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New ‘American Idol’: Wesley Chapel teen Zach D’Onofrio steals the spotlight in premiere

By Jay Cridlin
Wiregrass Ranch High School junior Zach D'Onofrio, 17, poses for a portrait while playing the ukulele in his bedroom on Monday in Wesley Chapel. D'Onofrio will be featured on the season premiere of American Idol on ABC on Sunday. (ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times)

When Zach DíOnofrio auditioned for American Idol last fall, it was hard to tell who was most shocked: the judges or Zach himself.

The 17-year-old student at Wiregrass Ranch High School is one of the singers whoíll be featured on the rebooted American Idol premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC. And he may be the ultimate poster boy for Idolís unspoken promise that it can make a star out of any singer, anywhere in America.

After singing in public for less than two years, the Wesley Chapel teen is about to get one of reality TVís brightest spotlights, one that made superstars of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, and for which ABC paid big bucks to swipe away from Fox.

"Iím a pretty humble person, and I honestly never expected any of this to happen for me, going to New York City, and I think that showed in my audition," he said. "I think they liked that about me. I was just down to earth. I didnít know that I had talent starting out with this, and I think they saw that."

Surprise and suspense have been a crucial component of Idolís audition episodes since day one, so letís tread carefully through spoiler territory. On the whole, the first episode has a hopeful and positive tone, and so do the judges ó there isnít yet a Simon in the bunch. Some singers make it (even when judges have criticisms) and some donít (even when judges like what they see).

Zach first pops up in the showís cinematic opening sequence, an homage to the "dreamers" and "lullaby singers" narrated by Underwood. Later, he gets his own extended feature that includes a visit to his Wesley Chapel home.

He describes himself as a kid who used to get made fun of at school due to his slightly froggy speaking voice. ("Itís a little bit higher than people would normally expect, and it made me shy," he tells the cameras.) He collects eccentric socks, and brought pairs as gifts for Ryan Seacrest and judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. He tells the panel heís been singing for less than a year, and this was his first audition for anything.

As with many classic Idol auditions, you arenít sure what to expect until he picks up the microphone and starts crooning Frank Sinatraís The Way You Look Tonight. But his confident repartee with judges is charming, especially when he starts dancing with Perry (just watch, youíll see). As Bryan puts it: "This show will teach you, do not judge any human being on this planet."

"I was just living the moment," Zach said. "It was a very crazy experience. But it was definitely tough trying to sing while Katy Perry is right in front of you, dancing with you. But I just kept going, and I finished the song."

Zachís parents, Darci and Bryan DíOnofrio, own the Dreamhouse Theatre in Lutz, which until a couple of years ago was pretty much the extent of Zachís performing experience. He worked the lights and sound and played the occasional supporting role ó Benjamin in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Farquaad in Shrek the Musical ó but it wasnít until he sang for the cast after a performance of Little Shop of Horrors that he realized he might have real talent.

In August, Zach won a local talent competition to skip the audition line for American Idol in Orlando. His audition for the judges in New York came in October. None of his classmates knew any of this was happening, but then, why would they? This was only his first year in the Wiregrass Ranch chorus.

"I just wanted to give it a shot because I saw how people reacted to how I sounded when I sing," he said. "I thought I would have a good chance because I thought no one else would be singing the same style of music. Because Frank Sinatra ó how many people can sing him? Most people would choose pop songs when they audition. I thought I would stand out."

This week, Zach has been doing interviews and prepping for a viewing party with family and close friends at his Wesley Chapel home. He hasnít seen the episode, so heís as curious as anyone to see how heíll come across to America.

"Since now I can post more about it and tell everyone that I am going to be on the show, people have reached out to me, congratulating me and things like that," he said. "Itís been a great growing experience for me since itís all new. Iíll definitely learn from it, no matter what happens."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.