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Music

Tampa Idol contestant singing her heart out

She is living "everybody's dream' with the possibility of becoming a finalist on "American Idol," but it hasn't always been a sweet song for Melissa McGhee who endured a difficult family life.

By AMBER MOBLEY
Published March 6, 2006


 

TAMPA - She was the 4-year-old girl in the back seat of her daddy's car, singing along with the radio.

She was the queen of karaoke Wednesday nights at her local Applebee's and Thursdays at the Green Parrot Pub in Carrollwood, rousing the crowds to standing ovations.

And until recently, she was restlessly working an office job, singing as she typed and filed paperwork.

Tuesday, the Tampa-born-and-raised Melissa McGhee is one performance away from becoming one of the final 12 contestants on Fox's American Idol. McGhee, 21, will make her third appearance on the phenomenally popular show at 8 p.m. on WTVT-Ch. 13.

If McGhee looks like she's singing her heart out, it may be because she's overcome a lot to get this far - not just in the competition but in her family life.

***

More than 50 relatives and friends gathered in North Tampa to watch McGhee take center stage for her first national performance on Feb. 21. Week by week, as she advances, the group continues gathering and growing every Tuesday night.

Mitzy McGhee thought her daughter looked and sounded great for her first Idol performance. But Melissa would later tell mom, whom she talks with daily, how she planned to improve for the next round.

Dad Christopher Lee Johnson can't stop smiling. "I'm on top of the world," he said.

McGhee comes from a musical family - her mother, father and maternal grandmother have been singing for a long time.

"We just never did anything with it," Mitzy McGhee said. "So, she's just kind of living everybody's dream."

McGhee has often been the main attraction on karaoke nights at an Applebee's on Sheldon Road in north Hillsborough County.

"Any of the songs she sings, she gets a big ovation," said Applebee's manager Kenny Zarnoch. "She comes in a lot and pretty much takes the show every time she comes to sing."

Growing up in Carrollwood as the oldest of four siblings, McGhee went to Essrig Elementary School and Walker Middle School, where she sang in drama club. At Sickles High School, where she graduated in 2003, she performed with the chamber and women's choruses.

In an online American Idol interview, McGhee recalled struggling with family issues in high school.

When asked by a Fox interviewer "What would people be surprised to know about you?", McGhee replied, "I have had a really, really difficult life.

"When I was in high school I was ... still bubbly," said McGhee. "I wasn't a person who showed it, but things at home weren't always the best."

Her parents have both spent time in jail.

McGhee's father, 42, has been arrested 30 times since 1981, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records. Johnson has been convicted repeatedly of writing bad checks and violating his probation. His most recent conviction was for domestic battery, for striking Mitzy McGhee in July 2002, court records show.

McGhee's mother, 40, was arrested 20 times between 1984 and 2000, mostly on charges of writing bad checks, records show. She has been convicted at least eight times on charges such as bad checks, larceny and probation violations, court records show.

"All of that's in the past," said Johnson, a collection manager with a litigation law firm. "We all go to church together now."

Melissa McGhee has no criminal record.

In a written Q&A on the American Idol Web site, she went into detail about her family problems. That interview was later removed from the site.

McGhee has not been available for comment.

McGhee is proud of overcoming it all, she said on the Idol Web site, and credits God for the strength to move on.

Her whole family attends the huge Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. McGhee "reads the Bible and prays a lot every day," her mother said. "She's just trying to stay faithful."

McGhee has also remained devoted in her pursuit of becoming an American Idol.

"She's had American Idol on the brain since it came on TV," said best friend Alexis Garcia, 20, of Citrus Park.

Garcia and McGhee have been friends since both were juniors at Sickles, and McGhee is the godmother of Garcia's infant daughter.

McGhee actually auditioned for the second season of American Idol when she had just turned 18.

"It's finally her turn," Garcia said about this season. "It's been a long time coming."

After McGhee made her national debut singing Faith Hill's When the Lights Go Down, judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul lauded her performance. The show's surliest judge, Simon Cowell, told her, "(Your) eyes are a bit lifeless. But you sing well."

While some contestants get confrontational with Cowell for his comments, McGhee and her family considered it constructive criticism.

Her family flew an Orlando makeup artist/hairstylist to Hollywood to help her improve her look.

The result?

Additional hair highlights, curled hair instead of straight, and dramatic makeup for her second performance. When in Hollywood, do as the stars do, right?

Even being nearly 3,000 miles away from her Carrollwood home, the "fun-loving Florida girl" feels right at home, said Johnson, her father.

When he accompanied her to Hollywood at the beginning of the competition, McGhee "was looking around and saying, "This is a nice place to live, right?' "

"I told her, "Ohhhh no,' " Johnson said with a laugh.

"She's a long way from home in a big town, but she fits right in," Johnson said. "This is what she enjoys ... The sky's the limit. With her likability, she'll make it one way or another."

Idol judges - and viewers - seemed to like her rendition of Reba McEntire's Why Haven't I Heard from You last Tuesday.

"That was hot," Jackson told her.

Abdul called McGhee's voice one of a kind and something she could definitely hear on the radio.

Cowell also loved her voice but questioned her song selection, telling her "to do something with the "wow factor.' "

Viewers apparently were wowed enough to vote McGhee through to tonight's round. After four more contestants are voted off the show this week, Idol's 12 finalists will perform live weekly, with one being voted out each week until the winner is chosen. The final 12 also will have opportunities to perform on an American Idol concert tour and record a tune for this season's Idol album.

McGhee's fan base seems to be growing.

In addition to relatives in five states voting for her each week until their cell phones die, McGhee's MySpace.com Web page is filling with hundreds of kudos about her Idol appearances. And Internet critics and newspapers across the nation are giving her props on everything from vocals to fashion sense.

"We know she has it," said Mitzy McGhee. "She'll get stronger every week."

Amber Mobley can be reached at 813 269-5311 or amobley@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 6, 2006, 21:59:07]


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