American Idol : Part One

Eight years ago today, God told me I needed to sing to tell my story.


Singing and writing has always been there for me as the one thing I could do to make me feel better. After my sister passed away I would lock myself in my room and listen to music. I wrote my first song about her when I was only 8. My mom and I started singing together for events shortly after that. In the summer after my freshman year of high school, in June 2009, my mom and I were going to Nashville to audition for “Can You Duet?”, but leading up to the trip my mental state was officially spiraling out of control. My mom gave me one choice. She said I could only go on the trip if I finally got help and tried some antidepressants. We headed down to Nashville. The entire process of waiting in line and meeting other performers was amazing.  And although we didn’t get past the  last round of auditions, the process and experience of being in Nashville and singing on the Ryman Stage with my mom was amazing, and little did I know, would prepare me for what was ahead.

In July 2009, I had a trip planned with my church to a christian youth convention also in Tennessee. My mom had went to the same convention 20 years earlier so she insisted I go even though I hated being away from home. On the trip, my first month’s medication ran out and I thought I was beginning to spiral again, but then something happened that changed my life. On the last night, we had a big event called “MainStage” that had thousands of kids worshipping in song for Jesus. There was a point that the band dropped out, the singers stopped singing into their mic, and it was just pure worship. I have tears even writing about it. This was a turning point. I threw my hands up in the air, fell to my knees, crying, singing. Through it all I heard a voice, “you need to sing to tell your story”. That night we met up with our counselors to tell them what we learned from the trip and I told her this story. At the time I didn’t know what it meant, but now in 2017, I get to look back with so much joy because I know that what that voice said, was true.

Becoming Ready


Throughout highschool I had brought it up to my mom a few times that I was considering auditioning for American Idol, but on the other hand I never viewed myself as a “singer”. I just knew that I could sing. American Idol was always more of a bucket list thing for me, but my mom would look at me and shake her head, “you are too young and your voice isn’t ready”.  Having her tell me this made me want to prove her wrong.  I sat in my room for hours singing at the top of my lungs, then I would say, “Mom, listen to this”. My mom, who has always been my biggest supporter of any dream I had, also never held back on being honest. “You are singing too nasally…use your belly…work on your vibrato…”  Annoyed, I again and again head up to practice more. This went on for a long time, each time I would come to her, she would tell me what I was doing well, but also what I needed work on. “I want to audition for Idol!” I would say.  “You aren’t ready” she would say. One day I started practicing a song from Sweet Charity.  I was lucky we lived on a farm, because I would sing as loud as I could practicing the big notes.   When my mom came home I was ready to wow her. My mom sat down ready to get the usual serenade.  I sang my heart out blasting the big note that only months back I couldn’t hit.  I remember my moms eye widening and her mouth drop open and into a smile as she jumped up. “You are READY!”
Even though my mom agreed that I could audition for Idol, we still needed to figure out how we were going to get there.  It started looking like Idol wasn’t going to happen since my life , my life was nothing short of a roller coaster. My parents were in the process of getting divorced. I was in an unhealthy relationship. I was also being harassed in school and on top of all that chaos I had just been diagnosed bipolar.


Fun and random fact that you probably will notice, is that every major event in my life, except for just a few things, has happened in July. So fast forward to July of 2011, where I decided to audition for American Idol.


