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'Idol' threat

A school and a community rally around Lisa Tucker, their 'Idol' girl.
/ Source: The Orange County Register

When your friend makes the finals of "American Idol," you stay up until midnight, hitting the speed dial to cast 217 votes for her as you finish your homework. Or you wear a matching disguise so she's not the only one in a floppy hat and big sunglasses at the movie theater on a Friday night.

Or you tirelessly copy, cut and hand out 50,000 flyers to urge people - everyone from local school kids to shoppers at the mall - to vote, vote, vote for your friend.

You do all that not just because your friend, Lisa Tucker, a 16-year-old senior at Kennedy High School is a great singer - which she is - but because she's an even greater person.

"It's almost surreal just how nice she is," said Andrea Franz, 17, a senior, who silk-screened the "Idolize Lisa" shirts students here wear.

"She's really humble," said Yene Damtew, 18, a senior and queen of the Kennedy flyer crew. "You would never know she's on 'American Idol.'"

Modest. Sweet. Unpretentious. Words like these come up over and over when folks talk about their hometown "Idol" contestant.

"I know it probably sounds like what any brother would say, but she truly has a pure heart," said Stanley Tucker III, her 23-year-old big brother. "She's really a sweetheart."

Which - along with a good measure of Orange County pride - goes a long way toward explaining why so many here are cheering for Lisa each week on "American Idol."

And they've been cheering for her for months, from way back when no one was even supposed to know.


It was supposed to be a big secret - making it through the "American Idol" auditions into the Hollywood round.

But teenagers - and teachers - will talk. And so it was that shortly after Labor Day, at a Kennedy choir bonfire at Huntington Beach, choir teacher Sarah Berndt and a few of Lisa's closest pals got a call from her from Denver.

"And we were like: 'Oh. My. Gosh!'" Berndt said.

Lisa told them she'd aced the audition, though it came on her second try, after the screeners at the San Francisco audition decided not to send her through to sing for "American Idol" judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.

In Denver, it was a different story. The notoriously persnickety Cowell pronounced Lisa the best 16-year-old to ever sing on the show. The bubbly, babbly Abdul told her in the ladies restroom that she was just the cutest thing and wished her the best of luck.

By homecoming, the secret had spread around school enough that Joan McGhee, Kennedy's activities director, told Lisa to include it in her homecoming queen candidate ballot description.

"I told her, 'It's a fact - do it!'" McGhee said.

She went on to win the homecoming crown, but more for her personality, friends said, than any "Idol"-related star power.

When the top 24 were announced last month, life got even crazier, taking Lisa away to live in Hollywood with her mom, a tutor and all the other contestants.

"Before she left, she was telling me that she'd walk down the hall and kids would just snap her picture on their camera phones," Yene said.


The Kennedy kids kicked it into high gear as soon as Lisa left for Hollywood until she either wins the whole enchilada in late May or gets eliminated somewhere along the way.

Best friend Jenny Boyle, 17, a senior, said that as Lisa's fame took off, more and more people started to recognize her in public.

"We wore disguises to the movies - big floppy hats and diva sunglasses," she said of a Friday night spent watching "Tristan and Isolde" at the Long Beach Towne Center. "She got recognized anyway. A little group of girls behind her said, 'Oh! You're on "American Idol!" You were great!'"

Her family has seen Lisa perform in high-profile shows such as the Los Angeles production of "The Lion King" and the television series "Star Search," but nothing prepared them for Idol mania.

"The truth is, no one in the family is used to this," Stanley Tucker III said of the effect of his sister's success on their family. "The whole crazy schedule, the fact that wherever you go, people are going to recognize you.

"It throws a different mixture into the daily agenda," he said.

At school, the publicity campaign picked up.

Andrea whipped up 50 shirts over a weekend - and an additional 100 since then. Kyle Litfin, 17, a senior, and Yene designed and photocopied thousands of flyers to remind people to vote for Lisa every Tuesday.

Berndt exchanged phone calls with Eleanor Tucker, Lisa's mom, serving as an informal adviser on songs she might choose during the different theme weeks.

It grew increasingly hard for friends to chat with Lisa, though, because of all the work that goes into the show.

"I've only been able to have one real conversation with her, when she was going home for a few hours one night," Jenny said. "For the most part, I was filling her in on high school drama, teenage girl stuff."

Last week, Jenny got a last-minute invitation to attend the results show on Wednesday, and quickly ditched her job at a drugstore to race to Hollywood to lend moral support.

"It was so exciting," Jenny said. "I'm in my English class, writing an assignment and my phone started beeping.

"I called her back and she said Stevie Wonder was singing and they had two extra tickets."

Lisa won high praise from judges the previous night for her performance of Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" but as the results show unfolded, she ended up one of the bottom three vote-getters, in danger of elimination.

"It was 9:23 p.m. and I think my phone rang eight different times with people saying, 'She has to make it! Do you know what's going on?'" Berndt said.

"You feel so bad for her, to see her with her head down," Kyle said of the moment last week when Lisa looked in danger of elimination. "You just want to go up there and give her a hug."


In the parking lot after school Monday, the student government kids lined up to paint slogans on the windows of cars and trucks, sending mobile campaign signs - "Vote 4 Lisa Tucker for American Idol" - cruising down the streets and freeways of Orange County.

"It's kind of like patriotism - just supporting someone from your school," said Janet Hana, 17, waiting at the wheel as friends decorated her car.

Shirley Turner pulled into the paint line while waiting to pick up a few grandchildren who attend Kennedy.

"I think it's just wonderful," Turner said of Lisa's run on "American Idol." "The family is rooting for her. I'm just so proud she goes to Kennedy."

Last night, for the '50s-themed show, Tucker sang "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" As soon as the show ended, her friends and fans hit the phone lines - though probably none as hard as Kyle.

"Last week, I voted 217 times," he said. "My finger was sore by the end of it."

Tonight, the results show airs, and friends and family fervently hope Lisa will be safely out of the voting basement.

"I try not to bite my fingernails," Stanley Tucker III said as he and his brother Billy, 21, drove to Los Angeles to watch the show. "But I continue to pray, she's going to continue to pray, and whatever's meant to be will be."

And whenever her time comes - whether it's late May and she's the ultimate Idol or whether the dream ends sooner - her high school will be waiting to welcome her home.

"Lisa is going to be a name we're going to know," Yene said with conviction.

"She'll be somebody."