BloNo prepares to welcome Leah Marlene and ‘American Idol’ filming | Local News

Normal native Leah Marlene is set to make a return to her hometown Tuesday as part of filming for the “American Idol” finale.

The 20-year-old singer-songwriter cemented her place in the competition’s top three finalists on Sunday, performing “I’ll Stand By You,” as covered by past “Idol” winner Carrie Underwood, and Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) ”By Journey. Judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan raved about her performances – as did a wildly enthusiastic crowd of supporters who gathered for a watch party at Normal West High School.


Leah Marlene performs “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” on Sunday during “American Idol.” The Normal singer-songwriter has advanced to the top three finalists.


The general consensus? No matter what happens next on the show, Marlene’s future in the music industry is replete with opportunities.

“Your career is sitting in front of you, my dear,” Richie told her after the second performance. “Enjoy this ride.”

Marlene’s journey to stardom traces back to Central Illinois roots. She got her start performing in uptown Normal as a child, and continued to hone her skills at events like the Sugar Creek Arts Festival and Sweet Corn Circus. She graduated from Normal West High School in 2019 and went on to study songwriting at Belmont University in Nashville for two years before returning home to Normal.


Leah Marlene’s brother, Shea Grehan, left, and father, Derry Grehan, pose for a photo outside of a watch party for the “American Idol” finalist on Sunday at Normal West High School.

Brendan Denison

She comes by her passion naturally: Her dad, Derry Grehan, is the lead guitarist for the Canadian rock band Honeymoon Suite. He taught her to play piano and guitar, and shared with her a love of songwriting that has borne fruit in the three albums she released before auditioning for “Idol.”

“She knows that no matter what happens tonight, she’s already won,” Grehan told the crowd in Normal before the show began on Sunday, referring to the exposure and surging popularity his daughter’s music has already experienced.

In a video segment shown during Sunday’s episode, Marlene reflected on her evolution through the competition. She said her most personal moment was singing “Heal” by Tom Odell on April 17, a performance that she said allowed the audience to see “the core of who I am in a very vulnerable way.”

“It’s just been an incredible personal journey,” she said in the video. “I’m so eternally grateful that I got to share myself with America, and I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

'American Idol' - May 15

Leah Marlene is hugged by Fritz Hager while Nicolina looks on during the final moments of Sunday’s “American Idol” episode. Host Ryan Seacrest, left, had just announced that voters chose Marlene out of those three to move forward.


Community support

Sunday night’s event at Normal West included a pre-party with food trucks and musical performances in the school parking lot, followed by a rousing atmosphere in the gym during the show. During commercial breaks, organizers directed a game of Leah Marlene trivia, and a young fan even led a singalong of one of Marlene’s recent releases, “Wisher to the Well.” Attendees could take photos with multiple nearly life-size cardboard replicas of Marlene. Even the hand stamps used as proof of admission were a silhouette of Marlene’s head.

Before the show started, Derry Grehan told The Pantagraph that seeing the widespread support for his daughter has been heartwarming. “That’s what’s great about a small community like this,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”


The watch party at Normal West Community High School goes wild after witnessing Leah Marlene advance to the final round of American Idol on Sunday.

Brendan Denison

The crowd erupted each time Marlene appeared onscreen and waved cellphones in the air as she sang, just as they might if seeing her in concert. On Tuesday, some supporters will be able to do just that, as a free concert is part of the plans for the hometown visit with “Idol” crews. Marlene will also participate in a parade.

Among those cheering for Marlene on Sunday was Sara Williams, director of choir and instructor of advanced placement music theory classes for Normal West.

“I feel like America made a great choice,” she said, praising her former student’s performances.

'I'll Stand By You'

Leah Marlene performs “I’ll Stand By You” on “American Idol” on Sunday.


Williams previously said that she knew Marlene would be a musician from the moment they met, when Marlene was in seventh grade. Since then, Williams said she’s spent a lot of time with Marlene and her family, including at events and private voice lessons.

