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Former Fort Collins 'American Idols' Reflect On Lessons Learned

Courtesy of Haeley Vaughn
American Idol season 9 contestant Haeley Vaughn now sings in Nashville.

Haeley Vaughn is sad that after 14 years, American Idol is preparing for its 15th - and final - season.

"It's kind of an era coming to an end," Vaughn said. "It was not just a TV show, it was an event - from the auditions to the finale."

She should know. Six years ago, Vaughn, then a 16-year-old junior at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, was one of those starry-eyed hopefuls rising at 2 a.m. in order to get in line for her shot at making her dreams come true.

Colorado, which has held auditions for the show for at least half of its run, has had its fair share of residents receive a golden ticket. For some, it gave them the incentive to pursue their dream. For others, it was a lesson that Hollywood wasn't for them.

  For Vaughn, who made it to the semi-finals on the show, the experience was life-changing.

"I had a conversation with my mom on the flight back home to Colorado and I was just like, 'You know, after being on American Idol, I don't know if there's anything else that I want to do.'"

Vaughn and her mother then put their house on the market, packed up the car, and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Vaughn, now 22, still lives and works. The country singer-songwriter has released a five-song EP, 'Hoot n' Holler,' and has worked with some of the best songwriters in the business, including Will Rambeaux, who has written songs for Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea and Ronnie Milsap.

She still credits her time on Idol for much of her success.

"(Idol) was just this amazing platform for music," Vaughn said. "It was almost like a boot camp for the industry."

She learned about song choice, paying attention to her audience. The experience also gave Vaughn a lesson in professionalism. Early call hours in the wee hours of the morning and the expectation that you would be prepared – whether it was rehearsal or a performance – are lessons she has never forgotten. She also learned about persistence.

"You're surrounded by people who all want the same thing," Vaughn said. "I was taught to appreciate music and everyone behind it."

For Season 11 contestant Lindsey Jean Cartier being on Idol taught her to appreciate the smaller stage.

"I don't have any regrets – I think it was just more eye-opening," said Cartier of her time on the show in 2012. Singing with her Fort Collins band, Archie Funker, at local clubs and bars was one thing, getting up on the big stage – alone – was another.

“I think I probably was pretty relieved actually after being eliminated," she said. "Because it was too stressful for me.”

The day after being eliminated from Idol, Cartier said she remembers singing "Son of a Preacher Man," at a gig with her band. It was a song she'd sang a million times before but had flubbed it the day before when she sang it for the judges.

"I cried," she said. "It was a cry of relief that I didn't go any further because I don't think I could handle the big stage. It was just too big for me, too stressful. I value the fact that I was told that I was talented enough to go along that far but it makes me a stronger singer on the local level."

Cartier still sings with Archie Funker. She also works for Banner Health in the financial services department and is looking to get her master's degree in public health. When asked if she has any regrets, there's a certainty in her answer.

"No, no regrets. Just a lot of reassurance that what I'm doing right now, locally, with my music is perfectly OK," she said.

The experience also gave her a wealth of new friends. The Season 11 contestants frequently chat on a private group page on Facebook and are planning a future cruise.

"I haven't heard back from Phil Phillips on whether he's going to make it, but I think he's got other things to do," Cartier joked of the Season 11 winner.

Both ladies say they still get attention from their time on the show.

Cartier has been featured on several local radio programs and spoken at schools. Vaughn garnered repeat small roles on the ABC show, Nashville, cast as a bar patron, a cheerleader, and, of course, a musician.

"With Idol under my belt – that kind of recognition - I was able to get a bit further here in Nashville than I would have if I had just moved down here like every other singer and artist and musician that wants to make it," Vaughn said. "It definitely gave me a very nice platform."

It was also good preparation for the "shark tank" of Nashville, she said, adding, "You learn really quick that you can either sink or swim."

Particularly when dealing with Simon Cowell. The notoriously tough Idol judge was in his final season when Vaughn was on the show.

"He speaks the truth; he's very cut-and-dry," she said of Cowell. "When he tells you the truth – that's his job… But he's really sweet. When I got eliminated, he was one of the first people to come up onto the stage and give me a hug and tell me to just keep going."

That's also the advice Vaughn has for the thousands of Idol hopefuls who will be at Denver Coliseum July 10 for auditions for the final season.

"Keep calm – as hard as that sounds," she said. "I was terrified. And breathe. You know you can sing. Just give it everything you've got because that's the one chance that you have."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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