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'American Idol': On the Scene at Season 11's Top 13 Photo Shoot

THR contributor Fred Bronson spent Saturday with this year's finalists and learned that when it comes to "Idol" history, most are A students.

American Idol Top 13 portrait L
Michael Becker / FOX

Just 48 hours earlier, they didn’t know if they would be in the small elite group of finalists for season 11 of American Idol. On Saturday morning, the 13 singers who made it into the last round of competition were already experiencing the trappings of fame, as hairstylists, make-up artists and wardrobe supervisors fawned over them, and as they spent more than 10 hours at a Hollywood studio taking photos, recording video promos, being interviewed by Fox affiliates from around the country and spending time with The Hollywood Reporter, the only non-Fox media present for this long day of publicity and promotion.

The day began with just the boys, who rotated throught the different stages where all the activities were taking place. One giant stage was dedicated just to still photography, with six different set-ups, including a room where everything was painted turquoise, from the walls to the lights to the acoustic guitar leaning against an aqua-colored chair. As part of the rotation, the 13 finalists (the girls arrived in the afternoon) each sat down in turn with THR to talk about the journey so far.

It quickly became apparent that despite their young ages (three of this year’s top 13 are under 18), many of this season’s finalists have been tuned in to American Idol from the beginning. “I’ve been watching it since day one,” says 16-year-old Shannon Magrane, just seven years old when the series debuted. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of a talent contest on a big playing ground. I was so thankful they lowered the age when you could audition. When I finally turned 15, I said OK, I’m going right now! This is my moment. Now I’ve turned 16 and I’m the youngest one here.”

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Jessica Sanchez, also 16, has been an Idol viewer “right from the beginning,” she says. “I was a baby.” She adds, “Ever since I was a child I knew this was something that was going to be a huge part of my life. I want to be a real artist who makes music, and share my music with the world.” Just seven when she started singing (and started watching Idol), Jessica waited three years and tried out for America’s Got Talent when she was 10. She was a contestant on the very first season in 2006.

Joshua Ledet, 19, was also there right from the start. “I started watching the first season and wanted to go on the show. I really got interested in it during Fantasia’s season. She’s my favorite Idol. She inspired me to come out and audition, because of her voice and her story, where she comes from and how she never gives up on her dreams.”

Another 19-year-old, Jeremy Rosado, tuned in to that first season -- but not until the finale. “I was flipping through the channels and I saw this girl crying and it didn’t make sense. And Ryan [Seacrest] said, ‘The winner of American Idol season one is Kelly Clarkson.’ And I said I want to do this, this is my dream. Since then I’ve watched every single episode of every season.”

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Hollie Cavanagh, 18, has also been a fan since the beginning, “I’ve watched Idol since Kelly Clarkson was on it and I always wanted to try out and about a week before the auditions I said, why not? I always wanted to be on the Idol stage so I just went for it.” That was during season 10. “When I first got kicked off, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back again, but I worked on getting more confident and believing in myself and getting more stage presence.”

Hollie isn’t the only contestant in this season’s top 13 who tried out before. Jermaine Jones, 25, called back to the top 24 after not making the original cut, has also been watching Idol since the first season. “In 2006, after my first year of college, I went to Minneapolis and auditioned. I didn’t make it past the first round. In 2007 I auditioned in Philadelphia and didn’t make it. We rented a car and drove to South Carolina and I didn’t make it, so this was my fourth time trying out. I stuck with it because I know I have something special. I just needed the right person to hear it. The kind of voice I have, you either like it or you don’t. It’s such a unique sound, such a unique tone. I wasn’t giving up on myself. I’m a survivor. I wasn’t going to get defeated by a few ‘no’s.’ I came back a few years later and look where I am now.”

Colton Dixon was 19 when he tried out for season 10 and made it to Hollywood Week. “I’ve watched American Idol since season one,” he says. “I loved watching Idol. That was our thing to do as a family. I remember being so attached to Justin Guarini. And I was so mad when he didn’t win. Nothing against Kelly, she was amazing but Justin was my boy! Even though I’ve watched ‘Idol’ since season one, I never thought that that was going to be the platform I would take. But last year, when my sister auditioned and I was waiting in line with her, she said, ‘Colton, this is what you want to do, just try it. The worst thing they could do is say not today.’ I said, ‘you’re right.’” Dixon didn’t make the final cut but was invited to appear on Ellen DeGeneres’ show to perform. During their interview she encouraged him to return this year -- and it paid off.

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Also in the “I’ve been watching since season one” club is Erika Van Pelt, 26. “I can literally remember the very first episode of the road auditions,” she tells THR. “I remember seeing Kelly and Justin and thinking how cool is it that they’re making a reality show about singers and giving them the opportunity to perform on national television.” Eventually, she decided to audition. “It took a couple of years, probably until season three. I started going to the tryouts -- for five years in a row, from age 17 to 22. I never made it past the ‘cattle call.’ It was a little discouraging. I know I have this natural ability that God gave me. I thought that was going to be the end of my American Idol journey. I knew I would never stop singing and playing regardless of how the show turned out. My confidence level was different this time around. The producers asked if I tried this before and I said yes, five times. They told me I had grown and matured.”

