A year ago, Jordin Sparks was an “American Idol” fan.
Now she’s an Idol herself.
At 17, the Phoenix native — who on May 23 became the sixth “Idol” winner with a record 74 million votes — cites the reality show and its previous winners as the primary influences on her own singing career.
“I remember watching the first finale, with Kelly (Clarkson),” Sparks says. “I was 12 then. I said: ‘Mom, I want to do that. I want to sing for a big crowd and I want to be able to do that for the rest of my life.’
“She was, ‘If that’s what you want to do, me and your family will help you get there.’ We just started from there and have been working towards a career in music ever since, whether it was ‘American Idol’ or anything else.
“And then it all just happened.”
Sparks, who started singing in church as a toddler, is the oldest of two children born to real estate agents in Arizona. Her father, Phillippi Sparks, played pro football for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, and Sparks herself had some interest in the pigskin before she focused on singing.
“I wanted to play,” she says, “because my brother would play, my cousins and my dad played. I was around it all the time. And I love — love! — the sport. I’m kind of obsessed with it.
“So I asked Mom and Dad if I could play, and they looked at me like I was crazy — ‘No, you can’t play!’ ”
‘I could really do this’
So after that transformative “Idol” finale in 2002, Sparks — who’s been home-schooled for the past two years — began working the talent show and competition circuit around her hometown. A win at a Rising Star karaoke contest at the Arizona State Fair gave her some early confidence.
“There were a bunch of other people in it, a lot that were older than me,” recalls Sparks, who recorded a five-song Christian EP, “For Now,” when she was 13. “I won $1,000, which was really cool. It was the first time I thought, ‘I could really do this ...’
“I saved the money, too. It went right in my bank account, I didn’t spend it.”
Sparks’ career blossomed quickly. She sang the national anthem at pro sporting events and began doing musical theater both in Phoenix and in Franklin, Tenn., performing in productions of “The Wiz,” “Magdalene” and “Cinderella.” Rocker Alice Cooper booked her for his 2004 Christmas show in Phoenix, and she’s opened for contemporary Christian star Michael W. Smith.
Sparks also notched honors at the 2004 Music in the Rockies, a Christian music contest in Colo rado, and a Gospel Music Association Academy showcase that same year in Washington, D.C. And in 2006, she was a co-winner of the Torrid department store Next Plus Size Model search, which made her part of the chain’s ad campaign.
Despite all those successes, however, Sparks’ first crack at “Idol” fell short. She auditioned in Los Angeles and was not invited to the next round in Hollywood. But she was not particularly bothered by the rejections.
“I was 16 years old, so I figured there was always next year,” Sparks says. “It wasn’t the end of the world for me. I didn’t think they’d take everybody. ... “The producer was like, ‘Oh, try a different city,’ but I just felt like, ‘You know what; there’s something else that has to happen, or something better.’ ”
This is her now
That came more quickly than Sparks expected. After returning home, she won an Arizona Idol contest sponsored by the local Fox TV affiliate, whose grand prize was a guaranteed audience with “Idol” producers at the Seattle auditions. Though deemed “too cute” by famously acerbic judge Simon Cowell, Sparks’ performance of Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” was good enough to take her to Hollywood and begin her march to the “Idol” title with a diverse repertoire that included songs by
Pat Benatar, Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey, Martina McBride and Rogers & Hammerstein. She also was one of six “Idol” contestants to never be consigned to the weekly bottom three, and by the final show, both Cowell and fellow judge Randy Jackson were predicting her victory.
“It’s been a huge whirlwind and really crazy,” says Sparks, who was the only sixth season “Idol” contestant who had to wake early to do school work before each day’s show activities began.
“It was just such a trip to be appearing on all these shows that I’ve watched and doing the interviews and photo shoots and stuff like that. It’s been so much fun. I’m just trying to soak it in. It’s gone by so fast, but at the same time, it hasn’t.”
Sparks was, however, surprised by a weight controversy that surfaced during her run on the show. She found herself criticized by activists such as the National Action Against Obesity’s MeMe Roth, who called Sparks “a vision of ‘unhealth’ ” and a poor role model for youth. Roth reported receiving hate mail and even death threats from Sparks’ fans, and the singer is still taken aback by the issue.
“I figured it would come up sometime and people would talk about it,” Sparks says, “but I don’t know why it’s a controversy. I’m not Hollywood stick-thin, and I’m never going to be because I would look so weird.
“But it didn’t really bug me. You’ve got to let that kind of thing roll off your back — and I’ve got a big one for it to roll off of, right?” she adds with a laugh.
Sparks has plenty of other issues to deal with, anyway — including the American Idols Live! tour, of which, as this season’s champion, she’s the de facto headliner. And there’s the making of her first album, which she and the Idol camp hope to have out in November.
Sparks already has a Top 15 hit with “This is My Now,” which she performed on the “Idol” finale. She started working on the album before the tour with the production team Stargate, and she anticipates “flying in and out as much as I can from the tour to get it done. And I’m assuming that after the tour’s over, I’ll hit the studio pretty hard to finish it.
“I definitely want (the album) to be radio friendly,” Sparks says. “I want it to be just a great album in general. I would love to do a mix between, like, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé; that kind of sound would be really cool. It’s hard to get at what my sound is, but I think that’s what I’m trying to get.”
“American Idols Live!” stops Sunday (August 12th) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $39.50-$72.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
Send your thoughts and comments to