After watching American Idol for two seasons, 20-year-old Heather Piccinini of Spring Hill decided that if other young performers could subject themselves to Simon Cowell criticism, so could she.
So, last summer, Piccinini took off for Atlanta to audition for the Fox talent competition, only to find she was one of 12,000 people seeking fame and fortune. For three days, she camped out with the others on the floor of the Georgia Dome awaiting her chance.
Eventually, the winnowing process led to the shot she was looking for _ a chance last fall to sing before judges Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Cowell, the cold-hearted record executive whose cutting remarks have brought contestants to tears.
A snippet of her performance aired Tuesday night before a national television audience of roughly 30-million viewers. And despite Cowell's remark that her performance was nothing special, Piccinini advanced to the next round in Hollywood, which will air in early February.
For Piccinini, who spent a decade performing in pageants and the past few years trying to land a record deal with a rock group, this is literally a dream come true.
"It's an experience of a lifetime," she said. And Piccinini says that even Cowell had good things to say about a second song she sang that didn't get any time on air.
Piccinini watched Tuesday night's broadcast with her parents, John and Judy Piccinini, from their home in Preston Hollow, a subdivision just north of County Line Road. The phone started ringing as soon as her performance ended, with a call from her grandmother, Pat Wells of Brooksville. Since then, she's heard from friends in Alaska, radio stations in Germany and media outlets from around Tampa Bay.
"I love it," Piccinini said of all the attention. "It's what I've worked my whole life for."
Some 80,000 people around the country auditioned for this third edition of American Idol. And only 119 advanced to the Hollywood round, which has already been filmed. Piccinini and other contestants signed strict confidentiality agreements that prevent them from talking about the outcome. So what happens next is a well-guarded secret.
Her father says making it this far is an accomplishment by itself.
"It was fantastic," he said. "She's been working very hard all her life to get there."
Originally from Maryland, the Piccinini family came to Spring Hill before Heather was born, and she has lived here all her life. From ages 5 to 16, Heather says she must have taken part in more than 400 pageants. After a while, the crowns and trophies took up so much room that she began donating them to a local charity for disabled citizens.
She attended Hernando Christian Academy in Brooksville through sixth grade and Notre Dame Interparochial School for seventh and eighth. She attended Springstead High briefly but wound up finishing high school as a homeschooled student.
For a time, she performed at Busch Gardens. And she performed in front of then-President Bill Clinton during a convention of Florida Democrats a few years ago. Within the past four years, she tried to get a record contract with a group known as Indian Summer. The group has since split.
Until American Idol came along, Piccinini was still flirting with the Nashville recording scene. She has also been working at home in the family's pool business.
Piccinini's goal is to win the big prize _ $1-million and a recording contract. But if the end result is something short of that, she hopes the exposure could still launch her career. Either way, it has been a journey she's not likely to forget.
"In the end," she said. "I'm just looking to have a good time."
_ Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.