Another American Idol Surprise: Sarasota-Bred Finalist Syesha Mercado is a Playful, Poised Star-in-the-Making
That woman, appearing on my TV each week belting out classic diva tunes despite all advice to the contrary, is by turns intensely serious and emotional -- focused on nailing the increasingly showy tunes she picks each week for America's biggest talent competition.
But the Syesha who emerged during the start of her daylong local publicity tour of the Tampa Bay area this morning was so much more appealing. Funny. Humble. Given to playful teasing and spot-on impressions -- she cracked up the crew on WFLZ-FM's morning show with a dead-on impersonation of Idol judge Paula Abdul -- Mercado seems born to bask in the attention afforded a major singing star.
So why does so little of this superstar charisma make it onto the Idol stage during the competition?
"American Idol kind of put me in a stage fright mode," said Mercado, speaking backstage at the studios of Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13, where the station had assembled a phalanx of media to document the return of a local hero. "I've learned to loosen up a bit and go with the flow."
By 8 a.m. this morning, Mercado was deep into a day of media appearances and public performances that would challenge the most experienced performer. As her gigantic stretch limousine pulled up before WTVT's Kennedy Blvd. headquarters, she had already knocked off two radio interviews, singing snatches of the National Anthem she would recreate tonight at the Rays baseball game in St. Petersburg and firing off a dead-on impersonation of Tina Turner.
Inside the Fox affiliate, reporters from People magazine, Sarasota magazine, Orlando's fox affiliate and host of area newspapers jockeyed for good photos while the station's Idol correspondent Charlie Belcher goofed around with Mercado. And because cameras were on hand filming this for Idol's Welcome Home show next week, reality wasn't quite good enough: Mercado stepped out of her limo twice and re-enacted leaving the station three times, to catch the perfect shots.
Ask Mercado whether consistent criticism from the judges has ever affected her -- she is, after all, the only contestant this season to land in the Bottom Three of audience votes multiple times and survive to stand among the Top Three contenders -- and you learn that she pays far more attention to what her vocal coaches advise than what Abdul Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell offer.
"The judges say stuff to me, and it doesn't affect me...I never take it to heart," she says, expertly directing her attention to each member of the media crowded around her while speaking. "Paula is really cool -- she came backstage and told me the other day 'Simon liked your performance, he just didn't have anything else to say.' I'm like, why didn't he just say that he liked it on national television?"
Mercado even let a bit of showbiz dish drop, inadvertently; admitting that she can't get permission to sing a version of Beyonce's Listen because Cowell remains in a tiff with the singer. Back in 2005, he criticized Beyonce's figure and singing ability in an interview for Esquire magazine, promoting the singer's dad to challenge Cowell to a competition to develop the most successful singing group.
"That last show, he kind of...(nixed the song)," said Mercado. "Simon doesn't like to apologize to people, so..."
Mercado blamed her early, ice queen image on an illness early in the competition which forced her to conserve her voice, communicating with people mostly through rudimentary hand signals and written notes. Her turning point came during a performance of Andrew Lloyd Weber's One Rock N Roll Too Many, which allowed her to be a little flirty and theatrical -- separating herself from the experience by playing a bit of a role.
"Being on vocal rest kind of dampened who I am," she said. "It kinda made me silent -- you can only hold up note cards (to communicate) for so long. But slowly and surely, I came into my own."
Certainly, she looked born to the role this morning, fielding every question with enthusiasm and sass, jousting a bit with Belcher on WTVT and basking in the chorus of camera shutters set off every time she moved to a new position on WTVT's set (she even graciously handled WTVT's request that she read an endless list of on air promos, sure to fill their airwaves leading to the Idol finale).
Later today, she'll head for her old high school, Booker High School in Sarasota, headline a short performance at the Ringling Museum (rumors are, some folks are leaving work early to check it out) and angle back to St. Petersburg for the Rays game.
Something tells me, this woman who has been angling for a showbiz career since she was 9 years old -- singing the National Anthem at spring training games for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- will be just as energetic at 7 p.m. as she was at 7 a.m., well aware that she's living her dreams in a way few performers ever achieve.
"People tell me to smile more...but YOU stand up here and try to smile," said Mercado, noting how hard its been to show her true performing personality on Idol's super-visible stage. "This experience is so amazing, I just don't want to go home. sometimes I don't smile...because its just so nerve wracking."
Apologies for the low-quality photos...but I was forced to shoot pictures myself. Click on any one to enlarge.