N.C.’s lone ‘American Idol’ hopeful: My goal all along was to make Katy Perry cry

Seventeen-year-old Shannon O'Hara of Mooresville performs "Unconditionally" in front of a live crowd and the judges, as shown on Monday night's episode of "American Idol."
Seventeen-year-old Shannon O'Hara of Mooresville performs "Unconditionally" in front of a live crowd and the judges, as shown on Monday night's episode of "American Idol." ABC

Even if she advances no further in the competition, Shannon O’Hara of Mooresville can permanently include the following achievements on her resume thanks to Monday night’s episode of “American Idol”:

1. Reached the semifinals (i.e. Top 24) of “Idol’s” 16th season.

2. Sang a rendition of Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” in front of Katy Perry, leaving Katy Perry dabbing tears away from her eyes.

“The performance was perfect,” O’Hara, 17, told the Observer on Tuesday afternoon. “I didn’t mess up at all. Honestly, I was hoping that it would make Katy cry. That was a far-fetched thing to hope, but then it happened, and they all stood up. I mean, that’s exactly what I wanted — and it happened.”

Here are other highlights from our conversation with the home-schooled high school senior, who next up will compete for a chance to advance to the live finals that are scheduled to begin on Sunday, April 22:

O’Hara had designs on singing that particular Katy Perry song for a long time. “Before I even made it on the show, I really wanted to do that song, because it just spoke to me. For me, that song is almost like a worship song — it can be taken that way, and that’s how I took it. My faith is really important to me, and it’s a big part of my life, so I wanted to do something that I can kind of relate in that sense. It also happened to be a Katy Perry song, and it also happened to be a really good song. I made it my style, while still being her song.”

The arrangement, she says, was all hers. “I wanted to do it stripped-back, and I felt really, really good about it (going into the performance). The only thing that stressed me out a little bit was, in the beginning, I was playing guitar by myself, and then the band comes in. I was finger-picking chords, so if I would have messed up even a little bit, everybody would have heard it. I know it like the back of my hand — it’s not like I wasn’t prepared. It was just the nerves trying to get me.”

Katy Perry wasn’t the only one wiping away tears when it was over. “The cameras didn’t get it, but the second after I walked off stage, I started crying. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! This is exactly what I wanted to happen. This is my dream scenario to happen after performing this song, and it happened.’ I didn’t know until the very end (that she was crying). Then I saw it and I was just like, ‘What??’”

O’Hara was much happier with the way she sang “Unconditionally” than she was with her performance of “Up to the Mountain,” which aired Sunday night. ‘Up to the Mountain’ really did speak to me, but I just had this special connection to ‘Unconditionally.’ I think that that made it a different performance than my other performances. With ‘Up to the Mountain,’ also, we had just gotten finished with group rounds, I was exhausted, and my voice was really tired. We rehearsed over and over and over and over again, and singing nonstop for multiple hours on end definitely I think contributed to it not being perfect. So I wasn’t in the same head space as I was for ‘Unconditionally.’ I was still happy with it at the end of the day — even though there was that one note that I wanted to hold out longer, and there were a couple things I would change. But obviously it was enough to get me through.”

And by the way, she’s not blaming that screwy microphone problem for throwing her off her game before “Up to the Mountain.” “At first I was like, ‘How are they gonna do me like this?’ Then I was cracking up, because it really was funny. You were laughing, weren’t you? But no, I don’t think the mic issue had anything to do with it, really. I think that was just a little curve ball, and I was like ‘OK, well, hopefully this thing stays up while I’m singing.’ 

As for what she has to say about that “stripped-back” style of singing and performing that she mentioned: “The advantage is it really allows somebody to feel something. That is kind of the reason why I do that at all — to really have people be able to connect with me and connect with what I’m feeling in the song. For it to really hit them. The disadvantage would be if you don’t execute it really well and if you’re not really into it, it’s just gonna be another ballad. And another ballad without any feeling in it is boring.”

In Monday’s episode, O’Hara again referenced her father’s health problems, saying “we’re in the process of getting our house ready to sell because my dad’s medical bills are really just taking over.” Here’s what he’s been struggling with: “He had really bad vascular disease. He doesn’t have good blood flow to either of his feet, but one of his feet was worse. He was getting very minimal blood flow to his foot, he got an infection in one of his toes from that, and he had to have one of his toes amputated. It’s taken over six months for the wound to close; it’s been a really slow process. For awhile, he was going to wound care and going to the doctor every other day. That’s one of the reasons why he didn’t go to the Savannah audition with me: He was struggling with his walking with his foot. But he’s walking good again ... he’s doing a lot better. So I’m really happy about that. (As for the house) ‘American Idol’ has definitely put everything on hold. There’s still a lot of medical bills. We’re still gonna eventually try and sell our house and we’ve gotten it ready to sell. But as of this moment, it’s not on the market.”

She went into her “final judgment” meeting feeling confident. “I was like, ‘Katy Perry cried during my performance! I have to be going through.’ I mean, there’s always a possibility you can go home, so I worried a little bit, but I thought, ‘If they send me home with this performance, then I must really not be what they’re looking for.’ So I went in, and the second I came in, Luke (Bryan) was smiling. I’m like, ‘There’s no way they can send me home, because they’re in a good mood.’ And I don’t know if you saw, but in the video they showed before they actually showed the episode — when they were showing different clips from what the judges are saying to the contestants — Katy Perry said, ‘You have the hand of God in your voice.’ She actually said that to me, but they didn’t show that whenever they showed me getting judged. I wished they would have shown that. But ‘Secret Spiritual Ninja’? Hey, I’ll take it!”

No matter when or how her “Idol” run ends, she’ll come away grateful. “I mean, you’re always gonna think, ‘Well, I wish I would have done more,’ or ‘I wish this, or ‘I wish that.’ But at the end of the day, it’s all a really crazy experience that is such a leap worth taking. Regardless of when you get cut, you learn so much. Even just the fact that I made it through Hollywood Week — I think I probably learned more in that week than I’ve learned in a lot of my life, as far as show business goes. There’s a way you think it’s gonna be, and then you get there and it’s actually not that way. So I’m so grateful for as far as I have made it, and if I do get cut, I would be satisfied with what I’ve done.”

Seventeen-year-old Shannon O'Hara of Mooresville performs "Unconditionally" in front of a live crowd and the judges, as shown on Monday night's episode of "American Idol." Eric McCandless ABC

A representative for ABC said O’Hara will not appear on Sunday night episode; it’s unclear yet whether she’ll be featured Monday night. This story will updated when information is available. Only 12 contestants will sing Sunday and Monday night, with the second half performing April 15-16.