First Person: My ‘American Idol’ Experience, by Brooke White

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The 15th and final bittersweet season of American Idol is underway, and all season long, Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks is inviting alumni from the series to share their stories. This week, we have Season 7 songstress Brooke White, reflecting on one of the most infamous and shocking Idol moments ever – and how she managed to rebound from her very public gaffe with dignity, grace, and most of all, humor.

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To this day when a stranger stops me in Target, or when a flight attendant recognizes the sound of my voice, they almost always say the same thing: “My favorite moment is when you stopped and started over,” or “Wow, that was so brave of you,” or even “That was very professional.” Makes me laugh.

I’m grateful for their kind words, but I am not sure I can take any credit for being brave, and I definitely can’t claim it was a mark of my professionalism. It simply just happened. I think they call it a “brain fart.” And it was mortifying.

It was Andrew Lloyd Webber Week, and to give you some context, I was coming off the back of Mariah Carey Week, a rougher week in my Idol journey. It was the week I had missed my very own little sister’s wedding because the lovely Ms. Carey was running a bit behind that day for our mentorship – about four hours behind, to be exact – therefore I wasn’t going to be able to catch a flight to Arizona for her big day. It was definitely a golden problem; nonetheless, it was sad. I should say that despite the fact that Mariah was super-late, she was quite nice, and a good mentor.

Anyhoo, I had sung "Hero,” which was like the token Mariah song. But let’s be honest: My raspy, four-note range was never going to slay a Mariah vocal. So I did the best I could with it, tried to make it my own, just me and a piano – a battle I had fought for the week prior on “Every Breath You Take” but lost to the producers. They were worried that it would look “self-indulgent” to play alone, and I was worried that maybe they were right, so we added the band. After the performance, Simon Cowell said something to the effect that it lost him when the band came in and that I should have just played it solo. We were at a party at Rupert Murdoch’s house (the fact that I just typed that sentence is crazy, ha ha!) the day after the results show, and Simon was there and took a moment to come over and tell me, “Listen, Brooke, you have got to do what you want to do and fight for it, and don’t let anyone tell you no.”

I admit that, to avoid looking like a diva, sometimes I went with the flow. I just wanted to be nice, low-maintenance… but I also didn’t want to go home. And I knew my limitations. I wasn’t a “vocalist” like the other contestants; my voice couldn’t stand against the full wall of sound of the Rickey Minor Band. I had to stay true to the course of the stripped-down, less-is-more, singer-songwriter approach if I wanted to stay. So with Simon’s pep talk, I knew that I had to persist, kindly. That battle almost killed me.

But then, in Mariah Carey Week, the producers gave me the green light. No doubt my playing alone with no one but my little old self to cover my butt if something went wrong was an extremely risky move on live television – and not to keep being self-deprecating, but my fingers have been known to fumble under pressure. But when I was already feeling so inadequate to sing a song so far over my head vocally, I felt that this was my best chance at making it work.

Well, I got lost mid-song and added an extra verse and went overtime by about a minute, if I remember right. I was totally in my head, and you could see it all over my face. “It was like a hamburger with no meat” were Simon’s exact words. Ouch. I finally “do what I want and fight for it,” and he doesn’t like it. Go figure.

So where were we? Oh yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber Week. Despite the fact that I was a meatless burger, I thankfully I made it through to another round. I can’t say enough how grateful I am that I did, because it afforded me the chance to learn from that awkward and incredible genius. I knew who Webber was, but wouldn’t say that I was heavily into musical theater or had much of a knowledge of his massive body of work. Of course I knew The Phantom of the Opera and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, but when it came time to picking a song from the list that week, it was a little harder for me than usual. But I did happen to remember Madonna’s “You Must Love Me” from Evita, a song that didn’t exist in the stage performance but was written for the movie. As well, I cannot say that I would have guessed in a million years that, of all the mentors, Andrew Lloyd Webber was the one I would connect with the most. But I did, or I should say he connected with me.

They had flown us to Vegas. We were on the stage in the Phantom Theater at the Venetian Hotel. When the mentors arrive, it’s all very technical and staged – the lights, the cameras, the blocking, how much time you get with them. You meet, you sing their song, they give you feedback, and done. But of the four mentors that season (the others being Dolly Parton, Mariah, and Neil Diamond), Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t seem to give a rip about any of that. He kept moving from his mark; they’d reset lighting, only for him to move again. Initially, however, he was very reserved and seemed unapproachable. I was nervous. But then he put on his mentor hat and turned into the most effective, giving, caring, hands-on teacher. Literally, he took my hands in his hands, looked me in the eye, and told me, “We are going to give Simon back that hamburger with the meat and all the trimmings.”

The fact that he watched the show and knew about each one of us said a lot to me. This wasn’t just a promo moment for Sir Webber. He then asked me to sing the song… I should mention that it is always terrifying to stand there and sing a song written by a legend, for the legend themselves. Like, make-you-wanna-hurl scary. I wobbled through it, and he stopped me and said something like, “Darling, do you even know what the story is behind the song?” Nope, I didn’t, and it was obvious. So he told me – about Eva, who she was to Argentina, that she is sick, dying, discouraged, and desperate, her plea to Che, her husband. “You MUST love me.” It was heart-breaking. I found a little bit of her in myself.

