A wholesome image

The Baltimore Sun

For the past month, the banner on Buontempo Brothers restaurant on Main Street in Bel Air has been urging viewers to "watch and vote for Bel Air's own Julienne Irwin on America's Got Talent."

The message has been heard: In recent weeks, the 14-year-old country singer has steadily advanced to the final four of the hit NBC talent contest.

Tonight, the winner of the $1 million prize on television's highest-rated summer show will be announced. But whether the rising freshman at Harford Christian School in Darlington takes home the money, she is already the beneficiary of one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the TV year - a skillful job of packaging the teen's image and voice that all but guarantees her a recording contract and singing career.

The series' producers, of course, showcased her for their own reason: ratings. She is a performer likely to appeal to one of network TV's largest demographics - a group described by some analysts as the "NASCAR audience," a mainly suburban or rural audience that numbers in the millions in watching auto racing on TV.

As part of that package, Julienne has also come to embody a teen modesty that stands in sharp contrast to the headline-grabbing antics of celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. And that, experts say, could indicate a welcome shift in the larger culture.

"The persona is clearly that of an old-fashioned, modest, country, small-town girl," says Shirley Peroutka, professor of popular culture at Goucher College as well as a resident of Bel Air. "Who knows how much of that is created or encouraged by the producers?

"Still, wouldn't it be nice to think that maybe in the success and popularity of Julienne Irwin this summer we are seeing a reaction against the Paris Hiltons of the world and againt the superficiality of this cultural imperative toward bodily display ad nauseam 24/7 by young women?"

Julienne says that being a positive teen role model is part of her identity.

"I try my best to maintain a good testimony to people my age when I'm up there on stage," she says in a telephone interview yesterday after rehearsal for tonight's show. "I'm not any different off stage or on stage. Honest. That's pretty much me up there."

Richard Lynch, co-owner of Buontempo Brothers, says he supports Julienne because of what she represents.

"Everybody puts all the garbage in the papers about all the kids who are doing bad," he says. "But every time I catch a kid like this doing good and offering a positive image, I want to rally the troops behind her."

In recent years, Lynch's restaurants have carried banners for another Bel Air teen, figure skater Kimmie Meissner. As was the case when Meissner skated in the Olympics, all TVs in his restaurant tonight will be tuned to NBC's coverage of the hometown hero.

"Julienne's even younger than Kimmie. She's just a tiny girl. It's amazing what she's already done - how proud she has made people here. We've been watching from the start, and we'll be watching tonight," Lynch says.

What America's Got Talent viewers will see tonight is a field of four finalists - each potentially appealing to a different demographic. That diverse appeal to a broad range of viewers has earned the series an audience of more than 10 million fans a week.

Antoinette "Butterscotch" Clinton, a singer and beat boxer from California, is the performer most likely to attract an urban audience. Along that line, the judges have repeatedly urged her to add more of an R&B; edge to her song selections - even though she seemed to favor crossover pop ballads.

Singer and guitarist Cas Haley of Texas is a surrogate for all the guys in their 20s and 30s working day jobs and pounding away at night in garage bands. Tuxedoed Terry Fator, another Texan, appeals to older viewers with his smooth Las Vegas-flavored ventriloquist act.

"You've got urban, suburban and rural in that mix - someone for each of those audiences," says Peroutka. "That's very smart if you are trying to build the kind of mass audience it takes to be a successful network TV show. The NASCAR audience is a huge one."

Each of the other finalists has far more experience than Julienne, but that is part of what has made her such a winner with viewers this summer.

Introduced during the first show on June 24 in a taped interview, Julienne is shown quietly saying, "I'm no professional at this ... and I've never had a singing lesson. ... I'm a nobody."

And then, the modestly dressed, diminutive teen brought the judges and the audience to their feet in wild applause for her a cappella rendition of LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live Without You."

After Julienne's next appearance, judge Sharon Osbourne sounded the theme that would come to define the young performer in a larger cultural sense.

"You are such a great role model for other girls in the country," said the mom from MTV's reality show The Osbournes. "You don't flaunt what you've got. You dress appropriately - you're just great."

Julienne has embraced the characterization.

"I think it's a huge compliment to be called a role model," she says. "Obviously, right now, you see in the paper all the other teenage stars that are not exactly the best role models."

Perhaps producers and publicists are coaching her for interviews, but nevertheless, Julienne seemed remarkably grounded on the eve of what will surely be one of the biggest nights of her life.

"It's over now. People have already voted, and I can't change it. Honestly, I would really like to be the one who wins, but I will be happy whoever the winner is," she says. "I would love a career to happen. That's kind of the point of the whole show. I think it would be fantastic. But right now, I am just taking it one day at a time."

As tumultuous as events of the summer have been, Julienne doesn't think they've changed her.

"Obviously, I've gotten a little older - three months older. But I would say I'm very much the same person," she says. "I still check the Orioles score every night. My life generally still revolves around Baltimore sports."

Plus, she announced, she's brought her love of sports and her love of singing together.

"That's one of the most exciting things about this whole competition: I've been invited to sing at the Orioles game on Sept. 9, the Red Sox game.

"Good game, I know. Awesome game. I'm so excited."


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