SPRING HILL — If you stop in at the McDonald's restaurant in the Suncoast Crossing shopping plaza on Spring Hill Drive some morning, you're likely to come across assistant manager Lakeyra Langley behind the counter.
She's the one with the ponytail and everlasting smile who bounces with every step as she fills customers' orders.
But while the 24-year-old enjoys her job, she doesn't hide the fact that she wants folks to someday be able to say they "knew her when." That's because Langley is one of 25 U.S. semifinalists vying for the $25,000 top prize in the worldwide Voice of McDonald's employee singing contest.
Langley, who is known by her friends and co-workers as "Jay," competed against more than 700 contestants in Florida to win the honor. She believes she has an excellent shot at making it to the competition finals, which will be in Orlando in April.
"I've loved music all my life," said the Brooksville native, who grew up singing with her younger sisters in church and in local talent shows. "I put everything I have into it because it's my dream. I really think it could come true."
Restaurant owner Josh David said he's 100 percent behind Langley's quest — not just because she's at top-notch employee, but because he believes she has the talent and diligence to wow the music world. That's why he encouraged her to enter the competition.
"Not only does she have a wonderful voice, she has such tremendous confidence in herself," David said. "Just entering a contest like this shows how much she believes in herself. It takes courage and commitment, and Jay has shown everyone that she can do that and do it well."
The Voice Of McDonald's competition has been around since 2006 and is open to the approximately 1.8 million franchise employees around the globe. Langley, who has worked at the Suncoast Crossings restaurant for three years, said she auditioned singing Natalie Cole's This Will Be an Everlasting Love live to a judging panel via a video link. A few weeks later, she arrived at work to find her boss had decided to surprise her with the news of her selection as a semifinalist by decking out the restaurant in flowers and decorations.
"It was such a great feeling to know that people are behind me," Langley said. "So I've tried to keep that spark alive ever since."
However, Langley's journey toward possible stardom has only just begun. Between now and Dec. 2, she needs to lobby as many people as possible to cast a vote on her behalf through the contest website at voiceofmcdonalds.com/voting/usa. Because online voting makes up 50 percent of a contestant's total score, that's a pretty tall order for someone competing against contestants in much larger markets such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Between now and then, David, who oversees several McDonald's in Hernando County, said he will be handing out cards encouraging customers to cast a vote for his employee. And, of course, Langley said she is committed to doing her part to drum up interest.
"I'll sing anywhere anyone wants me," she said with a laugh. "And I'll be telling them, 'Go on the website and vote for me, and keep voting for me. Vote for me when you go on Facebook. Vote for me when you email your friends. Just keep voting.' "
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.