Erika Van Pelt: My age certainly played a role in 'American Idol' ouster
By Elizabeth Kwiatkowski, 03/23/2012
Erika Van Pelt was axed from American Idol during Thursday night's live results show broadcast on Fox, deciding the eleventh season's Top 9 finalists.
Erika, a 26-year-old from South Kingstown, RI, became the fourth finalist sent home from American Idol's eleventh season after she received the fewest home viewer votes following Wednesday night's performance show, which featured the Top 10 finalists performing Billy Joel songs.
Van Pelt's elimination became official after Idol judge Randy Jackson announced the show's judges were not going to prevent her elimination by using "The Judges' Save," which Jackson and fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler can use once during the finals to prevent the elimination of a finalist who receives the fewest home viewer votes during a weekly performance round.
During a Friday conference call with reporters, Erika talked to Reality TV World about her American Idol experience -- including whether she thinks being one of the oldest contestants in the competition worked against her, why she believes the women on the show have a much harder hill to climb than the male singers, and what led into her decision to sing a Whitney Houston song for her final "save me" performance considering it was a tough song to sing at such an emotion moment.
Reality TV World: Elise Testone and yourself are 28 and 26-years-old respectively, making you the two oldest contestants in the competition at this point. Since you both have landed in the bottom three a couple if not several times, do you find any correlation between your ages and the voting public? Do you think there may be a younger audience watching and voting for the teens because they might relate to them more or something?
Erika Van Pelt: Absolutely. Absolutely. I would be a fool to say that I didn't think that was a part of it. And Elise and I have talked about this at length actually. Her and I were roommates through a good chunk of this process, and yeah, us two being the two oldest I think definitely played a part in why we kept ending up in the bottom.
When it comes down to it, American voters -- the general public -- really wants to feel like they can relate. I feel like Elise and I are the type of artists that are slightly more out of the box, a little less mainstream.
So for a show likeAmerican Idol, it's not necessarily the easiest thing for us to break out and let people know that we can be relevant, we can be current, we can be mainstream. They just sort of have to open their eyes to see it.
Reality TV World: What was the sentiment among the women this season? Because last season, the first four eliminated finalists all had been girls and the season prior to that was a similar situation. Was that something yourself and the girls had been concerned about or discussed before the finals began? When I talked to Shannon Magrane last week, she said there was definitely a vibe of "girl power" amongst you ladies.
Erika Van Pelt: Us ladies felt like we definitely had to bring a little something extra this year. There has been this sort of consistent -- what seems like guy favoritism. But then again, we have to look at -- and be realistic -- the main demographic for the show.
There's a lot of teenage girls and of course, and I keep saying, if I were voting at home, it would be hard for me to not vote for the really cute boys too. (Laughs) I mean, let's be honest. They're very charming. They're all extremely talented, extremely different and just really great guys. So I can certainly understand where that comes from.
Reality TV World: American Idol hasn't had a female winner since Jordin Sparks and it's had only three women in the finale the last five seasons. Do you think because of the nature of the voting public that it's a harder hill for female contestants on the show and do you think a woman can win again?
Erika Van Pelt: I think it is 100% percent harder for the girls, yes. And again, just because -- to be realistic -- that the voting demographic is a lot of adolescent females. I'm a female too and I've been a fan of the show since I was a teenager, so I totally understand. I do think it's a harder hill to climb though for the ladies.
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Do I believe that a girl can win again? Absolutely, you know what I mean? Especially this season, I feel like all of the girls are strong contenders. They all have very different styles and yeah, absolutely. They have fierce competition with the boys, because everybody's bringing it this year, but yeah. I totally think a girl can win.
Reality TV World: American Idol judges and mentors usually stress that the show's finalists should avoid singing songs recorded by top vocalists like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston because they will probably never out-do the original version. So looking back, do you regret singing the Whitney hit for your "save me" song because it seemed to be a tough song to take on considering you were pretty emotional in the moment?
Erika Van Pelt: The whole "save me" song thing was sort of an interesting -- how it came about was kind of interesting. I had used my -- a lot of the songs that I had sung, like previous, I didn't want to do anything that I hadn't done with the band already, you know what I mean?
