Teen hits the right note in local 'Idol' contest

Ellicott City now has its own "Idol," and her name is Olivia Nagel.

Like Fantasia Barrino, her more famous counterpart on Fox television's American Idol, Olivia took the top prize last week in the Ellicott City version of the talent contest.


Olivia, 14, who will be a freshman next fall at Wilde Lake High School, edged out dozens of talented contenders to sing her way to the top spot.

But unlike Barrino, who won a record deal and acclaim from fans far and wide, Olivia received only $100 and the enthusiastic applause of about 70 spectators at the Miller library branch. She did not complain. "It was an awesome experience," she said.


The Ellicott City Idol contest, held over three nights, attracted dozens of young singers who were judged on eight criteria: range, stage presence, ability to stay on key, projection, tone control, embellishment, energy and song selection.

The event proved so popular it will probably become an annual contest, said organizer Alan Simpson, who runs the library's youth programs.

By Thursday, the final night, 19 middle school contestants and 12 high-schoolers had been winnowed to 11 finalists.

The judges were Paul Lavin, music teacher at Dunloggin Middle School; Jojo Girard of radio station Mix 106; Howard County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon and Library Director Valerie Gross. Not a single Simon Cowell-esque catty comment was heard from any of them.

"Everyone told me when I started this they didn't want anyone to be Simon, so we had no Simon," Simpson said. Filling the Ryan Seacrest role as host was Scott Donahue of Foreign Motors, whose banter kept the audience laughing. Contestants chose their own songs, and could either sing a cappella or with background music.

Simpson noted, with a certain amount of relief, that the songs had been chosen with care.

"Most of the song selections were really good, a lot of songs from musicals," he said. "Nothing inappropriate, which was one of my big concerns."

Many picked show tunes, including "If I Were a Bell" from Guys and Dolls, "Home," from Beauty and the Beast, "There are Worse Things I Could Do," from Grease, "A Cockeyed Optimist" from South Pacific, and "On My Own," from Les Miserables.


Ilana Kowarski, who chose the Les Miserables number, said she went through her collection of karaoke CDs to find a song that was "Broadway but a pop crossover."

Ilana, who will be a junior at Centennial High in the fall, said she loves to sing and has been taking lessons for five years, but she doesn't know whether she'll pursue a musical career. "I like to write, too," she said. "I like all the arty stuff."

Michelle Dwyer started the evening with "You're Going to Hear from Me." "It's a Barbra Streisand song, a classic," she murmured to the crowd. "I like it a lot."

Michelle, wearing a black and red halter dress, at one point walked into the audience. "This is my mom," she announced, giving her an affectionate kiss on the cheek during the song.

Ryan Thompson, the only male finalist, earned a strong round of applause with his haunting a capella version of "The Reason" by Hoobastank, and Lexie Altizer wowed the audience with "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera.

Kacie Johnson, a crowd favorite in a sideways baseball cap, sang "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. She strutted the aisles, encouraging the audience to clap along. When she finished, Donahue joked, "You gotta come out of your shell a little bit."


After Alexander Bushee finished singing "Home," Donahue came to the stage and said, "Is it me, or am I the only one with chills?"

Performances by Pattie Lin, Alicia Stanley and Monique James also earned cheers and applause.

As the judges tallied their scores, Ruth Newton, manager of the library branch, said all the singers were excellent. "I thought it was tough last night, but this is really, really tough," she said. "Thank you so much to all those brave young people who stood up here to do this. I know I couldn't do it at their age."

Finally, Donahue called three finalists to the stage: Olivia, Ilana, and Samantha Lash.

When Donahue announced that Samantha was the second runner up and Ilana was the first runner up, Olivia, realizing she had won, began jumping and hugging her fellow contestants.

The runners-up received $50 each; the money was drawn from the library budget.


"I've always really liked to sing a lot," Olivia said after leaving the stage and accepting congratulations from friends and family.

She said she spent just as much time choosing her outfit, a simple blue dress, as choosing her song, from Guys and Dolls. "But that's OK," she said. "I'm a girl. I'm allowed to do that."

Olivia said she plans to audition for the real American Idol, but she must wait two more years. The minimum age to compete on the show is 16.