Montgomery singer Kezia "Lady K" Istonia was bound for either Hollywood or "Hollyhood" when she finally made it in front of American Idol's judges to close out Sunday's two-hour audition episode on ABC.
After a night full of huge performances, and a few near misses, it was worth the wait. Lady K walked away with a golden ticket to Idol's Hollywood rounds.
Lady K started her segment off with something unique. She handed cards to celebrity judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan, and said they weren't allowed to read until after she was done. Then Lady K blew them away by singing her own take on Perry's "Wide Awake."
"That just naturally made the experience more intense, because you never know which direction it can be taken," said Lady K, who spoke to the Montgomery Advertiser prior to Sunday's episode.
Lady K said Perry's songs speak to underdogs like herself.
"You sang with such elegance, beauty, grace, filigree. It's like you reinvented the song," Perry told Lady K. "It's like your heart is shining through your vocal cords."
Bryan said Lady K's voice is tremendous and honest. "It's just magic," he said.
"Lady K, you've made my day," said Richie.
Outside of the audition, Lady K has another connection to Richie. Though she's a Montgomery native, Lady K lives in Richie's hometown of Tuskegee, and said she frequently walks past the Commodores studio where he and the band would rehearse and record.
"Right before I went to my audition, I took a picture in front of it for good luck," Lady K said.
After getting a hug from Richie, Lady K said it felt like she'd known him her whole life.
"I know you have, because there's only five people in Tuskegee," Richie joked.
Once she left the room, the judges read Lady K's cards, which were full of praise for each of them.
"Thanks for remind me I'm a firework," Perry said, reading Lady K's message.
"i felt more comfortable once I found my way to relate to each of the judges," Lady K said. "I felt like that helped me balance out the intensity of the moment."
Lady K grew up in music and struggle
Lady K and her four younger siblings were raised by a single mother. At one time, they lived in a shelter. In the midst of family struggles, Lady K lost a brother to suicide.
But through all the pain and heartache, there was music. It's something Lady K had always had.
"My momma said that before I could talk, I was singing," Lady K said.
She's been performing since she was five, and started recording at eight.
"I've been writing music from that young as well," Lady K said.
Growing up, Lady K often sang in talent shows and school competitions. As she developed her skills, she was often featured on other artists' projects, before coming out as a solo artist.
Along the way, she's absorbed the flavor of Montgomery's music scene and forged it into her own sound.
"I've been able to stay relevant and learn the motions and the technical side to it," Lady K said. "I'm influenced by a lot, but it's still my own original take on what I've learned from everybody."
Someone she's worked closely with is Montgomery producer Noah Baker, who praised her talents in both singing and rap.
"I met her in 2014 when we connected on our collaboration project ''My City,' and instantly, I knew she were a natural born star," Baker said. "Over the years everything she touch becomes a hit record."
She has three albums so far, "Letter from Lady K," "Unfinished Love Story" and "K." Her latest single is "Guard Down," which she released Dec. 15.
Lady K said she defines her style as "undefined." She's definitely known around Montgomery for R&B, but that's not what she necessarily wants to be known for in the competition. She's reaching for what feels right and relevant to audiences, she said.
"I don't want to be defined as one genre or one style," she said. "Music is ever evolving."
She's in good Alabama company
Having a little foresight into the competition couldn't hurt. Lady K said she's friends with season 12 finalist Kevin Khule Harris of Montgomery.
"He has been very supportive and motivating throughout the journey," Lady K said. "Kind of preparing me for what to expect, even though a lot has changed between my season and his. It's still good having a heads up from a friend who already went through it."
She's not the first Alabamian to get a golden ticket for season 20. Tyler N. Allen of Mobile earned one last week.
"I'll never forget this moment, never as long as I live," Allen said in an ABC interview. Allen dedicated his audition to his late nephew and the child's mother, who died in a car accident.
There are at least two others from Alabama announced to be on American Idol this season, Candice Baker of Muscle Shoals and Tristen Gressett of Pell City.
Along with Lady K and Harris, several other Alabamians have made it onto American Idol through the years, including Ruben Studdard (season 2), Bo Bice (season 4), Taylor Hicks (season 5), Jessica Meuse, Dexter Roberts and C.J. Harris (all season 13), and Samuel Swanson (season 16).
Fans got Lady K onto American Idol
"The biggest thing I could tell my fans is thank you for the continued support," Lady K said.
She held a watch party for Sunday's episode, with special fan guests. In a social media contest, she asked fans to tag her biggest fans. Three of them were picked from a drawing to watch the episode with her.
"It's a moment I wanted to give back to my fans, since they've been so supportive to me throughout the journey," Lady K said.
After all, her fans are the reason she auditioned for American Idol to begin with.
"I had no intentions on it. I had no idea Idol was having open auditions," Lady K said. "I was on a short social media break, or hiatus. When I got back on, I had these tags from everybody saying, hey, American Idol is auditioning. You need to sign up."
She saw their messages as a sign that she needed to give it a try. She auditioned with a video of her singing Beyoncé's song "Love On Top."
"It's a genuine moment for me and my fans, because they were there with me from the sign up moment," Lady K said. "That's a big intimate bonding moment for me and my fans."
That bond could help make a difference if Istonia survives the Hollywood rounds and makes it into public voting, she said.
"I hope that going forward, I could shed more light on Montgomery, Alabama, as a place where people can seek talent," Lady K said. "There's so much undiscovered talent here. I was that undiscovered talent for years."
Follow her online at musicbyladyk.com.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Shannon Heupel at firstname.lastname@example.org.