Because if it came down to that and I did have to sing for my life, I wanted to make sure that at least that part of it would be solid. Because those guys are great. They're the best of the best, and again, because the emotions were running high, I thought personally the Whitney tune was one of my better performances just vocally speaking.
And I wasn't afraid of not being able to pull it out because of emotions. I figured if I broke down in the middle of it, so be it. That would be the way that it would have to go, but thankfully, it didn't and I feel like I left on a high note.
Reality TV World: What was your initial reaction when you found out about Jermaine Jones' disqualification and what are your thoughts on the subject now that you've had some more time to think about it and a lot more details have surfaced?
Erika Van Pelt: You know what, the whole thing with Jermaine, I still talk to him on the regular and it was shocking for sure. We never expected that to happen obviously and the circumstances were just so awful. I mean, it could not have really gone any worse for Jermaine at the one stage in the game.
But he's doing really well as far as I know now. So, it's just a matter of, again, that was the way that it was meant to be for whatever reason and Jermaine knows that too. I know that there was a reason that I was the first out of the Top 10 to go home -- not quite sure what that is yet, but I'll figure it out.
Reality TV World: Now that you've been eliminated, who do you think are the frontrunners to win this season?
Erika Van Pelt: Um, I honestly can't answer that question. (Laughs) It's so weird to me because of the versatility of this group, and again, sort of reiterating what I said before about the guys and the girls and feeling like the girls have a little bit of a harder time, it's just one of those things where I feel like everyone is way too different to even say.
I don't even feel people jockeying for a position at the top. We're all so tight and we all have a pretty good mindset -- no delusions of grandeur -- it's just all about whoever deserves it, we feel like will end up at the top. End of story.
Also during the call, Erika told reporters whether she thought her new drastic hairstyle had any effect on the voting results, why she didn't get an explanation from the judges as to why they didn't save her, what her thoughts were on judge Jennifer Lopez's criticism throughout the season and why she disagreed with her often, and why she genuinely felt she couldn't be herself onstage.
Do you have any idea why the amount of votes you received was less than the other contestants?
Erika Van Pelt: Yeah, you know what? It was one of those things where I feel like for the past few weeks, obviously consecutively being in the bottom pretty much every week, I just really feel like I didn't have enough momentum right out of the gate even though I was progressing every week and really coming more out of my shell, I feel like.
Regardless of my solid performances, I feel like every time I hit that stage, it was one of those things where I just didn't gain enough momentum in the beginning and then sort of ended up lagging behind a little bit just in the eyes of the voters.
Do you think your dramatic hair transformation played any role in you receiving less votes than you would have had you not changed your look?
Erika Van Pelt: Very, very dramatic! (Laughs) I'm sure it confused some people that may have a little trouble either with change or with seeing a little outside of the box. I don't think it was detrimental to me. If anything, I feel like I got a few more people to at least notice.
I was making jokes earlier on in the competition that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of blondes. Even though I'm a natural blonde, there were a lot of blondes it seemed this season and this was my chance to break out. Tommy Hilfiger had the idea to go short in our image consulting session and it was my idea to go dark and take it one step further.
Some people are saying the judges should've used their save on you. Did you ever get a chance to talk with the judges after the show and get a better explanation as to why they chose not to use it?
Erika Van Pelt: It was one of those weird things that I didn't even think to ask them why they didn't use the save. I had my sort of preconceived notions as to why they wouldn't if I ended up in the bottom. So for me, I was already sort of mentally prepared for that and I know that with what happened last season with Pia Toscano and them using their save early on with [Casey Abrams], that it was going to be hard.
It was going to be hard for me and they have a little post-traumatic stress, which is understandable and feel like they may need to save it for an even crazier elimination. So, I didn't bother to ask them about that so much. I just wanted to thank them for giving me the opportunity.
What are your plans for the near future?
Erika Van Pelt: I have to spend the rest of today in L.A. and I fly to New York tomorrow. I have a press schedule to do the Today Show and Anderson Cooper and a couple other things while I'm in New York City, and then I will eventually, within the next week-and-a-half or so, make it back to Rhode Island -- which I'm super happy about.
