Credit: Fox
Simon Cowell, American Idol

Amid all the crazy pomp and breathless circumstance pounding out of last night’s first live episode of The X Factor, it can be a bit easy to forget that the show does boast an impressive roster of talent. EW caught up with the show’s Top 12 contestants as they spoke with press after the show, and asked them about how much they collaborate with their respective mentors, what songs they’re most keen to sing in the weeks ahead, and how their lives have most changed from their first audition to now. Some of their answers may surprise you:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How much involvement have you had in your song choices and overall performance on the show?

ASTRO: I think I was very involved with it. Me and L.A., we decided the song. L.A. watched me rehearse the performance. He thought it was great. [X Factor choreographer] Brian [Friedman] told me where to move at certain spots. My step-pops helped me a lot. But I think I was very involved in the whole performance. I told them, you know, I don’t want too much dancing going on.

CHRIS RENE: I get a fair amount of input into the song. We throw ideas back and forth, and see what sticks, what emotions we’re trying to get over here. Tonight was a sad emotion. It was losing love, and a lot of people have been through that. As far as my performance, it felt like a good time, but I thought I could’ve done a little more, you know?

MARCUS CANTY: You know, something that I loved about the whole X Factor is that they allow me to remain who I am, the person that everyone fell in love with from the first audition. Even with choreography — Brian [Friedman]’s great, man. He just showed me some staging things that I didn’t know at first to make the show look good. As I got to it, he allowed me to be me. At first [L.A. Reid] just gave me the song. Of course, it’s Boy George, so I’m kind of like, “Ehhhh, I don’t know, L.A.” But as the song came around and developed, I had to take myself outside of Boy George and make it me.


KG: Working with Paula Abdul, she knows that we have our own style. What she allows us to do is portray ourselves the way we want to. She’ll allow us to make up the routines, which we’ve been doing, but then she’s that new eye. She sees it and she knows how to clean it up because of her experience in performing and singing and going on tours and working with people like Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. She gives her input and we put it to action.


Emily Wilson: We get a good amount of input. The first day that we got here, we sat down with Paula and some producers and vocal coaches and we sat there literally the whole day just looking for song choices. So they really do let us voice our opinion in there.

Arin Ray: They want to see what they have for us [for choreography]. They want to see their vision of us doing what they want on the stage.

LAKODA RAYNE (Dani Knight): It took us 13 hours to find the perfect song. The girls ended up picking that song. Hayley [Orrantia] and Paige [Elizabeth] had sent in the song previously via email to Paula. We practiced it, we loved it, all us girls decided on the song together. We had 100 percent of that input, and with Paula’s blessing we ended up doing that song. [NOTE: Due to child labor laws restricting how long minors can work in a single day, Knight ended up speaking for the rest of her group for the entire interview.]

LEROY BELL: I didn’t come up with the song initially. I hadn’t actually heard the song before. I’m familiar with some of Pink’s stuff, but not that much. I didn’t quite get it right off, but when I started listening to the lyrics, I thought, well, the lyrics I relate to. So we worked the arrangement, so then I kind of forgot about the way she did it, and make it my own.

STACY FRANCIS: Nicole picked the song. We’re trying to find songs that are not so predictable. I did “Purple Rain” [for the Judges’ houses round], and that was a Prince song. And now we just did a George Michael song and flipped it. So it’s not like so predictable, to do Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, or Mariah. I kinda want to do one of those [Laughs], but I’m willing to be creative. So that’s where we are with it.

JOSH KRAJCIK: Well, there’s a lot of collaboration between [Nicole] and I. She made the choice in the song, and it was the right choice. The song’s great. It’s a powerful message I think the song has, and it’s a beautifully written song. I just kind of cleared my head and just did it. Didn’t think about it. For me, if I don’t think about it, I usually feel a little bit better.

RACHEL CROW: I have let’s say 95 percent of the input on my songs. I really love that. I feel like the song when I have input on it, it’s more me. Actually, I would say more 75 percent I have, and the 25 percent is, like, Simon. Because I really want his opinion. If he doesn’t like something and I look at it back, I know, ooo, that was not good, why did I do that? Now I feel really good about all my songs, with Simon’s opinion, and I’m just great.

