Lots of kids join the drama club or play in their high school jazz band. Some are OK, some pretty impressive and a few are just flat-out great. Most of them go on to study econ or art history in college and every once in a while they get up and surprise their college buddies with some shockingly good karaoke at a campus bar.
Haley Reinhart is not one of those kids. The 20-year-old Wheeling, Illinois, native has become the unexpected dark-horse contestant on season 10 of "American Idol," crawling back from four bottom-three appearances to a spot in the top three and a real shot at the title.
The scrappy blues-mama singer got her start at Wheeling High School, where she broke out in the school's jazz band after years of dabbling in choir and musical theater. Reinhart, who has been singing with her parents in their cover band, Midnight, for years, really impressed the members of the jazz band when she came in to try out three years ago.
"When she came in and we heard her sing, we were just blown away by her talent," said Wheeling senior Nathan Lichtenberger, 18, the drummer in the ensemble. Though the band had the occasional guest singer, when Reinhart tried out, they knew they'd found something special. Haley had been a staple of the school's variety show and choir and was well-known for her singing abilities, but Lichtenberger said it was her maturity that really left a mark on him.
"When she sings jazz, it really shows off her abilities," he said. "She has that nice, smooth sound to her voice and that raspiness that she can also use when she wants to." Lichtenberger said the Haley he's been watching on the show is the same cool, approachable person he remembers from school, and though it sometimes seems harsh, he suspects the criticism she's faced from the judges will probably help her in her career in the long run.
Another Wheeling senior who was in jazz band with Haley, sax player JT Teichert, used to perform in variety shows with the singer and said even though she was a renaissance woman who dabbled in acting and poetry, it was her singing that always turned heads. "When she was singing with soul, you could tell she was really connecting with the music," he said. "You could tell that she was committing and devoting herself to the piece in a way not all singers do."
He wasn't surprised when Reinhart tried out for "Idol" a second time and made it, because he always suspected she was capable of being a professional singer. "It was just a matter of time before she proved it to the nation," said Teichert, 17, who added that the Haley you see on TV isn't necessarily the girl he remembers. "She's a total sweetheart. She might look like a diva, but she's not an attention hog. She's just talented and nice and she really jokes around a lot."
As an example, he said that when he was a nervous freshman first meeting other students at variety-show auditions and practices, Haley was the first person to walk up to him and talk to him. "I sure hope she can win. I think she's definitely got it, and she's a talented singer. Haley can sing a wider variety of music [than Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina], and when I'm watching her, I feel more connected, like she's telling a story."
Don't miss "Idol Party Live" every Thursday at noon on MTV.com 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.