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'American Idol': Get to Know Season 12's Top 10 Girls

In their first interviews since making the Top 20 cut, the female finalists talk to THR about their influences, "Idol" history and false starts, among other topics.

American Idol season 12 top 10 girls L
Michael Becker / Fox
From left: Breanna Steer, Aubrey Cleland, Zoanette Johnson, Candice Glover, Janelle Arthur, Tenna Torres, Amber Holcomb, Kree Harrison, Adriana Latonio and Angela Miller..

During rehearsals for American Idol at the Mirage Hotel’s Love Theatre, home to Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles show Love in Las Vegas, season 12's top 10 girls took some time backstage to hang with The Hollywood Reporter. Among the topics discussed: their lifelong passions for music and Idol, influences and what it's like to be recognized in public.   

Janelle Arthur (@JanelleAI12)

The 23-year-old from Oliver Springs, Tenn., started performing when she was very young and remembers watching the first season of Idol while she was playing Dolly Parton in a show. “I’d run backstage where the costume lady was watching Idol on a small TV,” she says. But she never thought she would audition. “I told people I’m not going to do it. I just thought I couldn’t handle it.” At 20, she moved to Nashville. “That’s when I realized how tough [the music business] was. I wanted to get out there and sing instead of playing the bars. I like to get out on stage and sing and that’s what American Idol gives you the opportunity to do.” Before her successful season 12 audition, Arthur tried out for seasons 10 and 11. “I did not give up because I love the show,” she professes.

She is a big fan of Keith Urban and Vince Gill. “It was so unreal being in front of Keith. My family members have always been big fans, ever since he was in the Ranch. Listening to Vince Gill is how my mother figured out I was musical when I was a baby. I listened to his tape over and over again. When she played it, I would stop crying and it would get me to sleep. She wore out the tape.”

Arthur has been writing songs since she was in pre-school but says she is shy about singing her original music. Still, she hopes to perform one of her own compositions this season. “I think that would be a huge challenge for me.”

Although her Idol journey is just beginning, she has already had a taste of fame. “A little girl chased me out of the hotel last night to get an autograph and a picture. Knowing that I’m inspiring people is meaningful to me – letting them know not to give up, because I’ve been here for three years and every year prepared me for the next and made me stronger.”

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Aubrey Cleland (@AubreyAI12)

Growing up in West Linn, Ore., Cleland was eight years old when she watched the first season of Idol. “I told my parents then that I want to do American Idol when I’m old enough.”

Before qualifying for this year’s top 20, Cleland auditioned for season 10 (“I made it all the way through Hollywood and got cut at the end”) and season 11 (“I got cut just before the top 24”). She took encouragement from her friends Janelle Arthur and Candice Glover, who both tried out three times before making it into the top 20.

This year, Cleland auditioned with Karmin’s “Brokenhearted.” Back in season 10, she went in front of the judges with “Who’s Loving You,” as recorded by the Jackson 5 and written by Smokey Robinson. “My parents listened to that music,” she explains. “My parents have a huge record and CD collection. We listened to Mariah Carey, especially at Christmas. I grew up in the ’90s, listening to Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls.”

Being such a big fan of Carey, Cleland found it surreal to be standing in front of the new Idol judge for the first time. “It’s unreal to meet someone like that. You never expect that you’re going to meet someone you’ve listened to. When you’re in front of them and they hug you, they’re a real person and a very talented, gifted human being.

Cleland has already had an early taste of fame. “Last night was the first time I’ve ever been recognized. People who were at the show saw me later in my dress. I’m honored they recognized me.”

Candice Glover (@CandiceAI12)

The 23-year-old from St. Helena Island, S.C., first watched Idol when Jordin Sparks competed in season six. Three years later, Glover auditioned for the first time, singing Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me.” “Simon told me he didn’t think I was ready. I thought he was just being mean old Simon but he was right. I agree with him now. I came back in season 11 and made the top 60. J-Lo liked the tone of my voice but I didn’t really stand out. I went home and perfected my craft. I listened to a lot of different genres of music just to get the basic idea of what I felt most comfortable doing. I watched a lot of different stars and current artists. Jazmine Sullivan is my favorite singer. I love Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift. I watched how graceful they are. I studied everybody just to be sure I had some kind of star power.”

Glover has faced three very different panels of judges during her three auditions. How does she feel about the current group? “In middle school I sang Mariah Carey songs in the hallway with all my friends, so I grew up listening to her. I love Nicki Minaj’s artistry and her craft and her different ideas and she has the swag going on, so she can tell me if my outfits look good. I think Keith is really cute and an all-around guy. And me and Randy Jackson have this history because I’ve known him for three years so his opinion really matters to me but so does Mariah’s, because she’s the vocalist in the group. I enjoy singing for them.”

Glover found her first taste of fame “weird but cool.” She elaborates on her mall adventure: “I was in Forever 21 looking for a jacket and this mom was so shy, she sent her little girl to take a picture of me. This little 10-year-old shoved everyone out of the way and then yelled, ‘Mom, I got it!’”

