When Jenny Freeman returned to work

at Under Armour at the end of September, she says, "I felt like the high school team who didn't bring home the big win." Unlike that high school team, Freeman was under contract not to tell anyone that she had lost the CW television network's

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American Idol

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The Next

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"It sucked. Everyone was asking what happened and I couldn't tell them," she says. "But pretty soon, people realized if I was here and not in L.A., then . . . " she breaks off and smiles in the cafeteria of the athletic manufacturer's South Baltimore campus. "Everyone had such good wishes."

Freeman, who sings under the name Jenny Leigh, talks about Under Armour, where she works in the marketing department, as if it is a family-and the company's support for her musical career extends far beyond the well-wishes and Facebook "likes" from her co-workers. One of the singer's first breaks came when the company's owner introduced her to Hootie and the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan, who grew up in Germantown, Md. "He put us in touch and I flew down [to Nashville] and we hung out and wrote a song and took it to a songwriting circle he was leading that night," she recalls.

Freeman, who seems to have no time for the indie posturing that denigrates commercial success, also uses her marketing skills and her psychology degree to craft her brand as a musical performer. From taking pictures of athletes for ad campaigns (many of which hang on the walls of the campus), Freeman learned that when you're represented on film, television, or the stage, you need to bring twice as much energy for it to come across. It's easy to see what she is talking about. Freeman, 5 feet 2 inches, with long blond hair, bright green eyes, and casual dress, is quite charismatic at work; but in makeup and hair extensions and tailored dress, on television, she looks like another person altogether. She looks like a Nashville star.

Freeman grew up in Frederick City, Md., and always loved country music-or, as she called it, "banjo music"-as a child. She would dress up and put on piano performances for the holidays. Later, she performed in school plays and musicals. And though she sang in an a capella group in college, at Elon University, where she studied psychology, she never really played in a band until after she graduated.

She had planned to get a master's degree afterward but needed to save some money first. She got the job at Under Armour, moved to Baltimore, and eventually started singing in the old school soul band Old Man Brown with her boyfriend, Adam Scott-Wakefield.

"I was really into soulful belting," she says. "But when I started writing, I found I was a storyteller, which fits with country. Though Baltimore really isn't a country-music mecca, I like being from Baltimore. It gives grit. It's something new I can bring to country. My own fresh interpretation-a city girl with country roots." So she started the Jenny Leigh Band (in which Scott-Wakefield also plays) and recorded two EPs.

It was through Old Man Brown, rather than country music, that the CW discovered Freeman.

Matt Kelley (disclosure: a

City Paper

contributor) answered a Craigslist ad to be a talent scout and began talking to Scott-Wakefield. "He told me you should really talk to my girlfriend," Kelley says. "She'd be perfect for it."

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Kelley met her and agreed, and the network paired her with a celebrity mentor. She didn't know who it would be until the camera crews and producers arrived. She and her friends went to eat crabs at Nick's Fish House and John Rich-of the country duo Big and Rich-came out with the crabs. After dinner, the whole production went back to the Federal Hill house she shared with her brother and set up shop. "It was kind of hard for him, he'd have to squeeze between all of this stuff," she says.

She and Rich worked out the song she was going to sing for the next three days (when he wasn't hanging out in the tent he set up on her rooftop deck) and then she had a live performance at the Hippodrome. "That night they filmed all three of us winning, so we wouldn't know who won," she says. "I found out when the public did. We had a viewing party to watch it, but I had a feeling I didn't win."

She still had a chance to be chosen as the crowd favorite among all 17 contestants nationwide when the next segment aired. That time, she knew she hadn't won before the public did and was unable to tell anyone.

Anyway, the high school team that doesn't bring the trophy back home is the stuff of country music and is far more interesting than the victorious team. And though Freeman admits that she sometimes lies awake wishing that someone who saw the show might come along and change her life, she wears the defeat well.

"It's good to be the underdog," she says. "Like Under Armour is to Nike."

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