Diana DeGarmo is the 11th and latest “American Idol” contestant to appear on a Billboard chart. Her debut single, “Dreams” (RCA), debuted at No. 14 on the Hot 100, and No. 2 on the Hot 100 Singles Sales tally.
She just celebrated her 17th birthday, but she was only 16 in May when she became the youngest contestant to reach the top two and compete in the final night of competition on the highly rated Fox TV talent competition.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., DeGarmo moved with her family to Tampa, Fla., before settling in Snellville, Ga., about 25 miles outside of Atlanta. Her first public performance was a rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” as a kindergartener.
It wasn’t long before she began chasing the dream of becoming a professional performer. As a youngster she performed with a troupe at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and the next year in a Christmas show at the Opryland theme park in Nashville. DeGarmo performed at corporate events and has also sung the National Anthem prior to Atlanta Braves baseball and Hawks basketball games.
“But I still had a really regular childhood,” she says. “I went to birthday parties and school events and stuff like that.”
In attempts to further her singing caeer, DeGarmo briefly relocated to Sweden and was a contestant on NBC’s “America’s Most Talented Kid” competition.
Described as an “old soul” by “Idol” judge Simon Cowell during the show’s third season, DeGarmo’s talents evoke another era. Case-in-point, the commercially released “Dreams” single features a cover of “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” a No. 10 hit on Billboard’s pop chart in 1979 for Melissa Manchester.
DeGarmo is now on the road with the other third-season finalists on a 52-date tour that ends Sept. 30 in Hawaii. Before boarding the tour bus, she sat down to discuss her life and her experiences on “American Idol.”
what was the first hint that you were musical?
I always loved singing. No matter where I was, I would just make up my own stuff. My mom had a tape of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits and whenever we were in the car, she would put it on and it got to the point where I knew all the words to every one of the songs and I knew what order they came in on the tape. She would try to skip songs and try to make it go faster so she wouldn’t have to listen to the whole thing and I would say, “You missed a song, mom. Go back.”
My brother played soccer and my mom would say, “Don’t you want to try soccer?” I was totally anti-athletic. I would say, “Let’s go sing and play dolls.” I was totally the girly-girl. Once my mom realized I had a passion for music, she was behind me 200%.
Were there other artists besides patsy cline that inspired you?
My mom played me all kinds of music, from Ella Fitzgerald to Celine Dion. I listened to everything growing up, old and new. I actually started singing country music because at the time, there wasn’t really a pop genre and some of the other types of music were not very good for me to sing at my age. So I started off singing country but I also loved blues.
A lot of the songs you sing were written long before you were born. How do you look for songs?
My mom had stacks and stacks of albums. She’d pull out the Jimi Hendrix and we were like, “Oh, yeah!” I always bought CDs and also you listen to what people like and what they listen to. When you’re at a club and you hear [Aretha Franklin’s] “Chain of Fools,” everybody jumps up and everybody knows the song.
I believe that you should not be just raised on what the music is right then. You should be raised on what is from your past, what your parents have grown up with, because it’s a really big piece of your culture that you need to know about and I’m glad my mother has done that for me.
Did you watch the first two seasons of “American Idol”?
When the first season was on, I was kind of anti-“American Idol” because I wanted to audition, but I was too young. I remember seeing all the posters everywhere in Atlanta and saying, “Don’t watch that show.”
But then I became addicted to the show halfway through the first season and I voted for Kelly like a fiend. I just loved her. I bought her album and everyone would ask, “Can you sing ‘A Moment Like This’ for us?” and I was like, “Oh, OK” and it ended up being a really great song for me. I sing that a lot.
Then the second season, I watched very intensely and even though I was still a little too young to audition, I cheered for Ruben and Clay. They both were great. And then when the auditions came around for the third season, I was like, “Oh yay! I’m old enough!”
Even though you live in Georgia, you didn’t audition in Atlanta. Why?
When the auditions came to Atlanta, I had a commitment that I had made months in advance on the same day and instead of backing out of something that I had obligated myself to, the next city on the list was Honolulu. My cousin lived there and my brother had just gotten back from [military duty in] Afghanistan, so we were going to kind of do a double duty trip, going to take him to Hawaii and then audition. Well, he ended up not being able to go because the army wouldn’t release him, so I went on ahead and auditioned.
We had already bought the tickets when my brother had to back out, so I thought, “You might as well go. What will you lose?” It was my first time in Hawaii and I had a blast.
How long did you wait in line to audition?
One full day, but it was one very, very hot day. They were having a freak heat wave and there were no trade winds and we were out there just cooking alive outside in the sun. We got in line at six o’clock one morning and then at six o’clock the next morning, they started filing us into the Aloha Stadium.
