Last summer, Alaskans might have caught hometown girl Adriana Latonio singing for spare change at Anchorage's open air Downtown Market. To those who asked, she said she was raising money to audition for "American Idol."
In February, millions of viewers watched as she crooned Aretha Franklin's hit "Ain't No Way" on the popular television contest show and moved on to the next step, the "live show" part of the competition. She is one of 10 female performers to make the cut and the first Alaskan ever to get this far.
Back at East High School last week, the 17-year-old honors student sheepishly asked choral director Melissa Bledsoe Fischer if she could use a practice room to prepare for the upcoming rounds.
"Of course I said yes," said Fischer. "It was almost surreal that she was asking for permission. That's how she is. Just the nicest kid. Not an ounce of arrogance or pretentiousness.
"But put a mike in her hand, and that girl takes over."
Little Miss Philippines
Until the competition is over, Latonio is contractually prohibited from giving an unfiltered interview. But there are friends, relatives and musical associates willing to talk about the 11th grader, who was born and raised in Anchorage.
Grace Graham, also a junior at East, has known Latonio since they attended kindergarten at Susitna Elementary in Muldoon. She said Latonio has always had a competitive streak.
"I remember in elementary school she would do various vocal competitions," Graham said. "She's definitely a very hard worker, but always bubbly and happy. You hardly ever see her frowning. She's always having fun."
Graham, who sings chorus with Latonio at East, said her grade school best friend has been coming back from "American Idol" trials to tell the class about her experience, the feedback, the criticism. "It's really cool for the choir to hear what it's like," she said.
Latonio's first cousin, Chanelle Eniero, said music has played a huge role in Latonio's life since childhood. "She did the Little Miss Philippines pageant in elementary school and sang for that," she said. "She also plays guitar and piano and she's really good at it."
Latonio has one sister, Amanda, and no brothers, but she's part of an extended and long-established clan with roots in the Philippines. "We have a big family here in Alaska," Eniero said. "We have a lot of parties and, yes, we do sing karaoke a lot."
Master Sgt. Melvin Tamondong, an engine technician with the Alaska Air National Guard, has known Latonio's parents, Armand and Arlyne, since they attended high school together in Kodiak. "She's been singing ever since she was two," he said. "She's worked hard on it. This doesn't just happen overnight."
Tamondong felt a pang of anxiety as he watched the Feb. 20 face-off at home.
"It's always suspenseful, especially if you're rooting for someone," he said. "It came down to her and another teenager. I thought, 'Oooh, she did pretty good too.' But guess what? When they announced her name, and two of the judges stood up to applaud her, it was like, 'You deserve it!'"
Latonio's singing talent was known within Anchorage's Fil-Am community long before "America Idol" came up. In 2009 she opened for a concert at West High School headlined by Filipino superstar Sheryn Regis. In 2006, she and J.R. Aquino opened for an Anchorage performance by four champions in the "Search for a Star in a Million," a Philippines contest show similar to "American Idol," in the Atwood Concert Hall. She also opened for one of Aquino's shows, Eniero said.
Aquino, also from Anchorage, made it into the top 44 on American Idol in 2005 and was on another reality-contest show, "The Voice." He and Latonio have both taken lessons from vocal coach Mitch Tubman, better known as Big Mitch.
"I've worked with thousands of kids," said Big Mitch, "and she's totally focused. She has an incredible work ethic, but she's a very sweet girl. Not a mean bone in her body."
Big Mitch, who has worked with her for about seven years, recalled that she won the Great Alaska Vocal Competition that he used to organize three years in a row. He arranged her first appearances at the Downtown Market, singing the national anthem, among other things.
"Big Mitch would reserve a time slot for the students," said Eniero, who was among those students herself. "Adriana would always want to do it. She always took the opportunity to perform."
"Her work ethic is hard to live up to," said Fischer, who first noticed Latonio when she sang in a church choir at age 8. "Even then she was this amazing vocalist, with great vibrato and pitch. Her voice is pure and beautiful. She sings first soprano in my choirs."
That voice has grown with experience but Latonio could still pass for a grade schooler. "She's five feet tall and weighs 100 pounds soaking wet," said Big Mitch.
"So when she belts out an Aretha tune, you wonder where did THAT come from?" said Fischer.
Her tastes have tended toward grand pop divas, said Eniero. "I remember her and everyone in the family listening to Mariah Carey. I also remember when she started singing Celine Dion's 'To Love You More.' It blew my mind. She's always done the big, belting songs ever since."
"I hear her singing a lot of old jazz music," said Graham. "Ella Fitzgerald songs, 'Cheek to Cheek.' Which is cool and unexpected because she's so young. She makes them a little more contemporary."
The journey to "American Idol" began six months ago, said Big Mitch, who has been advising her on the route. "We had a meeting with her family and mapped out a plan of action to push her all the way to the top. So far, our plan's been spot on."
The first step was a trip to Oklahoma City for tryouts. "She waited for two months before finally the email came saying, 'Come on down for another audition.'"
Latonio had to pay her own way, which is why she kept singing for change at the Downtown Market.
"She went down practically every Saturday and Sunday," Eniero said. "Actually she did pretty well. One little girl even asked for her autograph."
After the second audition, also in Oklahoma City, there was another long wait before the third invitation. By that point, Big Mitch said, "Even I was getting frustrated." But, after talking it over, her father said, "I think we should go through with it and see what happens."
"That's when she broke through," said Big Mitch. "Two hundred people go to Hollywood. They're down there for a week being put through the hoops. Then they throw out 160 kids. Adriana was one of the 40 they kept."
This time the network was paying for hotels and airfare, he noted.
"She went to Vegas -- and you saw the results."
In the shows coming up next week, the public will weigh in, voting for favorites. Twenty hopefuls, 10 men and 10 women, will be narrowed to a final 10 from which the ultimate winner will be selected.
The goal is to make the top 10, said Big Mitch, not necessarily winning first place.
"Those 10 people are the elite of the elite," he said. "They go on tour around the country. The experience is invaluable. And she's going to need that experience. The wolves are at the door right now, agents, record producers. After she's done the tour she'll be more prepared for them. She'll be a veteran. When her album comes out, she'll be ready for the world."
If there's an obstacle, it lies in the fact that Latonio comes from a relatively small city and a very small state in terms of population. Other competitors may be able to draw on fan loyalties from home towns with hundreds of thousands of viewers. While the ultimate choice is thought to fall to the producers and judges, the votes are a significant factor in the final phases of the competition. Votes mean viewers and viewers mean ad revenue.
"We're going to need all the votes we can get," said Big Mitch.
To rouse those votes, he thinks Latonio will unleash a yet-uncalled upon talent. In addition to singing, she's also an actor (featured last year in East High's "Once Upon a Mattress") and an excellent dancer, a member of East's Dance Contempo group.
Big Mitch didn't want to hint at too much, but promised this: "America will be surprised at her."
(A previous posting of this article incorrectly identified Adriana Latonio as Amanda in a quote.)
By MIKE DUNHAM