You’ve cheered for them. You’ve gotten into heated arguments about which one is best. You’ve yelled at the TV when they hit a wrong note. You’ve spent hours speed-dialing just so you can see them for one more week.
But who the heck are these people?
Each year, “American Idol” thrusts wannabe-superstars into the pop-culture stratosphere, and the show’s fans find themselves hanging on the unknowns’ every note. MTV News decided to dig a little deeper into six “Idol” finalists’ backgrounds to see where they came from, who is (or was) rooting for them and what impact they’ve left on their hometowns. Take a closer look at the cities that gave us Jordin, Melinda, Blake, LaKisha, Phil and — of course — Sanjaya.
It was a pretty short journey from shopgirl to showstopper for Jordin Sparks. Just last year, the 17-year-old from Glendale, Arizona, was hawking jeans at the Buckle in her local mall, where she made quite an impression on customers. “You’d just turn around and you’d hear her singing along to the music, and the guests would just stop and listen to her,” said Mike Whorton, area manager of the Buckle at Glendale’s Arrowhead Towne Center. The future superstar might not be making a living at the mall these days, but in her place is a Walk of Fame-style tribute at the foot of the shopping center’s escalators. “We decided to give Jordin her own star because we are very proud of the accomplishments she has made, and our customers absolutely love her!” enthused Suzanne Victor, Arrowhead’s marketing manager. The teen also spent a lot of time at the Valley Youth Theatre, where she acted in musicals like “The Wiz.” Her former castmates had an idea that Sparks was destined for fame even before she headed for Hollywood. “I remember watching her, and I was always like, ‘Oh my God! She totally needs to audition for “American Idol,” ‘ and now she’s on it,” Ashley Stults said. Another former actor, Chad Gilbert, got a little star-struck just talking about the diva-in-training. “You think about stardom, you think about famous, you think about being a celebrity, and it’s just so big and so hard to comprehend,” Gilbert said. “But when you see someone that you know, like, accomplish that, it’s just an amazing feeling. It’s reality. It can happen.”
Every week, Melinda Doolittle has managed to deliver strong performances, earning praise from the judges and leaving Simon Cowell scratching his head at his inability to criticize the 29-year-old finalist. Yet Melinda usually responds as if it’s the first time anyone’s ever complimented her singing — which has left countless people wondering, “Is the ever-humble Melinda for real, or is it just an act?” “It’s not an act, it’s totally for real,” said Sarah Silva, a student at Belmont University, Melinda’s alma mater in Nashville, Tennessee. Even at Belmont, a musically inclined school that claims country stars Tricia Yearwood, Brad Paisley and Lee Ann Womack among it its alums, Melinda had always been the most humble of talents. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the insistence of Belmont vocal coach Sandra Dudley, Doolittle would have auditioned for a spot as a backup singer in the school’s prestigious Annual Commercial Music Showcase, instead of one of the five coveted headlining slots. “I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Dudley told MTV News. Eventually, Melinda took her teacher’s advice and was chosen not only to headline the show, but was scheduled in the closing slot, something reserved for the best talents. “She was the highlight of the show,” Dudley recalled. “She brought the house down and I just said, ‘See, Melinda? You can do it!’ ”
Of course Blake Lewis had heard of “American Idol” before landing on the show, but by most accounts, he’d never watched a single episode. That’s why when he attended the Seattle auditions on a rainy day in September, he probably never imagined that seven months later the mayor of Bothell, Washington — Lewis’ hometown — would be declaring April 10 “Blake Lewis Day.” Pre-”Idol,” Lewis was already something of a local star, performing his singing-and-beatbox routine at small clubs in and around Seattle, where most knew him only by his stage name. “I don’t think I knew his real name for the first year he was here,” said Tate Rogers, owner of the Nectar Lounge, where Blake frequently performed. “He went by B-Shorty.” These days, around Bothell — and the rest of the country — he’s known simply as Blake, and once a week, his friends and fans gather at schools and restaurants to cheer on their hometown “Idol.” The viewing events are organized by the Blaker Girls, a fan club founded by Lewis’ childhood friends Kristi Redman and Andrea Edmon. Now, with his own day, a fan club and millions of people tuning in every week to see him perform, B-Shorty’s diligence is finally paying off. Jesse Robbins, a childhood friend of Blake’s, summed it up best: “If there’s one person that’s earned this through hard work, it’s Blake.”
In Millersville, Maryland, it was the same scene every Tuesday night: People from all over the city gathered to watch “American Idol” at Bullseye Bar & Grill. But it’s not because they’re huge fans of Ryan Seacrest — they’re supporting local-girl-done-good LaKisha Jones. The 27-year-old single mom, who was actually born in Flint, Michigan, worked as a teller for the Shoppers Food & Pharmacy branch of Provident Bank for just a few months, but a few months was long enough to form lasting friendships with her fellow bank colleagues: After the bank’s closing time, everyone made their way to a small bar nearby that kept a large reserved table in front of the flat-screen TV for the weekly “Idol” viewing parties. They said they closed the bar every Tuesday night. As Provident’s Melba Czosnowski put it, “It’s just fun for us to go out and watch her on the big screen.” LaKisha’s friend Debbie Davidson chimed in: “We get every person in [the bar] to be quiet and listen to her and cheer for her.” Jones has since been voted off the show, but her friends and colleagues are sure she won the Millersville vote.
Phil Stacey couldn’t persuade America to make him the next “Idol,” but his day job is all about persuasion. The 29-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, sings in one of 13 Navy rock bands that crisscross the U.S. to recruit high-schoolers into the military. His group, Pride, had to find a replacement while Stacey followed his “Idol” dreams, and we caught up with the rockers in April as they played a show at Lugoff-Elgin High School in South Carolina. “Our job in the Navy is to travel around and put on rock shows so you people can get out of class,” Jeremy Middleton, Pride’s new frontman, yelled to the students from the stage. The band plays songs by Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, All-American Rejects and more, which isn’t quite what the kids were expecting. “When I heard the Navy band was coming to play here, I thought it was going to be, like, [a] marching band,” said Andrew Bailey, a Lugoff-Elgin senior. Bandmember Chris Morrison said the band makes sure to stay up on modern music: “This is how you reach this audience — being contemporary and being fun.” Stacey has made no secret of his love for his job and his band. “The Navy rock band is the coolest thing ever,” he told MTV News. “Did you ever imagine you could join the military and be in a rock band? That’s my job.” And Pride have just as much love for the “Idol” castoff. “We always knew he was destined for greatness,” Middleton said. So it sounds like he had his band’s full support — right? “I voted for Sanjaya one week,” said new Pride member Michael Buenvenida. “It was the faux-hawk week.”
While Howard Stern might want to take credit for Sanjaya Malakar’s staying power on “American Idol,” Pastor Patrinell “Pat” Wright would most certainly beg to differ. Wright is the leader of the Total Experience Gospel Choir in Seattle, where Sanjaya sang prior to auditioning for the sixth season of “Idol.” While Wright said that Sanjaya was timid at first, she knew she’d be able to coax him out of his shell. Sure enough, last summer while on tour in Mississippi, Malakar told Wright that he was ready to sing the lead on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” “This gentle, exquisite voice came out of him and he lit up,” recalled fellow choir member Sally Reavis. “And we all kind of took a breath and just went, ‘Wow.’ Pat fostered that sound, encouraged him and he flew with it.” Reavis might be on to something in crediting Wright with Sanjaya’s success: He’s the third member of the Total Experience Gospel Choir to make it past the initial audition stages of “Idol.” And Wright is certain she isn’t done yet. “I do have future contestants in the Total Experience Choir,” she insisted.