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Little Rhody's Big Star

"American Idol" alum Erika Van Pelt is still a South County gal at heart

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When a little girl with a big voice was moved up to sing in the adult choir at church, that was the first inkling there was some big talent inside that tiny package. Erika Van Pelt, who recently finished as one of the top 10 finalists on American Idol, has had all of one formal voice lesson in her entire life. At age seven, a voice coach taught her a Disney song and after Erika sang it flawlessly; the teacher told Erika’s mother she was out of her league. It seems like she didn’t need lessons at all. With singing in her DNA (her sister Sarah and brother Colin also have great voices) and music in her blood (according to Idol mentor Jimmy Iovine), South Kingstown’s Van Pelt went on to be selected in all four years of high school to All State, All New England and All Eastern choruses. Not wanting to kill the passion by studying voice, she opted for a degree in music production at Berklee College of Music. “I saw too many people losing the fun of singing by studying for a voice degree,” she said. “I figured if I took production then I would stay involved in the music business and learn to do my own recordings.”

That degree led Van Pelt to start her own mobile DJ company. She has spent the last few years working six nights a week at various locations throughout New England, spinning tunes and leading karaoke. She also traveled with the wedding band Sultans of Swing as the lead singer. It was on a trip to a wedding in Palm Beach, Florida in Novemember 2010 that her road to American Idol actually began. “I hadn’t had any time off in a long time,” says Van Pelt, “so I decided to stay behind and take a couple of days alone at Disney World.” There she found an attraction called The American Idol Experience. “It perfectly mimics the show,” she says. “Guests can sign up to sing in competition or to judge from the audience.” She chose to sing.

If you win a round you get to go on to the next one later in the day and again and again as the competition keeps going into the evening. The winner gets a dream ticket to use at any American Idol audition to jump to the head of the line. Erika sang her way to the winner’s spot. The next auditions for the real American Idol show were being held in summer 2011 and Pittsburgh, PA was the closest to Rhode Island. After a nine-hour drive, Van Pelt got to audition as 30 out of 13,000 people.

Even though it was daunting to walk out there and sing in front of Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, Erika said it wasn’t until Hollywood Week that it all started to seem real to her. “Up until then it seemed like more like a dream,” she says. “Then 309 of us, out of tens of thousands who auditioned, were sitting in the theater and the show’s director came out and said, ‘Look around, the next American Idol is in this room.’ That’s when it really hit home.” Even though Hollywood Week was more like hell week, Van Pelt says that it was her favorite time on the show. “It was such a pressure cooker, so much stress, no sleep. I honestly thought that having toured with my band, I had a little bit of Navy Seal-like training for what I was going to go through. But there was no way to prepare; it was sheer, overwhelming panic and I just had to throw myself into the fire.” And throw herself in she did, getting first into the top 40, then surviving into the top 25 and finally finishing in the top 10, which won her a spot on the American Idol tour this summer.

Van Pelt describes herself as blissfully ignorant the first time she stood on the montrous stage where American Idol is filmed. “Everything is so elaborate and the crew makes magic happen there,” she said. She underwent a number of style changes during her time on the show. A girl who likes her hoodies and Converse sneakers found herself thrown into five-inch stilettos and leather jackets. Hair up, hair down, hair blonde, hair brown. “I’m going to change my hair and my clothes a million times – I always have – but if I can move people through song then that is what is important to me.” From a voice that Idol mentor Mary J. Blige called “steak and potatoes,” there is that beautiful, rich tone in the alto range. Van Pelt is a lover of all genres of music, giving her a well-rounded education and execution. Her favorite genres to sing are R&B and blues, but as judge Randy Jackson said, “she can sing the phone book.”

“All I wanted to do was to build a solid body of work on the show,” says Van Pelt, “something that I would be proud of on YouTube.” Her performances on the show were well received by the judges and music critics and so that work will live on. During the summer tour of the top 10 finalists, the performers will have more say over their song choices and wardrobe than they did on the show. Erika is looking forward to bringing her Batman Converse sneakers with her on tour, although she is afraid that another Idol finisher, Colton Dixon, may try to steal them. “He’s a little obsessed with them,” she said. She will also be bringing on tour with her a Green Hill hoodie, courtesy of Graphic Expressions of Wakefield, and some sparkly accessories courtesy of Spangles. A little bit of Rhode Island is going to go a long way.