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'Just the beginning'

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
Published April 4, 2005

TAMPA - When Jessica Sierra left for Hollywood to compete on American Idol back in February, she had no car. A nanny job was ending, so she had no income.

But Sierra, the latest Idol contestant to be booted off the show, arrived home to Tampa on Sunday all smiles and excited about her future.

She still doesn't have a car (her best friend is shuttling her around for now). And she still doesn't have a job.

But after making the top 10, she returns to Los Angeles in a couple of weeks to record a compilation album with the other contestants, belt out a few singles and prepare for the next American Idol tour.

"It's all been unbelievable," Sierra said. "Some amazing people in the entertainment business wait 10, 20 years for the kind of exposure I've gotten."

Sierra, 19, took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles on Saturday night, arriving in Tampa at 6 a.m Sunday. She was immediately recognized at the airport.

She signed T-shirts at a local McDonald's after stopping in for breakfast.

And at the Target on Gandy Boulevard, shoppers shouted "Jessica!"

"It was crazy," she said. "They acted like they knew me!"

Sierra arrived at a "Welcome Home" party in her honor at a South Tampa home overlooking Old Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon.

The party was organized by Cynthia Gries, owner and director of Entertainment Revue, a song and dance troupe in which Sierra was a member for five years.

Sierra, wearing a turquoise peasant top and blue jeans, clutched a large handbag. Bangle bracelets clinked on her wrists as she doled out hugs and kisses to the more than 75 people who greeted her.

She looked just like she has on television: dark hair extensions underneath her blond mane, smoky eye shadow over her large eyes and pink gloss glistening on her full lips.

Members of Entertainment Revue hugged Sierra and congratulated her. They held posters, proclaiming her their American Idol.

"Jessica is like a big sister to all of us," said Madeline Snyder, 16. "It's so cool."

Sierra's success has given members of Entertainment Revue hope, said another member, Emily Sanders, 15.

"It's really inspired us," she said. "When you see American Idol , you think, I've never known someone on it. Now, I feel like, "Wow, I can do it."'

Sierra urged her friends to hold on to their dreams. She tried out for American Idol last season and didn't even get invited to sing before the judges.

"This time, I made it to the top 10," she said. "So never give up."

Sierra's road to stardom began last August when she drove to Orlando for the latest American Idol auditions. Screeners invited her back to perform before the celebrity judges, but the judges never made it to Orlando because of the hurricanes.

Instead, American Idol flew Jessica to Las Vegas, where she sang At Last by Etta James for the trio of judges. That's when she got the good news.

She was going to Hollywood.

A week before she was to report to Los Angeles for the American Idol finals, the Bayshore Boulevard family she was nanny to moved to Seattle. Jessica helped them make the move to their new home and then flew straight to Hollywood.

She left for Los Angeles on Feb. 15.

It was a whirlwind from there.

She says the judges are all nice, even Simon Cowell, who made a crack about her "likability" factor.

She says she really doesn't know why Mario Vazquez, an Idol favorite, dropped out of the competition.

And she said she would go on the message boards and read what was written about her, even the stuff that wasn't so nice.

"People are jealous and they're going to say things because they like someone else," she said. "You just have to stay positive."

Sierra and the other Idol contestants were put up in apartments. She roomed with Vonzell Solomon and Nadia Turner, who both still are in the competition.

Sierra bonded with fellow contestant Mikalah Gordon, who was voted off a week before her.

That's why Sierra was seen crying so hard when Mikalah was given the boot.

"I felt like I was losing my best friend," she said. "I was already away from home, so I kind of felt like I was going to be all alone."

Yet the next week, when Sierra was voted off, she didn't shed a tear.

"I knew I was going home to my family and friends," she said. "It wasn't the end for me. It was just the beginning."

[Last modified April 4, 2005, 01:26:10]

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