We caught up with the first three singers in the "American Idol" top 12 on Thursday (February 19) to talk about their plans to dominate season eight.
While the 28-year-old widower's life story put him in the spotlight, his talent was front and center Tuesday night when he impressed the judges (and voters) with Mariah Carey's "Hero." Danny spoke with us about his friend Jamar Rogers' surprising dismissal and how early exposure helped him advance.
Q: How do you feel about all the early attention you've gotten?
A: I'm honored that people support me. I think very highly of everyone that supports me. It's just an honor to see that they think this way of me and that they want to see me succeed — people that I've never met. I just hope I can keep them all the way through the competition.
Q: You seemed to get a lot of attention on the show early on, when others in the top 36 were barely featured. Do you think that extra attention helped you advance?
A: I do feel like I was highlighted. There's no getting around that. I didn't do anything to get that. I can say this: I'm grateful that they would do that. I have no control over it. I know everyone's not gonna like me, but it's a bummer when people are real mad about it, and I hope people can see past that. I genuinely just love to sing, and that's what I want to do.
Q: Your friend Jamar Rogers is one of the most-talked-about castoffs from Hollywood Week. Were you as surprised as the fans that he wasn't put through to the top 36?
A: I was mad. ... I expected him to go through. ... I even said, "I'll see you in the top 36," after I made it through and we were talking. I was just so confident that he showed his ability and what it takes to get there. Disappointment was completely in my mind and heart. But he's received such recognition, I know it's not the end of the road for him. He's got a bright future, and it doesn't stop here. It only gets better from here.
Q: Are you worried that the focus on your wife's death will take attention away from your music?
A: People coming in from the outside view probably think it's too much, but it's only been seven months since she's passed. This is who I am. It's not that I throw it in people's faces, but I get asked about it all the time. ... It weighs on my mind a lot, though, because, honestly, this is a sob story I don't want. I don't want this story. But it is shaping my life, and it's causing hope for a lot of people and it's causing hope for my life. I didn't want to live anymore when she passed. But now, I have my mission set in stone of ... who I am. There's a fun side to me that's gonna come out. I apologize to everybody if they feel like it's shoved down their face, but it's so fresh in my mind.
Q: Was it hard to stay composed during the results show with Tatiana del Toro being a ball of emotions right next to you?
A: With Tatiana, you expect the unexpected. But she really is a great person. She wants it so bad. You see the desire and the passion in her. At times, that can maybe hurt her image on TV. I maybe looked calm and cool, but I wasn't inside. ... I really tried to keep the look. I tried to, but I just hope it doesn't come off the wrong way to the American public — or the voters, I should say. I'm not the president. [Laughs.] I was preparing myself to go home. Anything could happen. Tatiana showed up that night. I think she had the surprise element. I said, "No matter what, I got my message across." I wanted to go out gracefully.
The pint-size 21-year-old mom wowed the judges with her powerful take on Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," even earning comparisons to the original Idol, Kelly Clarkson. We talked with Alexis about tackling the Queen of Soul right out of the gate and what mentors she's dying to work with.
Q: A lot of the other performers looked nervous when they were singing Tuesday night, but you seemed pretty put together.
A: I was nervous. I don't know what was going on with the other contestants that night. I don't know what they were thinking in their minds while they were singing, but I can tell you what I was thinking. I was just thinking, "You know what? I'm gonna make the best of this night." ... I did it for my family.
Q: Does your daughter understand what you're doing on "Idol"?
A: I would hope that she'd understand. That would be really cool if she did. But I know she watches the show with all my family, and when I come on the TV, she points at it and screams for me: "Mommy!" She might figure something out soon.
Q: What went through your head when you found out you made it?
A: "This is my dream, and it's happening" — that's what went through my head when I heard I made it through. To tell you the truth, I wasn't convinced [I would advance]. Just because the judges give good critiques doesn't necessarily mean America agrees with them. I just went in there not expecting anything.
Q: What did you think of the judges' Kelly Clarkson comparisons?
