Since it first started airing on American television in 2002, “American Idol” has become one of the biggest reality shows on TV and has resonated with music fans across the country.
The singing competition has helped elevate the images of the show’s judges, which have included Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. But mostly it’s about making stars out of the previously unknown, such as Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Carrie Underwood.
One of the previously unknown, at least nationally, was local musician and singer Elise Testone, who had an outpouring of support around the Lowcountry as she competed on Season 12.
And while she didn’t win — she place sixth overall, not too shabby for a competition that started out with hundreds of thousands of hopefuls — her local fan base is as solid as ever and will be out in force as she performs with the rest of the Top 10 at the American Idol Live tour stop at the North Charleston Coliseum on Monday.
Every singer has an event that first sparks the desire to perform in front of an audience. For Testone, her early interest in music came courtesy of a jukebox, or rather, a lot of jukeboxes.
“My dad collected and fixed up old jukeboxes,” Testone said in an interview with Charleston Scene, “and he would play records over and over again after fixing them. He’d blast them super loud, and I’d always remember hearing old Motown songs and Billy Joel and jazz.
“He never bought just one. He’d buy eight and fix them up and then sell them really cheap, so that was his good deed.”
Testone, who played local spots such as Fish, Juanita Greenberg’s, The Windjammer and Poe’s Tavern, is living the dream and in front of significantly larger audiences than before.
“We played L.A. two nights ago, and that was sold out,” she said. “It’s been awesome.”
Testone went on to describe a typical day on tour:
“We get there pretty early in the day, and we meet and greet fans outside, do press interviews with local stations, then more meet and greets, then we do the show, and when the show is over, we can go outside to meet people on our own if we want to, and I always do. There are always a bunch of people outside after the show, and we go and take pictures and sign autographs.”
When asked if there was anything about touring with a huge production that she wasn’t expecting, Testone replied, “I’m not totally shocked by anything, except maybe how good the food and the catering is.
“I’ve been looking forward to the tour and riding on the bus, and it’s kind of what I thought it would be. I love the idea of being in a new place every day.”
On tour with Testone are the rest of the Season 12 Top 10, including winner Phillip Philips, Colton Dixon, DeAndre Brackensick, Erika Van Pelt, Heejun Han, Hollie Cavanagh, Jessica Sanchez, Joshua Ledet and Skylar Laine.
While they bonded on the show because they were all experiencing everything from the same point of view, Testone said the bond has grown as they’ve been on tour, which began July 6 in Detroit.
“I think we are closer now, obviously, because there’s less pressure,” she said, “but we always all viewed it the same way; that you were in competition with yourself, so every week we would help each other, and there would be more really criticizing ourselves because we could have done better.”
While on the road, Testone also revealed that she has been writing new music.
“I actually wrote a song for Josh Ledet and I to sing as a duet, but I’ve also been writing stuff on my own. I’ve also been trying to work with the band, as well, while I have them around.”
While life on the road has brought about new experiences but few surprises for Testone, she said the thing she’s noticed most about life after “American Idol” is how people see her.
“I feel like the same person, but people see me differently. It’s different now, because people treat me more like a ... celebrity,” she said. Testone hesitates on that last word, almost as if she is a bit uncomfortable referring to herself as such.
“I still feel the same though,” she continues, “but it’s different right now. I’m in this bubble on tour, and all I see are the people that are in the bubble with me. So in that regard things are different.”
What won’t be different are Testone’s local fans and how they see her, because according to them, she was a star long before “American Idol.”
“It is so fun to watch Elise perform to see the reactions of other people around you,” said Holly Harrison, who met her about four years ago when they became roommates and have since remained friends. “I loved going to see her play at local bars like Juanita Greenberg’s, The Windjammer or Poe’s Tavern, and people would just freak out when she started singing. I knew that she was destined for more that first time I saw her sing live.”
Harrison, who ran the “Vote for Elise Testone on American Idol” Facebook fan page (facebook.com/voteforelise) during Season 12, predicts that her former roommate will go on to record music “that will change the industry.”
But while Harrison predicts fame and fortune for her friend, she also feels that Testone falls into a different class of entertainer.
“I think what sets her apart is she is not about the fame or money,” Harrison said of Testone. “She honestly, deep down wants to inspire people and for people just to simply enjoy music.
“She could have gone on ‘Idol’ or any similar reality show years ago, but it took her this long because she wanted to hone her craft, put in her time, do her ‘music homework’ so to speak.
“I can see her winning Grammys and making millions, but instead of buying a yacht, opening a center for young musicians. She is that type of loving, giving person. I can’t wait for that day to come; she deserves every bit of success she is sure to receive,” Harrison said.
And Harrison is likely not far off about Testone eventually opening a center for young musicians, as the singer was a music teacher at Music Unlimited in Mount Pleasant prior to being whisked away to Hollywood to compete on “American Idol.”
Chris Holly, co-owner of Music Unlimited, is another local supporter and said he wasn’t surprised when she made it into the television competition, or that she went as far as she did.
“We couldn’t be more proud of her,” Holly said. “She’s like a little sister to us here at Music Unlimited. She’s very driven, very talented. She’s definitely a five-star singer.”
And the “five-star singer” will have five-star support, as Holly said that he along with a large group of instructors and students from Music Unlimited will be attending Monday night’s show.
“I’m not sure where we’ll be sitting,” he said, “but we’ll be yelling our heads off for Elise.”
And that will suit Testone just fine as she had her own advice to hometown fans.
“I want everyone to scream really loud at the show, and make sure they come outside afterward so I can say hi to them, and thank them so much for all of the love and support.”
Charleston Scene editor Allison Nugent contributed to this report.