Mooresville teen shines in ‘American Idol’ debut. How much further will she make it?

“Honestly – and I don’t even know why – but I really wasn’t nervous at all,” Shannon O’Hara says of her audition, which aired Sunday night. “I was just really calm. I had prepared for this performance for a long time, and I felt really comfortable with it.”
“Honestly – and I don’t even know why – but I really wasn’t nervous at all,” Shannon O’Hara says of her audition, which aired Sunday night. “I was just really calm. I had prepared for this performance for a long time, and I felt really comfortable with it.” ABC

When you heard Shannon O’Hara sing Adele’s “When We Were Young” while playing piano on “American Idol” Sunday night, you just knew the judges were going to give her a Golden Ticket, right?

So did she.

“I’ve always done music my whole life, and I’ve been watching ‘American Idol’ since I was 6, and I’ve wanted to audition forever,” says the 17-year-old Mooresville native, a home-schooled high school senior. “So, I mean, I feel like it was just kind of meant to be that my first time auditioning for the show, I made it. … I knew for some reason, in my gut, that they were gonna put me through.”

Surprisingly, O’Hara had just slightly more than zero live performances of significance before her Savannah audition. No previous experience with bar or club shows. No big weddings or parties. She’s been to open casting calls for “America’s Got Talent” (twice) and “The Voice” (once), but struck out all three times. (This is the first year she’s been old enough to audition for “Idol.”)

Her biggest prior claims to fame: multiple talent-show victories in middle school and a turn as a soloist in front of several hundred people at church – which she says doesn’t count. “It’s not a performance. … Everyone’s singing with you.”

We have a sneaking suspicion, however, that by the time she’s done with “American Idol” this spring, O’Hara’s book will start filling with gigs.

Though multiple rounds of the show are in the can, featured contestants are locked into agreements with ABC that they won’t reveal whether they’ve made it to the live shows (which will start airing next month). That said, you’ll be interested to know that if you simply Google “Shannon O’Hara American Idol,” pretty much the whole first page of results has the word “spoilers” in the headline and … well, we won’t spoil it for you.

Instead, we’ll share the most interesting things we learned about the young woman who could very well be one of North Carolina’s best shots at bringing home the “Idol” crown this season.

1. The first song she remembers learning how to sing was “Reflection,” from Disney’s “Mulan.” “That was my favorite movie of all time when I was little. I would always sing it for my family, or, if we had people come over, my mom would always make me sing for them. I would go to the dentist, and they would make me sing it for them.”

2. Disney princesses aside, what were her first musical influences and songwriting memories? “The songs that I would write were a little bit quirky – my mom would always say that she thought that they sounded like P!nk songs, and that my stuff was similar to her, because I had one that had this little rap in it. Jordin Sparks (winner of Season 6 of “American Idol”) was a big inspiration for me. My mom bought her album right when it came out for me after she got off the show, and I listened to that a lot. And Leona Lewis (winner of The U.K.’s “The X Factor” in 2006); I listened to her a lot, too, when I was little. I mean, I was always writing about different things. I wrote about love a lot, even though I didn’t know what it was, but it’s just what I heard from all the stuff that I was listening to.” By the way, she took piano lessons from roughly age 10 to 12 but is otherwise self-taught; she later learned how to play guitar on her own.

3. O’Hara made her YouTube debut around age 10, but – she says – it was a disaster. “Oh my gosh, it was the grossest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was me singing ‘Angel’ by Sarah MacLachlan … it’s a great song, but (the video) just wasn’t good ... I had the worst haircut – really, really short, but my hair was really big and frizzy, then I had straight-across bangs and I would part them in the middle and pull them to the sides. It was just bad. I’m like, ‘This cannot be on the internet.’” She says when she deleted it, “it had maybe 27 views.” She hasn’t posted a video of her singing on YouTube since. (But she is posting snippets of songs on her Instagram page.)

4. What? How is she ever going to get discovered without a YouTube page? “I know, I know. I’m not this super-big social media person. Maybe that’s my downfall. I made my Twitter for ‘American Idol,’ because they wanted us to, but I only have like 20 followers so far. Hopefully that’ll eventually go up after my audition airs.”

5. We know that Adele song is in her wheelhouse. How would she describe her vibe in general? “Sometimes people compare me to Adele, but I’m not 100 percent Adele. I also really like the soul aspect of gospel music – I sing in church two times a week, so I love that stuff. And I love writing my own music as well, so ‘singer-songwriter’ is part of it, too.”

6. Church involvement and ministry work is as big a part of her life as music. “I’m one of the worship leaders at my church, and I lead worship at youth group every Thursday and also on Sunday mornings. … Then I do ministry on Friday nights through the King’s Kitchen (in Charlotte) with a ministry called the Dream Center, and we distribute chili cheese dogs and water to the homeless community.”

“This show, it just has the potential to open up the door to so many opportunities in music that I wouldn’t get if I just stayed here in Mooresville,” Shannon O’Hara says. “But I’m not trying to be this big superstar, by any means at all. I’m just trying to do music, and to be able to make a living off of doing music and doing what I love.” Courtesy of Shannon O’Hara

7. She’s not looking for sympathy – in fact, we had to coax this out of her – but her family is going through tough times right now. “(My father) has been having a rough time. The restaurant he was the manager of shut down a year and a half ago, and not long after that, his health started getting bad. He had multiple surgeries and has a lot of pain. So my mom (an accountant) is the only one working. It’s been really hard to pay the bills and we are trying to keep our house, but we have been in the process of getting it ready to sell because we can’t afford it with all the other bills. My dad worked really hard my entire life until now, so I’m just trying to help my family financially with this opportunity, as well as following my lifelong dream. Hopefully, ‘American Idol’ can bring my family out of our current situation.”

8. O’Hara doesn’t have much of a fallback plan. “Honestly, it’s really non-negotiable if I’m gonna do music or not. There isn’t another route for me. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just be poor and still be doing music. I literally am not good at anything else. … I mean, if things don’t work out with ‘American Idol,’ I’d really like to go to this ministry school in California. That also involves worship and worship-leading – which is music.”

9. Will we get to hear her dust off “Reflection” for the show? She starts to give an answer that sounds like it’s going to be a spoiler, then she catches herself, laughing. “Yes. If I make it further, then I will.”

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes