A tape reel turned in the car cassette player as a little girl, nestled in the back seat, listened to her mother sing. She paid close attention, because in that moment she knew she wanted to do the same thing.
Now, Aubrey Cleland has appeared weekly in front of a panel of four celebrity judges and a television audience of millions in a fierce competion for attention and votes.
“Randy Jackson said to me ‘you’re back, hopefully third time’s the charm,’” Cleland said.
Cleland, a 19-year-old sophomore communication studies major, made it to the Top 20 of the reality television show “American Idol” this year in pursuit of her dream of being a professional singer. Although she wasn’t invited back to the Top 10, she was selected to compete for a spot in the “American Idol Live!” tour against Charlie Askew March 14. The winner will be announced Wednesday.
Cleland auditioned Nov. 14 for the twelfth season of “American Idol” in Long Beach. She auditioned first when she was 17 years old in 2010, and made it to the Top 100, and auditioned again to advance to the Top 40 in 2011.
“This time, I’m more sure of myself. I’ve matured, even though it’s only been a year,” Cleland said. “I’ve grown so much in college just from being on my own. It’s easier to be myself, and take it as it comes.”
“American Idol” is a reality singing competition in which the winner, determined by the votes of TV viewers, is awarded a solo recording contract. Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban judge the singers.
The series has snagged the attention of nearly 40 million viewers, something Cleland said she tried not to pay attention to.
“I’m definitely scared,” she said, before entering the Top 20 round. “My throat closes up and it makes it hard for me to sing. I need to remember to just stay calm and I’ll be fine.”
The show’s rules changed last year and now require Cleland to sign a contract that prevents her from competing again, since this is her second time reaching the Top 40 stage.
“I realize that this time is my last time,” Cleland said, before being eliminated. “I’m hoping that even if I don’t win, this show is such a huge platform with amazing exposure that I hope to be picked out as a singing artist.”
Cleland temporarily stopped attending Chapman this spring semester to focus on the show.
“You have to put 100 percent into schoolwork, but I also wanted to put 100 percent into ‘American Idol,’” Cleland said. “Sometimes I’m just gone for two weeks, and there’s no way I would have been able to miss class.”
Cleland’s mother, Renee Cleland, was a professional singer for 20 years for the Oregon Symphony Pop Series. .
“Aubrey used to follow me around,” Renee Cleland said. “She sang in some of my concerts at [the age of] 10 and 14 in front of big audiences.”
Sophomore screen writing major and Cleland’s friend since sophomore year of college, Avery Rouda, said despite the pressures of nationwide TV attention, Cleland has not changed.
“It’s important for her not to get wrapped up in things and stay grounded,” Rouda said. “She’s still just Aubrey being Aubrey, singing and doing her thing.”
Besides, she said, her personal presence is something that viewers will catch on to.
“Even I wish I had her style,” Rouda said. “America will be looking at her and saying she’s cool.”
Cleland said she was recently at an airport with another group of contestants when a group of strangers who recognized her from the show approached her.
“It’s cool, but it’s weird to have people asking me to take a photo with them,” Cleland said.
Cleland said the most difficult part was not knowing if she would have the chance to sing again, as the structure of the show leaves contestants waiting for days at a time without information of who will be advancing to the next round.
“You analyze everything and it really gets to your head,” Cleland said. “You have to wait and not be anxious or else you’ll go crazy.”
“American Idol” airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.
[This article was updated on March 17 1:20 p.m.]