There's good reason Lauren Alaina caught the eye of "American Idol" producers from the first time they saw her last summer. There is an irresistible quality to her that not only charmed the judges (remember her ordering Steven Tyler to join in a duet during her audition?), but has clearly worked its magic enough on America to secure the youngest contestant in the show's history a spot in this week's finale.
"I think I heard Lauren before I ever actually saw her, because when she was in middle school, they would come up here and have cheerleading camp with us in the summertime," Lisa Curtis, Alaina's cheerleading coach, said about the 16-year-old's penchant for singing all the time. "And I'd hear someone singing down the hall, and I finally realized who it was, and she hasn't stopped since."
Alaina — whose hometown of Rossville, Georgia (population 3,500), is around a 10th of the size of rival Scotty McCreery's North Carolina home — is, like her Southern neighbor, putting her sleepy burg on the map.
"This is one of the highlights ... the most exposure we've ever gotten in the 100 years of the city," Mayor Johnny Baker said of the national attention that has come to Rossville since Alaina's run to the finals. "We've gone from the best-kept secret to a nationally known name in what seems like overnight. Even to be associated with someone like Lauren, who has such a quality image to portray, is unbelievable."
Though he just met Alaina for the first time during her recent home visit, Baker said the 16-year-old's family has some ties to the mayor's office. Baker's wife taught Lauren's dad in the fourth grade, and when they saw each other for the first time in 31 years a few weeks ago, they shared a moment and some pictures from the past. "After hearing her sing and watching her actions and the way she lives, she seems like a positive role model," Baker said.
One of Lauren's friends, Maria Kissner, is "absolutely certain" Alaina will win it all Wednesday night, and she knows exactly why. "When we would ride in my car, Lauren would sing nonstop, and that didn't get on my nerves, because I love to hear her sing and she makes every song sound way better than the original artist," said Kissner, whose claims have been backed up by the judges and mentor Jimmy Iovine, who at one point told Alaina that her Miley Cyrus cover was better than the original.
While the judges and Iovine have criticized Alaina at times for holding back too much and not letting her voice soar the way they know she's capable, another one of her cheerleading coaches, Susan Bradley, said Lauren has been honing her stage skills for years and has never been afraid to let loose. "As anybody who has ever observed Lauren knows, she is definitely not shy, so being a cheerleader required you to perform in front of a large group of people, which she is very comfortable with," Bradley said.
One of the touching aspects of the footage from Alaina's hometown visit screened on "Idol" last week was her reaction to the utter devastation around Rossville as a result of a string of recent deadly tornados. Bradley said Lauren's success on "Idol" and her shared grief with her hometown is the best medicine for hard times.
"Lauren being on 'American Idol' at this particular time is kind of a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy period of time," she said.
Don't miss a special edition of "Idol Party Live" Thursday at noon on MTV.com for analysis, finale red-carpet coverage and the last "Idol in 60 Seconds" of season 10. 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.