My family has watched Fox’s "American Idol" for years. Both of my teenage daughters love to sing, and every year, we all find a couple of contestants to cheer for and rally around. Despite a slide in recent years, the longtime ratings juggernaut remains a top 20 program and has outlived most of its reality show siblings.
When my gang watched the early audition shows this January, we were excited to see Utah among the states host Ryan Seacrest and company would visit to hand out the iconic golden tickets. My daughters were born in the Beehive state, and we remain well connected to the area.
The televised auditions in Salt Lake City introduced us to a number of very talented singers who heard those magical words from judges Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban — “You’re going to Hollywood!”
Among them was bright-eyed, 17-year-old Kenzie “Kenz” Hall of Draper. From the first time she appeared on screen, my daughters knew they had someone to vote for as she lit up the camera and quickly wowed the judging panel.
With her ticket to Hollywood punched, Hall appeared to have as clear a path to the finals as anyone. The judges routinely praised the artist as having “the whole package,” and she survived several cuts during the show’s infamous Hollywood week. It was a grueling experience Hall called “one of the worst weeks and best weeks of my life.”
Hall was eventually selected as one of the top 15 girls from among 80,000 total entrants. The next step would be a dream come true for someone who’d been watching Idol most of her life — the chance to sing on live television for America’s votes.
However, in a dramatic first-time twist, Seacrest announced with millions watching that America would only hear from 10 of the 15 remaining young women. The other five would leave the show immediately.
One by one, 10 girls were invited out to perform live while the rest sat backstage with high-def cameras locked on every anguished twitch and nervous smile.
Hall was not among those to perform.
Once considered a serious contender on social media and in the blogosphere, Kenzie Hall was finished.
“It was devastating,” Hall told me during a recent Skype interview from her home in Draper. “We’d all heard rumors they might not allow us all to sing for America’s votes, but we’d been told to disregard anything we didn’t hear directly from the producers.”
Then, the night before the first live show of the season, Hall and the other contestants received a text from a producer telling them the news was difficult to share, but that some would be going home without another shot to perform.
Recalling her disappointment, Hall explained how the contract the top 30 singers signed contained restrictions about releasing new music, doing other reality singing shows, etc. “I’d signed my life away to be on the show, and now I didn’t get to sing for it.”
Was she bitter?
“It stung, sure, but I have no hard feelings toward 'Idol.' I’m so glad I did it, and I made lifelong friends. The producers were pleasant and I was humbled by the support. I think it made me fall in love with music even more.”
During our conversation, Hall — a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Draper 11th Ward in the Sandy Utah Hidden Valley Stake — returned often to her faith. “All along, I knew I had to rely on my Savior because he sees the bigger picture. And I had a good experience, I think, because I kept to my standards, and I’m proud of that.”
I asked if there were specific moments she was challenged to stray from her faithful path. Only after some prodding, Hall described an experience with former "American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert. The season eight star, with more than 2 million albums and 4 million singles sold, was hired by "Idol" to mentor singers during Hollywood week.
“He was very nice,” Hall said, “and he’s extremely talented, but in one of the sessions he wanted me to wear a short dress and lay on the floor in a very sultry way.” He explained to the young performer, she said, that it’s simply the way the business works and, eventually, she’d need to conform to find success.
“I’m pretty stubborn,” Hall told me, “especially in my faith. So it was easy to make that decision. I had predetermined I wouldn’t sell myself that way.”
Dawn Hall, Kenzie’s mother, heard the exchange that day and praised her daughter for standing firm on her faith. Both conversations ended up on the cutting room floor, a fact that doesn’t bother either of them.
“Most of all, through the 'Idol' experience, I learned that Kenzie doesn't carry her faith like a neon sign," Dawn Hall said. "It's a quiet commitment. She knows who she is and doesn't let outside influences change her or determine her choices. No matter what the outside world demanded or wanted from her, she made her decisions and never felt she needed to explain herself or make excuses. She stayed true to herself and her beliefs.”
Kenzie learned plenty, too. “I learned a lot about myself and my testimony. I grew a lot and I learned Heavenly Father never gets tired of our prayers.” After a long breath, Kenzie added, “He really is there. He will always be there, especially in times of stress.” The thoughtful teen paused again, then said, “Yes, he is always there.”
Before wrapping the session, I asked her what her goals were with Idol now a memory. She declared, without hesitation, “My No. 1 goal is to be a great mom and wife. My No. 2 goal is to be a successful musician. If that’s national, or around Utah or even right here locally in Draper, I’ll be happy with whatever comes as long as I accomplish that first goal.”
Later this summer, Kenzie Hall will see her first full-length album hit iTunes. Once again, she’ll be anxious and antsy to see whether America likes what she has to offer. But whether the album goes gold or never sells a single copy, she’ll always have her sights set on something far more important than the charts.
Because lights or no lights, sales or no sales, applause or the quiet of crickets, she knows who her No. 1 fan is — and she knows he is always there.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and his latest, "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, applevalleybarndance.com or jasonfwright.com.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company