AUBURN -They came and sang their hearts out.

Cowboy hats, leopard-print skirts and lots of nerves were at the Auburn Mall on Saturday as more than 100 contestants flocked to the 2009 “Make Me An Idol” competition put on by FOX23 and sponsored by local radio station Q97.9.

The winner of the local singing competition is guaranteed an audition for season nine of the television sensation “American Idol.”

Nervously awaiting their turn to walk on stage and “wow” the judges, contestants practiced lyrics and warmed up vocal cords in a line that snaked around the mall’s center stage.

Kayla Hopkins of Manchester left home at 5:30 a.m. to secure her position in line. “We were like the third people here,” she said with a laugh. She was hoping to gain experience as a singer and performer by participating in the contest.

The first time since 2003 that the competition was held at the Auburn Mall. FOX23 President and General Manager Tom MacArthur felt the Twin Cities were represented very well. “We’re really impressed by the quality of all the singers who performed today,” he said. “The turnout was great.”

Renditions of current pop hits, Broadway musicals and classic crooner tunes were heard by a large crowd that cheered contestants on if they stumbled slightly or forgot the lyrics.

“I love singing, but I’ve always been scared to step out and do something with my voice,” said Shakurah Hairston of Lewiston. Seeing this as her opportunity to break out of her shell, she chose to sing Alicia Keys’ song “If I Ain’t Got You” for its vocal range and deep personal meaning. Hairston’s game plan was simple: Out-sing the contestants who performed before her.

Judging this year’s competition were local industry professionals Janet Ross, talent coach for the Miss America Organization; Taylor Mesple, owner of Inner Circle Productions at The Maple Room in Lewiston; Ginger Leigh Smith, vocalist; Lisa van Oosterum, CEO of Omnirox Entertainment and Portland Music Foundation Treasurer; and Louis Phillippe of Reindeer Records.

Open auditions began at 10 a.m. and continued until noon. Each singer had 30 seconds to perform a cappella and was judged on a scale of 1 to 10 on their song choice, stage presence and vocal ability. The 20 contestants who scored the highest moved on to the next round and were allowed a full minute for their performance. The final winner was selected from the top 20 based on the numerical scores from the judges.

Erik Anderson of Rome walked off stage after performing “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban to loud applause from onlookers. He has been singing since he was 6 years old, and although he’s comfortable on stage, the competition’s pressure affected him slightly.

“I perform in front of people every Sunday at church, and I was in All-State chorus but this, I was nervous,” Anderson said. “I just gave them what I got, and that’s all I can do. I’m going to work my hardest to win.”

When Ryan Sterling came to the Auburn Mall on Saturday morning, he was humble about his chances of winning.

My sister is much more talented than me, so I didn’t think I had a chance,” Sterling said.

The 2001 Leavitt Institute graduate now living in Minot emerged the winner with his performance of “Oh Happy Day.” Sterling and a companion will fly to Orlando, Fla., for the official July 9 “American Idol” auditions at Amway Arena where he is guaranteed an audition for the show.

His deep voice and range, along with a unique mix of vocal percussion, known as “beat box” won over the crowd, but more importantly, he impressed the judges.

His confident stage presence is a result of just coming off a tour with Celebrity Cruise Lines where he sang in a four-member a cappella group. He also performed with a group called the Top Cats at the University of Vermont, from which he recently graduated. Soon, he will head off to graduate school at Thomas College.

A line of well-wishers and autograph seekers were lined up for him as he walked off center court stage at the Auburn Mall, quite possibly a hint of what may be in store for the young singer.

Ryan Sterling belts out a tune during FOX23’s “Make Me An Idol” competition at the Auburn Mall on Saturday. He was the eventual winner who earned a trip to Orlando, Fla., next month and a guaranteed audition for season 9 of “American Idol.”


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