To the casual viewer, it appeared that Shannon O’Hara of Mooresville and her four fellow contestants simply had to overcome some garden-variety exhaustion on their way to nailing their group performance on Monday night’s episode of “American Idol.”
And they definitely nailed it. An auditorium full of competing “Idol” hopefuls gave them a standing ovation. Lionel Richie was practically dancing on the ceiling. Luke Bryan was literally convulsing with delight. “Take notes kids, because they just delivered,” Katy Perry proclaimed. Then the celebrity judges put O’Hara and three of her group mates – Thaddeus Johnson, Kourtney Smith and Michael J. Woodard – through to the next round of competition.
But after talking to the 17-year-old O’Hara on the phone Tuesday morning, we can tell you something you probably could have guessed: There was more to what you saw than meets the eye.
In answering our burning questions, O’Hara provided a behind-the-scenes look at how it all went down for her, Johnson, Smith, Woodard and EMI B (who did not make it through) before, during and after their performance of Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be.”
Q. How did your group come together?
A. So directly after the first round of solo rounds was over, that night, we walked back over to the hotel from the Dolby Theater, and they basically said, “OK, we’re starting group rounds. You find a group right now, and you pick a song right now.” We were like, “Oh my gosh!” It had already been an extremely long day, and we were in for a long night. Everyone’s scrambling around and freaking out, people are crying. ...
Anyway, how my group came together was actually really interesting. At first, me and Michael and Emmi B. and Thaddeus were like, “OK, we’re a group. It’s done.” Then Kourtney walks up and was like, “Thaddeus, I know you did not pick a group without me.” And all of us were like, “Oh, no.” Because (we were told to) have a group of four. But so then they bring Kourtney into our group and kick out EMI B, and it’s four. Then they said, “Wait, you can have a group of five.” And we go pull EMI B back in. … But I originally didn’t really want Kourtney to be in our group. She’s like a really crazy good singer, definitely a powerhouse singer, and I thought, “This girl’s gonna out-sing me. I love her, but she’s gonna out-sing me, and I’m gonna get cut over her.”
Q. The five of you introduced your group as “God’s Diversity.” Who came up with the name?
A. I didn’t have any influence on the group name. I think Thaddeus made it up. He said it out loud, and everyone was like, “Yes!” And I was just kind of like, “OK!” A little corny, but I like the message behind it.
Q. Do I sense that Thaddeus established himself as the leader?
A. Pretty much. That’s just who Thaddeus is. He’s a leader at heart, and we were all totally on board with that, because he’s a great leader. And he had been through the show before. He had been through group rounds before (as a past contestant on “Idol”). So yeah, he kind of knew how it worked a little bit.
Q. Did he pick the song?
A. No, actually, we were all pretty involved in “Rather Be.” We were sitting at this table looking through the songs, and there’s probably 20, 25 songs for us to choose from. There were some other ideas thrown out there, but we ended up just landing on “Rather Be.” We always felt really good about.
Q. So how did preparations for the performance go?
A. We met with the vocal coaches, got the arrangement together, and then we went in the stairwell and started getting our parts and just running through it over and over and over and over again – until it was perfect. We then went to my hotel room to practice. We also put together some choreography. We were in there until about 3 a.m., then I went to bed, and got back up at 6 o’clock in the morning for breakfast. At 7, we went over to the Dolby Theater. ...
We had one onstage rehearsal at the beginning of the day, and it was trash. People were not coming in for their parts, and the backup was just not good, and everybody did terrible. We went offstage, and we’re talking to our vocal coach, and she was like, “Um, I had really high expectations, and it fell flat. It was terrible.” Then they took me away to go do school (since O’Hara is still in high school, she was required to study a certain amount while in Hollywood). I met back up with my group again before we were gonna go on, and we got to rehearse for maybe an hour and a half. We really needed that. We had a Bluetooth speaker and we’re playing the piano recording on it and just running through it over and over and over again.
Q. Are you used to singing and dancing at the same time?
A. No! The (original) choreography was definitely uncomfortable for me. I was physically tripping over my feet doing a grapevine (dance). It was pitiful. We eventually ended up changing it to a lot more simple choreography. We just did kind of like a little side step and were snapping the whole time, which is fine.
Q. Well, all the hard work apparently paid off. And that big finish, where you all crowded the judges’ table and sang a cappella, whose idea was that?
A. Actually, we didn’t talk about that at all. I mean, we had decided we were gonna do the little a cappella finish – I actually was the one who came up with that – but we had no idea that we were gonna go up to the judges at the end. Basically, (when I took lead vocals) you saw I walked down those stairs and walked toward the judges a little bit more, and then I turned back around and came back up. Then Kourtney did her solo, and she walked down, then we all followed behind her, so that we were all there at the end. It was just so cool. We didn’t plan it at all, but it was so fun.
Q. At that point, how were you feeling about your chances of being put through by the judges?
A. I really thought I was getting cut. I didn’t think that I was necessarily the weakest link, but my singing that night was not the best that it’s ever been. I really thought that Thaddeus and Kourtney and Michael and EMI – I really wish you guys could have heard her, ’cause she was really good (ABC did not air her turn on lead vocals) – but I really thought they were gonna keep the three of them, and either cut me or EMI.
Q. But once they asked you to step forward along with the others, you had to have known, right?
A. Oh, I knew it then – although when they said, “Front row, you’re going through,” I was so excited because I thought they called all of us. I didn’t realize they didn’t call EMI B. So I was really excited. And then I turned around and saw EMI B wasn’t standing there with us, and I was really upset. I was like, “What the heck?” I really thought we were gonna be the group where everybody got through. At the same time, I was so happy to have gotten through. I was sobbing. I was just a wreck, because I really didn’t think I was gonna make it.
Q. We’re told we’ll see you again on Sunday night’s episode, when more solos will air. How are you feeling?
A. I’m feeling really good. Now is my chance to show them again what I can do. I feel like I have to prove something more after the group round because it wasn’t my best performance ever. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to do the solo, so that I can show them more of what I can do.