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Wheelchair user and standout singer Marna Michele: 'It's time for an American Idol that isn't perfect'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·11 min read
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“Do I look like Kelly Clarkson… sitting down?” So joked Marna Michele, as she rolled up like a boss in her wheelchair to her American Idol audition on Sunday.

Born with arthrogryposis, a condition that causes extreme muscle weakness and joint stiffness and prevents her from walking or lifting her arms above her head (“I can’t high-five you, but I can fist-bump,” she wittily explained), Marna realized she could sing in the sixth grade. And as she confessed to host Ryan Seacrest, “I really liked the attention I got — because it wasn’t negative, it was positive.”

Marna, who was bullied as a child, has day-dreamed about scoring a golden ticket ever since. And after doing just that with her rendition of Lady Gaga’s “A Million Reasons,” this plucky 27-year-old better get used to receiving lots of positive attention, because she was a major highlight of the night.

“Now I think it’s time for an American Idol that isn’t perfect. I have very many flaws, and I think that I would make a really good American Idol because of that,” Marna asserted.

Marna’s audition definitely wasn’t perfect. She had a strong set of pipes, a nice warm tone, an expressive face, and what judge Luke Bryan described as an “incredible range” — but Luke wanted more “cry” in her voice, Lionel Richie pointed out that she was rushing towards the big notes, and Katy Perry though Marna needed to “scoop” less when approaching those dramatic moments. But right there in the room, Marna heeded the judges’ advice and immediately improved.

“You really aced that exercise,” observed Katy, before Marna received three “big yeses” from the impressed panel. “This is where my future starts, I truly believe that,” Marna declared.

So now Marna is off to Hollywood, and she is eager to keep proving herself, happily knowing that she won’t benefit from any preferential treatment or tokenism and will be judged solely on her talent. (“We are going to treat you the same and put the same pressure on you… and you’re going to do just fine,” Katy told her.) Marna has the right attitude, having already gone farther than any doctors had ever predicted, living a full and independent adult life. “It’s everything that my parents were not expecting — because they were told not to,” she said. “I would not change it for the world. I love my disability.”

And regardless of how far Marna makes it in Season 18, she’s already made a difference just by auditioning on network television. “Growing up, I never had someone who was in a wheelchair who I looked up to. My closest person that resembled me growing up, because I used to wear leg braces, was Forest Gump,” she explained to Ryan. “I want to be that inspiration for that little girl or little boy that’s looking at the TV going, ‘Where am I? How am I being represented?’”

It was an emotional evening for Idol in other ways, because Katy, after revealing her pregnancy in last week’s “Never Worn White” music video, showed off her “fourth judge” baby bump to her fellow judges. “Two paychecks?” joked Lionel, referring to Katy’s famous Idol salary of $25 million a year. Probably not, but Fremantle might want to increase the series’s famous on-set snack budget, now that Katy is snacking for two.

Below are the other successful contestants of Sunday night:

Danny La Rota, 24, “Royals”

The judges went nuts for this dental school student by day/coffeehouse singer-songwriter-type by night, comparing him to Robert Plant and Eddie Vedder. Katy even called Danny “most original person of this season so far.” He was good, with some interesting and creative melody choices, but I didn’t quite get the fuss. While he was singing that Lorde line about gold teeth, I was thinking he ought to stay in dentist school, learning how to make gold teeth. We’ll see if he’s able to take a bite out of Hollywood, I guess.

Makayla Phillips, 17: “Who’s Loving You”

Makayla was a golden buzzer contestant on America’s Got Talent two years ago — there was no mention of this, but Google and Wikipedia are forever — but three years ago, Idol was always her first choice. (At that time, she was two weeks too young and missed Idol’s age-minimum cutoff.) I thought her tone was a bit piercing, and she had some bad child-star habits that need to be trained out of her, but there’s no doubt that this kid’s a prodigy who deserves a golden ticket as much as she does a golden buzzer. “I shaved my legs last night, and now I have to shave them again, because I got chillbumps all over my body,” Katy marveled.

Devon Alexander, 22: “Not in That Way”

This likable fellow grew up in log cabin middle of nowhere and is clearly a natural, soulful talent. Nerves got the better of this green contestant and might be his undoing in Hollywood Week, but Lionel seemed confident that Devon is “up for the challenge.”

Mosean Wilson, 23: “Slip Away”

Mosean is the kind of classic underdog that Idol viewers (myself among them) root for. His father was a bipolar, schizophrenic drug addict — Mosean found his dad dead a year ago, and understandably seems to be suffering from some sort of PTSD as a result. But Mosean has found comfort in music and sings unguardedly, from a place of pure pain. His original blues ballad, during which he played his own portable keyboard, was kind of basic, but it was still moving because it was so real. “You’re what it’s all about, buddy. We can just see your willingness to prove yourself… and in my opinion, you’re doing it perfectly,” said Luke. “I don’t think you’ve ever had the people who want to invest in you like we want to invest in you,” said a teary-eyed Katy. I would love to hear what Mosean could do with some stronger material.

