Louisiana ‘Idol’

“You’re going to Hollywood!”

Several area singers heard those magic words in October when the judges round of “American Idol” auditions unfolded at the Baton Rouge River Center. Last July, thousands turned out for preliminary Louisiana auditions at the New Orleans Arena, where many advanced after performing for “Idol” producers. But now it was time to face the judges — Keith Urban, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Baton Rouge native Randy Jackson — who would decide if they would be traveling to Tinseltown to pursue the “Idol” title.

Megan Miller

An LSU student and native of Ethel, Miller didn’t let a “little” thing like being on crutches keep her from the finals in Baton Rouge. Having been involved in a motorcycle accident three days before, doctors advised her she needed emergency surgery on her injured and infected leg. But she was determined not to miss out on “Idol.”

“It all worked out, both things that I wanted. It was a good decision that I don’t regret,” Miller said recently.

After three surgeries and extensive therapy, the kinesiology major is off crutches, and is even back in high heels, and the wedges she insisted on wearing when she met the judges.

“They showed up at the very last audition, which was the Hollywood round, and they’re there, they’re walking around, you’re trying not to stare at them, and they kind of came in and gave us a pep talk before our auditions so that we could kind of get used to them so we weren’t that star struck,” Miller recalled.

“That day, it goes by so quick,” she said. “Watching it last night with my friends I just started crying because, I know that cameras can make you look any way they want to, but they showed a good side of me, and the judges loved me, and interacting with four mega-superstars and have them say that I have an endearing quality about me and that I’m going to be a superstar, it was, it seems like a huge blessing to have been in their presence and sang to them, and them love me.”

After the judges gave her the good news about Hollywood, she turned to hop out of the room.

“We’re going to come see you in the hospital,” Urban yelled.

“Well, of course, you can come, Keith,” Miller shot back.

“Just like any sane woman would do,” Miller said of the easy-on-the-eyes Urban.

Unlike most of the 15- to 28-year-olds who audition for the show, Miller, 22, had never watched “Idol” before she tried out in New Orleans.

“My friends actually messaged me. They keep up with the show a lot, and they were wondering if I wanted to go with them to try out. Well, I don’t really watch much TV, but I knew who Carrie Underwood (award-winning singer and season 4 ‘Idol’ winner) was. We all went down there, we kind of made a trip out of it. I wasn’t expecting anything. Going in there you know that only a certain number of people are going to get that far and I didn’t really have my hopes up, but it ended up paying off, and now I just feel like it’s just one big dream,” Miller said.

Miller hasn’t had formal voice lessons, but is accustomed to performing for an audience. She recently passed on the Miss Greater Baton Rouge title she carried for a year. The local win allowed Miller to compete in the Miss Louisiana pageant last summer, winning fourth runner-up and taking the talent competition.

“So it’s been a year to remember for me,” she said.

Miller is also in a local cover band, The Megan Miller Band, and has released her first single on iTunes, titled “Only Me and You.” “I co-wrote it with my producer. It’s like electronic music, something you’d run to or work out to or dance to.”

(Miller will be seen on “Idol” this week, as the female contestants compete in group and solo performances, and the girls are pared down to 20. This phase of the contest for the guys aired last week.)

Burnell Taylor

The 19-year-old from New Orleans called performing for the judges “a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

“Just to know that people on the panel, who have accomplished a lot, you know, Mariah, she’s done it all, and even Nicki, in her short time, she’s accomplished a lot, so you know, it was good to actually have the opportunity to be heard. It was good to showcase my talents to people who know what talent was,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s song brought Carey to tears in Baton Rouge.

“Mariah’s reaction, it was so surreal, you know Mariah didn’t know me at all, so when she said she cried, you know, she really meant, you know, she was crying because of how I delivered and how I sang the song,” he said. “So I was very speechless and very excited at the same time because you know, like I said, it’s crazy to have somebody that’s accomplished so much and they appreciate what you do as much as you appreciate your own craft.”

Taylor also had no formal training prior to auditions, but started vocal lessons last month.

