Hometown favorite

The road to stardom is seldom glamorous. And sometimes, it’s downright uncomfortable. That’s what South Philly’s Erica Gagliardi found out while she awaited an audition for the "Philadelphia Idol" contest in the parking lot of Franklin Mills Mall.

"I found out about the contest while watching television, not knowing that we had to sleep outside," said Gagliardi, a 17-year-old senior at Girard Academic Music Program.

The aspiring contestant camped out with about 1,000 others on Nov. 1 for the chance to try out for Fox Philadelphia’s contest and, eventually, American Idol 2, the star search that comes complete with a record contract.

Gagliardi had a built-in edge over at least some in the crowd. She already is an experienced singer who has been performing since age 2. The teen, of the 2100 block of South Woodstock Street, has sung the national anthem at Philadelphia sporting events, and recorded her first single, Lookin, four years ago.

Fox Philadelphia was one of a number of affiliates across the country to hold a preliminary-round contest for American Idol 2, said Jennifer Best, public-affairs director for the station. The network has not set an official date for the airing of the show — whose first installment became a smash hit last summer — but it is aiming for mid-January, Best said.

The first American Idol produced winner Kelly Clarkson and her omnipresent single, A Moment Like This.

As for criticism that true celebrities can’t be manufactured by TV shows, Gagliardi isn’t buying it.

"That’s definitely not true at all," she said. "A lot of people saw how Kelly Clarkson became what she is now because of American Idol."

Of the 1,000 aspiring performers waiting outside Franklin Mills, only the first 250 in line were chosen for an audition. Contestants had to be between the ages of 16 and 24, but there were few other requirements except the guts to sing a cappella before a group of local celebrity judges. Shawn Stockman and Nathan Morris of Boyz II Men, local singer-songwriter Lauren Hart, arts and entertainment editor A.D. Amorosi and J-Records executive Jennifer O’Neill were on hand to critique the hopefuls. The contestants had 30 seconds to sing a portion of the song of their choice.

"I wasn’t nervous at all," Gagliardi said. "There were just certain points that I got scared because of Boyz II Men being [two of] the judges."

The judges chose 33 singers to return for the second round. Gagliardi made the cut.

She had one week to practice her choice of two songs from a Fox Philadelphia playlist. Gagliardi went with Vision of Love by Mariah Carey and Breathe Again by Toni Braxton. The singers performed — with musician accompaniment this time — at the Arden Theater in Old City for the same judges, who narrowed the field to 10. Once again, Gagliardi survived.

The 10 finalists moved on to the third round, where eight more singers would be eliminated. Fox Philadelphia invited two panels of 25 viewers each, selected through a random drawing, to do the judging. The first group watched videotape of all 10 remaining contestants, and voted on which two performers they felt should make the cut. Gagliardi was one of them; Tyrus Bush, a 17-year-old high-school senior from Ewing, N.J., was the other.

The second panel of 25 viewers watched videotape of the two remaining contestants, and cast their votes in Survivor-esque fashion. The results were kept secret for another week.

Hours before the final choice was announced last Thursday at Jillian’s restaurant in Northeast Philly, Gagliardi said winning "would be awesome, and I feel very confident … I’ll just have to do what I have to do."

As it turned out, Gagliardi will have to wait a little longer for idol status. Bush was the panel’s pick for the contest and an opportunity to try out for American Idol 2 in Los Angeles. The win also came with a new Ford Focus and 16 hours of studio recording time. Bush made it through the first two rounds, said Best of Fox Philadelphia, and will make it on the show if he survives a tryout in front of judges Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and the infamous Simon Cowell.

The Philadelphia judges were impressed with Gagliardi’s ability.

"She had a powerful, expressive voice," said Amorosi, who critiques music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper. "She seemed to realize — like any good jazz singer — how to modulate, growl and utilize every almost-hidden nuance of a song."

It was yet another good review for the girl who has been entering musical competitions since age 4.

Amorosi also liked Gagliardi’s prospects for a singing career "if she can get into songwriting, production and/or a small label that allows her vocal talent room to breathe."

The teen already is following that advice to the letter.

"I’ve been recording songs that I’ve written, and I plan to produce and just keep writing," said Gagliardi, whose favorite singers include Carey, Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera.

Although she is dreaming big, Gagliardi also is planning practically. She wants to attend either La Salle or Temple next fall to major in music education.

Despite her near-miss at an American Idol 2 tryout, Gagliardi seems genuinely happy for her opponent’s success.

"I’m really happy for Tyrus, and it was a really close competition," she said. "I’m very proud of him. He was great."

And the adventure, the singer added, was a big reward in itself.

"I enjoyed every single second of it because of all the exposure, making new friends and meeting new people."

Managing editor Sheri Brenner contributed to this story.