He then said, “OK, now try again.” I did. I felt every word. And I knew anybody that was standing on that stage felt it too. It had perhaps felt like the most honest thing I had ever sang, ever. It had nothing to do with performing, or my voice, the technicalities, or being impressive. It was simply just telling the truth and being 1 billion percent present in the moment and in the story. I had never done that before. And it was all because of Andrew Lloyd Webber. When I finished, he told me I had done it. “Let It Be,” was a highlight, singing with Graham Nash was unreal, but this moment probably meant the most to me of my entire Idol experience.

Fast-forward to the day of the live show. I was feeling really good about the song. I was trying to hang on to everything that had happened on that stage in Vegas. I tried to remember the story and the way Webber had looked me in the eye. I wanted so badly to do that again. We had dress rehearsal, I sang the song, and it went down without a hitch. I just knew this was my night, no matter what happened in the results. We had a couple of hours before it was showtime – or, the waiting period of overthinking. I decided to sit down and write the lyrics on a sheet of paper a few times, just to make sure that I had them committed to memory. Before we knew it, it was showtime.

As usual, I ran to the bathroom just as it was starting. I had drunk a gajillion gallons of water that day. Just as I was coming out to wash my hands, a woman was at the sink next to me. She then proceeded to say, “You’re Brooke White! Did you see the article in the L.A. Times today [I think it was the L.A. Times]? Andrew Lloyd Webber said he really loved you, that he was rooting for you, and really hopes that you can pull it off!” Really nice of her to tell me that, but no, I had not read the Times. I didn’t read ANYTHING. I learned early that you don’t read anything and you don’t “Google your own name.” It just really messes with your head. As did those words that she shared with me. I went to the green room, wondering, “Can I pull it off?”

I walked to the stage, where I was perched on a stool in the middle of a full orchestra. I remember thinking, “Where am I right now? Is this really happening? How did I get here?” The commercial break was over, the lights were down on the audience, and they rolled my pre-package of that special mentor moment playing on a giant screen behind me. I heard Webber say, “She is a wonderful natural actress, but will she be able to keep that up? I don’t know.” Then the lights went up, the strings played that sweeping intro, and I looked down in the audience to see Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting directly in front of me. I didn’t want to let him down.

“Where do we go from here, this isn’t where we int……….“

Nothing. I could remember nothing. It was like a blank white wall in my mind. All at once, the orchestra seemed to melt with me into a complete stop, and all I remember is looking to my right at Rickey Minor who was conducting and saying, "I’m sorry, can we do that again?” And we did, from the top. This time I remembered the words, thank the Lord, but I was kind of in a state of shock. My voice trembled the whole way through, trying to hang on to dear life. I fought like hell to the end. I sang, “YOU MUST. LOVE. ME.” And then it was over.

My dress was covered in butterflies, but my stomach felt like a billion of them were trying to eat my insides. I could have thrown up a pile of them up all over the stage. I was sick about it. This was it. It was over. I braced myself for what I knew was coming. There was an awkward silence. It started with Paula Abdul telling me, “You must never stop.” Simon said I was going to be very unhappy when I watched it back. I was gutted, humiliated, and just angry with myself. Ryan Seacrest tried to console me with a gentle pat on my arm. He asked me what happened. I think I said something like, “I forgot the words; that’s never happened before. (Thinking back, I did have a small hiccup at the start of “Every Breath You Take,” but that was a cue issue; I didn’t hear it in my ear.) Then Simon surprisingly came to my defense and said he would have done the same thing if he were me, sparking a debate behind the judges’ table. There was a tiny sliver of redemption in this moment, but I was ready for it to be over, holding tears in the back of my throat. Then it was done, and I didn’t even make it off the stage before the damn broke and the flood let loose. I sobbed in the dark left wing. What a letdown, what a failure. Carly Smithson came and hugged me. I was such a baby. Then I’ll never forget, show producer Ken Warwick ran over to me backstage, gave me a giant hug, and shouted, "THAT WAS BLOODY BRILLIANT, BUT DON’T EVER, EVER DO IT AGAIN! Now stop your crying, darling, you are going to be fine.”

It turned out Ken was right. I was fine, and to my complete and utter shock, I did not go home that week. Carly did, which was undeserved, and I felt like it should have been me. I continued to feel terrible about that for a long time. Also, Andrew Lloyd Webber came up to me after the results show and we had a quick, awkward, but comforting exchange. He told me how sorry he was that it happened, but that he thought I did the right thing, that I had promise, and that he would love to remain in touch if a potential project of his was right. It was humbling and kind of him, and it meant a lot to me. That was the last time I spoke to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I used to wish with all my heart that I could take that moment it back, like it never happened. I wished that I had gotten a handle on my nerves, that I would have just had the confidence. But that’s not how it went down. Actually, I was kind of a wreck throughout the show over my imperfections, and it forced me to deal with them in front of millions of people. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable that was, how it kind of broke me. But strangely, that moment that tortured me then seems to be what people remember the most now, and with such generosity and fondness. It has taught me to embrace vulnerability. We all make mistakes. I just happened to make mine on live television. And just imagine, if that had never happened, I would have never gotten the chance to do “Brooke White Stops and Starts the Classics” on VH1’s Best Week Ever.

Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. Like I said, you just have to laugh about it.