Faith Becnel, 20: “Lady Marmalade”

Faith’s jazzy performance was affected — Katy called it vocally “choppy,” while Luke griped that it was too “cutesy” — but the personality and what Lionel called unmistakable “character” were there. Faith, like Marna, listened to the judges’ critiques and quickly self-corrected, so if she can continue to take direction well, she could go far. And as Luke pointed out, she has that “natural soul thing” which can’t be taught.

Kat Luna, 19, and Alejandro “Space Cowboy” Garrido, 26: “Shallow”

Another cute couple alert! Season 18’s “Ken and Barbie” arrived in the audition room hand in hand, then proceeded to stare puppy-doggishly into each other’s eyes like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper at the Oscars. I found their A Star Is Born duet annoying and wasn’t sure if a star was born among either of them. Kat had more charisma and a sultry voice (Katy compared her to Dua Lipa), but she seemed tightly wound, too in her head, and ahead of the beat. Alejandro was more relaxed, but too generic. But they both went through for now, and I am sure the dastardly Idol producers are already figuring out how drum up some Hollywood Week drama when these lovebirds are inevitably split apart.

Emma Kate, 22: “Come Together” / Marcus Tinsley, 28: “Mine” / Chase Jerrico, 24: “Sixteen Tons”

Of these briefly montaged auditions, Emma gave off a cool granola-girl/Sheryl Crow vibe, and Marcus’s pet pig was cute. But I most enjoyed oddball Chase, who tore through the Johnny Cash classic in an unhinged, vaudevillian, Andrew Bird-meets-Arcade Fire manner, with his sassy, scene-stealing fiddler by his side. I don’t know if Chase’s wild-eyed preacherman vibe is right for American Idol, but who knows — he might be this season’s Casey Abrams. Or at least this season’s Jeneve Rose Mitchell!

Sofia Wackerman, 20: “Water”

The daughter of late singer Naomi Starr (who worked with everyone from the Moody Blues to Belinda Carlisle) and Frank Zappa/James Taylor drummer Chad Wackerman, Sofia demonstrated during her Bishop Briggs piano cover that she’s clearly born to do this — even if she needs to work on technical issues like her diction and dynamics. (She was slurry in some parts, shouty in others.) As Luke put it, Sofia showcased a certain “sparkle” and “signature tone.” The judges even called her “top 10” material… although the judges clearly cannot count, as they have made that declaration way more than 10 times so far this season.

Jimmy Levy, 21: “Wicked Game”/“Nobody Love”

Jimmy see ghosts and comes from a psychic family. His grandmother Micki Dahne was once the No. 1 psychic in the world, and his mother Jill “The Love Psychic” Dahne,” a famous clairvoyant, was on Ripley’s Believe It or Not when she was 13. So, did Jill see a golden ticket in her son’s future? Yes... seven years ago! But after seeing the Dahne-Levys pull up to Idol in their tricked-out, leopard-print hearse/party van/clown car, I really see a Bravo reality show in this family’s future. Jimmy’s Idol run will likely be brief — I certainly didn’t predict that this merely decent singer would get three yeses –– but his family is TV gold. I am hoping they show up in Hollywood for more wicked mind-games.

Olivia Ximines, 16: “Language”

This bubbly high schooler brought her entire cheer squad to her audition, and her performance just a little too cheerful for me. As is often the case with younger contestants, Olivia came off as pageant-y and actress-y. “You can hear but you are 16, but that’s all right,” said Katy. However, the “sparkling aura” was there, as were the strong pipes, so with proper mentoring, Olivia could mature into a true threat. Katy actually compared her to former teen star Brandy!

Zack Dobbins, 18: “Misuse”

This humble, small-town West Virginian just displaced Georgia garbage man Doug Kiker as this season’s lovable diamond in the rough. Like Doug, he was untrained and completely clueless when it came to technique (Luke even had to tune his guitar for him), and his original song was just OK. But he had a compelling presence that reminded me of a twangier Eddie Vedder, MTV Unplugged-era Scott Weiland, or Staind-frontman-turned-country-star Aaron Lewis. “I’m so fascinated by your character,” marveled Lionel. “I don’t think you know what you’re doing, but I don’t think you need to know what’s you’re doing. You’re so authentic,” said Katy. Now Zack is off on his first plane ride, to Los Angeles. If he can survive Hollywood Week, he might be this season’s dark horse.

Ren Patrick, 26: “Dancing on My Own”

Seven years ago, Ren, at the time an aspiring singer and recent L.A. transplant, attended one of her first fancy Hollywood parties — where she ended up having a big argument there with her jerk of a controlling boyfriend. Katy passed by at just the right moment and, in true unfiltered Katy Perry style, muttered, “Ugh girl, dump him!” Unfortunately, Ren was in that toxic relationship for a total of eight and a half years, but this Sunday she joked, “It took me seven years, but I took your advice!” Finally on her own and in control of her destiny, Ren proclaimed. “Now I get to look in the mirror and be proud of myself.” She delivered an intensely beautiful cover of the iconic Robyn song, my favorite performance of the night. “If you were with a guy that didn’t encourage you and didn’t tell you you’re great, he’s just a bad dude and I’m glad you’re away from him. You’re an incredible singer,” said Luke. “The best form of revenge is success,” added Lionel with a big grin.

American Idol Season 18’s auditions will wrap up next weekend, with Hollywood Week commencing on Monday, March 16.

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