SOUTHFIELD — Known for powerful vocals and a contagious smile backed by an effervescent personality, Southfield’s Malaya Watson left “American Idol” viewers with a show that was nothing short of what a new fan base expects from the soulful firecracker.
Watson, the Southfield High School tuba player, was the latest contestant to earn the fewest votes on the show, ultimately sending her home after last week’s results show.
“Getting to work with so many people, that was awesome. I’m 16!” Watson said in her exit interview with Entertainment Weekly. “What kid can say I sang in front of Harry Connick Jr., J Lo, and worked with Ricky Minor; that’s nothing major! It was just a big opportunity that not a lot of people can experience, and with me just being a child, it’s pretty cool.”
Before her elimination, America did finally get a peek at Watson’s tuba playing — something that set her apart from the season’s start — and one last performance by the energetic and always-passionate vocalist. Watson finished in eighth place, though she helped make Idol history as the second youngest to make it to the top 10, and she was the youngest of this season.
She said she’s also learned a thing or two that she’ll carry with her through her career.
“The music business takes a lot of patience,” she said in an email. “I had to learn how to time manage, and most importantly, be yourself.”
Ber-Henda Williams, former Southfield resident and founder and lead mentor of The Power of Girlhood — which Watson was a regular performer for — said that Watson is a true role model for other teenage girls.
“It takes sacrifice, discipline and perseverance to do what she’s doing,” Williams said. “And she has all of those qualities.”
Williams met Watson at the ’field Zone in Southfield in 2011 and said that even as a Southfield High freshman, “she really stood out.”
Recently, Watson came in to speak to girls in the mentorship program, and Williams said she delivered a message that spoke volumes about chasing one’s dreams.
“She told the girls, ‘This is just an opportunity — one of the many in my life that I’ll have. I’ll just do my best,’” Williams said. “I think that was a message that really hit home for the girls. … Malaya is a great demonstration of what happens when a community pulls together.”
Watson became a household name in schools, had local families rooting for her, and even stood out in the political and business community, such as when Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence included Watson and her achievement reaching the “American Idol” stage in this year’s State of the City Address.
City Councilman Don Fracassi said that Watson was making history, not just for the FOX show, but for Southfield.
She was known to get emotional reactions from judge Jennifer Lopez and several standing ovations from judge Keith Urban. Watson said that tear-jerking performances are her favorite, but also said it was judge Harry Connick Jr. — with the reputation of being the tough critic — who gave her the best and most useful feedback.
In her exit interview, Watson added that leaving Hollywood to return to Southfield is a bittersweet twist.
“I’m kind of happy because I get to finish school. I’m not happy that I have to go back to do the ACTs,” she said. “I’m relieved that I can take this weight off my shoulders for now, because I have so much stuff to focus on when I get back home.”
Two things that she’s undoubtedly excited to come back to are her tuba and her band mates.
“I miss the tuba, so when I get back home, I get to do the marching band again and all of that.”
The judges often expressed how impressed they were by the young powerhouse — and Lopez even compared her to Michael Jackson — but as for her final song choice of Chaka Kahn’s “Through the Fire,” they noted that it was a daring move.
“There’s not a lot of people who can hit that Chaka note in full voice,” Connick Jr., told her after her performance. “But I felt you sacrificed some of the early parts of the song, what you were really singing about, to set that up.”
Randy Jackson, former “American Idol” judge and current mentor for the contestants, agreed.
“This is a big song, big range, big notes,” Jackson said. “Some of those she hit, some of those she didn’t hit as well. I think Malaya could find herself in a little bit of trouble tonight with the votes.”
That was exactly the case as she found herself in the bottom with Alabama native CJ Harris. Watson stood next to him with her hands clasped under her chin and gaze to the floor before hearing her name announced as the contestant going home that night.
With a tight embrace from Harris and a good-bye hug from host Ryan Seacrest, Watson put on her infamous ear-to-ear smile, braces and all, as she watched a segment of clips from her entire journey on “American Idol.”
Singing Jennifer Hudson’s lyrics of “I’m going to start again, I’m going to leave my past behind. I’ll change my life,” Watson gave a final farewell performance, eventually surrounded by the remaining top seven finalists. She finished the notes a little choked up, but still smiling, facing her parents in the audience, a standing ovation from all three judges and a teary-eyed Lopez.
Two contestants with Michigan ties remained in the competition at press time: Jena Irene Asciutto, a resident of Farmington Hills, and Sam Woolf, formerly of West Bloomfield.
“American Idol” is now in its 13th season and airs on FOX. For more information, including show times and how to support other Idol contests, visit www.americanidol.com.
Stay connected and keep listening to Watson, post-Idol: Twitter/@MalayaTinaB, Instagram/@MalayaTinaB and Facebook/@IdolMalayaWatson.
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