Sure, she had the big voice, movie-star looks and undeniable stage presence, but did any "American Idol" fans think Syesha Mercado had top-three staying power?
The 21-year-old from Sarasota, Florida, was season seven's unlikely last woman standing, and she earned the most-improved-player award with progressively better performances and a willingness to take some (calculated) risks. But nothing could stop the inevitable David vs. David finale, and Mercado got the boot, thanks to some unfortunate song choices (one hers, the rest out of her hands).
We chatted with the confident castoff on Thursday (May 15) to learn the secret to her long run, what she was thinking when she compared her "Idol" run to the civil-rights movement and how she handled a song about animated penguins.
Q: You seemed to get better and better as the show progressed. How did you manage that?
A: I consider myself a hard worker, and I'm always rehearsing, always trying to improve. When I first stepped into the competition, I was in a little shell, and it separated me from everyone else. I don't believe I was at my full potential because of the negative mind frame that I was in. Like, "Nobody knows who I really am." It was really harming my performance. So once I got my mind right — it was in the beginning of the competition, at the audition — I became more comfortable with myself and the stage. The feeling of being overlooked totally subsided, and I improved every week, and eventually people recognized me. I just enjoyed myself every week. I separated that fine line between where you're overworking and not enjoying yourself and doing enough and trusting yourself and letting go and taking it all in. My goal every week was to feel satisfied after every show, and I felt more satisfied as the weeks went on.
Q: Why do you think America is so taken with the Davids?
A: They're unique. David Archuleta has that beautiful smile and really good connection with kids, the younger audience. David Cook has that connection with the younger audience. The girls go crazy for him! And the older women think he's really charming. I feel like I'm a little sister and a big sister to both Davids, and once everybody was gone, we had a chance to really, really have a more intimate relationship and just have fun with that brotherly/sisterly relationship.
Q: When did you get the feeling that it was going to be a David vs. David finale?
A: Probably the night before [the results show]. After I was done performing, I was like, "It's over." Well, not over, but I got too many bad comments from the judges to keep me there. It was like, at this point in the game, you couldn't have that many bad comments to be there. So I accepted what it was, and I moved on. I made peace with it. I couldn't be happier right now. I don't feel defeated. I don't feel like I failed. I feel like there's only greatness that can come from here on out, and I felt like I grew a lot and I showed America lot of different sides of me and what I'm capable of. And I'm capable of a lot more, and I can do a lot more, and I just can't wait to show people.
Q: A lot of people took issue with your statements before singing Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," when you compared your "Idol" experience to the civil-rights movement. What did you mean by that?
A: It's a signature song for the civil-rights movement, but for me, it meant something different. ... When I was listening to it, I was thinking about, "What does this song mean to me?" That song came out during a transitional time in history, and this is a transitional time for me in my life, and it took on a different meaning for me. And, you know, I'm the last female standing, and I'm still here, and I feel that I've changed a lot for the better, and I think that has a connection. Like, it came out during a pivotal time in history, and it's during a pivotal time in my life. Mixing both of those together is emotional, and it's saying that change is going to come. It came — and for me, it's going to come.
Q: The judges criticized you for choosing to sing "Fever" on Tuesday because they didn't think it showed America who you are an artist. What kind of artist would you like to be?
A: I'm a mix of a lot of things. I think that's why people say, "Oh, she's Broadway." I'm just like a black Christina Aguilera/ Alicia Keys. I definitely see myself putting together a Christina Aguilera album, the one she just did [2006's Back to Basics], and the Alicia Keys album, like [2003's] The Diary of Alicia Keys. I'm definitely into a lot of pop and R&B and the old-school musical thing. So I'm evolving as an artist, I'm growing. I'm glad I did "American Idol," because people got to see that transition that I went through, and I'm still learning more about myself every day. And I think that's the beauty of competition: You just learn so much. So people will know who I am. You'll know who I am once I put out an album!
Q: Were you as puzzled as "Idol" fans were about the producers choosing Gia Farrell's "Hit Me Up" for you on Tuesday?
A: I thought, "My nieces and nephews like that song because they like the movie 'Happy Feet'!" [Laughs.] ... It's not like I could change it. I just tried to make the best of it. I'm very optimistic, so when something comes in my way and I'm like, "Oh, it's going to be horrible," I just think, "What can I do to turn this into something positive? What can I do to make the best out of it?" I tried my very best.
Q: How did growing up around your dad's addiction shape you as a person?
A: The struggles that we go through, I've seen that it either makes you or breaks you. And for me, the strong person that I am, the humble person that I am, having my dad struggle with that, it really made me sad a lot in my life. It actually made me understand people more, and I told myself that I'm not going to let this determine what my future is going to be, and I'm going to do something good, and I'm going to help my dad and encourage him, and I'm going to make him proud, so he can make me proud. And that's exactly what he's doing now. He sees me doing something good, and it really motivates him to get clean and sober, and it's a beautiful story to tell. One day, I'll tell it in a book.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish after the tour?
A: I tell people I want to do everything, and I'm really goal-oriented, so I know that whatever goal I set, I'm going to accomplish, whether it's in a year or a 10-year span. So I want to make an album. I want to star in a film. I want to do Broadway. I want to open up an organic restaurant. [Laughs.] It just depends on what comes first. I have goals and I write them down, and then I continue to look at them. It's whatever opportunity comes first and what's the best career move for me. That's basically what's going to happen.
Q: What was it like to get this close and not make it to the finale?
A: I think anybody who's on the show has made it. Success for every person is different, and for me, this was very successful, making it to the top three. I made it. I set a goal, and I got there, and I'm very, very, very happy. I'm at peace. I think I've made it, and only great things can come from here on out.
Q: Do you think your experience on the ABC singing competition/ reality show "The One" gave you a leg up on your "Idol" competitors?
A: All of us had advantages. A lot of us had a lot of experience beforehand. I don't think it hurt me. It really let me know what's in store, because it's kind of the same format but more reality. People really actually got a chance to see my personality [on "The One"], because "American Idol" is not as much reality behind the scenes, but it's more being onstage, and my songs weren't really showing who I really was. I think it prepared me a lot.
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