DREW: The mentors give us song selections that maybe we would want to do, but overall, Simon told me he wants me to feel comfortable with the song that I do. And so if I don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it, even if everyone likes it. He said that I should feel comfortable first.

MELANIE AMARO: I had lots of input in choosing my song. I think that when I chose the song, I think that Simon approved of it. I was working with the choreographer, Brian Friedman, and getting some direction as well from Simon as what to do during my song.

NEXT PAGE: The judges’ advice

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

What’s the best piece of concrete advice or feedback your mentor has given you?

ASTRO: Believe in yourself no matter what you do. When I first came in this competition, I used to talk myself down a lot, because I was the only MC here. Now I’m happy about it. I’m confident. People say I’m cocky, but I’m confident. L.A. told me as long as you believe in yourself, nobody else can hurt you or harm you.

CHRIS RENE: “Impress me. I want to feel you. I want you to show me what you’re feeling, and make me feel that. Impress me.”

MARCUS CANTY: It’s hard to pinpoint one. But L.A. Reid helps me develop as a man, as a young man, a young African-American man, as well as an artist. That’s one of the joys that I love about L.A. Reid. He’s so genuine and such a nice person. Contrary to what people may believe about people in the industry, L.A. Reid is a great guy, man. Great guy.


Trace Kennedey: I think the most concrete advice [Paula’s] given us is you’re never done practicing. It can always be better; there’s always room for improvement. Even when you think that it’s solid and you got two more days left, it’s like, well, let’s see what else we can fix. Let’s make this a little better. Let’s change this around to make it more exciting and appealing to the eye.


Nick Dean: After our first day, it was a long day, we were just a little tired and felt a little awkward. Paula came up to us, we all put our hands in, and she said these four phrases that we’ll always remember: Break the rules. Stand apart. Ignore your head. And follow your heart.

John Lindahl: My favorite thing was when she told us to be a student. You never just start off as a perfect artist. You need to keep studying, watching, and working working working. You’re never too good for everyone. She’s always saying, “Stay humble,” and to always work hard.

LAKODA RAYNE (Dani Knight): We had a big struggle — because we were solo artists before — with being on stage together, just having the time of our lives, literally just having fun and letting go completely. That’s what she kept telling us. “Girls, you’ve got to let go. You have to have the time of your life up there.” So that’s exactly what we did tonight. We shook it off. She does this thing were she goes [makes noise like she’s shaking her face], and she shakes around, just to shake off all the negative energy. That’s what we do before we go on.

LEROY BELL: Owning it and being myself, and not being afraid to communicate that out. I think I’ve held myself back a little bit. I’m used to playing guitar; you just kind of look down at your guitar and sing your words. But you can’t do that on this, because you’re singing to all of America. Eye contact. It wasn’t contact with any specific person, but a lot of times, I’m used to singing with my eyes closed. I didn’t realize it until I saw the judge’s [house] performance; I realized my eyes were closed the whole friggin’ time. People want to see what you’re feeling.

STACY FRANCIS: Nicole is very good vocally. I don’t think that people know that she’s such a trained, wonderful singer. She knows the lingo. She knows as a singer exactly how to describe to me what to do vocally, the dynamics of how to use my voice. That’s been the best thing. She’s a really good support system. She calls me at night at home. She’s taking me to the gym. She’s very hands on. She’s teaching me how to be an artist.

JOSH KRAJCIK: [Nicole] said to me, “Don’t just sing. It’s a whole body thing.” I’m used to having a guitar, so this is very different for me, to be aware of my hands, be aware of what the rest of me is doing. She’s really been helpful working on that, because she’s so great at doing that, performing.

RACHEL CROW: Go out there, have fun, and be yourself. That’s my motto, and I think it’s [Simon’s] too.

DREW: To be myself when I’m on stage. Just be Drew, and be young.

MELANIE AMARO: Don’t doubt myself. That’s what he said to me that really stuck with me. He just wants me to continue to be Melanie, because that’s what’s gotten me here.

NEXT PAGE: Those backup dancers, and how their lives have changed

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

What do you make of all the backup dancers? If you haven’t used them yet, do you think you will?

ASTRO: I’ve performed with background dancers before, but I didn’t like them. So when L.A. told me I was going to have background dancers, for a second, I was like, naw, man, I’m not feeling it. But L.A. never disappoints, so when I saw them, I was like, wow, that’s awesome. They did a good job, and they worked hard.

