Sometimes you hear too-cute-for-words stories about now-famous singers that you find hard to believe. Like the time they got up in front of the family at Christmas and sang a pitch-perfect "Silent Night" while still in diapers. Or how they used to sing to patrons when delivering food to their tables at the town pizza joint, or grabbed a microphone at karaoke night at a local bar when they were just 12 and turned it into a regular weekly gig that drew packed houses.
Actually, those last two tales are true, and they're the origin story of Rossville, Georgia, (population 3,500) native Lauren Alaina. The 16-year-old "American Idol" top three contestant and former high school cheerleader got a gig at CiCi's Pizza last year, and manager Mike Wild said he knew right away that she was not your run-of-the-mill teenage slice-slinger.
"The first time I ever met her face to face, she asked if she could sing to me, and when she did it, she was looking into my eyes and ... it would just bring you to tears," Wild said. "She'd be stocking the salad bar and singing, and people's heads would just turn."
Though he said Lauren didn't know it at the time, Wild had a feeling when his newest employee told him she was going out to audition for "Idol" last summer, so as a joke he asked her to take a picture with him in the CiCi's kitchen for posterity.
With her high school just a half mile down the road and a few of her friends already working there, Lauren figured she'd earn a bit of extra cash by getting a job at CiCi's. She worked there for about six months last year as a greeter and cashier, using her easy charm and sunny personality to talk up customers.
Wild said the perky, positive Lauren you see on the show is exactly the girl he knows: one who comes from a good, down-to-earth family of "regular folks."
"You can tell when someone is genuine and has a God-given talent, and that's what she has," he said about his most-famous employee, who has not yet officially quit her job at the restaurant.
Now that she's Rossville's biggest star, some of the regular customers who used to wonder why this precociously talented teen was singing to them as she dropped off their pizzas have been thanking Wild for the unexpected serenades from the city's favorite daughter: "They're like, 'Thanks for doing that. It's so neat!' "
Another place Lauren made a huge impression was at the local bar and grill, Magoo's, where she had a standing karaoke gig every Wednesday for three years. Owner Jennifer Lawhorn — who is related to Lauren's mother by marriage — said the "Idol" finalist first came into the bar when she was only 12 years old, just a few months after Lawhorn bought the joint.
"She came in and sang karaoke, and she was just amazing for being just 11, 12 years old, so I asked her family if she could come in and do a two-hour show," Lawhorn recalled.
When they agreed, the then-13-year-old singer started what would be a three-year engagement of two-hour Wednesday-night gigs, which were packed from day one. Playing to a crowd of more than 130 customers, Lauren is the only local karaoke star who has ever had a regular weekly gig at Magoo's, making Wednesday night the second busiest of the week.
"What always struck home for me was the first time she sang 'Famous in a Small Town' by Miranda Lambert," Lawhorn said. "And as I ran her sound, I was thinking, 'This kid's gonna be famous in a small town! You don't realize how talented you are!' The audience just loved her, and she would sing and mingle with them, go table to table and talk to them in between songs."
Don't miss "Idol Party Live" every Thursday on MTV.com, following the "American Idol" results show, for analysis, celebrity guests and even some karaoke. Get in the conversation by tweeting with the hashtag #idolparty! In the meantime, get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.