Mary Desmond, a 17-year-old from Rancho Santa Margarita, might be your next American Idol.
Sure, the odds are long for the junior from Mission Viejo High School. Tens of thousands of hopefuls step up to the mic to give it their best song, and only one can wear the crown. But Desmond has chops. She has experience. And she’s been waiting for this moment practically all her life.
“When I was little, I always said I was going to audition,” says Desmond, who was 3 when “American Idol” debuted in 2002 and almost overnight turned into one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of the decade that followed.
“It’s really cool,” she says, “because I grew up with the show and I got to audition in the last season.”
And right there is the backdrop to the season that follows: After 15 seasons, after minting shiny new pop stars with names everyone now recognizes – Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert – the spotlights and the TV cameras will go dark on “American Idol” come this spring.
It begins tonight with the first of two nights of auditions. Desmond’s October audition in San Francisco will be featured in Thursday’s episode. You might see her on screen then. She’s not allowed to reveal her fate beyond the audition.
She is OK to talk about what the show has meant to her and what her path to the journey involved, both of which can be answered in the briefest fashion as “a lot.”
“I don’t remember when I started, but I just remember my mom saying, ‘You better go put on your pajamas and brush your teeth or you can’t watch,’” Desmond says.
For her audition, Desmond sang the R&B standard “Fever,” done closer to the Michael Bublé version than the classic take by Peggy Lee. She was inspired to pick that number after performing it this summer while opening for jazz artist Eric Marienthal at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach.
About being part of the final season of “Idol,” Desmond says she’s glad she got to take her shot before the curtain falls.
“When it ends, it’s going to be sad because I’ve been watching it my whole life,” she says. “It’s kind of a last opportunity to do something with ‘American Idol.’ I’ve met a lot of people who auditioned with me who said, ‘Oh, I auditioned a season ago or two seasons ago,’ so for them it’s their second or third chance.
“But for me, this is my only chance.”
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By our count, there are eight Orange County singers who made it past the basic cuts of the Hollywood Round that ends the auditions and begins the semifinals. We managed to track down a few of them to find out how they remember “Idol” as it begins its swan song season.
Tucker was a 16-year-old senior at Kennedy High School in La Palma in 2006 when she made it further on “Idol” than any Orange County singer before or since. After the end of her season, she toured around the country with the other Top 10 finishers and was signed to R&B singer Ne-Yo’s production company, which planned to develop her as a pop R&B artist.
She’s 26 now, married and living in Santa Monica, and still performing, though her sound has changed in the decade since “Idol.”
“My mom is from Belize and listened to country music; my dad is from New Orleans and listened to Motown. So I’ve kind of combined those two influences,” she says. “Very rhythmic country, lyrics with stories.”
She performs her own music in venues in New York City and Los Angeles, with regular gigs at The Mint and Troubadour.
“It was so funny,” Tucker says. “When I did the show, I was 16 and all I knew was that I wanted to sing, but I didn’t really know what that meant. So it’s been an interesting journey to find out what feels right and natural.”
Being on “Idol” helped open doors, including acting gigs on shows such as “The O.C.,” “Zoey 101” and “The Vampire Diaries,” and accelerated her career in general. A decade later, though, its impact is more in her background, though.
“It’s not really what I lead with now,” Tucker says with a laugh. “I’ll talk to people after a performance or a show and somehow ‘Idol’ will come up, and most of the time they’ll be surprised that I was on it.
“But it’s definitely something to be proud of. I was 16. I made the Top 10.”
And she’s proud to have been a part of such a phenomenon.
“It’s been such a huge part of our culture even though I’ve moved on from it,” Tucker says. “It’s pretty amazing how long it’s run and what an event it was.”
Finish: Top 16
Sloan grew up in Mission Viejo and at 27 was one of the older singers in the 2007 season. Unlike some of the younger competitors, she’d already been out in the world, singing in Broadway and touring productions of the musical “Hairspray.” It’s that world in which she’s mostly worked in the years since “Idol.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Sloan says by phone from New York City, where she lives with her husband and their 5-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter. “It’s huge to have been a part of history in that sense.”
After the show, she was signed to a two-album deal with Motown, but ended up back onstage, performing in such productions as the “In The Heights” national touring company and on Broadway most recently in “Motown the Musical” as part of the ensemble and eventually in the role of Diana Ross.
“When I was on the show, we all thought it was timeless and it was going to live forever,” Sloan says. “It was such a monumental show and part of a culture. Even though it won’t ever be forgotten, it’s going to be weird not to see those ads coming up every time around Christmas.
“My son has never seen it, really,” she says. “He’s very competitive, and I was telling him about it the other day to try to help him with learning how to lose and that you might not win something but it’s OK. It’s funny, he was like, ‘What show?’”
Finish: Top 48
Lentini was 15 when she made it all the way through the Hollywood Rounds before being cut at the last moment before the semifinals started. She’s 17 now and a senior at Villa Park High School, preparing to release her debut EP in the coming months.
“‘Idol’ definitely opened a lot of doors and opportunities for me,” she says. “To be able to say you’re on ‘American Idol’ is a really awesome dream because everyone knows what ‘American Idol’ is.”
She crowdsourced funding to record five original songs for her upcoming EP, one of which she recorded as a collaboration in Nashville, Tenn., with Jim Kimball, guitarist for country star Reba McEntire.
Like Desmond, Lentini grew up watching the show with her family and dreaming that one day she might get her chance, an opportunity that after this season will be gone forever.
“I think for most people it’s going to be a bittersweet experience, whether you’re an artist or a viewer,” she says. “It really was in my eyes – and I think in a lot of other people’s eyes – the first show like that.
“It opened up this whole new world for the artists and the singers and the audiences. They’d never seen anything like that. And after it all these other shows popped up, but I think ‘Idol’ paved the way.”
Other top O.C. ‘Idol’ contestants
Finish: Top 32
As a 17-year-old from Ladera Ranch and a junior at Mater Dei High School, Hartman made the Top 32 in 2003 before being eliminated, the judges suggesting that acting and modeling might be better paths to follow. She listened to their advice, earning a recurrent role on “The O.C.,” appearing in one of the racy hamburger ads from Carl’s Jr. and working as a TV host on various shows over the years.
Finish: Top 32
She was a 23-year-old from Irvine when she made the Top 32 in 2004, earning the honor, as it were, of one of judge Simon Cowell’s typically harsh zingers: “What that reminded me of when I was sitting here was, like, instead of being on the stage of ‘American Idol,’ you’re at a local rodeo. You’d just been crowned the prom queen, and it was like the song before you lasso a bull.” Thomas may have the last laugh. Based on searches online, it looks like she’s migrated to Nashville to pursue country music.
Finish: Top 36
Kalama of San Clemente was 26 in 2009 when he made his splash on “Idol.” Since then he’s played around the area as the Kalama Brothers with his older brother Ryan. In 2013, they won $50,000 on NBC’s “And The Winner Is …” singing competition.
Finish: Top 36
Henson got eliminated in the same round as Kai Kalama in 2009. Of all the “Idol” singers connected to Orange County, she’s the hardest to track down today. She cut a Christmas duet with country star Crystal Gayle in 2010 and got married a couple of years later. After that, her website goes dormant and her social media goes cold.
Cleland came to Chapman University from Oregon. At age 19 in 2013, the communications major was eliminated in the Top 20. Traditionally only the Top 10 go on tour, but Cleland won a sing-off for a wild card spot and was allowed to tour that summer after the season ended, which makes her the 11th-place finisher in our view. Since then she’s worked as a model and actress, primarily.
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