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American Idol finalist Leah Marlene dazzles a crowd of thousands in a free Uptown concert

It wasn’t the first time Leah Marlene had performed in Uptown Normal. The 20-year-old Normal native recalled not long ago playing in front of as few as two people in Uptown Circle.

“But there sure as heck have never been this many people in the circle,” Marlene beamed to a crowd of thousands who had come to see the "American Idol" finalist perform a free concert.

Some fans, including Brad Borne and his two children, had stood in Uptown for several hours to make sure they got to see her. Borne said his family has been fans of American Idol from the beginning and became huge Marlene fans the first time they saw her perform on the show.

“We loved it,” Borne said. “It’s good to support Normal. It’s awesome to see that. She’s a great person to be (representing) Normal."

Borne’s son Preston held a sign which said "We are not normal Katy," hoping "American Idol" judge Katy Perry will see the sign on television.

The concert and parade were all made for TV. Several times during the concert, the music was delayed to capture the best lighting for the video which will air during the "American Idol" finale on Sunday. Producers were seeking the best shade of Marlene’s favorite color yellow on the stage.

When Marlene took the stage just outside the Normal Theater, she called this day the “craziest of her life” and said she has no idea where her life will end up after this week, following the "American Idol" finale. She is one of three contestants for the talent show’s top prize.

Leah Marlene concert crowd
Emily Bollinger
A crowd of thousands gathered to see American Idol finalist Leah Marlene perform a free concert in Uptown Normal on Tuesday.

With her guitarist father Derry Grehan joining her on stage for the opening song, Marlene mixed music and monologue as she shared what the last few weeks have been like for her, especially after a challenging couple of years.

“The two years leading up to the show were the two worst years of my entire life,” Marlene told the crowd. “Holey moley, if you had told me a year ago I would look out as a sea of thousands of people as a finalist on 'American Idol,' I would have never in a trillion, billion, kajillion years believed you.”

Marlene also thanked the fans, many of whom were standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing her signature yellow and hoisting signs in support of the burgeoning star.

Marlene’s visit to Normal may have inspired aspiring musicians to dream big. Stella Hammer, a fifth-grader from Clinton, said she wants to join band when she goes back to school next year and she plans to play the flute.

“I watch 'American Idol' a lot with my mom and when I saw (Marlene) singing, I liked her voice (very) much,” Hammer said.

‘Leah Marlene Day’

Prior to the concert, Normal Mayor Chris Koos presented a proclamation to Marlene declaring May 17 "Leah Marlene Day" in the town.

“When you were about 12 years old sitting in front of Windy City Wieners with your hat out and I put a dollar bill when you were playing, I never imagined that it would come to this,” Koos told Marlene.

“Me neither,” Marlene quipped.

Leah's own popcorn

Marlene’s meteoric rise has also been a boon for an Uptown Normal institution. The Garlic Press in Uptown Normal recently created "Leah’s music mix," a new popcorn mix in Marlene’s honor.

Co-owner Sarah McManus said the mix was developed with help of students from Marlene’s alma mater, Normal West high school, to serve as taste testers. She said it’s a yellow blend of kettle corn, caramel corn and vanilla sea salt.

“We did hear that Leah’s favorite was kettle corn but that she liked all kinds of popcorn,” McManus said.

McManus said her “mouth dropped” and she and her husband jumped out of their seats when "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest gave The Garlic Press a shutout during last Sunday’s show and mentioned Leah Marlene’s popcorn mix.

“We were hugging, high-fiving, my phone lit up like a Christmas tree,” she said, adding that business has been “popping” since the "American Idol" plug.

Sarah McManus
Emily Bollinger
The Garlic Press co-owner Sarah McManus speaks with a reporter ahead of the Leah Marlene concert in Uptown Normal.
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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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