“I’ve learned so much already. Even if I become successful, I still want to continue to do that (voice lessons) because I want to be prepared and set up the right way instead of singing so many years wrong and then when it’s time for me, say, for me to get a life achievement award, I want to be able to sing.”

Taylor said his grandfather was in a band, and his mother sings.

“But she never had the courage like I had, but she’s an excellent singer. But she never took it to that next level.

“It’s like when something is meant for you, it’s gonna be anyway, so it wasn’t like a forced thing. I feel like it’s a blessing from God, and it’s not going anywhere.”

(Taylor advanced to the top 26 last week, with six more cuts still to be determined.)

Brandy Hotard

The 27-year-old singer from Port Allen is quite familiar with the “Idol” audition process.

This was her third time around, having tried out when she was 16 and again at 20.

“It was really neat to perform in front of a different panel of judges this year,” Hotard said. “I thought they were all very different in what they were looking for. I think some are more concentrated on voice, while some are concentrating on more of the performance, the ‘it factor’ like a lot of people call it, and I think it’s very interesting what they bring to the table as artists themselves.

“Being a local audition was definitely a calming or soothing factor as well, to jump across the bridge and be so close to the audition process.”

When the judges told Hotard she was moving on to Hollywood, the moment was bittersweet, she said.

“I had been overwhelmed all week. My grandmother had been fighting a battle with Alzheimer’s for quite some time, over 10 years, and she had passed that Monday before the auditions. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hold it together all the way through.”

The judges were very consoling, she added.

“Keith Urban hugged me and told me he knew she (my grandmother) was watching and she was proud of me. It was a sweet moment,” Hotard said.

Hotard studied voice with Baton Rouge teacher Skip Harris for four years, and like Miller, has been involved with the Miss Louisiana program. She reigned as Miss Southeastern Louisiana University and also competed in the Miss Louisiana pageant before Miller. They’ve since met and become good friends, and were on the same flight to California for the Hollywood round tapings in December.

Hotard graduated in 2011 with a degree in nursing, and works in the psychiatric ward at Baton Rouge General-Mid City.

Formerly in the band MoJeaux, Hotard now sings with local band The Harvey Wallbangers when her work schedule allows.

“I think I’ve grown a lot since the last time I auditioned, and I’ve kind of figured out more who I am, and gotten more comfortable in my own skin, as far as being able to sing and entertainment-wise as well,” she said.

(Look for Hotard on this week’s episodes, also.)

Dustin Watts

Singing is something the firefighter from Albany has been doing seriously only for the last couple of years.

“I’m 27. I figured if I was going to do it, now was the time before I got too old, and then I would have never been able to say that I did,” Watts said.

“I was raised listening to country and country is really where my heart is. I love all types of music, I listen to all types of music, but country is just something I’m compelled to sing,” he said.

Watts, who works at a firehouse in Baton Rouge, said singing in front of the “Idol” judges was “kind of surreal.”
“They’re real personable people. They make you feel at home. I was more than pleased with their reaction. I got nothing but positive feedback. They seemed to really like me and that’s something I’ll always remember, you know, the fact that four superstars in music told me I was good enough to go to Hollywood.”

His fellow firemen got a kick out of their newly discovered “star.”

“It just gives them more ammunition to pick on me about,” he said, laughing. “But they’re all behind me 100 percent. We have a real tight brotherhood.

“It’s a little bit different going around town, going to the grocery store, going on calls, of course, because now I’m recognized.”

A firefighter for 8½ years, Watts called it the best job in the world.

“I tell everybody that other than singing it’s the only thing I can see myself doing. It’s a rewarding job, you know, at the end of the day you have some satisfaction at having helped people,” he said.

Describing himself as raw, Watts said he’s had no voice lessons, and has never been in a band.

“I would love to get lessons in the future. This is really helping me discover what I want to do with music.”

(Watts was eliminated in the first round of Hollywood Week.)

Among other Louisiana contestants advancing to Hollywood are: Breanna Steer, LaPlace; Athena Frangos, New Orleans; and Khristopher Fuselier and Laurence Hebert, both of Lake Charles.