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Making the Squad: Inside the Final Cheerleader Auditions

Posted May 4, 2016

Take an inside look at how the Rams went through the process of selecting their 2016 cheerleaders on April 17 at The Forum.

It’s April 17 in Inglewood — a usual sunny Southern California day. On one side of the intersection of Prairie Avenue and Pincay Drive, there’s a massive plot that in just a few years will house one of the most iconic stadiums in the world.

On the other sits The Forum, an arena that long ago earned its place as a Los Angeles icon. And that is where, on this day, the Los Angeles Rams will choose their cheerleaders for the franchise’s historic return in 2016.

As the 65 finalists enter the building through a long, backstage tunnel, they pass by a wall with the names and years of artists who have performed at the historic venue. Prince. Madonna. The Rolling Stones. Stevie Wonder. Earth, Wind & Fire. Justin Timberlake. Maroon 5. The list goes on and on and on.

And that’s saying nothing of the championships the Lakers won while playing in this same building form 1967 to 1999.

It’s a remarkable setting for the finalists as they compete one last time.

“The special part about being at the Forum for me is in the 80s, this was part of ‘Showtime’ and the Lakers,” Rams Director of Cheerleaders Keely Fimbres-Bledsoe says. “And so being a Los Angeles native, coming back here to do this event is very, very inspiring — not only inspiring, but also rewarding at the same time.”

And yet, as these ladies begin filing into the area early in the afternoon for the five o’clock showtime, many had already done plenty to determine their ultimate result during past two weeks.

THE INTERVIEW

As part of the audition process, the ladies not only attended rehearsals, but also had a professional interview with Fimbres-Bledsoe and Rams vice president of Corporate Communications & Civic Affairs, Molly Higgins.

Conducted over three days the week of the final auditions, the ladies sat in groups of three or four in an 11th-floor conference room in Hollywood across the street from the Chinese Theater as Higgins and Fimbres-Bledsoe asked questions to get to know them better.

“The professional interview is of critical importance,” Higgins says. “They dance only 10 times a year, so the majority of their time is actually in the community representing the organization. So we want to make sure that we’re comfortable and proud of the ladies we select to be on the final squad.”

Fimbres-Bledsoe says the goal is never to trick anyone in the interview portion. That’s why the questions are fairly basic and open-ended.

What made you want to audition?

What do you do for a living?

What are some of your interests?

Why do you want to be a Los Angeles Rams Cheerleader?

“I want them to be comfortable and to be genuine,” Fimbres-Bledsoe says. “So we try to make them relax and be themselves.”

Authenticity is important as well, because the organization wants to have young women who prove to be team players. It’s an aspect of personality Fimbres-Bledsoe believes she can discern from the interviews.

“Coming to a new city, there are no returning veterans to help direct, guide, and assist in the development in what we are looking for in an ambassador,” she says. “So as a team, and being a team member, and a team player, you are all going to help each other grow to become the best ambassador this city has to offer. And so that’s why, to me, the team aspect is the most important element that we need for this season.”

Body language can be an important context clue. The young women who continue to support one another — think smiles, head nods — even though they’re competing for the same spots leave the best impressions.

All of this is important because the interview counts for 30 to 40 percent of the ladies’ total score. And so what a finalist says and how she says it in that conference room may mean more than however she performs at The Forum in a few days. 

BEFORE THE SHOW

After walking through the storied tunnel on Sunday, the ladies head into a makeshift dressing room just to the left of the stage. Each of the finalists has her own personal station set up, complete with lights and mirrors.

With about four hours until the event begins, an environment like that could be chaotic and tense. But it actually isn’t. Some young women are fixing their hair and makeup. Some are having friendly conversations among themselves. Some are marking the dance routine with their partner, building up confidence for what will turn out to be a decently long evening.

“We’re just kind of stretching, relaxing. You’re going over questions, you’re working on poses,” Shardia says. “You’re making sure your makeup looks good, your hair looks good. You’re encouraging other girls. You’re just really getting yourself in the mindset of performing for the judges and the fans.”

There are a few final preparations that must occur before the event begins. The ladies need to rehearse the way they’ll come out when they’re introduced on The Forum stage. Choreographer John Peters must block the final showcase routine with all 65 ladies.

And then there are the makeup chairs. Fimbres-Bledsoe has brought in about 25 makeup artists who form an elaborate setup directly behind the stage to make sure each finalist looks her best.

There’s a particular emphasis on cheeks. It is a large venue, after all, and the attendees need to be able to see the ladies from far away.

“The lights are so harsh on us out there and the audience is so far away, so hopefully the audience can see our faces really well,” Andi says. “I love getting my makeup and hair done like this.”

Once they have their makeup on, the ladies have their headshots taken in their business attire before lining up to head on stage.

“I’m so anxious now because we have 65 going up on stage at the moment, and we’re going to end up at about 30 to 40 — we’re not sure,” Fimbres-Bledsoe says. “But I’ve gotten close to a lot of these ladies. We’ve interviewed them, we’ve had rehearsals with them, so you become friendly and you get to know a little bit about them outside of the dance world and what they do every day all day. So it is a little emotional. It can be a little stressful at the same time, but very, very exciting.”

While Fimbres-Bledsoe’s nervous, finalists say they feel prepared for everything ahead of them.

“They’ve given us plenty of opportunities to ask questions, to bounce ideas off the other girls, to watch the other girls and see what they’re doing. And you can learn from them,” Shardia says. “So I’m feeling good. It’s just, really, getting your nerves to not play tricks on you and keep your confidence.”

