Asheville girl's 'Glee'-ful opportunity

A commercial changed Hannah McIalwain's life.

The Queens University sophomore was home in Asheville for Christmas break when she saw an ad for "The Glee Project" - a reality-TV competition where contestants vie for a recurring spot on the hit television series "Glee."

Casting directors were holding an open call in a week - halfway across the country.

That didn't stop McIalwain. She immediately went to her computer and booked her flight to Dallas.

More than 40,000 applicants auditioned through open castings and MySpace videos. But she took the chance.

"I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach, like, 'I have to do this,' " the 20-year-old said. "There was no doubt in my mind...I just knew ('Glee') was the perfect fit for me."

"Glee" debuted in fall 2009 and quickly became a darling of critics and fans. The musical comedy follows the trials of a high school glee club as it fights its way through singing competitions, friendships and the halls of McKinley High.

McIalwain got the callback two weeks later. She was one of 83 competitors to make it to the second round of auditions in Los Angeles. There, she became one of 29.

Then, back at Queens, she had to wait. "I was trying to focus on my classes and continue on with my life," she said. "But my mind was miles away. My head was still in L.A."

Los Angeles had her in mind, too.

In February, McIalwain became one of 12 performers selected to appear on the Oxygen reality show. She dropped out of Queens, packed her bags and headed back west.

Dr. Kara Wooten, a theater professor at Queens, said she was sad to lose one of her star performers, but happy to see McIalwain pursue her dream.

"You gotta let them go," said Wooten, who also works in the movie industry. "You gotta let them take that chance."

Wooten directed McIalwain in a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" her freshman year.

"Talent-wise, she's brilliant," said Wooten. "She's got a hell of potential and the biggest heart... that I've ever seen."

Jane Hadley, McIalwain's faculty adviser at Queens, had nothing but praise for her former student.

"You cannot not watch Hannah. She's just infectious. She's real. She's present. She's vulnerable but gutsy."

To win on "The Glee Project," a contestant must make it through 11 weeks of singing, dancing and acting with a team from "Glee," including co-creator Ryan Murphy.

The week's bottom three competitors get one final chance to perform for the judges. Two continue on to the next round while the other heads home.

In the first two episodes, two stars from "Glee," Darren Criss and Idina Menzel, dropped by to judge.

McIalwain said seeing Menzel, the star of Broadway's "Wicked," walk onto the set left her breathless.

McIalwain's mother, Julie Perley, said her daughter's trip to see "Wicked" in New York was a turning-point.

"She came back and told me that when she walked into the theater to see it she started crying," said Perley. "She was so moved and she said, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' "

After filming wrapped - McIalwain is sworn to secrecy on how it turns out - she made her move to Los Angeles permanent to pursue a career in movies and television.

The Glee Project made it possible. "It really felt like we were our own glee club," McIalwain said. "We were just friends going on this amazing adventure together."

Perley said she encouraged McIalwain to take the risk.

"Everything fell into place like I've never seen before. I've never seen all the obstacles fall down," Perley said. "It was really kind of meant to be."

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