I'm only going to be there for a few weeks, but I will get to at least go to dinner in Newport with the family or something before I have to come back out here for finale.
Could you talk about the nodule you have on your vocal cords and how that might have affected your performance?
Erika Van Pelt: Oh yeah, great question actually. This is a weird thing. I was actually listening to recordings of myself from four or five years ago when the nodule wasn't present on my vocal cords and certainly sound completely different. I used to be more of a mezzo-soprano and now because of the node, I'm certainly more of an alto.
It's taken away part of my range, certainly. It's just another thing I felt may have been detrimental to me in this competition, because people like to hear those high notes. People like to hear the high sort of belting and that's just not my style. So yeah, it's been hard. It's certainly something that I'm trying to maintain and not let get any worse.
How much did you agree with Jennifer Lopez's critique about having to move around more onstage and loosing up your body?
Erika Van Pelt: For me, I mean I certainly didn't agree with the critique, and mostly because I was singing "New York State of Mind," you know? Anyone that's ever seen Billy Joel perform this song, sees Billy Joel sit behind the piano the entire time and still sell it. And I thought I sang it to the best of my ability. I was really, really connected to the lyrics, you know?
New York holds a special place in my heart, anyway. My cousin is a New York firefighter, and of course with all the ties to 9/11 and things like that, it was a special song for me to sing. So I was disappointed when she said that, because I felt like it was more -- she wanted more of almost a fake performance so people thought I was singing harder maybe than I actually was -- which didn't really seem correct to me.
When you were singing for your life during Thursday night's results show, the cameras cut to the judges deciding what they were going to do and they seemed to be shaking their heads no. Did that affect you onstage? Did you notice that while singing?
Erika Van Pelt: Yeah, you know what? Not at all. This weird thing happens when I go into "show mode" (laughs) that I sort of black out a little bit, especially if I know I'm being judged. The weird thing for me, the judges are actually the last people I look at.
I'm trying to engage with the people in the audience because they're giving me the energy that I need to perform. I'm thinking about my family and friends back home. I'm not really thinking about whether they're going to save me or not.
What were your friends and family's reaction to your change or hair color and cut? Would you change it again for the Idol tour or something?
Erika Van Pelt: I would totally do it in hot pink, purple, blue with blonde in it, I don't care. I will do anything. I will do anything that I feel. (Laughs) I'm pretty fearless when it comes to that stuff, as people sort of got to look at this week.
But yeah, my family was not shocked at all. I've always been a chameleon in the realm of hairdos. It's been every color of the rainbow. It's been permed. It's had extensions -- long, short -- so they certainly weren't surprised. Actually, most of them just laughed and said, "Oh, there she goes again!" (Laughs)
Which mentor you got to work with was the most beneficial to you?
Erika Van Pelt: You know, I'll be honest. I worked with some amazing people and took some amazing things out of those mentoring sessions. Mary J. Blige, Will-i-am, Diddy -- but I feel like the person who honestly was the most helpful to me was Jimmy Iovine. He was there with the other mentors every single week. We sat down with him every single week and talked about songs.
He's such a heavy-hitter in the industry, and to hear him also pretty much be behind me after every single one of my performances -- a couple times he had some, "eh, eh" things to say. Maybe he wasn't that stoked on the performance end, but he always said that vocally, I was one of the strongest and went as far to say the music's just in my blood. So, that meant a lot to me coming from him.
Erika Van Pelt: Aside from all my amazing personal relationships obviously that I've built, since I've been here and began this journey, American Idol has been the best catalyst for getting to that next part in my career. Before this, I mean, I'm 26-years-old and I've been just working my butt off at home.
But in Rhode Island, it's sort of hard to get a career started. We're a super small state -- not too, too much going on. We're pretty low key and I feel like I needed to make that move to either New York or Los Angeles to sort of get it kick-started, andAmerican Idol was the perfect way for me to do that.
Do you regret changing your look because Tommy Hilfiger said it would get you more votes?