Seeing the community recognition of music, music education and Marlene’s outstanding personal qualities has been incredible, Williams said. The teacher added that her family and friends have voted for Marlene not because of their connection to Williams, but because they really believe in Marlene, her music and her message.


Janine Lunzer, upper left, and Jake Lunzer, right, and kids share a photo with a cardboard cutout of Leah Marlene before heading into an “American Idol” watch party on Sunday at Normal West High School. From lower left are Liv, Naomi, and Ethan.

Brendan Denison

“I just can’t say enough great things (about her),” Williams said.

Jake Lunzer said he’s been rooting for Marlene from the very start. The Normal West grad attended the party with his family of five, including his wife Janine, a teaching assistant with McLean County Unit 5 schools.

Seeing Marlene’s rise to fame has been lots of fun at work, Janine Lunzer said. “Everybody talks about it on our lunch breaks.”

Plenty of young fans were on hand at the watch party, some posing next to the cutouts of Marlene while holding their own instruments. Among those wearing matching yellow Leah Marlene T-shirts were Aubrey Thomas and Lexi Phillips, who said their favorite of Marlene’s songs is the newest single, “Flowers,” released Friday.

Aubrey’s grandmother, Julie Thomas, of Fischer, said before the performances that she thought Marlene’s songs would be winners. Afterward, Thomas said she expects the rising hometown star to win the whole thing.

Regardless of the results, Marlene has already inspired some young dreamers: Aubrey thinks she’ll be on “American Idol” one day, too, Thomas said.

‘Do it for the love’

Underwood’s appearance as the episode’s celebrity mentor represented a dream come true for Marlene, who has been a fan since childhood. Grehan said his daughter was thrilled about the opportunity and full of praise about her session with the Grammy-winning country superstar.

In a video clip shown before the performance, Underwood complimented Marlene’s delivery, and the two even sang part of the chorus together a cappella.

'American Idol' - May 15

Leah Marlene interacts with “American Idol” judges after performing “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” by Journey on Sunday.


“When I was on the show, I just liked to sing,” Underwood told Marlene. “I feel like it took (me) a little bit to find, like, artistry, and I feel like you already have artistry. Now’s the time to bring it. ”

After Marlene’s second performance, the judges agreed that the competition had become fierce. Richie called it a “slugfest.”

“I can’t figure out how to process where you started and to this point right now,” Bryan said. “It’s so refreshing and fun.”

Perry said she wanted to see Marlene and former Journey lead singer Steve Perry “go back and forth.”

“It was amazing to see your teeth,” Perry said, “because lately you’ve done some ballads, but (now) you’re like, ‘I’m gonna do a ballad and I’m gonna show my fangs.’ I love it. ”

Marlene’s brother, Shea Grehan, also attended part of the watch party on Sunday, along with his dad. Addressing the crowd, he marveled at the outpouring of support for his sister.

“It’s amazing to see, as I’m going through town, I see hearts on windows, I see yellow wrapped around mailboxes,” he said, referring to decorations that have blanketed parts of the community in Marlene’s favorite color. “It’s so amazing. Thank you all so much. ”

Derry Grehan told The Pantagraph that he and his wife, Deanna, moved to Normal when their children were very young, and both grew up to pursue the arts. Shea Grehan is a photographer who has documented his sister’s career, from her early shows in Normal to newer photos that have not yet been released.

“It’s just been great to watch her evolve through the years,” Shea Grehan said.

Their dad said the household is all about fostering each member’s passions.

“We all support each other in this family and support each other’s interests,” he said.

Having enjoyed a long career in the music business, Derry Grehan knows the challenges his daughter will face. He said he advised her to be a singer, songwriter, producer – “be all of these things, because the business has changed.”

And most importantly: “No. 1, if you’re in music, you don’t do it for the money. Do it for the love, ”Grehan said. “The money comes in the opportunities, and that’s just the bonus.”


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