“There are singers and then there are Idols.”
As the show’s tagline indicates, thousands of contestants audition for "American Idol." But few get the chance to sing for celebrity judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan and earn a ticket to the competition.
This season, about 170 hopefuls were invited to participate in American Idol’s Hollywood Week. One of these contenders was Long Beach local Sophia Wackerman.
The 20-year-old UCLA student is firmly entrenched in the LBC. A lifelong fan of George’s Greek Café, she grew up performing in Dr. Brennan’s variety show at Lowell Elementary and Mr. Hamilton’s orchestra at Rogers Middle School. Last summer, the Belmont Heights resident worked on Second Street, making milkshakes and sundaes at Paradis Ice Cream. Now, she is making weekly appearances on television screens around the world.
“It’s surreal,” she admitted. “I grew up watching this show with my mom. It goes beyond my wildest dreams to be part of it.”
Sophia’s mom, Naomi Star, toured as a background singer with the Moody Blues and Belinda Carlisle. Star, who was Sophia’s first vocal teacher and one of the most important people in her life, lost her battle with cancer in 2015.
“I am the person I am today because of everything she taught me — not just musically, but in life,” Sophia said. “I think of her in every note I sing and I hope to carry her legacy with me wherever I go.”
Sophia’s Idol journey began last August, when she performed for the show’s producers. Invited to sing for the celebrity panel in the fall, she earned their approval and advanced to “Hollywood Week.” Although she got sick during this grueling period, Sophia was chosen to travel to Hawaii as one of the show’s Top 40 performers.
“Being in Hawaii was one of the most magical weeks of my life,” Sophia said. “Even though it’s a competition show, the vibe was not competitive. I made many lifelong friends and it was a beautiful atmosphere, with everyone cheering and lifting each other up.”
Striding confidently across the stage in a red jumpsuit, Sophia gave a dynamic performance in Oahu. The judges praised her charisma and vocal ability and moved her into the Top 20. Katy Perry, however, criticized the Wackerman surname and advised Sophia to adopt a stage name.
During "American Idol’s" April 12 broadcast, Sophia said she will now be known musically as Sophia James. Her older brother’s name is James; he is, she said, her “dearest friend and biggest fan.”
Competing for the superfan title is Sophia’s dad, Chad Wackerman, a drummer who has worked with Frank Zappa, Barbra Streisand, Men at Work, and James Taylor. A composer with multiple CDs, Wackerman now teaches jazz studies drummers at CSULB and leads online master classes at www.drumchannel.com. He has attended every live Idol show and is immensely proud of his daughter’s ability and work ethic.
“She’s so talented… She puts herself into it 100%,” Wackerman said. He said he hopes his daughter will give it her all, be in the moment, enjoy the ride, and stay grounded.
Sophia said she is loving every minute of her Idol experience and feeling nothing but gratitude for the opportunity.
COVID-19 has put "American Idol" in uncharted territory this season. Forced to halt tapings after Hawaii, the show has been airing once, rather than twice, a week as producers brainstorm how to proceed in a pandemic. Sophia was unable to discuss details about the show’s future, but she spoke glowingly about the creativity of the Idol production team and its plans going forward.
To see what happens with the program, and with our own local legend, tune in to ABC at 8 p.m. Sundays.