Published February 05. 2013 9:25PM Updated February 07. 2013 4:37PM
Erin Christine Prestileo watched the first season of American Idol from her living room in Madison when she was a student at Daniel Hand High School. Back then, her personal performances included a turn as Rizzo in Hand's production of Grease and as Eponine in the high school's production of Les Miserables.
Now, after years of establishing herself in the music industry with her soulful voice and self-taught, ethereal piano playing, Erin, who goes by the stage name Erin Christine, is finding herself in front of the American Idol cameras.
She was one of 41 hopefuls to earn a golden ticket to Hollywood at the New York City auditions last fall after singing "Oh! Darling" by The Beatles for judges Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, and Randy Jackson. And how's this for a birthday present-from her living room in Madison with her family surrounding her, she saw herself on the season 12 premiere last month, which aired the night before her 27th birthday.
"My family didn't come with me to New York for the audition," she says. "I felt like it would be too much pressure to have them waiting behind the door afterward, wondering if I made it or not. We had a combined birthday party/premiere-watching event the night it aired. I was so nervous because I didn't know if they would actually show me, and I didn't want my family to be disappointed if I wasn't on, even though they knew I had made it. But I was, and we all screamed when I came on the TV."
New York to Hollywood
Erin is no amateur. She began voice lessons at age 11, taught herself how to play piano, and, after graduating from Hand in 2004, she studied professional music and voice performance at Berklee College of Music in Boston. She went on to work in Florida and New York City, crossing paths and collaborating with big names in music.
She experienced a whirlwind few years making a name for herself. She worked with a manager and a producer, was signed to a label under Universal Music Publishing, and starred in a music video directed by Quddus from MTV/Access Hollywood for her first single, "Say." She made the rounds on the live show circuit, playing regularly for New York crowds. John Legend attended a show and fell under Erin's spell, eventually writing a song for her debut album.
The music video collaboration came about after Quddus saw a video of Erin singing in her recording studio, which inspired him to work with her.
"I had a lot of buzz online," Erin says. "One of the websites posted a video of me on YouTube performing in the studio, and Quddus contacted me on my Twitter and said he believed in me and wanted to shoot a video with me. I was like, 'First of all, Quddus just hit me up on Twitter. Second of all, he wants to shoot a video. That's amazing.' I was so nervous. I had to take acting classes."
A couple years later, the giddiness and enthusiasm sparked by the connections she made still shines through.
Erin summarizes, "For two years, I was actually sleeping in a recording studio on a couch and just working on music, writing an album, and doing shows all over New York City, working with different established producers and songwriters. We definitely released some music, but after two years of that, it kind of fizzled. I had reached a blank page."
So she decided the time was right to try out for American Idol.
Erin's song of choice for her audition was "Oh, Darling" by the Beatles.
"I remember the first time I heard that song, I was riding in the car with my sister," she reflects. "I was probably around 13, and I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the melody. When I listen to a song, I'm always attracted to the melody over the lyrics, and then I'll listen back and listen to the story in the lyrics, but it was the melody that really caught my attention, and I knew that I could kill it in my audition with the soulfulness of the song."
When her moment in front of the world-famous judges arrived, Erin recalls, "I thought I was going to throw up. I remember I was backstage, the door was closed, the camera crew was in my face. At that point, I just said a prayer because I didn't know what else to do. It was showtime, and I had to just walk in there with confidence even though my idol Mariah Carey was sitting right there, looking amazing. It's so intimidating, but it's also so cool. I was honored to have that experience, because how many people get to sing in front of Mariah, Nicki, Keith, and Randy?"
After she gave it her all, she says, "I literally blacked out and forgot what everybody said, but I do remember as soon as I stopped singing, Nicki Minaj jumped back and said, 'Whoa!' and they were all like, 'I kind of didn't expect that voice to come out of your little self.' But they all had awesome things to say overall."
Back in town for now, Erin is savoring some precious time with her friends and family before Hollywood can possibly steal her away again as she attempts to advance through the competition. (Due to confidentiality agreements, she was unable to disclose any information on her progression beyond what had already aired on TV at the time.)
"I'm very much a homebody," she says. "I love to be with my family and just hang out. My family's expanding now. I have five nephews who I love to spend time with. The youngest is five months and the oldest is three years old. I love driving by the beach and just taking it all in. Madison is a beautiful town."
Erin says of her family, "We're all so close. They've always supported me through everything, and they're so excited. My stepsister will call me up and say, 'Um, I just heard you on the radio-you're famous!' and I'll just be like, 'Calm down,'" she says with a laugh. Erin is the youngest between two blended families that include a brother, a sister, and four stepsisters.
"I wake up in the morning and my mom makes me do my own dishes," Erin says with a smile. "She treats me like I'm still the same person. She and my whole family are so proud of me, but it doesn't change how they treat me or how my friends treat me, and it's not like I'm being noticed around town."
Except at the gym.
"Actually," she corrects, "I was at the gym the other night and somebody recognized me and tapped on my shoulder. I was on Fox News in the morning, and later that day I was on the treadmill and the TV in front of me replayed my interview. I sort of hid my face and was like, 'Oh, God. This is not happening.'"
She says, "It's been pretty surreal and, of course, a dream come true. The support of the town has been so overwhelming. Before I went to my audition, I invited all my family and friends to Donahue's...and people from my high school, even friends' parents that I hadn't seen in forever, showed up. All these people from Madison kept showing up. It was so cool to have their support."
Erin still vacillates between incredulity and increasing adjustment toward her circumstances. "Some days, it kind of seems normal, like, 'OK, I'm on American Idol,'" she says. "But then I think about it, and I've been watching American Idol since it came out 12 years ago! So many people since the show came out have said, 'Why don't you try out?', and I always kind of had something else going on. I can't believe that I'm on it!" she says.
A Musician She Is
While she's home, Erin is teaching voice lessons in her spare time.
"I still have to pay the bills; American Idol's not doing it yet," she said with a laugh. "I was only on one episode so far."
Music continues to find its way into Erin's life through various avenues.
"I just discovered Pandora, and it's my new best friend," she says. "This may sound weird, but I really love depressing music. I'm attracted to melodies like that, dark melodies. I'm a really happy person, but I just love the soulfulness and melody of sad songs."
Two of her all-time favorites to sing are "Wild Horses" by The Rolling Stones and "Stars" by Grace Potter.
"Those songs have so much soul in the melodies and the lyrics, and I love the way they speak to me," Erin says.
If she wasn't a contender to become the next American Idol, or wasn't a musician at all, Erin says, she would still seek an outlet for her creative energy.
"I'm a very creative person. I wasn't amazing at math or science," she explains. "I wasn't in love with it. I always loved music, and anything creative. I love taking pictures, I think maybe I would go into photography if I wasn't in music."
She adds, "My family's Italian and Lebanese, so I love making classic Italian pasta dishes and meatballs, and I love to make Middle Eastern curry dishes and stuff like that."
But a musician she is, and she's still working hard to make her dreams come true.
"I feel really honored to represent Madison on American Idol, and hopefully I don't disappoint them," she comments. "But no matter what happens with American Idol, I'm definitely going to always make music."
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Follow Erin Christine: twitter.com/ImErinChristine