Kree Harrison (@KreeAI12)

Harrison, 22, credits her diverse taste in music to her parents, who raised their children in Woodville, Tex. (population at the time: 2000) with music always playing in their home. “The only thing to do in our small town was to entertain ourselves,” says Harrison. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist and write songs. I’ve never known anything else. The first time I sang was in church. I was three years old and I sang ‘El Shaddai’ by Amy Grant. I called my grandma afterward and told her there wasn’t a dry eye in the church. I was so proud that I’d touched people.”

Harrison was signed to Disney’s Lyric Street Records when she was just 10. “I signed a development deal and all we did was a compilation with a bunch of Lyric Street artists, like Rascal Flatts and SheDaisy. I did a duet with Rosie O’Donnell on 'Do You Hear What I Hear' because I was on her show a few times.”

Harrison was 12 when her father was killed in a plane crash. “I needed to do some soul searching and regroup,” she says. Two years later, as a songwriter, she signed with Chrysalis’ music publishing arm in Nashville.

Harrison says her sister encouraged her to try out for Idol. She describes her audition in Oklahoma City as nerve-wracking. “I’ve been in the industry in Nashville since I was 10 but I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

For her audition, Harrison touched the judges when she performed an original song that she wrote to her mother, who died in an automobile accident when Harrison was 16.

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Amber Holcomb (@AmberAI12)

“I started watching American Idol right from the beginning,” says 18-year-old Holcomb, from Houston, Tex.  “When it first came on, I really wanted to be on the show.” But the young singer made an appearance on another TV series before she tried out for Idol last year. At the age of 11, she performed “Amazing Grace” on Showtime at the Apollo.

Holcomb says she has changed a lot in the one year between her first audition and her tryout for season 12. “I’m more outgoing. Now I can walk up to somebody and introduce myself and say whatever’s on my mind. I used to sit back and wait ’til I felt comfortable.”

Holcomb credits her older sister (by five years) for inspiring her interest in performing. “She would sing and being younger, I wanted to do whatever she did. If it wasn’t for her I probably wouldn’t be doing this. I was eight or nine when she recorded her own song and I did backup vocals. I heard myself for the first time and said I don’t want to do anything else.” Holcomb says she loves her job as an assistant teacher in a pre-school, but would love to have a career in music. By appearing on Idol, she doesn’t have to wait to be famous.

“I went to my brother’s elementary school. Everyone was asking for autographs. It was so cute. That was my first little taste of fame. When I walked through the hallway, I felt like a star.”

Zoanette Johnson (@ZoanetteAI12)

Tulsa, Okla. is home to Johnson now, but the 20-year old has called other cities and other countries home in her two decades on the planet. She was born in Liberia and when she was two years old, her family moved to Ghana. When she was eight, the family relocated again, this time to America, where they settled in Baltimore. Five years ago Johnson’s parents moved to Minnesota and for the last two years, she has gone back and forth between Minnesota and Oklahoma, where she shares an apartment with her sister.

Johnson started watching American Idol during season three but has been interested in music her entire life. “I started listening to music from the womb, baby!” she exclaimed to THR. “My mom says when I was one, before I could walk, I’d be in the crib just getting it. I’ve always loved music, it does something to my soul.”

Johnson says people have been telling her for a long time to try out for Idol but she resisted until her brother suggested she try out in Oklahoma City, just 90 minutes from her home. “I was late when I got to the place,” she says. “Registration was closed. And then somebody returned their tickets, so I got the first ticket. So I knew it was meant to be.”

Given Johnson’s extraordinary performance on the drums during the solo round of Hollywood Week, THR had to ask her if she had ever taken lessons. “I never went to vocal class. I’ve never taken a drum class, ever in my life. I play the drums for churches, but I’m not like Sheila E. It’s something that I enjoy. When it was time for Hollywood my voice was shot, so what was I going to do? Give me some drums! Let’s make up some words! I went to the bathroom and I was playing the drums on the counter. I liked the beat; I just thought it up in my head and it felt good to me. Because it felt good I knew I could do it. I gave them the beat in rehearsal, but what I said onstage was all spontaneous.”

Johnson impressed the judges with her unlikely performance, and wowed them again last week with “Circle of Life,” a song first performed on Idol during season three by Jennifer Hudson. “I remember that,” says Johnson. “She’s a phenomenal singer and she is an inspiration to me but it’s not because she sang it. I chose it because it has the best of both worlds in it. I fought for that song so hard.”

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Adriana Latonio (@AdrianaAI12)

Although she is only 17, the first top 20 finalist from Alaska started watching American Idol right from season one. “Kelly Clarkson has been a big inspiration for me,” says Latonio. “I want to be just like her.”

Do the math and you realize Latonio was just six years old when she first viewed Idol. “Music has been a lifelong thing for me,” she acknowledges. “I’ve been singing since I was two. It’s a passion, a part of me. I could sing before I could talk. Ever since then, you couldn’t get the mic out of my hands. The first time I sang in public was at a local restaurant in Alaska. I took singing lessons when I was eight and I had to sing at a restaurant every week for practice. I was really nervous. My heart was beating super fast. But once I got up there, the adrenaline really pumped up my game.”

