ST. PETERSBURG — It was, a Tampa Bay Rays coach noted excitedly Friday night, the best rendition of the national anthem heard in quite a while within the walls of Tropicana Field.
Clad in a blue Rays jersey emblazoned with "Syesha 08" on the back, American Idol contestant Syesha (pronounced sigh-YEE-sha) Mercado rocked the half-full stadium with a passionate, soul-drenched performance — capping a 12-hour day of media appearances and public performances that allowed the Sarasota native to show a different side to her Tampa Bay area fans.
Filmed as part of a segment next week depicting the show's three remaining contestants visiting their hometowns, Mercado's jaunt included two morning radio interviews, a stop at Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 in Tampa, a parade at her former high school and a mini concert at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.
And five minutes into her grueling itinerary, it was obvious: This was not the intense, focused singer whom fans have come to know during her weeks struggling for the top prize on Fox-TV's blockbuster talent competition.
Instead, Mercado showed a decidedly different side Friday. Given to playful teasing and spot-on impressions — she cracked up the crew on WFLZ-FM 93.3's morning show with a dead-on impersonation of Idol judge Paula Abdul — Mercado seemed born to bask in the attention afforded someone on the verge of major stardom.
“American Idol kind of put me in a stage-fright mode at first," said the 21-year-old singer, speaking backstage Friday morning at WTVT. "I've learned to loosen up a bit and go with the flow."
In Sarasota, more than 1,500 people crowded onto the Ringling Museum grounds for a mini concert featuring two quick tunes with a former band.
Mercado's eyes welled with tears as a succession of state and local officials presented proclamations and awards. Sarasota Mayor Lou Ann Palmer, a 70-year-old former circus performer, even added a little Florida flair by doing two handstands during the raucous rally.
But the real revelation was the secret fax from Idol judge Randy Jackson naming one of the three songs Mercado will have to sing Tuesday night: Alicia Keys' If I Ain't Got You.
"We've been waiting for this for years," said Mercado's father, Jose, wearing a "Vote for Syesha 2008" T-shirt, while assuring that the tough criticism his daughter often faces from Idol judge Simon Cowell is just part of the show's formula. "This is her God-given opportunity."
Just two hours earlier, more than 500 students, well-wishers and fans had filled the auditorium at Mercado's alma mater, Booker High School, to hear inspiring stories about her early days in the school's Visual and Performing Arts Center.
"Here's a kid who has been focused on what she wants to do her whole life," said former Booker principal Jan Gibbs, who retired the year Mercado graduated from the school, in 2005. "It's hard for her to get close to people sometimes … and she's been through a lot. Now everybody's behind her, and it does my heart good."
Indeed, Sarasota seemed gripped by Syesha fever, as signs for local businesses urged fans to vote for her Tuesday and the Herald-Tribune newspaper created a poster of the singer for Friday's editions — an honor usually reserved for sports heroes and natural disasters.
Mercado blamed her early, ice queen image on an illness early in the competition that forced her to conserve her voice, communicating with people mostly through rudimentary hand signals and written notes.
"People tell me to smile more … but you stand up here and try to smile," said Mercado, noting the pressure of competing on TV's most-watched television show. "This experience is so amazing, I just don't want to go home. Sometimes I don't smile … because it's just so nerve wracking."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.