CHRIS RENE: [Chuckles] I have no idea what’s going to happen. I thought they were awesome tonight on everyone else’s performance.

MARCUS CANTY: You know what’s crazy? I did talk to the backup dancers, but behind me, I don’t see what’s going on behind me. I’m so focused in on making sure the audience knows who I am. I love backup dancers; I think it’s great for the show. But I’m show focused on making sure the audience understands that who I am comes across on stage.

LAKODA RAYNE (Dani Knight): It definitely depends on what kind of song we will be doing. If it’s more of a ballad, maybe we focus more vocals, less choreography. We definitely are not opposed to dancers at all. It just depends.

LEROY BELL: I don’t know. It kind of depends on the song. At first I was kind of envious. But my song, there wasn’t any special effects or anything. I think one time [in my career before the show] I had a group of backup dancers. A lot of times I’ve had horn bands and that kind of stuff.

STACY FRANCIS: I want to use them! I think it would be a nice switch for me, to do something else. I think America would like to see me in maybe a little cute number and do some dancing.

JOSH KRAJCIK: Those girls and gentlemen are incredible. Their talent — I’ve seen them work hard, and they’re just so good at what they do. I don’t know [if I’ll use them]. I guess it probably depends on the song. It might be fun to step outside the box at some point.

DREW: I actually just told the dancers that I wanted to work with them next week if I made it. And I did make it, so I hope I get to work with all the dancers next week.

MELANIE AMARO: Love the backup dancers. They’re awesome. I can’t wait to work with them for one of my songs.

What has change the most for you in your life from your first audition to tonight?

CHRIS RENE: Getting more comfortable with songs and learning songs. Honestly, I like to do my own music. It’s hard for me to learn other people’s songs. So I’ve been getting more comfortable with other people’s material and trying to make it my style.

LAKODA RAYNE (Dani Knight): For our entire group, it would definitely be everything. Getting to work with the best in the industry. It really hasn’t sunken in yet. Everything is absolutely incredible.

LEROY BELL: Getting from the judge’s house to the live shows; before that, it was kind of like, I wasn’t known, and all of a sudden, people know who I am. It takes it up to a whole other level. What I’ve noticed is that the farther each step I get, the more I want it. Before I thought that I’d probably go home fairly soon, so I wasn’t that worried about it; but now there’s more to lose. The father up you get, you’re just clawing for the next rung. Now I want to go all the way. I want to be at least in the top two; I want to win this thing.

RACHEL CROW: My weight. I lost, like, 15 pounds. I was not healthy at all. I’m feeling very confident right now because I can fit into things I normally couldn’t fit into. I’m really happy and I’m doing really well.

MELANIE AMARO: After getting a “no” and then getting “yes,” waking up after that “yes” knowing that I could win this, that I could be living my dream every day.

NEXT PAGE: Those bickering judges, and songs for the future

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

What do you make of the judges’ bickering?

MARCUS CANTY: I think it’s cute. [Laughs] I’m down with L.A. Reid. I’m team L.A. The boys gotta come through. We gotta win. I’ve gotta win $5 mil. It’s for L.A. Reid, man.

LEROY BELL: I don’t know what to make of it. It makes me nervous, because I’m standing there going, “Oh, what are they going to say? Is he going to convince her not to like me?” But Nicole held her ground. It’s okay, it’s just nerve-wracking.

STACY FRANCIS: Oh my god, I don’t even know what was going on with Simon tonight. He was so hard on me with the outfit and the song. He didn’t like me tonight. But I’m glad that Paula, Nicole, and L.A. had my back. I felt good about it. You know what, that’s the competition. They’re competing against each other. We have to remember that. When Simon is up there beating me up, and Melanie Amaro’s there and all the girls are behind me to perform, of course he’s going to beat me up. I’m not in his category. That’s something we have to remember. They’re trying to win it themselves.

RACHEL CROW: I thought it was pretty cool, actually. I loved the other opinions, and I’m definitely going to take all of them to heart. I felt like, wow, they care; they’re putting a lot into it. I kinda definitely didn’t want them to fight, but I thought I did my best.

