Nick Smith admits he's no rock star. He still loves to sing, especially if it's the music of Josh Groban or Michael Buble, but he sings more to himself than to an audience. At least that's the way it was until he found his niche.
"I sing just for fun, but then I discovered karaoke and loved it," said the 23-year-old from Kennewick.
He's currently involved in a karaoke contest going on Tuesday nights at the Out & About nightclub in downtown Pasco. The competition is gaining in popularity and is as entertaining as a segment of American Idol.
"I first competed in this contest last year and had so much fun I'm doing it again," Smith said.
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Melanie Petross, who deejays every Tuesday at the nightclub, said the 17-week contest is open to anyone who can carry a tune, but you have to be at least age 21 to get in.
The prize money is nothing to squawk at. Winner gets $1,000, with second place earning $500 and third place $250.
But even more important than the money is the satisfaction in giving closet singers a chance to shine, Petross said.
"I love the socialization aspect of being a deejay, especially when we have the karaoke contests," she said. "It's fun to help people feel good about themselves, even if it's only for a little while. And this year is unique because we've never had this much prize money."
David Nabers, a 30-year-old chemical engineer from Richland, used to keep his singing to himself until he met Petross.
"She talked me into coming to the club and singing karaoke one night and I really liked it," he said. "And here I am."
Here's how the contest works. Each contestant forks out a $10 entry fee. Eight people compete each week and the top two go on to the semifinals. Competitors can enter as often as it takes to make it to the final two, but it'll cost $10 each time.
"We'll do this for 12 weeks until we have 24 semifinalists," Petross said. "Those 24 will be divided into three groups."
For the next three weeks, each group then performs on a different week with the top two from each group moving to the next phase. Those six will be whittled down to three finalists.
There are three judges for the contest: Out & About co-owner John Thomas, last year's overall karaoke winner Pete Pullen, and Brian Griffith -- aka Roxanne Von Cummings, the 2009 Miss Gay Washington.
The judges' job is to point out the good, bad and the ugly of each contestant, but ultimately it's an applause decibel meter gauging audience cheers that will determine the winners.
Tiphony Dames, 26, of West Richland, not only has a voice worth listening to, but she's also got the rhythmic moves to go with it.
In fact, Dames has a tough time sitting still when the other singers are performing. Her body moves to the beat whether a rock or pop tune is playing, and she never looks at the monitor where the words are displayed.
"I like to make sure I know a song inside and out before I do it," she said. "That's because sometimes the monitor doesn't work like it should."
Jessica Flores, 25, of Burbank, is another singer who knows her stuff. Wearing red spiky heels with her hair splashed with a purple hue, she fit the rock star mode. She also engaged the crowd by strolling through the room as she belted out Melissa Etheridge's rock tune Your Little Secret.
Flores said she has plans to make a stab at trying out for American Idol next year.
Liam Brown, a 32-year-old chef at a Tri-City area retirement home, was another competitor who didn't need to follow the monitor for words to his song. His reason was simple: "When you love music, you know the words," he said.
Whether the contestants have a notable voice or not, the audience so far has been gracious with its praise, Petross said. More importantly, listening to the voices of people who have never sung in public before can be quite an experience, according to Out & About's front end manager.
"There are simply some amazing voices in this town," said Scott Jansen, 32, of Kennewick. "Karaoke gives people a chance to shine that they wouldn't otherwise have. It's their four minutes of fame."
Out & About is at 327 W. Lewis St. The contest starts at about 9:30 p.m. every Tuesday though Mid-March. For more information, call 543-3796.
◗ Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; firstname.lastname@example.org