BAY CITY, MI – When “American Idol XIII” airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, Joel Loiselle of Bay City plans to stay glued to the television set to see one of the top 13 performers, as long as his health allows.
At 73, he’s not the FOX vocal competition’s typical fan. But it’s not every day that you watch your granddaughter advance through the Hollywood and rush weeks to stand proud with the chosen few.
Jena Irene Asciutto, a 17-year-old high school senior from Farmington Hills with strong Bay City ties, was the first of the judges’ picks announced Feb. 20, and a day later, she’s calling the experience “surreal.”
“My grandfather is so awesome,” Asciutto said, calling between production rehearsals in Los Angeles as she gears up for the main competition. When things get crazy, “the comfort of knowing my hometown and my friends and family are behind me makes it easier going up there each time.”
Even host Ryan Seacrest’s call of “Jena Irene” brings an emotional tug. Though her grandmother, Irene Asciutto, has passed away, the show’s unintentional use of Jena’s middle name keeps her memory close.
Still, when the 10 finalists decided by viewers’ votes were called and Jena was still in the bull pen Feb. 20, “Ohmigosh, I was freaking out,” she said.
Her concern soon turned to excitement when, after holding a sing-off with five hopefuls, judges Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban chose her to continue.
“Up until last night, everything was awesome, but it was all so surreal,” Jena said. “Now it’s starting to soak in. This is my new life; this is my career.”
It’s been a wild ride, juggling her continuing school studies and rehearsals with the competition’s coaches with the limited hours she’s allowed to put in as a minor. Her young age also means her mother Julie Asciutto, who grew up in Bay City, is riding the roller coaster with her in California as she watches from the sidelines.
“When Jena made the Top 30, I said, ‘OK, Lord, this is in your hands now,’” Julie Asciutto said.
And making it to the Top 13 brings a new round of restrictions as “American Idol” attempts to keep the competition honest by balancing the finalists’ media coverage. Yet many “Idol” pundits in the media have already tagged Jena as a strong contender for the title.
Bay City Mayor Christopher Shannon, a musician himself, said it’s great to see someone succeeding in Idol with a Bay City connection. The town is also the birthplace of Madonna.
“We had (‘American Idol’ winner) Scotty McCreery performing here and I got to talk to him at the show,” Shannon said. “He was just a teenager at the time, but it was really something then to see the exposure ‘American Idol’ brought him. For even those coming in second, third and fourth, it jumpstarts their careers.”
Jena’s aunt Debbie and uncle Scott, who still live in Bay City, accompanied her to California in the competition’s earliest rounds, and it was a cousin from Bay City, Jacob McPhee, who put her on the path in the first place, Julie said.
“When she was 10 or 11, he gave her his hand-me-down keyboard, one of those that light up when you play it,” she remembered. “That’s how she learned to play the piano, and in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, when her boyfriend told her he wanted to break up, she wrote her first song.
“It was really good, and three weeks later, she wrote another one. That’s when I did what every good mother does when her children show promise like that; I got her a local coach and supported her passion.”
While the Asciutto family wasn’t particularly musical, “we always had music in the house,” Julie Asciutto said.
With so much family still living in Bay City and around the country, “our phones have been blowing up,” she said. “This is such an honor for us. It’s also a serious challenge and she’s going after it with passion, perseverance and pride.”
One of the hardest parts, she added, is spending so much time with the same group of people and watching them get cut from the competition.
“We often don’t get a chance to say goodbye, though we catch up on Facebook,” Julie Asciutto said. “It’s very hard but we wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. These are all good people; there are no divas, just young people grateful for the chance to do what they love.”
Even those no longer in the running are cheering others on from the sidelines. Sikenya Thompson of Saginaw, who became sick and left the competition at the end of the Hollywood round, competed in the group round with Jena in Team Clarity.
“We really didn’t get a chance to talk much,” said Thompson, who spent most of her time trying to recover her voice. “But she’s very good.”
So how did the Michigan music scene prepare Jena for this moment?
Julie Asciutto credits music festivals they attended around Michigan, where Jena saw the passion and drive that came out when performing before an audience.
Then, as Jena took the stage herself with her band Infinity Hour in venues around downtown Detroit, she experienced it all for herself.
“The way we got to meet so many fellow musicians was a learning experience, due to the fact that everyone is competing for success in such a small business,” Jena said. “’American Idol’ is the same way! It will always be a competition but those who stand out will gain success.”