I originally asked my mom if my boyfriend and I could drive to St. Louis, MO for the auditions. At the time, I was so co-dependent on him, and I believed I needed him there with me or I wouldn’t be able to do the audition.  My mom however didn’t like the idea of her teenage daughter alone on the road with her boyfriend.  She also knew I was unstable, and needed her there.  My only goal was to make it past cattle call round, but my mom believed I could go all the way.  She had a feeling from the very moment I sang my song for her that I was going to be on American Idol. She said that we might as well make it a road trip so we started planning for the Denver audition. As optimistic as my mom was, my dad and other family were not. My mom’s dad was telling her he was disappointed in her for wasting her money on something so foolish, and my dad thinking we were just wasting our time. On top of that, my mom was laid off from her job for the summer and we were completely broke  My mom suggested we have a performance at a local bar that hosted Open Mic Nights.  The owner agreed for me to do a few songs and have a donation jar, and my mom started inviting people. Lucky for me, when I started telling people about my idea, I was receiving a lot of support. We decided to do a little fundraiser show. I began practicing my songs with my mom coaching me.  I would sing a song and my mom would say, “You aren’t connecting with the song, do it again.”  She taught me that there was more to performing for an audience than belting out big notes.   She taught me that singing is about expressing emotions, something I was full off.  She said the measure of a great singer is the one who can make you feel.


Finding Others Who Believed In Me


The night I got up on that small bar’s stage was the first time I had ever sang in public alone.  I remember the crowd going completely quiet when I began to sing.  I had always believed I was pretty good at singing, but I had no idea other people could be moved by me singing a song.  That night I had people waiting to talk to me after to tell me they believed in me, giving me as much as they could.  It was the first time that someone other than my mom told me they believed in me.


It was then that I started to see a difference in my boyfriend.  It was no mistake that I sought out someone else with pain and mental chaos, because after all, who else could understand mine?  I didn’t think anyone else could understand me, or would want me.  For the first time, someone other than my mom was telling me that I had a gift.  This attention from other people was hard on my boyfriend, who had come to depend on my obsessive need for him and low self-esteem to feed his own need for control.  This would eventually cause him to start to using other methods of control to make me feel small. (But I’ll cover that in a future post.)


You Can’t Do This Alone


By now it was July, and although we had raised a little money,  it still wasn’t enough to pay for hotels and gas money. 2011 was a tough year for many families and some of my moms friends had lost their homes to the mortgage crash and like her boyfriend, been victims of company downsizing the same year.  My mom began to get discouraged, telling me that I may have to wait until next year to audition.  It was then that my moms boyfriend (who we nicknamed “Big Tommy”) said, “You can’t do this alone, but we all believe in Shelby.  I’ve never been anywhere, lets all put our money together, take my SUV, and make a trip out of it.  We can be there to cheer her on.”


 So on a warm summer morning,  me, my brother, my mom, my mom’s boyfriend, and my mom’s best friend all piled into an SUV, and headed off for an adventure.  6 people driving 8 hours a day is an adventure in itself.  And because none of us had a lot of money we got creative with our funds and saved money by either tented at campgrounds along the way or all jammed into hotel rooms taking turns sleeping on floor.  Along the way, we stopped at Mount Rushmore and drove through the Rocky Mountains. You would think that 6 people ranging from 12-42 years old spending so much time together in so little space (and one with mental illness) would be a complete nightmare, but it wasn’t.   And even though my moms friends got to see my mental illness up close, we all became closer because they got to see the real Shelby and the real struggle that only my mom got to see up to that point.


Just Me And 11,000 Other People


The last thing on the list to do was for me to audition.  We pulled into Denver at 2am and my mom and I had to be up at 4am to get to the Stadium and get a place in line.  The hotel was NOT at all like the pictures online.  The room was trashy, with a fridge that looked like someone had punched a big dent in it, a mattress with blood stains going down the side of the box spring and a wall air conditioner that was broken with water dripping from it causing water to shoot up between your toes when you walked on it.  There wasn’t any other rooms available and I was ready to lose it!!  My mom told me to lay down and get some sleep and we would make it work.  Two hours later, my mom and I headed out into the dark to the Bronco’s Mile High stadium to find a spot with the other 11,000 in line….


Auditioning for Idol takes patience. You wait in line, JUST to register, get a wrist band with a number, and then go back to wait in another line again. We filled out the paperwork and officially got into the line which opened at  6 a.m. The entire walkway around the stadium was filled with thousands of people auditioning.  The excitement from all the people was electric!!  But the waiting was hard, because all you could hear were these amazing people singing and you couldn’t help but compare yourself. I thought the girl before me in line was honestly a much better singer than me and it made me nervous.  My mom told me that she had a good feeling from the beginning, because camera’s kept coming over to me to film me in line.  That didn’t make me feel any better because no one had heard me sing yet.


