She's living big

Inspired by grandparents, Dalton Gardens woman sings her way to 'American Idol' semifinals - and hopes to inspire others

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Brooke Hayden auditions for "American Idol" in Long Beach, Calif.

COEUR d’ALENE — Brooke Hayden began her trek along the road to Hollywood long before her first audition for an “American Idol” producer.

When the Fox television show airs this week, on Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m., viewers will learn whether the Dalton Gardens 23-year-old will move on to the show’s semifinal rounds.

Hayden, a 2007 Coeur d’Alene High School graduate who moved to North Idaho at 13, says she discovered her love of singing early, and did it all the time as very little girl. One of Hayden’s early influences, one that continues to inspire her today, was the movie “Selena,” about the life of a young Texas girl who rose to fame to become one of the top Latin musical artists of the ‘90s. The film’s music enthralled Hayden.

“I saw that movie when I was kind of young, and from that point on, I was pretty much hooked,” Hayden said. “I learned to sing all the English songs and all the Spanish songs when I was about seven.”

Family members encouraged Hayden to share her gift, especially her grandparents, “Papa Bill” and Gloria Hayden.

“I used to wait in the hallway. They’d announce me and I would run out there and sing for them,” Hayden said.

It was “Papa Bill” who called Hayden last summer to ask her if she’d heard about “American Idol’s” new “Small Town Audition Bus Tour,” a move designed to make the auditions accessible to performers unable to afford a trip to one of the annual big city audition venues.

Hayden was just finishing up a 16-week karaoke contest. Representing Doc Holiday’s Saloon in Hayden, she won the contest after going up week after week against dozens of singers from throughout Kootenai County and Spokane.

Unemployed at the time, Hayden jumped at the opportunity to try out for “American Idol,” and drove in August to Billings, Mont. About 2,000 people showed up for the auditions held at a zoo.

“It was really hilarious. You would be waiting in line to audition and peacocks would be walking by,” Hayden said.

She made it through all the rounds, singing for members of the show’s production crew, crooning Katy Perry’s “E.T.” and songs by Jewel and Heart. When she made it to the fourth round, and was told she would be moving on, Hayden knew it was a big deal. She had auditioned for the show a few years earlier and made it to the third round.

Hayden was called back to audition in Long Beach, Calif., before the show’s executive producers.

“That gave me a lot of confidence. One of them, I got through six words, and she put her hand up and said, ‘It’s a yes,’” Hayden said.

Before receiving her golden ticket to Hollywood, Hayden had to perform one last audition in Long Beach, before the celebrity judges themselves — Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Randy Jackson and Nicki Minaj.

Mariah Carey, one of the top-selling performers of all time, is one of Hayden’s influences. She grew up singing Carey’s songs.

“I went in there, and it pretty much shocked me. I had never seen a celebrity like that in person before. I sang worse than I ever have,” she said. “I totally thought I was going to get sent home.”

But she didn’t.

Randy Jackson asked her if she thought she was ready for Hollywood, and Hayden said she was. All four voted to send Hayden along the road. She got her golden ticket.

“I was really grateful for the second chance,” she said.

More than music

Singing is her passion, and it’s the only career Hayden ever wanted to pursue.

“Then, of course, you get older and you realize you need a backup plan,” Hayden said.

She took a year off after high school and then attended North Idaho College where she tried to get into the automotive technology program. They told her the auto program was full and offered her a spot in the diesel technology program.

“I said, ‘Well, that’s awesome. I don’t like cars and I love trucks,” Hayden said.

Hayden graduated last June from a two-year program that earned her an advanced certificate in diesel technology. She now works for Peterbilt in Liberty Lake, as a service coordinator.

Graduating from the diesel mechanics program wasn’t easy for Hayden. She had to pay for school on her own and support herself at the same time.

“From Friday to Sunday, I was working 39 to 41 hours,” Hayden said.

She worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Lone Wolf Harley Davidson, detailing bikes. Then, she’d run home, get changed and head to downtown Coeur d’Alene where she served cocktails each night until 3 a.m. During the week, Hayden coached the Coeur d’Alene High School cheer squad from 3 to 5:30 p.m.

The routine began to take a toll on Hayden, so for her second year of college, she moved to the San Fernando Valley to live with her grandparents, pursue her music career and continue working toward her diesel technology certificate. Unfortunately, the program wasn’t available in that area.

After a year, she came back to North Idaho and finished the diesel technology program.

“I still managed to graduate with honors,” Hayden said.

Hayden is particularly grateful for that year in California. She was able to be with “Papa Bill,” one of her biggest fans.

“My papa just absolutely loved hearing me sing, and he always encouraged me to do it,” she said.

Hayden’s grandfather died in January.

“It was awesome for me to be able to share this experience with him while he was here,” she said.

Real American Idol

Being an “American Idol” means more to Hayden than being a famous singing star, more than a Hollywood lifestyle.

She said she aspires to be what the words mean, someone to look up to, a person who encourages and motivates people to follow their dreams.

Hayden has her own inspirations, in addition to “Papa Bill.”

There’s her boyfriend, Jimmy Johnston, who’s been beside her all the way.

Johnston, who was injured in a rollover crash a few years ago, relies on a wheelchair to get around.

“He inspires me, 100 percent. He’s overcome so much. He’s the most positive, stable person,” Hayden said.

Hayden is also inspired by the memory of a friend who passed away not long ago, Ben Phillips.

The young man’s nickname was “LB” for Little Ben, but Hayden said her friend’s outlook on life suggested something different: “Live Big.”

She shared that thought when she spoke at her friend’s service, and holds it close, like a gift from him.

“It’s something that everyone can hold onto. I decided I want that to be my motto, the way I want to live,” Hayden said.

It’s a mantra Hayden has carried all the way to Hollywood, and a message she wants to share. She said she believes anyone can achieve their dreams, if they persevere.

Although her life isn’t star-studded, yet, Hayden said realizes she’s actually living her dream right now.

She said she hopes she inspires others to follow their passions, to have hope.

“I love being able to give people that joy,” Hayden said.

Brooke Hayden holds up her "Live Big" license plate, a motto she's carried with her along the road to Hollywood as an "American Idol" participant.


Brooke Hayden sings in a North Idaho bar during a 16-week karaoke contest she won last summer before auditioning for "American Idol."

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