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'American Idol' exit Q&A: Erika Van Pelt on her hair, maracas, and going all out

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SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you don’t yet want to know who was eliminated Thursday night on American Idol. 


In the ad break just before Ryan Seacrest put this week’s eliminated contestant on American Idol into the bottom three, I noticed a PA carrying an armful of party knick-knacks over to the space benches of (relative) safety. At the time, it seemed like more birthday-related shenanigans were afoot. See, during an earlier ad break, Debbie the Stage Manager had gathered the top ten into a tight huddle over to the side of the stage, ostensibly to hand out more mics for what appeared to be another group performance. We all now know, of course, that Steven Tyler bandmate Joe Perry was hiding behind the awkward cluster of Idol contestants. And the subterfuge appeared to be successful, since at the same moment, Nigel Lythgoe was busy keeping Steven’s back to the stage by chatting him up about rugby and krumping and the best methods of extracting the sweet sweet adolescent tears that keep his tresses looking their Florence Henderson best. Where was I? Oh, right, maracas!

So the PA brings the party knick-knacks and dumps them in Erika Van Pelt’s lap. It looked to me like Erika then distributed these knick-knacks to her fellow contestants, keeping just a tiny maraca for herself. When Ryan called Erika, Heejun, Colton, and Phil² over to the center of the stage, I pretty much expected them to break into a spontaneously awful performance of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” This did not happen. Instead, Erika and Heejun joined DeAndre in the bottom three, Erika ran back over to the benches to grab her party knick-knacks, and then was eventually sent home.

As for Haley Reinhart’s performance, taped 45 minutes before the show started, there’s not much to say other than she said “Deja vu!” right before she sang — which is a little odd, since the stage itself is completely different than last year’s — and then she totally rocked it out in one take. After she waved goodbye to the audience, it took the crew 15 minutes to get that giant birdcage, the brainchild of Reinhart’s artistic consultant Wade Robson, off the stage.

After the show, Erika explained why she wanted to “bring the party to the bottom three,” and revealed a secret about her vocal chords that Idol fans may be surprised to hear. Check out our Q&A below:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you doing?

ERIKA VAN PELT: I’m doing okay. I’m still reeling a little bit, you know. Hard day for me, obviously. Hard day, hard night. That show was really, really tough. I’ve mentioned a couple times today that I just wasn’t feeling myself. I felt sort of weird going into tonight’s elimination. Still had to go out and perform the group song, and all that other stuff. I know people were kind of puzzled as to what I was doing, bringing maracas to the bottom three stools.

Yeah, what was going on there?

I needed to have a little fun. Those stools are horrible, and I was getting terribly uncomfortable being there every week. I had a sinking feeling like I would be there again. I just said I want to be myself, and I’m going to bring a little party to the bottom three. [Laughs]

When you got in the bottom three, did part of you think, Oh God, now people are going to be thinking my new hair was a factor in putting me here?

Of course it entered my thoughts. People always talk, period, end of story. If you gain weight, if you lose weight, if you dye your hair, if you cut your hair, if you, I don’t know, grow something on your face — everyone talks about everything. It’s just the world we live in. I wasn’t letting it affect me at all. I did what I wanted to do because I wanted to do it. I got a suggestion to cut it from Tommy Hilfiger — obviously a huge success. The man knows what he’s talking about; he’s been around the block. The dyeing it dark thing was my idea, certainly. But I wanted to come out of my shell a little bit. But I did, and now I’m going to have it short and kind of funky for tour.

Jennifer Lopez kept saying each week that she was waiting for you to go all out or let loose, indicating that maybe you had done that in front of them during Hollywood week or Vegas week. Did you feel like you ever had an opportunity to do that with the songs you ended up singing on the live shows?

No. This is a good question, because I definitely struggled with this the entire time. I feel like they may have heard some recordings of me when I was a little bit younger. Something that never got mentioned on the show is I do have a vocal nodule. Obviously, singers and musicians know that’s a pretty serious thing. It just makes your tone different. My voice isn’t as nearly as clear as it used to be. Being an alto anyway, what ends up happening is I can’t hit these notes that are in the stratosphere. That’s what impresses people. At the end of the day, if you belt out a super high note or do a crazy riff, that’s what gets people’s attention. I feel like my style, especially now having that nodule, is different. It’s evolved. It’s not all about singing in the stratosphere for me. It’s more about soul singing. I feel like everything I sing comes from my soul. I can’t do anything more than that.

What did the judges say to you after the show?

Steven made a joke: “Now you get to do what I do!” I was like, “What?” “Go on tour, man!” So that’s cool, to hear that from Steven Tyler! The man’s done so many tours, and he knows how fun and what hard work it can be. That was nice to hear from him. Randy said, “You know you’re just one hit away, right?” That also makes sense, obviously, because it only takes one hit song, and you can go from 0 to 100.

Who will you miss the most?

I’m going to miss everybody. I’m going to miss Elise a ton. She and I were roommates, and her and I had a pretty strong bond, being the two twentysomething girls. It’s been a struggle for us the entire time. She’s been in the bottom, too, a bunch of weeks. And she’s gotten multiple standing ovations from the judges. I mean the girl can just sing her tail off, and it’s been a struggle to get the voters behind her. It’s just crazy to me.

Do you think that’s because of your age? That is terrible to say, because you are in no way old — but especially this season, most of the contestants are quite young, and the voting demographic can skew even younger. Is that part of what’s going on?

Absolutely. And I know I have fans that are teenagers. Even, like, pre-teens. I have fans in elementary school. But yes, unfortunately I do think it has a bit to do with the amount of votes that I was getting from the specific American Idol demographic. I feel like a lot of people that would listen to the music that I would put out would be my age, 20s, 30s, even like 40s and 50s. I don’t want to put an age bracket on my material. I want everyone to listen to it and enjoy it. But I do think that [voting age issue] is a small part of it.

Do you know what you would have sung next week?

I was certainly going for something more current. I know it’s been a struggle the past few theme weeks. I know the producers have gotten a hard time about it. Singing these, people call them “dated” songs — I call them classics, but, you know, say what you will. Again, this has to do with the voting demographic as well. There are a lot of teenagers that watch the show, that like the current, relevant pop music. Being on American Idol, that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to be a relevant pop artist today. That’s what it’s all about. It’s a struggle.

Read more:

‘American Idol’ results recap: Nobody Wins From This Misery

‘American Idol’: Steven Tyler not amused that Heejun Han ‘took the piss out of’ Billy Joel. Are you?

‘American Idol’: All-time best makeovers