Then we filed in and they have 10 tables with producers, and the woman that I’m going up to would point to the right and that meant no, and if she pointed left, that meant yes. And so everybody she looked at, she pointed to the right and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I was totally terrified because she looked so mean and then she jumped out of her chair and she said, “You were great! Go up there! Run up to the left!” I remember running all the way up all those stairs in the Aloha Stadium to the very, very top to fill out the paperwork.
The next day, we met the executive producers, Nigel [Lythgoe] and Ken [Warwick], and luckily it was inside a hotel, so no standing outside for us. I sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from “Dreamgirls” and they said, “You can’t sing that song. That’s too old for you. Do you know what that song’s about? Sing us some Britney Spears.” And I said, “I don’t sing Britney Spears. That’s not me.” They said, “But you’re young. You need to sing Britney Spears.”
I kept protesting and so I sang a Christina Aguilera song and they said, “You can go through.”
That meant you were through to audition for on-air judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. What was that like?
Simon said, “She’s too cute,” and Paula said, “Do you think she’s too young?” It was crazy. They kept going back and forth and by the time I was done singing, they had talked about me forever.
Then they said, “You’re OK. You’re through.” And it was like, “Huh?” I was so out of it. My mom asked, “What happened?” I said, “I don’t know, really.” It was just a whirlwind.
Did you have any feeling that you could make the top 10 or top two?
I thought that if I put enough hard work into it and gave it my all that I would have a good chance of making it into the top 12. When we got to L.A., I picked a song that I loved, “I’ve Got the Music in Me” by the Kiki Dee Band. It has an amazing beat and it’s one of those feel-good songs.
You had already been on “America’s Most Talented Kid” and didn’t win. Why did you decide to go through another televised talent competition?
When I didn’t make it on “America’s Most Talented Kid,” I was upset because I had worked really hard and it didn’t go quite my way. I realized that Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, probably the top three pop stars right now, all lost on “Star Search.”
With “America’s Most Talented Kid,” I learned a lot. I learned what not to do and what to do.
Like many other contestants on “American Idol,” you received your share of criticism from the judges, some of it rather harsh. Was that difficult to handle?
With the downright mean stuff, you just have to learn to laugh it off, because nine out of 10 times, they don’t really mean what they’re saying. They’re saying it to make the TV show. Because that’s what you do have to remember: “American Idol” is a TV show, plain and simple. The music doesn’t always come first. They want ratings. They want people to see it. And so when Simon cuts you to shreds you know it may not always be true, but it works darn good for the TV show.
When it’s stuff that you know he really means, you take it for what it is and you process it and then you let it go right back out the other ear and you don’t let it worry you because the judges don’t vote.
But also, my mother has raised me with a Southern upbringing with manners and you respect adults and you say, “Yes ma’am,” “No ma’am,” “Yes sir,” “No sir” and people made fun of me for doing that. But I was taught to let the adult have their opinion and you say, “That was your opinion. I may not agree with it, but it is all yours to have,” and you just move on and you don’t try to argue.
That explains why you always reacted with such grace.
Thank you. And sometimes you’ve got to handle Simon with humor. He liked that. He wants to see what you’re going to say back. I think he gets angrier if you don’t bite back.
If you say, “I still love you anyway, Simon. It’ll be alright,” you can see him turn purple in the face. It’s great, because he’s thinking, “I want her to say something back so I can snap one at her.” You have to just learn how to handle him.
How difficult were the Wednesday shows, when someone was voted off?
You never really understand how hard Wednesday is until you’re on the show. You’re stressed out enough about your own place, because every week is so up and down.
Clay [Aiken] and Ruben [Studdard] had a steady fan base throughout the entire [second season], so no matter how bad they did, they were always fine because their fan bases loved them. With this season, the fans did not consistently vote for the same person. Jennifer Hudson was number one one week and she left the next week.
So you’re freaking out about, “Am I the one that’s going to go this week or am I staying? If I get voted off, what am I going to say?” Every week, I prepared a goodbye speech because you never know what’s going to happen.
It’s really hard to see somebody leave, because it’s seeing their dream shattered. All of us come to audition for “American Idol” to win or at least be in the top five. That’s one great thing about the show. No matter what place you finish, somebody sees you and some opportunity is open to you, so you have to keep that in the back of your mind. That’s what keeps you positive and keeps you from losing your mind.
During the season, you met some previous contestants, like Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke and Tamyra Gray.
It was really cool to meet them because you see where they’ve placed and how well they’ve done. Kimberley is doing great with her album and she came in third place. Tamyra’s doing great and she came in fourth place on the first season and it’s two years later and people still know who she is and they know her voice and they’re buying her album. It’s really inspiring.
I remember when I first met Clay Aiken at the auditions in Pasadena, I asked him, “Can you sing for me, Clay?” He said, “If you want to hear me sing, go buy the album.” Later on, I learned his sense of humor, so I think it’s funny now, but back then I thought, “I’m just a kid. You don’t have to be mean to me.” But now knowing him and his personality, I would expect that from him. He’s just so nice.
