By Lanford Beard
June 05, 2012 at 05:18 PM EDT
Tyler Golden/Oxygen Media

When we last saw Lea Michele, her Glee character Rachel Berry was putting it all on the line and moving to New York City to make her dreams of stardom come true. Though Michele herself was a Broadway veteran at the ripe old age of 9, moving to TV (and across the country) for Glee was a big leap of faith. So she can relate to the 14 hopefuls on this season of The Glee Project. Below, watch the Emmy-nominated actress make her grand entrance as a mentor on the June 5 premiere, then find out her early favorite and the Glee wannabes’ first song.

The season opener focuses on individuality. For Michele, mentoring the competitors was simple. “I encouraged them to do what they were already doing, to be comfortable in their own skin,” she said. “They are such incredible kids who are so brave to come on TV and put themselves out there. It was really more of a gift for me because I was so inspired and motivated by them.”

Which song did Glee creator Ryan Murphy choose to show off the kids’ individuality? “Born This Way,” of course. “It paired perfectly with the theme of the episode,” said Michele, but she didn’t reveal whether anyone would don the hilarious stuffed animal dress Rachel rocked back in season 1.

Michele admitted she was “blown away” by the 14 hopefuls — who include a soulful triple threat (who also happens to be blind) named Mario, a Turkish diva named Aylin, and Tyler, the show’s first transgendered contestant. But she said she had a special connection with a big-voiced southerner named Shanna. Shanna has overcome her mother’s drug use (high school classmates used to call her “crack baby”) and also a recent vocal surgery. “Not only is her voice incredible,” said Michele, “but her personal story [is, too]. Her personality is so charming and nice. I hope that she does really well.”

After years of auditioning — her go-to song is “On My Own” from Les Misérables — before landing Glee, Michele knows exactly what the contestants are going through. Now, having worked as a mentor, she can also feel Murphy’s pain. “The difficult thing that they’re going to have with the show is that everyone is so immensely talented,” she said. “I told Ryan when I left, ‘You will have the hardest job. How are you going to pick someone? They’re all so incredible!'”

The Glee Project premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Oxygen.

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