What Alexis Cohen's Death Means For American Idol, And For The Rest Of Us

Alexis Cohen was never going to be an American Idol. It was clear before she even started singing: the montage leading up to her audition painted her as an oddball, one of Idol's many, the kind that bring in ratings.

Ryan Seacrest followed her around as she shared little bits of her life: she liked to draw, she liked to paint, she came from Allentown, PA and she wanted to be a singer. The editing is pure Idol: "Look at this wacky girl! She thinks she's going to be a popstar! Isn't that funny!?" Of course, there are two payoffs for such a clip: Alexis Cohen was either going to open her mouth and shock the judges with her voice, or she was going to fail her audition and flip out. Either way, Idol had a story on its hands:





Of course, Cohen's audition was unsuccessful; she tried to channel Grace Slick and was told she wasn't right for the competition, and that perhaps she'd find success in a 60s cover band of sorts. After she left the room, the judges, knowing that their words would be televised, compared her to Willem DeFoe and laughed. This is the Idol way: come try to make your dreams come true, so that we can humiliate you for the sake of television hilarity. Every successful reality show has to have its victims, its castoffs: some of these people come willingly, knowing how bad they are, just to be hyped up as terrible contestants and to receive their 15 minutes of fame. But then there are the Alexis Cohens of the world, who really do think they sound like Janis Joplin, and just want a chance to prove it.

This is not to say that all failed contestants should be let down easily: Cowell is blunt because he speaks for his profession: you're not going to make it, try something else is perhaps the kindest thing many of these wannabes will ever hear. But the humiliation element of American Idol is one that is both fascinating and horrifying: we want these people to be crushed, to be punished for their delusions, because it's funny to see them lose it once their dreams have been taken away. "That's what you get," we think, "for being so stupid."

But in watching Alexis Cohen, one gets the sense that perhaps she was not stupid, but just a bit naive. And perhaps her rant against the judges, which made her an American Idol celebrity in her own right, was not as funny as it was telling of the lengths people will go to to cling to the small amount of fame given to them once the camera is turned on. Cohen's "rage" comes across as both false and true, in weird ways, as if she decided somewhere after being rejected to just say what she was thinking, or perhaps an exaggerated version, if only to have her voice heard by millions for the first and only time in her life.

Idol knew they had ratings gold in Cohen: they allowed her to audition for a second time earlier this year, and promptly sent her home again. Why on earth would they let her audition again? They knew what she sounded like. They knew there was no chance they'd take her. They let her audition again to give the audience a thrill. "Look! It's that crazy girl! Let's see if she gives Simon the finger again!" And lo and behold, she did.

Cohen was in the process of preparing for her third callback audition with the show before she died, according to her mother, Mindy Dallow, who says Alexis was planning to sing a country song. "In a way, 'American Idol' appreciated her rowdy ways, she got them ratings," her mother said, "All she wanted to be is basically loved." They kept calling her back to audition, presumably to dismiss her for ratings purposes, and Alexis Cohen kept going back. Because she was asked. Because someone gave her yet another chance to try to make it.

And now, Alexis Cohen is dead, the victim of vehicular manslaughter at the age of 25. She was found on the side of the road at 4 am, pronounced dead a few hours later, and now she is being mourned as "Alexis Cohen: Viral Idol Contestant," her tiny brush with fame becoming the definitive moment in a life she barely had time to live. For the show, it means nothing, except perhaps a bit of publicity and a moment of silence, if that, in an upcoming episode. The show is not bound to Alexis Cohen: there are bigger stars, newer faces, stranger characters to seek out and exploit. But for Alexis Cohen, and for many other reality has-beens or almost-weres, the show is always bound to them, following them where ever they go, even in death, a reminder that our strangest realities are the ones we allow others to create on our behalf.

Alexis Cohen's Mother Speaks About Her Late Daughter's Third Idol Audition [Lehigh Valley Live]
Alexis Cohen, Viral Idol Contestant, Struck And Killed By Car [HuffingtonPost]
Former American Idol Contestant Killed [People]
American Idol Recap: "Take It!" Girl Alexis Cohen Returns With Makeover [Seacoast Online]
Related: The Girl Who Flipped Off Simon Cowell [Gawker]