Because he came in second, he knows also where I’m coming from now. It’s impressive to see his determination to do great things even though he came in second place and he didn’t win the title of “American Idol.” It’s very encouraging to go out and do just as well as he did and maybe even better.
What about this year’s group – is there anyone you are particularly close to?
I’ve really become close with John Stevens. He’s obviously closest to my age [Stevens is 16]. We had school together and we are both in the same situation; we both have our moms with us. So, he’s my buddy and he’s such a goofball. I wish he could have really shown that side on the show. He’s really showing it in the tour show because he’s so funny. He’s a really good friend.
He’s very mature for his age and he’s a great person to be around. And it’s so funny, whenever his girlfriend calls, he’ll say, “Kelly called. She’s mad at me. What do I do?” And I’ll coach him. He’ll ask, “Should I say…?” I’ll tell him, “No, if you say that, she’s going to break up with you.”
Let’s talk about the final night of “American Idol.” that must have seemed surreal.
I really cannot tell you anything about the evening because I don’t remember. I was so mentally exhausted and physically exhausted because we’d been run ragged the entire week before and I was just so tired that once it got to Wednesday, I was like, “Let’s get this done and over with. I’m ready to get out of here. I don’t care who wins. I just want to go home. I just want to find the hotel bed and sleep.”
I do remember though, one of my favorite performances was with Kelly, Ruben and Fantasia, when we sang “The Impossible Dream.” Everybody’s voice strangely enough mixed together really well. I looked down. I saw my aunt crying, my mom crying, Fantasia’s mom’s crying and her dad was crying.
When they got down to announcing the names, both Fantasia and I were so hyped on the song we had just done, the duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” I thought, “Oh man, we’re doing the results now? Hold on!” Then it hit me, this is the last moment of “American Idol.”
After the finale, the next step was to release your debut single. Tell me about recording the song ‘Dreams.’
When I first heard the demo, it was a male voice and it was very country and I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this one. I don’t know if this is quite my style.” Desmond Child wrote it with Andreas Carlsson and Chris Braide.
Desmond was actually a friend of mine that I’ve known for years and Clive Davis asked them to change a few things and make a bigger ending. When I got the track back and I listened to it — it was a rough mix, nothing had been touched on it — I got teary-eyed.
Not only was it a great song, it gave me a feeling of accomplishment. I had done so many things where we put a lot of hard work and money into it and then it ended up not working out or you think it will and it ends up falling apart, so having something sitting there on a desk with my voice on it with the little RCA label on it, just excited me so much.
Wait, go back. You’ve just turned 17. How could Desmond Child be a friend of yours for years?
I met Desmond when I was in seventh grade, through a friend of a friend. We went down to Florida and [my friend said], “I know this really great writer I think you should meet.” We went to his huge house in Miami and I didn’t really understand who he was. Now I understand that he has written for Bon Jovi and Ricky Martin and so many great artists. He gave me songs to listen to and some of the stuff I was never able to work on. Some of those were too adult, but now his songs work for me because I’m a little bit older now.
He’s very into signs, like if you’re an Aquarius or Pisces and he always talked to me about being a Gemini and he said, “I bet you have a bad side.” I told him, “Personally, I’ve never seen a bad side of me.”
He loved to talk to me about my sign and after he’d come out of one of his writing sessions, he told me, “We just wrote this great hit for Ricky Martin and we put in a line about you. When you hear it, you’ll definitely know it was about you.”
I completely forgot about it, but four months later, I’m in my car with my mom and all of a sudden, I hear, “This is Ricky Martin’s new song, ‘She Bangs’!” And it’s like, “She bangs, she bangs,” and then it goes, “She switches sides like a Gemini,” and I said, “Mom, that was about me!”
So that was my one little claim to fame and one little link to Ricky Martin — and William Hung!
Now you’re going on the road. Are you looking forward to the American Idols Live tour?
I love taking trips, so this is going to be like one big trip for me, and I’m used to piling into our old minivan with my mom and friends and driving to Florida for the weekend. So I think this is going to be fun. I’m excited and luckily, I’m one of those people that can sleep anywhere so I’m not worried about the bus.
I’m going to get to go to so many places where I would never have been able to go and I’m going to get to go to all these wonderful venues and see all the people that voted for me, so I’m so excited.
All of us have worked really hard to make the show great. Jasmine is playing the piano on one of the songs. JPL [Jon Peter Lewis] is playing the guitar. We’re all showing that we can do other things than just stand in the middle of the stage and sing. Because we don’t have the competition anymore, the show’s a lot more relaxed. Everybody’s just out there to have a good time and perform for the fans.
It’s really amazing to see how well the show has come together, especially in just two weeks. Because when we got here, we all looked at the song list and we were like, “Oh, man,” but now we have the music and the choreography and our awesome band. I mean, they are just so hot. They’re like the cherry on top of the sundae, you know, and it’s going to be a really, really great show and I hope a lot of people come out to see it.