and a polka dot skirt, her straight brown hair falling around her shoulders. Here, in a twangy voice she sang the first lines of the second verse of I Hope You Dance, the biggest hit of Lee Ann Womack, a popular country singer who performed for George W. Bush at his first formal White House dinner as president.
“I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,” she sang out, her voice rising and falling away. “Never settle for the path of least resistance.”
Simon Cowell’s mouth hung open. One of the Jonas Brothers, appearing as a guest judge, smiled slightly. Randy Jackson nodded. After a few lines Hope skipped directly to the chorus.
“And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance,” she sang, stretching our her arms at her sides as she stretched out the last word.
Kara DioGuardi shook her head.
“I hope you dance,” Hope finished, softly.
It was, for a breathless moment, like staring into America’s soul.
Hope smiled and shuffled her feet as the judges seemed to struggle to explain what they had just seen and heard. Kara clutched at her throat. Randy tried to advise Hope on her phrasing. Hope nodded. “I like you,” said Simon. “Yeah, I like you. Yeah, you’re cute.” Hope smiled.
Simon called for a vote and it was unanimous, Hope would be going to Hollywood. “This is ridiculous,” she squealed. And with that she skipped off into the future, kissing Ryan Seacrest on the cheek as she went.