SARASOTA, Fla. - Syesha Mercado is one of those determined "American Idol" contestants who realized her gift early, jumped on the path to stardom and didn't stop trudging until she reached television's biggest stage.
The striking 21-year-old singer, dancer and actress grew up performing in the Sarasota area before moving to Miami for college. She's been singing since she was a toddler in a musical family that included three sisters and mother Zelda, a former Motown backup singer.
As a child, Syesha - it's pronounced "sigh-EE-sha" - sang in church and grew accustomed to performing in public - she once sang the "National Anthem" at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. Her turns in musicals such as "Pippin" and "Seussical: The Musical" at a Sarasota arts high school drew raves. She's acted in commercials, sang in a band, won a car in a statewide singing contest and even appeared briefly on a reality TV show.
So nobody back home is surprised that she's standing among the final 11 on the Fox TV show that has the potential to make her a household name. And, they say, it couldn't happen to a nicer person.
"When she was going to high school, she was aspiring to do that kind of thing. I remember she and her friends talking about it," said Johnnie Mnich, theater director in the elite performing arts program at Booker High School. "I think it was a matter of time before it happened. She knows what she wants, and she knows what she's good at."
Mnich recalls marveling at Mercado's talent when the she won the lead in the musical "Once on This Island" as a sophomore.
"I was just blown away," he said. "I was amazed at the level of expertise and strength and training."
Bruce Merkle, 20, spent all four years in the Booker arts program acting and singing with Mercado. They shared their first stage kiss in "Once on This Island."
"She's sounded like that since she was 14, as long as I can remember," said Merkle, now a stage actor and still close friends with Mercado. "She's the real deal. And she's genuinely a nice person. She's very grounded and knows what she wants."
While in middle school, Mercado was accepted into a program for low-income children that involved mentoring and an eventual college scholarship. Her positive attitude, big singing voice and lack of pretense won people over from the beginning. She got to meet former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as part of the program, and he promptly asked her to sing for him.
"We were all just in awe of her singing ability, and you meet her and she's just as sweet as her voice sounds," said Lisa Bechtold, local director of the scholarship program, called "Take Stock in Children."
Bechtold said Mercado's sunny disposition never wavered, even after her family lost their house in a fire while she was in high school. In an early "American Idol" interview, she talked about her father, Jose, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and being in and out of her life. He recently graduated from a rehab program.
"She's had lots of hurdles in life, but I've never heard her complain." Bechtold said.
After graduating from Booker in 2005, Mercado studied theater briefly at Florida International University in Miami but left to pursue acting and singing. She was chosen for a 2006 ABC-TV reality show called "The One: Making of a Music Star," but few people watched and it was quickly canceled.
A few weeks ago, acerbic "Idol" judge Simon Cowell hailed Mercado as "one of the most talented girls in the competition," but her take on the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" on Tuesday night drew only lukewarm praise from the three judges.
She ended up in the bottom three, but survived as David Hernandez was sent packing instead on Wednesday night. That thrilled her admirers, who have dubbed themselves "Syesha's Faneshas."
"I'm living my dream right now," she said on the show Wednesday.
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