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The second time I stepped up to the mike was at a place on Melrose in West Hollywood where people didn't just sing, they auditioned. I wasn't interested in that -- I wasn't delusional enough to think I had the talent it takes to be a rock star -- but I was out with a handful of friends and I craved a moment in the spotlight.

Conveniently, two of my friends were weekend Vegas showgirls and part-time dancers at the gentlemen's club in Beverly Hills. To deflect some of the attention (I wanted the spotlight, but I feared its intense heat on me alone), I asked my girls to dance behind me as I sang Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn." I'm not sure what they did behind me, but it worked. Of all the singers that evening, I received the most applause.

I should have stopped at two. I'm humiliated to report what happened the third time. A week-long training seminar brought me and other new employees from the southwest region of our company to Irvine. The bar was located across the parking lot from our hotel.

My first mistake was to drink four sweet, strong, fruity boat drinks. With not one inhibition left to my name, I thought it would be a great idea to sing some Tori Amos tunes. The KJ plugged in my request, and in two seconds I had gained the attention of the entire bar with my off-key screeching and tone-deaf impersonation of my idol. When the song was over, I insisted on singing another. At the time, I didn't know that I was breaking one of the karaoke commandments -- thou shalt not sing two songs in a row.

But I didn't stop there. When the next person in line -- a coworker from another office whom I had met only that morning -- tried to take his place onstage, I hit him in the head with the microphone. Repeatedly. Despite my abuse, or perhaps because of it, he followed me back to my hotel room that night. At our meeting the following morning I couldn't decide what was most embarrassing -- my frequent vomit-visits to the bathroom, my questionable singing ability, or the fact that everyone knew exactly why I was avoiding eye contact with what's-his-name.

The Charcoal House

"Come on," I whined. "We don't have to stay all night. I just want to see what it's like." With each word, my partner David received a poke in the arm. Finally, he looked me in the eye.

"Fine." Though the word came out as blunt and forceful as a hammer to the head, it was good enough for me. As much as I wanted to check out the karaoke contest that evening, I couldn't get up the nerve to go alone.

I had heard about the contest being held at the Charcoal House Restaurant in La Mesa from Linda, who would be competing. The seven-week contest, sponsored by the restaurant and a local radio station, would bestow upon the winner a professionally produced CD and the chance to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a Padre game at Petco Park.

"I always practice my songs before I go out," says Linda, who has not one but two karaoke machines in her home. "I try to actually memorize the words so I don't have to look at the screen. I try to be a performer and be interesting. I look at the audience, but I usually never lock on to their eyes, because I realize sometimes that can bother a person -- they can feel challenged -- so I look in their direction, ten o'clock, two o'clock, but I rarely lock in on them unless I know the person really well."

I met Linda through my piano teacher, Frank. Every time I've seen Linda she was wearing something flashy -- a red scarf, matching cheetah-print leggings and top, a white pantsuit with a brightly colored floral-patterned jacket. On her toes she might be five foot two, but you wouldn't know it to talk to her. Linda's presence is ten feet tall.

Karaoke is Linda's passion. She told me how, last year, she wowed judges with her version of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary." "I sort of became Tina with a Linda twist to it. I had a wig on, a short dress, and did some of the Tina-like moves. But I really love to moonwalk, so I threw in a moonwalk all the way across the stage, and the audience went nuts." Linda won that contest, the "Best of the Best" at the Viejas Casino. The Tina Turner 'do is one of 15 wacky wigs in Linda's 400-square-foot costume closet.

The Charcoal House was already packed when David and I arrived almost an hour before the contest was scheduled to begin. The large barroom was located to the left of the entrance. I chose a booth in the restaurant directly to the right, which granted me a clear view of the stage across the way. Reminiscent of my high school choir performances, the red curtain behind the stage was adorned with giant stars and treble clefs cut from a yellow fabric and covered in glitter.

A woman named Leslie was letting contestants warm up. While David and I picked our way through overcooked chicken and soggy veggies, the bar, populated mostly by white people in their 40s, was alive with the sound of "music." Soft rock seemed to be the popular choice, and I was surprised at how many songs I knew by heart.

I was excited to see the name "Dido" appear on one of the screens, but my feeling was soon one of torment as the woman onstage proceeded to destroy everything I loved about the song. She mesmerized me, though, because I could tell by her stance and facial expressions that she believed she was nailing it -- standing there screeching, this woman thought she was Dido. This was my first glimpse of the impressive Karaokian ego, which I had yet to experience in its maniacal, delusional entirety.

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