Latonio has also been inspired by two other artists. “I really like Mariah Carey. When I was younger I was so amazed when I heard her sing. Last season I was really inspired by Jessica Sanchez. We have a lot in common and we’re the same age. It really inspired me that someone my age was working toward their dreams and it made me want to go for it.”

Asked what song she performed at her audition this year, Latonio’s answer might take some aback, until you remember that she is only 17. “I sang ‘You Are’ by Lionel Richie. It’s a really old song.” [For the record, the song peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983].

Latonio is looking forward to recording her first album. “I do like singing ballads,” she reveals. “But I also like singing songs that make you want to dance, that you could play on a nice summer day in your car and have a good time driving.”

Like the other top 20 finalists, Latonio is already having some early brushes with fame. “I went to the movies and people were saying, ‘Is that her?’ Then I went to a restaurant and people were screaming my name, and I was thinking, what’s going on? It’s flattering. It makes me feel good that people are recognizing me for what I love doing and that I’m inspiring others to work for what they want in life.”

Angela Miller (@AngieAI12)

“The first time I ever watched American Idol was the season finale of season two,” Miller remembers. “I turned on the TV and said whoa, what is this show? I want to do it. I’m 19 now, so I was eight or nine.”

The finalist from Beverly, Mass., says she has been singing her entire life.

“My whole family is very musical. I have home videos of me when I was four, singing random things.” Miller wrote her first song around the same time, and warns THR that the lyrics don’t make any sense before agreeing to recite the words to “Little Sparkle Dress”: “Little little sparkle dress, little little cars be, little little nertha, ryer ryer ride.”

Miller has come a long way with her songwriting, judging by her Hollywood Week solo round performance of her own composition, “You Set Me Free.”  “I wrote that song a few months ago,” Miller elaborates. “I had just finished high school, and had auditioned for American Idol. I wanted to write a song to show how far I’ve come and how I’ve been set free from so much stuff. I started with the piano and the lyrics just came to me, through my own quiet time.”

Miller wasn’t sure if she should sing an original, even though the producers said she could. She considered Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” but that was Candice Glover’s selection. Miller asked her mother if she should sing the original song and her mother said yes. “Then I met with [American Idol associate music director] Matt [Rohde]. I asked him to please be honest with me and tell me if my song sucks.” Rohde asked to hear it again and assured her that her song did not suck. “I’m so happy I got the chance to sing it on the show.”

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Breanna Steer (@BreannaAI12)

“I watched Fantasia’s season from beginning to end and I was hoping she would win,” says 18-year-old Steer, from LaPlace, La. “My parents were rooting for her, too. When she won, my mom and I screamed on the sofa.”

Steer was nine years old during Fantasia’s season, too young to audition for American Idol. The year she turned 15 was also the year Idol lowered its eligibility age to 15. “My parents were working and I couldn’t get a ride to New Orleans,” says Steer. “I promised that when I turned 18, I would go. I turned 18, and Idol was in my home town again.” Steer auditioned in Baton Rouge.

As a youngster, Steer had a family member who served as a mentor. “I was in fourth grade. My uncle would sing with me, and he told me to try out for the school choir.” Her uncle, who has since passed away, also shared his favorite music with his niece, so Steer’s musical influences include the Temptations, Joe, Toni Braxton and the Isley Brothers.

Steer is already getting used to being recognized by strangers. “People have been staring, asking, ‘Can I get your picture? Can I get your autograph?’ It’s surreal because I’m just a girl from a small town. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Tenna Torres (@TennaAI12)

The 29-year-old from Queens, N.Y., has been watching American Idol since season one. “I was in college,” says Torres. “Everyone told me I needed to go on Idol and I didn’t do it. Finally, last year, I said I was going to do it. I auditioned and made it pretty far, to the top 70. I was disappointed, of course, but I used it as motivation to come back this year.” Now that she’s in the top 20, Torres describes it as “overwhelming.” She adds, “I didn’t reach this point last year, so I’m learning and seeing different things. We’re all getting closer with each other. At the same time, it’s a competition.”

From watching the series for so many years, Torres has her favorite Idols. “I love Jennifer Hudson and what she accomplished on the show. I really love Adam Lambert’s voice. Of course, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, they’re the it-girls.” Torres also had her favorite artists growing up. “I listened to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Anita Baker, Michael Jackson, Prince and Barbra Streisand. My mom listened to a lot of music, that’s where I get all of that from. My grandfather used to listen to Aretha Franklin.”

Torres, who auditioned both years with one of her favorite songs, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” has a clear vision of her future. “I want to touch people’s lives through music, like my idols have done for me. I want to make my dreams come true.”

Tomorrow: It’s the boys’ turn, as THR continues its backstage chats with the top 20 finalists of season 12.

Twitter: @Idol_Worship