Nanaimo high school student competes on American Idol

Nanaimo teenager Lauren Spencer-Smith’s career has taken giant steps in recent months, thanks to a viral hit, an appearance on U.S. network television and a Juno Award nomination.

It’s about to get even better. On Sunday, the 16-year-old singer-songwriter will appear before judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie on American Idol, with a ticket to Hollywood on the line.

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If her versions of songs by Lady Gaga and Pink are successful, she will inch closer to the biggest door-opening opportunity of her life.

“I honestly loved it. It was amazing,” Spencer-Smith said of her audition, which she recorded in November. “The atmosphere there was so positive.”

Although she can’t discuss the outcome — American Idol has tight confidentiality agreements with its participants, forbidding them from revealing any details — the Grade 11 student at Dover Bay Secondary School is ready for viewers to see what she can do on stage.

Spencer-Smith is already well ahead of her competition. In November, she bypassed American Idol’s early-audition cattle-call, where hopefuls from across North America perform in front of the show’s producers, and joined those who made the cut for a regional audition in Sunriver, Oregon.

“I actually had a casting director reach out to me,” she said. “They have a team of people that go out and find artists. They don’t just wait for artists to come to the show. A lot of people go to open calls. I didn’t go to any of that. I just sang straight in front of the judges.”

During her two-day Oregon shoot, Spencer-Smith said, she got to know some of her fellow contestants, many of whom were several years older than her. “We all made friendships within seconds, just because everyone shares a love for music. That connection with everyone was instant.”

It started with a cellphone video of her singing Lady Gaga’s Always Remember Us This Way — which she also sang during her American Idol audition — with her dad in a truck that went viral on Facebook last March, eventually amassing more than 20 million views on Facebook.

That led to an appearance on comedian Steve Harvey’s daytime talk show in May, which prompted the Family Feud host to quip: “A voice like this at 15 years old? This a bad girl right here.”

Then on Jan. 28, she received her first Juno Award nomination. Her independent album Unplugged Vol. 1, recorded live on July 27 during a concert at Nanaimo’s Port Theatre, earned a nod for adult contemporary album of the year — for which she will compete with the likes of Bryan Adams.

Asked if she would attend the Juno ceremony in Saskatoon on March 15, Spencer-Smith said, somewhat cryptically, that she “wasn’t sure.” Perhaps a conflict of interest, where future American Idol activity is concerned? Spencer-Smith declined to answer.

She was more clear on where she would be a little more than a year from now, however.

Asked if Nanaimo would be her home base after she graduates from high school in 2021, she said “definitely not.”

“I want to live in L.A. I’ve wanted to live in L.A. since I was eight, honestly. I have worked with people in L.A., so it would be great to be around them. But I’m not going down there specifically for anyone. I’m going down there for myself. That’s where I want to be.”

She is planning to graduate from Dover Bay one semester early next year, but won’t be able to move south right away, as she doesn’t turn 18 until months later. “You have to be 18 to live on your own” in the U.S., she said. “If I was 18, I would be there the day after I graduate. I’d be out of here.”

Spencer-Smith has had the support of her teachers and classmates as she pursues her journey. The native of Portsmouth, England, has been singing since she was three; by six, she was performing at elementary school talent shows.

Those familiar with Spencer-Smith would not be surprised at her rising career, given that she joined country star Keith Urban on stage at Duncan’s Sunfest Country Music Festival in 2015, when she was just 11.

“Most of my teachers are pretty supportive. I’ve had a few who weren’t on board, until I started actually doing it. Then they were on board because it has been a lot of hard work since I was a kid, working toward this. It doesn’t just fall into place. But so many exciting things are all happening at once.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

American Idol airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC.

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