MELANIE AMARO: I was in shock at some of the comments made, but [chuckling] that’s the judges, that’s what they do. They bicker.

Any song you’d most like to sing on the show?

CHRIS RENE: I’ve been thinking about that, ‘cause I’ve been asked this question a couple times. I really haven’t come up with one yet. There’s so many great songs out there; I’d like to take bits and pieces from a couple of them and try to make my own.

MARCUS CANTY: I’m open right now. I want to dabble more in different songs and turn them into Marcus songs, so I can find that right song and I can say, you know what, there it is. The one I just sang, Boy George, I felt like it was me.


Emily Michalak: We all have different ideas. It just works when everyone comes together and we try to figure out a song that we all like. But no, we really don’t have a song that everyone wants.

LEROY BELL: There are a couple of songs by Sarah McLachlan that I really like that I thought would be fun to sing so I could bring a different kind of feel to it, since our voices are night and day. I hope I get to do something like that.

JOSH KRAJCIK: There’s a lot. I would say any Beatles song would be wonderful for me to sing. They’re so well written, you can’t go wrong with those. But that might be a little too safe or something. I’m a songwriter too, and I don’t know if I’ll ever use a song of mine on here, because I think it’s easier to connect with songs that people know. We’ll see, though.

NEXT PAGE: The evening’s elimination

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

What was the elimination like on the show tonight?

ASTRO: I was definitely confident I was going to make it through. When I walked, I was kind of nervous. This isn’t rehearsal; this is the real deal. You get sent home, it’s over. I heard people in the audience screaming “Astro! Astro!” It’s pretty cool. Tisha Campbell was in the building — that was awesome. I was just having fun. I wasn’t going to really going to cry. I was really just going to enjoy the night. Even if I didn’t make it, I would’ve smiled.

CHRIS RENE: That was nerve-wracking, standing up there with Phil after Marcus and Astro went [through]. Pure nerve-wracking. I felt like [my chances] were pretty good, because all the stuff I’d been hearing from other people across the Net and whatnot. My performance was tight; Phil’s was tight. It was all up to L.A., dude. He chose me, and I’m just so stoked.


Trae Badd: It was a little stressful, because they handpicked all the people who were on stage tonight. She had a connection with each one of the acts. The fact that she saw fit that we should continue in the competition is just a blessing.


Lauren Ashley: It was really hard. We didn’t know until right before the show that they were going to eliminate us right after our category’s performances.

Austin Percario: Being thrown into a new group, I think we all had some of our doubts. Are we going to be able to shine as well as all the other groups who’ve been together for years? But after tonight and after the audience’s reaction, I’m so proud of our group and so honored to be working with these people.

LAKODA RAYNE (Dani Knight): This elimination process was definitely different. Were doing it category by category. It was rough because you want to enjoy the rest of the show. It’s bittersweet to wait until the end of the show to actually take in who has left and who’s staying. This was definitely different. If one person’s your favorite and they get eliminated, you have to watch the rest of the show with that sour taste in your mouth.

LEROY BELL: It was hard. Your life can change and go back to the way it was, and now that you’ve had that taste again, you don’t want to do that. I feel like I’m growing as an artist at the same time, which is kind of odd. I never thought that was going to happen. And I’m enjoying that part of it too.

STACY FRANCIS: It was so fast. I’m telling you, it was the biggest whirlwind. In, like, seven minutes, I had sung my song, other people had sung their song, there was a critique and an elimination, all in a matter of minutes. It was so crazy, because we didn’t expect it to go that way. We thought that all the performers would sing, and then at the end, the judges would eliminate people. That they eliminated people at the end of each category was like, “What just happened?!” I was just a nervous wreck.

JOSH KRAJCIK: It was very stressful. I had a lot of confidence, because I felt pretty good about my performance. It was just and incredible relief to hear my name called. It’s a very celebratory feeling in my heart.

MELANIE AMARO: It was very emotional. For a second, I thought to myself, you maybe I could get another “no.” I’m just really happy that I was given a second chance and I got a “yes”! [Hearing people chant my name] was an amazing feeling. To know that so many people love and support you, you know that’s a big thing. You need that fan base. You need that support from now on, you know? It’s going to be America voting from now on. So I really got to get ‘em to love me and know me for who I am.

Adam on Twitter @adambvary

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