One finalist who didn’t watch every single episode is 21-year-old Phillip Phillips. “I watched a little bit of every season. I watched season 10 the most because of Casey [Abrams]. He brought something different and he kept me interested. I really liked that and that’s what I want to do this year.”

Then there’s Elise Testone, 28, who admits, “I really didn’t watch American Idol very much. I’ve been a really hard worker ever since I could work. And I didn’t pay for cable a lot. Last year, I watched the show with my friend Holly because she said I have to be on it. She was one of the people who persuaded me to come.”

Like Elise, 18-year-old Skylar Laine came late to Idol. “I started watching a couple of years ago. But I did like it when I started watching it and I’ve been watching ever since. I missed a little bit of last season. But I’m not missing anything this season!”

During the day-long extravaganza, THR also had a chance to learn some surprising things about this year’s top 13:

  • It was a very deliberate move when DeAndre Brackensick put his hair up right after he was cut from the top 13. “When I put my hair up, it means it’s time to work. I only put it down when I’m relaxed or when it’s time to perform. When I got cut, I put my hair up and started going over my lyrics, just in case I got that second chance. I was trying to make a statement,” he laughs. But his hair hasn’t always been so full and curly. “When I was a kid it was bone-straight and white blond. It started to get curly in middle school and that’s when I started growing it out. I’m so glad I did because it’s become a stage prop and a trademark.”
  • Heejun Han first pursued his dream of being a singer in Korea, three years ago. “But it never happened and that led to a depression,” he says. “I didn’t want to go out of my house for a couple of months. My cousin wanted to help me. He took me to a nonprofit organization for people with disabilities. I fell in love with them and went back every day. They taught me true love and how not to give up. They taught me the world is a beautiful place. They pulled me out of my depression. I was thinking, what could I do for them?” Heejun, who was once called by his English name of Dante, thought he could raise donations for the group by getting them attention on local news, but nothing happened, so he decided to get them attention in another way, by trying out for American Idol.
  • Asked to name their musical influences, three of the 13 cite James Brown. But they might not be the three you would expect. One is DeAndre, who bought his first album when he was six: Live at the Apollo by the Godfather of Soul. He explains, “I just love old music. That’s what I grew up listening to. That’s what I’m trying to bring back. This generation is missing real instruments with people singing.” The other James Brown fans: Elise and Joshua.
  • Sometimes the competition pits best friends against each other, and that was the case with Erika Van Pelt and Jennifer Hirsh. “Jen was my best girlfriend on the show,” says Van Pelt. “When Elise, Jen, Hallie [Day] and I were still in the top 24, we were pegged as each other’s competition, mostly because we were all a little older, with big voices. When Randy [Jackson] called my name as the first of the three wild card picks, it was a bittersweet moment for me. I’m thinking, Elise is already in, now I’m in. I’m excited for myself and Elise, but what about my Jen? She’s stellar with talent oozing out of every pore. I talked to her after. She’s been really encouraging and supportive. She told me, ‘Kick butt, I love you and I’m sad I can’t be there with you.’”
  • Jessica Sanchez’s friends might be surprised to see her on American Idol. She explains, “I’m not very public with my music. When I’m around friends I like to keep it a secret. I do sing a lot in school, but to myself.” Sanchez commanded the stage last Wednesday with her performance of “Love You I Do” from Dreamgirls, but the personality you saw on stage is, in her own words, an “alter-ego.” “I’m really shy and soft-spoken. But when I get on stage I’m a totally different person.”
  • Skylar Laine may only be 18, but you wouldn’t know that based on her favorite artists. “I would ride around with my papaw in his truck and listen to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings and Marty Robbins. That’s what made me love music and start singing. We really loved ‘El Paso’ by Marty Robbins and all the Johnny Cash songs. I love Waylon’s ‘Ladies Love Outlaws.’”
  • Joshua Ledet lists his musical influences as Michael Jackson, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. So you might be surprised that his all-time favorite song is “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton.
  • Colton Dixon didn’t always look like a rock star. “I went to a high school where you were either extremely country or extremely preppy. I tried the preppy thing first but it didn’t really work for me. I started creating me. The hair took a couple of years to perfect. And it’s still searching for something,” he laughs.
  • The first thing I ask Phillip Phillips is if he knows the song “Sea of Love.” It’s a hit from 1959, some 32 years before he was born. But it’s a trick question and he’s on to me. “Sure, I know it,” he says. “It’s by Phil Phillips. But I’m Phillip Phillips.” Then I tell him that the Phil Phillips from the ‘50s wasn’t really named Phil Phillips (he was born John Phillips Baptiste). But there is a good chance Idol finalist Phillip Phillips will be the second artist with that name, Phil or Phillip not withstanding, to make the Billboard charts.

Twitter: @Idol_Worship / @FredBronson