ALMA — Rachael Dahl has given presentations to her classmates at Alma College and performed in front of live audiences at the Oscar E. Remick Heritage Center for the Performing Arts. But she can be forgiven for feeling nervous during a recent live performance.
Dahl, a junior biology major from Owosso, Mich., auditioned for the “American Idol” TV show before celebrity judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie in November. Despite her nervousness, Dahl impressed the judges and was given a “golden ticket” to compete in Hollywood during the show’s 21st season.
“When you walk in that room, it doesn’t feel real. Everyone is so well-lit for television, they almost don’t look real, and their voices echo throughout the room. Then, they say your name, and it hits you: ‘Wow, Katy Perry knows who I am, and she’s about to give me feedback on a song I’m going to perform for her.’ Time goes by in a blur,” Dahl said.
“When they gave me that ‘golden ticket,’ it felt like a dream. I thought, ‘What is my life now?’”
Dahl has a history of performing, going back to her days as a pre-teen in the Owosso Community Players theatre group and with Alma College theatre productions like 2021’s The Addams Family.
But “American Idol” is a show about singers, and Dahl’s experience in that area has mostly been through posting videos to her Instagram page, rather than singing in front of live audiences.
That’s why it was a bit of a shock when Laci Kaye Booth — a contestant on the 17th season of “American Idol” who has since risen to fame as a singer — reached out to Dahl through Instagram. Booth had seen Dahl’s performance of one of her songs on Instagram and encouraged her to send the video to the producers at “American Idol.”
“I actually got the notification on my phone during one of my classes. It said, ‘Laci Kaye Booth has sent you a message on Instagram.’ I had a bit of a silent freak-out, because she’s one of my singing idols. I can’t imagine what my professor must have thought,” Dahl said.
“I thought, ‘I’ve never sung in front of people besides my family, but Laci Kaye Booth likes my work.’ That’s pretty cool.”
Dahl followed Booth’s advice and was thrilled when producers for the ABC program asked her to travel to Nashville to audition. There, she met the show’s illustrious host, Ryan Seacrest, and performed two songs for the celebrity panel of judges: Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” and Cam’s “Burning House.”
“I actually came in ready to perform another song, which I had been practicing for weeks. But when I told the judges what I was going to sing, Katy Perry said she didn’t want to hear me sing that one. I didn’t realize the judges could do that! So, I had to think fast and come up with another song,” Dahl said.
“It definitely made me nervous. But anyone who tells you that they’re not nervous when they perform is lying.”
Judges provide immediate feedback on a contestant’s audition, Dahl said. Bryan did not believe that Dahl should advance in the competition, but Richie strongly supported her. Perry told Dahl that she would “take a chance” on her, and Bryan eventually reversed his vote.
“They actually flew out Laci Kaye Booth to meet with me in-person and provide me mentorship. She was with me when they gave me the ‘golden ticket’ to go out to Hollywood. It was really special to have her by my side through it all,” Dahl said.
Due to confidentiality agreements, Dahl cannot say much beyond what happened during her audition. She did get a few moments of screen-time with Booth during the Feb. 19 broadcast of “Idol” and has had sporadic appearances since then.
Her friends and classmates at Alma College have lauded her with well-wishes on Instagram and in-person, which she describes as yet another surreal experience amid the day-to-day routine of studying for exams and keeping up with extracurricular activities.
“I’m so grateful for the professors I’ve had, who have been so flexible while I’ve been traveling, and to everyone who has reached out. This has been an amazing experience. But it’s also very strange — wonderful and strange,” Dahl said.
Season 21 of “American Idol” airs on Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. (EDT) on ABC.