After 6 hours of waiting in the sun, we made it up to the front doors of the Stadium and the producers started filming fill in clips for the show.  The producer climbed onto a ladder and tried his best to keep the large crowd focused, making us scream out “Welcome to Denver” and “Welcome to American Idol” over and over.  Finally the crowd was slowing let into the stadium, with everyone filled into their seats of the stadium according to their wrist band number.  On the sidelines there was small white tents lined all the way down with 3-4 judges sitting at tables in each tent.  To keep the chaos to a minimum, each section would be called by rows, the rows would go down on the field, 4 contestants per tent.  Each would be asked to step forward and sing for 30 seconds and then step back. The judges would say yes or no.  The ones with a no would immediately leave the Stadium, the yeses would be forwarded on to the next round.


Knock The Nerves Or You Won’t Make It Far


My section was called and we all walked our way down the steps and onto the football field.  My mom being told to go to the end of the field by the goal post to wait. I, along with the girl who I thought was better, and two other people stepped into the tent on the 20 yard line.  We were lined up, asked to step forward, give our names and sing.  My mom who was so nervous she felt like throwing up herself, said she could hear we all the way down to the end zone. I sang my first song, then got asked to sing a second, which made me feel sick to my stomach.  I stepped back and the others sang.  The judges then asked me to step forward, “Shelby, you will be moving forward, here is your ticket. You others, thank you for auditioning for American Idol.”  I was completely shaking when I took my first golden ticket and they said to me, “you need to knock these nerves out now or you won’t make it far”, and after that that’s exactly what I did.  My mom, who had watched countless people walking down the field and out the door crying and rejected, watched me bound out of the tent and run down the field. I will never forget walking out of the Stadium jumping up in down.  A camera crew from a local News Station saw my ticket and did an interview.


All the guys who were waiting for us in the parking lot,  erupted with excitement when they saw the ticket.  The only problem was that the next round of auditions weren’t for 3 more days and we were out of money and didn’t plan for that.  Big Tommy saw how important it was to us, and went into his savings to not only help pay for us to stay for the next few rounds, but take us some great places. I will never forget that.  We spent the next two days at the Largest Water Park  in America in Denver, go and we even put on wet suits and helmets and white water rafted down level 4 rapids of the Colorado river, where we earned the nickname “The Helmet Crew”.


 The Bipolar Girl


 A couple days later, my mom and I were back filling out more paperwork.  I was asked to write “My Story”.  My mom asked what I was going to write. At the time, I had just been diagnosed bi-polar, which for me was a big deal because I finally had some understanding about what I had been doing through, and dealing with my manic episodes, violent irruptions and sporadic behavior, had been such a whirlwind the years leading up to Idol.   I said, “I’m going to write about my bi-polar”.  At first my mom laughed at the thought of that.  But then she saw I was serious and got quiet.  She said, “Are you sure you want to do that? Are you ready to put yourself out there as the poster child for mental illness? Are you prepared for how people may view you? ” I could tell by the worry in her eyes that she wanted to protect me.


I finished my paperwork and got in line again,  It was there that I met one of my really good friends Kyle, a fellow contestant. His favorite story about me is when we first met. We had formed a little group in line where we were asking everyone’s “story”, what they had to make the show fall in love with them. When Kyle turned to me and asked my story I said, “well I’m bipolar”, with a big smile on my face. Almost immediately, everyone in the group gave me a look of confusion. Then they went into how I probably shouldn’t talk about that on camera because then I would be labeled “the bipolar girl”.  I shrugged and said, “that doesn’t bother me because that’s who I am.” 

3 Replies to “American Idol : Part One”

  1. Thanks for sharing your amazing story. I was wondering how it all happened. Faith in God and yourself is always a plus.

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