Like most students at the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing & Visual Arts, Mikalah Gordon dreamed of stardom.
Unlike most, Gordon saw her dream come true. In 2005, the 16-year-old Las Vegan became an "American Idol" finalist.
"Singing is my first love and it always will be," says Gordon, now 20, speaking on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. (She relocated after transferring to and graduating from Cimarron-Memorial High School.)
The brunette got booted off the season of "Idol" won by Carrie Underwood, but not before building enough popularity to co-host a season of "American Idol Extra" and serve as a "Tyra Banks Show" correspondent.
Now, Gordon appears on the second season of "Gone Country," the Country Music Television reality series in which B-list celebs room together while competing to write and record the best country song. (The winning tune, as judged by Nashville hitmaker John Rich, gets released to country radio.) The new season premieres at 8 p.m. Friday on CMT.
"I needed the money," Gordon explains.
"No, I’m just kidding!" she clarifies.
Gordon’s love of music is unquestionable. Her dad, Rocky, is a jazz saxophonist (as was his dad, Irv). Gordon sang with Rocky onstage as a tyke, and on his 2001 album, "Perfect World." From ages 6 to 12, she sang with the Helen Joy Young Entertainers, which provided both singing lessons and the opportunity to carol for President Clinton at the White House.
"I was surrounded by music growing up," Gordon says. "I think I’ll always love Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. But I also love rock ‘n’ roll — AC/DC, Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses."
It’s easy to accuse almost every "Gone Country" contestant, however, of carpetbagging in exchange for the TV exposure. Gordon’s iPod was country-free before CMT approached her agent.
"When we were little I was like, ‘Oh my God, turn it off!’ " she admits.
In doing research for the show, however, Gordon claims to have developed a genuine thang for twang.
"I started just looking up the roots and the background," she says. "It’s so genuine, so chill, that I wanted to do it."
Gordon’s "Gone Country" competition includes singers Sebastian Bach, Irene Cara, Jermaine Jackson and Chris Kirkpatrick, and actors Lorenzo Lamas and Sean Young.
She is not allowed to report who won. But she can report that Lamas was "hot to trot," that Bach sang country "as good as Garth Brooks" and that Young lived up to her reputation.
"I wouldn’t say she was crazy," Gordon says, hesitating. "I really liked Sean Young. I think she’s great. And I think everybody’s a little bit crazy.
"She just happened to put hers on camera."
In 10th grade — while changing tubes at the Oxygen Bar at New York-New York for extra shoe money — Gordon heard "American Idol" was holding auditions in town.
"I called my dad and said, ‘OK, let’s go,’ " she remembers. "So we waited in line for four hours."
Neither Gordon nor her father expected she’d make the first cut.
"But I did, and every time I made it again, I was just so much more excited," Gordon says. "I really couldn’t believe it."
Gordon shot to the top 12 (the youngest contestant ever to do so) before getting eliminated during "Billboard No. 1 Hits" week. Her final song was "Love Will Lead You Back" by Taylor Dayne.
Gordon describes "Idol" as "the best experience I’ve ever had," but adds that there are drawbacks.
"They prepare you for the stardom and the fame, and for being this icon," she says. "But they don’t prepare you for what happens if you don’t win. You don’t know what you’re doing, and you think everything’s gonna be easy and you don’t have to work anymore."
Gordon says she hopes that "Gone Country" will generate interest in a pop album she intends to record this fall.
Contact reporter Corey Levitan at email@example.com or 702-383-0456.