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'You’ve won,' says Katy Perry but Leah Marlene fails to capture American Idol title

Not being chosen as the American Idol winner just might be the best thing that happened to Leah Marlene.

The 20 year-old bubbly but serious singer-songwriter from Normal appeared among the three finalists on Sunday night on TV’s “American Idol,” with a $250,000 prize, plus record deal, awaiting the winner. But, Marlene was knocked out of the competition after two singing rounds in a competition that ultimately went to country crooner Noah Thompson, the frontrunner going into the Season 20 finale.

There were two watch parties; one at Marlene’s high school alma mater Normal West High School and another for an anticipated much larger crowd at Redbird Arena. The show kicked off with a round entirely devoted to Bruce Springsteen, followed by performances of the finalists’ official singles.

Riley Babb and wildcat mascot
Colleen Reynolds
Riley Babb, 5, poses with the Normal West Wildcat mascot during the Leah Marlene watch party on Sunday night.

Marlene sang a lesser known Springsteen song called “Cover Me” from Born in the USA and then her personally penned song “Flowers” that speaks about resiliency and not losing hope.

In remarks after the first round, judge Luke Bryan described Marlene, just before the start of the show, in a meditative state.

“There’s Leah Marlene just laid out on the floor. That personality is why we love you!” He advised her, “You keep all that for the rest of your life.”

Friends and family predict she will do just that. Praised for staying her authentic self throughout the competition, judge Katy Perry acknowledged that Marlene has transformed during her journey but in the best of ways.

“Leah Marlene, you are the whole package. You play the guitar, you write your own music. I love your lead single, ‘Flowers.’ It’s so good. (Marlene thanked her). “And, just the amount of growth you’ve done in such a short amount of time, you’ve won. Period. End of story.”

But, when it was clear Marlene didn’t garner enough votes to stay in the competition there were tears and silence in the gymnasium at Normal West. WHOI-TV (ABC affiliate) Anchor Kyle Beachy was left to console the crowd.

Siblings Emma, Ariel and Ethan Shadday
Colleen Reynolds
(left to right) Siblings Emma, Ariel and Ethan Shadday rest on a blanket during the Leah Marlene watch party at Normal West.

Beachy offered, “This isn’t the end of something. She’s still our Idol and this is just the beginning of her career and she’s going to need every one of us behind her, supporting her and watching her throughout.”

Longtime family friend and voice coach Sara Williams, who was also Leah’s choir leader for middle and high school, agrees that this is the start of Marlene’s next chapter which will no doubt include pursuing her career full-time and without the touring obligations required by an American Idol winner.

“I think that Leah’s gonna be seen and heard in maybe her way. And, I also feel this was the way it was meant to happen and that something good will come of it because something already has,” Williams shared.

Williams said Leah is already inspiring the next generation of Normal West high school students that they can dream big. Marlene has shared on social media that mental health struggles led to her dropping out of college and fueled songs like “Flowers.” Williams said she knows being able to share that was important.

“That meant volumes to her – that she could show herself and be who she is and not be afraid of who she is. I think that’s a message for all of us.”

After her performance, Marlene broke down in tears. “I’m just so overwhelmed, so overwhelmed,” she responded when host Ryan Seacrest asked how she felt. “I would have never believed you two years ago if you said I was here, I never thought I was going to get out of that situation. And now I’m up here singing this song to people in that situation.”

Close friend Rebekah Nielsen shared that Marlene inspired her to remain strong during her own struggles with college.

“You have bad patches in life but she showed if you keep going, do the right thing, get the right help, you can come out on the other end, a better person.” Nielsen was also blown away by how her friend was able to bring the community together, even during politically polarizing times.

 In this undated photo, Leah Marlene poses with her choir teacher at Normal West, Sara Williams.
In this undated photo, Leah Marlene poses with her choir teacher at Normal West, Sara Williams.

“If you saw how many people were at the Uptown Circle, that was crazy. It makes me feel like this community is such a family. It makes me not want to leave!”

Lauren Brown who was in middle school choir with Marlene said her friend has handled all the stress and attention with such grace. Former classmate Riley Nichols added that Marlene was a friend to all, and that she’s helped so many people via social media come to terms with their own mental health struggles.

Marlene’s American Idol journey was well documented in many pieces that aired throughout the season but it was the video of the hometown visit that many at Normal West found so endearing. To open the second round, Marlene once again was the first with a montage of her return to Parkside Junior High and Normal West High Schools, where she was greeted by friends in the halls, everyone was wearing specially-made t-shirts or her favorite color, yellow.

Watch the video:

In addition to the footage of Mayor Chris Koos declaring last Tuesday “Leah Marlene Day,” you also see Marlene tell the crowd that she’s played to sparse crowds at the Uptown Circle previously.

As she looks over the thousands packed into Uptown, she tells the crowd on the American Idol footage, “It has been the most beautiful experience of my entire life! Best day of my life. I am just so beyond humbled right now. I hope this is the beginning of what’s to come.”

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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