Whatever happens on “American Idol” Sunday night, Vel Phillips Memorial High School graduate Reette Thorns knows she went home a winner.
And not just because she got to hug Lionel Richie.
Thorns, 20, auditioned for the long-running music competition show, and her audition will air on this Sunday’s broadcast on ABC at 10:35 p.m. (immediately after the Oscars).
Thorns can’t reveal how she did on the show. But she said the experience was enormously positive, in that she felt the judges and the show producers not only heard her powerful voice, but her powerful story.
“I don't want to be the best singer in the world,” Thorns said in a phone interview. “I don't want to be the best performer in the world. But I want my message to come across very clear and direct. I wanted to stay true to my story and true to my voice and true to my emotions. Before anything else.”
Thorns now attends college at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, where she studies theater and competes in the shot put for the track & field team like she did at Memorial. She was back at her old high school this week on spring break, helping out the track team.
Thorns moved from Illinois to Madison when she was just an infant. She said her mother, who is a single parent, has struggled with addiction all her life, and the family moved around a lot when she was growing up. When she was in middle school, her older sister was declared her legal guardian, and she moved to the far east side of Madison.
Up until that point, Thorns, who has never had any vocal training, had only sung in church. But at Whitehorse Middle School, she began performing for others.
“I sang at our eighth-grade graduation, I sang with some friends, I sang at a talent show,” she said. “Those are the first times that I was out in front of other people and performing. I didn’t have a lot of time to practice or anything. It was just a natural thing.”
Finding an 'Idol' in Fantasia
It was while she was growing up that Thorns watched “American Idol” with her mother. She particularly connected with Fantasia Barrino, who won the show in 2004 and was a single parent like Thorns’ mother.
“Her and my mom are very similar in a lot of areas,” Thorns said. “How they were raised, and being single moms, trying to make a life for their kids, successful or not successful. That was the biggest thing that I found super cool. This is my Idol.”
When Thorns went to Memorial High School, she discovered her other passion — athletics, and shot put, in particular. Joe Frontier, the coach of the school’s shot put and discus teams and creator of the “Throw Big Throw Far” camps in Wisconsin, took her under his wing and mentored her in the sport.
“I really liked doing shot put because I was super strong and it was very, very natural for me,” Thorns said. “It took skill, of course, but it’s easier to learn things when you’re young and don’t know anything, versus trying to fix things later. I had never seen the sport before, so that made it easy for Joe to mold me into the thrower that he wanted me to be.”
For years, Thorns had seen pop-up ads on Instagram advertising auditions for “American Idol.” But she could never get past the first round. Finally, she tried one last time to apply, and this time made it far enough to be seen and heard by a show producer on a Zoom audition.
She sang three songs — “I Believe” by Fantasia, of course, and two songs from “A Star Is Born,” “I’ll Never Love Again” and “Shallow.” She said the response was immediate and gratifying.
“He told me I was the first person he had heard all day where he thought, ‘Holy crap, this is someone who has the potential to be the next Idol,’” Thorns said. “He sent me to his boss and six other producers, and I auditioned for them, and they said pretty much the same thing. I told them about my story, about my mom struggling with addiction, and how that meant moving around a lot, and not having a stable home. We had conversations about how I could use that positively in my Idol experience.”
'The sky is never the limit'
The producers forwarded her along to the next round, to audition in Las Vegas before a panel of celebrity judges — Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. Thorns said it was an amazing experience even before she got in the room, just being able to bond with the other singers, who came from all over the country and all different backgrounds, but shared a love of music.
“These people understand you in a way that other people who are athletes don’t, other people who are entrepreneurs don’t,” Thorns said. “Other people who sing understand what that moment means. You feel misunderstood talking to parents or friends or other people where this isn’t life for them. But it’s life for you, and meeting people who feel the exact same way made the experience so much better.”
Thorns said it was surreal to walk into a room with three musical legends, especially Richie who she had listened to her whole life, and not only meet them but turn the tables and sing for them. She said she didn’t give her best performance technically at that audition, but felt that they got a clear sense of who she was, where she was coming from, and what music meant to her.
“I was very shaky and just scared that I wasn't going to be able to perform how I wanted to,” she said. “I got through it and it was OK. I wish I could have done a second take because I would have been way less nervous. But, considering that I was performing for people like that, I was like, ‘OK, not too bad.’”
During the credits of last week’s episode, viewers could see a preview of this Sunday’s episode. Richie can be seen saying to Thorns, “Hallelujah. You touched me, and I just want you to remember this moment in your life.” Then Richie hugs Thorns, who is crying.
“He’s electric,” Thorns said. “He’s so wise, and he’s so emotionally in tune. He was like, 'I understand you, I get you,' and that’s just what I wanted in the first place. That moment was everything. I’m just glad at least one of the judges was able to understand what my performance and what my audition was for me.”
Thorns said she has not heard from her mother since December, which she knows is not a good sign for someone struggling with addiction. She said that she hopes when people see her perform Sunday night, especially people who have addiction in their own families, that it brings them hope.
“People who look like me, who have gone through what I’ve gone through, or are going through what I’ve gone through, I want those people to understand that the sky is never the limit. There are going to be obstacles. There are going to be things that hold you back. But just keep reaching. When people tell you no, and it doesn’t happen, go and find the people who are going to say yes.”