Erika Van Pelt: No, I don't regret changing it at all. The funny thing about that is when Tommy came on as an image consultant for the show and started working with our stylist, it was more of just really impeccable timing actually. Because I had been thinking of doing something drastic with my hair regardless.
And what actually happened up to that point, is every time I asked to change my hair, I was not allowed to because of consistency with the show. They didn't want to scare people before they had really gotten a chance to get to know me.
So, I wasn't allowed to do anything with my hair, so it stayed sort of just normal. Had I been home -- had I not been involved in this Idol thing -- I probably would have been changing it every three weeks, so you know, it's just one of those things.
How did you respond to the judges' criticism throughout your journey? Do you think any of them were particularly too hard on you?
Erika Van Pelt: I will admit that Jennifer's criticism got to the point where it was a little much for me to take in and a hard pill to swallow, because she made several comments starting back at "sing for your life" that I wasn't pushing hard enough.
But what happened between Jimmy and the three judges and the producers and everybody behind the scenes, everyone was very opinionated in this business. And what ended up happening is, I got really confused, and I'll be candid about that. I got really confused.
I felt like there were a lot of comments that were contradictory from week to week between them, and first I wasn't doing enough and then I was doing too much and then I wasn't doing enough again and then I was oversinging. There was never a balance. I felt like I could never just sing and be myself, because it was either going to be one or the other.
What was going through your mind while you were singing your "save me" song last night?
Erika Van Pelt: Oh man, this is when I know honestly that singing is what I was born to do, because I honestly do go into blackout mode and my emotions are running so high, and there's such a fire inside of me, that it's really difficult to pull together, you know? I sang for my life like several times and it just kept getting harder every time.
It never got easier, but for some reason, I almost go on autopilot and a lot of things around me -- a lot of the distractions -- just disappear and it's just me and that microphone. If that doesn't tell you that's where you're supposed to be in your life, I don't know what does.
What are your long-term plans? Will you be moving to Hollywood or something?
Erika Van Pelt: I absolutely love New England and I feel like -- I mean, I'm East Coast born and bred -- so I feel like if I were to permanently end up somewhere, even if it had to be a heavier spot for the industry so to speak, I would probably go to New York.
I don't mind the New England winters. It was actually funny because doing Idol really made me miss New England winters. I didn't get to see it snow one time even though I heard that there hasn't been... [much of a winter anyway]. (Laughs) But regardless, I missed it anyway. So, I would probably still end up on the East Coast eventually.
Have you ever seen the Idol tour yourself in person?
Erika Van Pelt: I have never gotten to go to the Idol tour, no, unfortunately. What has happened ever since it began -- I've been working. I'm a self-professed workaholic. I take very little time off.
Up until February of last year, I hadn't taken a vacation in six years. It's just one of those things. I just didn't get around to it. But I always catch up on the performances online. I always catch up so I can sort of feel like I was there.
What changes would you like to see American Idol do to maintain or boost its popularity in lieu of all the reality singing competition-competitors out there now?
Erika Van Pelt: I think certainly mixing up the themes would certainly help with a little bit of the viewer loss. It's one of those things that it's cool to see the same things done year after year, because you can kind of see how past contestants do in comparison to new contestants and things like that.
But I feel like for a show as big as American Idol, it's really important to make sure you're constantly breathing fresh air and new life into it. I mean, American Idol is such a huge, huge show and has really become a staple, I feel like, in American culture. And keeping it fresh, I feel like, is the main thing to remember.
Erika's closing comments: I just want to let everyone know that I am extremely devastated, but I'm so much looking forward to what is coming in the future. I have big plans for myself, I have big plans for the tour this summer -- which is going to be great... I'm maybe even hoping to get into some musical theater with Broadway when the tour wraps.
I'm going to be working on writing my first album and all of that stuff is going to be happening behind the scenes. So, I'm very excited to tour this summer and I'm really looking forward to getting to see all the fans and perform without being judged! About The Author:Elizabeth Kwiatkowski
Elizabeth Kwiatkowski is Associate Editor of Reality TV World and has been covering the reality TV genre for more than a decade.