A: It's more than flattering. It really just shook my world when they said that — in a good way. What it does, it just pushes me to do better each time now. Now I've really gotta step up my game and prove to them that they're right.
Q: Were you worried about tackling an Aretha song?
A: I knew that I can sing in that range. That's my range. I'm pretty comfortable with that. I just feel connected to her music somehow. I feel like that's just my style, so I went with it.
Q: How did you start singing the blues?
A: From my hometown, Memphis. You hear blues all the time. And my dad is a big influence, and my mom too. They listened to soul, and my dad plays it, so when you grow up listening to it all the time, it's what you end up singing like.
Q: What mentors would you like to work with?
A: Aretha Franklin, of course. Fleetwood Mac, I would love. And Bruce Springsteen.
Q: How did you come out of your shell, like the judges had asked you to?
A: Talking with some of the "Idol" mentors we work with has helped me. They're encouraging, and I listen to what they have to say. And also my daughter. Just thinking about her and our future, it helps me be more encouraged. Also, I kinda think I might have a little alter ego onstage maybe. It's a combination of a lot of things.
Q: Do you think it would be better to be in the last batch of 12 than in the first so you'd be fresh in voters' minds?
A: They could have an advantage, but they could also really know that there's a lot of pressure to get through to the top three. They just need to go out there and have a good time.
The 27-year-old father of two won voters over with his hardworking persona and his everyman take on Gavin DeGraw's "I Don't Wanna Be." We talked to Michael about how Simon helped him crack the top 12 and why he's inspired by Danny Gokey.
Q: Do you think Simon's plea for the viewers to give you a second chance because you're such a good guy helped you advance?
A: I can't deny that that could have had something to do with it. Simon making a plea on my behalf, I don't take that lightly. ... I appreciate compliments on my voice and my singing, but complimenting on the person I am really means a lot to me. I have no doubt it had an impact, and I appreciate it.
Q: What would you say is the basis of your appeal?
A: I can acknowledge that the hardworking American is part of the appeal. I believe that real-life people can relate to me, especially in the economy. It's very difficult for a lot of people. I see it as a chance to see someone rise from the ashes. It's not that my life is bad, but things are tough, and to see someone excel and succeed, I think people relate to that, and it is special in their hearts.
Q: People have obviously been touched by your story. As a viewer, were there any other stories that impacted you?
A: Another story on the show that really hits me is Danny Gokey, because my wife is my absolute best friend. If she did pass away, I don't understand how I could wake up the next day. To not only view him on the show but to be around him and to see the incredible person that he is, I have mad, mad respect for Danny Gokey.
Q: Why was this the year you decided to audition for "Idol"?
A: I've been watching "Idol" over the years and never felt the unction to go for it. I believe it had a lot to do with knowing somewhere inside me that I had a lot of growing up to do. This year, my sister-in-law voiced her desire to try out, and she said something to me, and it really just hit me all of a sudden: "Let's do that!" And we did, and I made it, and for some reason, it was a moment in the right time that just fit. I moved on it knowing it was the right time for me, and obviously it's working out.
Q: What do you think of the wild-card system this year?
A: The wild-card element for "American Idol" is great, because it means that last night is not the end for a lot of people. It means not only a second chance, but it kind of carries them through, because I can't imagine the disappointment I would have felt last night had I not made it through. And it gives you that extra hope. I love the wild-card round, because Clay Aiken was a wild card, and good things come out of wild things. [Laughs.]
Q: Did anything surprise you about the "Idol" experience?
A: How close you get to ... the other contestants. You find yourself watching the show saying, "Oh, come on now. It's a competition. You can't be that excited for them." But you really do grow as friends and you really develop a bond. ... I really have been completely and pleasantly surprised by the relationships I have experienced.
Q: Have you gotten any feedback from your kids about the show?
A: My 2-year-old son's not really aware of what's going on. You wouldn't think that my 3-year-old daughter is, but apparently so. She's very smart and ahead of her age. She says she wants to go on "American Idol," so maybe we'll have another one in the future. [Laughs.]
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