It seems impossible, but the hours have quickly passed. It’s five o’clock — time to start the show.

THE EVENT

The final audition has four parts: the question and answer session, the swimsuit portion, the partner dance, and the showcase dance.

The ladies begin with the Q and A, first walking out together in their business attire before each receiving one question center stage at the microphone.

Most of the ladies cited this section as the one for which they were the most nervous.

Much like the interview earlier that week, the point is not to cross up or trick the finalists. They’ve all received a list of questions that they should be prepared to answer for that night, and many had them on flash cards in the dressing room earlier that evening.

What has been your most influential life moment to date?

What’s your dream job?

If you were forced to sing karaoke, what song would you choose?

What’s one life lesson that you have learned during college?

If you had one week to live, how would you live it?

Once they answer their question, the ladies go back to the dressing room in order to prepare for the swimsuit portion. They all wear suits flattering to their figures, as each young woman glides across the catwalk to, as one finalist puts it, “strut their stuff.”

But those two really serve as the preamble for the evening’s main event: The partner dance.

The ladies first learned the routine at the preliminary auditions and refined the same minute-long dance at the first finalists rehearsal. But now, they will all do this routine in pairs in front of hundreds of people and the panel of nine judges.

Because of the rehearsal process, the ladies feel confident and comfortable. Peters has fashioned his choreography for eight song choices. There are those currently on the charts — like DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” — and those that have more of an old-school vibe — Peaches and Herb’s “Shake Your Groove Thing.”

But the challenge is that the ladies don’t know what song they’ll be dancing to until they get on the stage and hear it.

“It’s a little bit nerve-racking,” Macall says, “but I think there are several songs that I like. So when it comes on, I think that’ll wash over me and I’ll be happy.”

The key is practice, and that’s what nearly all the ladies choose to do backstage. Unlike the preliminary auditions, each finalist can run through the routine as much or as little as she likes while the performances are ongoing on stage. This allows the ladies to get that much more comfortable.

“I think underneath we all know that we’re nervous,” Justene says. “But right now, it’s nothing but females empowering other females and supporting one another because we all know how the nerves are getting to all of us. So we’re able to support each other.”

“I’m just so ready to do it,” Macall says. “We’ve really practiced so much, and really put so much time and energy. I feel confident and ready.”

They enter and exit the stage as pairs, all of them appearing thrilled at what they’ve accomplished.

“The excitement, the adrenaline — and watching my partner beside me. It was awesome,” Linette says.

“All the nerves are out. All the pressure is off,” Micki says. “We just had a great time out there.”

“I’m so relieved. It was so amazing,” Justene says. “The energy of the crowd was great. I want to go in line again and do it, just like the bathing suit. But I’m relieved. I’m so relieved. And I want water, but I’m going to get ready for the finale dance.”

The short final dance is a way to celebrate all of the young women who made it from nearly 400 who came out to preliminary auditions to the 65 finalists. While he’s choreographed the Rams cheerleader auditions before, Peters says he’s never done a finale showcase. But he’s pleased with how having all the ladies dance on the same stage at the same time works out.

“It looked spectacular,” Peters says. “With the girls who make the team, I want to use it for a halftime number. It looked so good.”

But once the showcase ends, it’s time to wait. And wait. And wait.

THE RESULTS

There are few moments better in life than finding out you’ve reached a long-held goal. And for the finalists, those moments came after a significant holding period.

The ladies went through a few formations backstage in the waiting period. At first, they formed small groups. Then, as videos played for the crowd, they watched silently in a clump where they could all view a screen.

Finally, they gathered in a circle, holding hands with one another for support.

“We’ve worked so hard together, getting to know these girls, I feel like they’re my sisters already,” Shelbie says. “This feels like a team already. So it’s going to be insane to see who makes it, but at the end of the day, everyone gave it their all.”

At long last, the results were ready to go. As each number and name were called, the joy was palpable. Screaming. Crying. Leaping. And then a walk out onto the stage, escorted by the mascot, Rampage, where each newly minted cheerleader would receiver her first gift — a bedazzled Rams jacket.

When the hosts were finished announcing names, the cheerleaders — no longer finalists — gathered in the center of the stage for their first team photo. Then, the hugs and celebrations continued.

“It’s very emotional, very exciting,” Andi says. “It’s been such a long process and for it to come to this, it’s just very overwhelming right now. And I’m super excited for the new team, new teammates. A lot of my friends also my made the team and it’s really exciting.”

“First I looked to make sure it was my number. And then I was like, ‘Is that my name?’ And then I just ran through,” Micki says of her reaction. “I wanted to hug everyone because we’ve all worked so hard to get to this point. And walking across the stage, I was holding back tears.

“We worked so hard,” Micki continues on her emotions. “We were so happy. And this is just the start of something great for L.A.”

As the ladies look around examining who made it, Justene makes a keen observation.

“The personalities that they picked are the nicest girls,” she says. It’s a remark that reflects what Fimbres-Bledsoe had been saying since the audition process started about looking for team players rather than individuals.

“I think that they look when we’re not looking,” Justene adds. “We’ve all been interacting with each other and helping each other, asking questions. So I think that’s what they notice because they have emphasized to us that teamwork is so strong. But we just didn’t know how they would go about finding those teamwork players. So they’re sneaky but they’re good.”

And so are the 28 young women who have been selected to be ambassadors for the organization. They will dance at the Coliseum, make appearances all around Los Angeles, and help further the club’s efforts in the community.

At long last, the Los Angeles Rams Cheerleaders are back.