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Freelance entertainment writer, martial arts instructor, and mother of two.

American Idol 12, Jan. 17 – Breaking My Heart in a Whole New Way

No one has heard Clifton Duffin, 22, Country Club Hills, IL, sing, including his parents. He wasn't as confident in it, prompting Nicki to call him Secret Squirrel. Ryan sneaks his parents into his audition to hear him sing one of his mom's favorite songs, Superstar. He has a great sound that with training could be amazing. His mom, through tears, gives him a hug. Nicki thinks it's inspirational for others who have been afraid to sing for others. Through tears, Mariah says she could relate to him saying he'd sing when he was young to escape. Keith admits he lost it seeing Clifton's parents watching him sing for the first time. Keith also likes his diamond-in-the-rough voice. Clifton gets four yeses.

Ieisha Cotton, 19, professional dancer, Chicago, is very excited to meet Mariah, her idol. She's loved her since she was born. She's a professional dancer, and Keith asks her to dance for him, but Mariah wants her to sing first. She's outvoted. It's hard to believe that this is what passes for professional dancing. Ieisha sings Ashanti, and it doesn't appear she'll ever be a professional singer either. Mariah believes Ashanti should stick with the dancing but thinks she's really cute. Randy tells Ieisha she's tone deaf and can't really hear the notes, so singing isn't really her thing. It's put to a vote, and Mariah accidentally says yes, then has to change her vote to a no. The others vote note as well. Ieisha hopes to make it on next year.

Johnny Keyser, 23, Pompano Beach, FL, is someone we've seen before, last year in fact. This year he sings Try a Little Tenderness, and the judges are definitely enjoying him. Nicki asks if he has a girlfriend, and he says no. After he sings, Keith doesn't think that will last very long. He likes Johnny's voice, He likes his voice, style, and feels in a nanosecond they got to hear everything he can do.

Randy likes when people come back, because they show they really want it. Keith still has an amazing voice, but hopeful he's done some work to stick around. Mariah thinks he's a star and she's loves that song. She thinks he has star quality. Mariah and Nicki battle over who's talking when and Nicki calling Mariah “Carey,” and Nicki tells Johnny she liked his voice and the twinkle in his eye. He gets four yeses .

Kez Ban, 27, Durham, NC, asks one question of the interviewer before they begin. She wants to know if she's going to make it onto the blooper reel in a way that will embarrass her mother or family, she wants to leave now. She's an up-and-coming fire performer and also does balloon animals as a street performer. She likes the attention. She'd rather a 17-year-old with a dream to win make it, but she does want to go to Hollywood. Randy wants to know if she's ever started herself on fire, and she admits to burnign down a tomato plant and the “hairs on her chinny-chin-chin.” Keith asks about her relationships, as he wants to know if there are any “old flames.”

Kez wants to sing an original with her guitar, but plans to sing Pinocchio for the judges. Randy stops her and asks for some guitar. She isn't bad at all. She's a little monotone, but her original brings out more personality and tone. Mariah loved the song and hearing her play and sing. She can feel the realness of her. Nicki finds her captivating. She believes in her and wants to come to the show. Keith likes her a lot. She gets four yeses. She knew it was possible to make it, but feared she was a little too bizarre. She does try to negotiate with Ryan filling out paperwork on a different day rather than this day. Clearly he's not the right person for that.

Following Kez is the American Idol presentation of “The Miserables.” They are truly that, from bad singing to freakouts at the cameras after they are denied.

Ashley Curry, 19, Flossmoor, IL, is studying musical theater. She started singing when she was young. She has a twin sister, and it's the only thing that her twin didn't do, although she gets lots of advice from her about being more confident. When people hear her sing, they say it's really good and like nothing they've heard before. This means we could be headed towards a bad audition. She sings Mama Knows Best, and people were wrong. I have heard this before. I have heard this bad voice every season of the show.

Randy asks if the sound is off in the theater when Ashley sings. She claims she just didn't start on the note she wanted to. Nicki tells her with the right vocal coach, she could do a lot with her voice. She restarts, wanting to do it in the right key. Mariah gets up from the desk and stares out the window. Randy asks if she's running for cover. He tells Ashley that someone should have told her before that it's not good. Nicki tells her she is very pretty, though, so she asks for a monologue. Mariah proposes a story of the judges being sisters and not letting Nicki go to the ball. Yet, she sings again, insistently. Security ushers her out.

The last contestant of the night is Lazaro Arbos, 21, an ice cream scooper, Naples, FL. He's excited and nervous. He stutters his way through his intro, and it's just pure pain for me. It's something I don't talk about often, but I grew up as a stutterer, and I know every bit of his pain. It's why I prefer to write. He discusses how hard it is, saying something normal people would think would be easy is hard for him. His mom says he had therapy, but never improved. I wish he had the doctor that I had. His stutter got worse when they moved from Cuba to the United States. He had no friends to hang out with. His dad believes that's why music became his life. His mom would always encourage him to sing instead of talk, as it was easier.

Lazaro sings Bridge Over Troubled Water. and he sings so beautifully, with no trace of a stutter. The panel looks like it's about to erupt in tears. Randy calls it really pleasant and really nice. He loves Lazaro's voice and notes the absence of stammer when he sings. Keith says he should just sing all the time. Nicki found it inspiring and thinks he brought a good vibe into the room. Keith loves his tone and loves the song, as it's one of his all-time favorites, eliciting so much emotion. Mariah thinks he has a beautiful voice. Feeling a unanimous vote, they do it together, and it's a big resounding yes. Lazaro comes to the table and hugs Mariah.

Lazaro has just become one of my all-time favorites. In a way it reminds me of James Durbin. Both are young guys who might not have had a chance in the music industry without Idol, but definitely deserve it. Like James, I hope Lazaro goes really far. He made me forget all about the catfights.

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