When Kendall Phillips was a fifth grader at Zionsville Upper Middle School, she was given an assignment to make a poster depicting what she wanted to be when she grew up. So she drew herself as a bona-fide singer.
Her teacher returned it. There's still time to redo it, she told Phillips. Try picking a more realistic career.
Livid, her mother told her to turn it in as it was, regardless of the grade. Had her teacher known that Phillips would someday appear on a nationally televised music competition like the 2009 Colgate Country Showdown, she might have been a bit less skeptical.
Today, at age 20, Phillips is striving to become a singer and entertainer. After making it to Hollywood round one in 2006's American Idol
, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career. Less glamorous work as an extra followed on, but one of her music videos did appear on CMT's Music City Madness
Kendall has now returned to Zionsville. She recently traveled the Midwest in the attempt to qualify for the Colgate Country Showdown. The state finals in Michigan and Northeast regionals made up her path to the finals, held this January in Nashville.
Under the big top
After arriving Nashville for the finals, Kendall rehearsed and recorded at SIR studios on, before rehearsing with Charlie McCoy and his band at Ryman Auditorium, where the competition itself would be taped.
The early hours on the day of the competition were spent getting professional hair and makeup, as well as rehearsing the Garth Brooks medley that contestants would sing with the show's host, LeAnn Rimes.
As showtime neared, Phillips was feeling nervous about the stage fog: It had not been there the day before, and her asthma was flaring up.
Contestants were scored in five categories, including marketability, talent, stage presence and charisma. Extra points were awarded for artists performing their own music.
Phillips was up against Karla Davis, a 23-year-old South Carolina woman, Casey Lee Smith, a 17-year-old Arizona man, Whiskey Row, a two-piece band from California and Terry Lee Spencer, who hailed from a small town in Pennsylvania.
The road to Nashville
Phillips first tried out on the local level of the Showdown in March 2008 at a WFMS-hosted competition. Failing there, she went on in search of another radio station to sponsor.
"It took me seven tries to get to state," she said. WBCH of Hastings, Mich. was the charm.
"I worked on the songs and practiced my performing so that I could be prepared for anything that happened," said Phillips. "There was a lady in the front row at regional who was singing along to my song. She started singing the wrong words and so did I!"
While American Idol
allows each contestant to audition a capella for only 30 seconds, all Showdown contestants have an opportunity to perform to the best of their ability in a professional environment. Despite the corporate sponsorship, the Showdown is something of a grassroots talent competition; contestants have control over their repertoire and have time enough to make a distinctive impression.
Phillips' performance at the finals included her song, "Not Me", and a Sugarland cover, "Something More". She went on to join with Rimes and the other contestants on the Brooks medley.
"Now I can say I've sung with LeAnn Rimes," Phillips said. "It was a great opportunity that I got to share the stage with someone like that."
Around 10 p.m. the winner was announced. It was Karla Davis, an ex-soccer player who learned to play guitar by ear just two years ago, and was inspired to sing by her church choir.
Though Phillips did not walk away with the prize for winning the Country Showdown - a $100,000 check - she did make new contacts and earn national television exposure.
Phillips has had no time to stop and sulk about not winning the competition.
"This is a good opportunity and it's opened a lot of doors for me. My phone is still ringing with people wanting to talk," Phillips said. "Even though I lost, I still have to keep going because people still want stuff from me, and they want to help me along the way with my career, which is great."