J.Lo might have the glamorous older sister bit down.
Steven Tyler might relish the role of wizened truth-teller.
But long before “American Idol’s” panel of judges ever heard a peep out of Washington Heights’ very own Karen Rodriguez there was Sheila Willard.
“When she opened her mouth, we knew, we just knew. She was going places,” says Willard of Rodriguez, now 21, who recently starred on “Idol’s” tenth season.
Fifteen years ago Rodriguez was but a tiny, big-eyed toddler in the RENA Day Care center on Edgecombe Avenue just off W. 166th Street where Willard serves, then and now, as executive director.
“I can remember how we had her singing at every possible opportunity, at every event we could. She was a wonderful little girl,” said Willard proudly of Rodriguez. Willard knew that Rodriguez’s big voice accented with Peruvian and Dominican notes was headed far.
And Willard wanted to help get her there.
The directors of the center gathered together resources and offered the family a scholarship to help advance the child’s artistic talent.
“Fueron ellas quienes les dieron su primera beca a Karen [They were the ones who gave Karen her first scholarship],” recalled Rodriguez’s mother Elvira, with a still-palpable note of amazement in her voice.
They money came in handy.
There were difficult times for a family that struggled to support the young star in its midst, as well as the aspirations of Karen’s younger siblings, Karol and Bryan.
There were vocal lessons and classes, and a costly audition and performance circuit that required expensive rehearsals, lavish costumes, and many travel expenses.
Along the way, there were stops at the LaGuardia High School of Music, the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and a private music conservatory in Italy.
And it fell to Elvira, a single mother of three on a fixed income, to make the seemingly impossible prospects a distinct possibility for them all.
“Ever since I was little, she [my mother] would always, always sacrifice for me, and for us,” said Rodriguez.
“She has always believed in me. She knows how important it is to have support,” she added, noting that her mother once secretly harbored her own desires to sing.
The “American Idol” contestant shared her thoughts from Los Angeles, where she is pursuing a number of “really exciting projects” (no specific details just yet) since having been voted off “Idol” on March 16.
Rodriguez, who distinguished herself on the show as a singer with great vocal range and fluidity in both English and Spanish, chose songs that reflected her unabashed pride in her cultural heritage.
“I wanted to stay true to myself,” she said of belting out songs like Mariah Carey’s “Hero” in both languages.
“There is just really no better way to express myself,” she explained. “I sang in Spanish before I sang in English…I wanted to make sure people knew what to expect of me, now and in the future.”
During her time on “Idol,” Rodriguez also sang a number of songs, including “No Me Queda Mas” and “I Could Fall in Love” that were the hallmark ballads of singer Selena Quintanilla (known simply as “Selena”), the Mexican-American singer whose work and career served as her inspiration – and whose dolls she collected as a little girl.
“She’s really the reason why I’m here today, why I even sing,” said Rodriguez, her husky voice catching. [This interview took place on March 31, the anniversary of Selena’s death in 1995.]
Considered the Queen of Tejano music and described by others as the Mexican Madonna, Selena was an irrepressibly powerful and charming singer who was poised for major cross-over success when she was murdered by a fan.
Rodriguez, a LaGuardia High School graduate, describes her mother styling her to Selena “perfection” for performances, with a bouffant bun and “big red lips.”
“It means so much for me to be able to sing her songs now,” says Rodriguez, who recorded her own version of Selena’s ballad “I Could Fall in Love” for iTunes as a tribute. “It’s my way of saying ‘Thank you’ to her.”
And was it coincidence that Rodriguez’s “Idol” time coincided with the debut as judge of another of Rodriguez’s own idols, the multi-hyphenated powerhouse Latina Jennifer Lopez, who so famously portrayed the Tejano star in the movie “Selena?”
Karen Rodriguez from Washington Heights with American Idol co-host Ryan Seacrest as she learns that she was being voted out of the competition on March 16. PHOTO: FOX Broadcastin Co.
“Everything happens for a reason,” laughed Rodriguez.
“I’m pulling for you, mama,” Lopez said to Rodriguez the day of her in-person audition in Los Angeles.
And the fellow Latina from New York City did, all along the way.
“She always made me feel more comfortable, every single time I saw her,” says Rodriguez of her interactions on and off the “Idol” stage with Lopez. “I could always talk to her. She was always friendly, always had hugs.”
She notes that Lopez’s husband Marc Anthony, a musical luminary in his own right, was often present, and was as warm and accessible.
“It was amazing to have two powerful Latino industry figures there,” says Rodriguez, who pointed to their respective careers as models of longevity and perseverance in a field that often proves fickle.
And she treasures loyalty in return.
It was Rodriguez’s sister Karol who encouraged her to audition for “Idol.”
“What’s 40 seconds of your life,” asked the younger sister, encouraging Rodriguez to send in her online audition via MySpace.
She was the only Top 12 finalist selected from the online rounds.
Rodriguez also mentioned Karol’s infatuation with Nick Jonas, the youngest member of the teen band “The Jonas Brothers.”
Naturally, “Idol” co-host Ryan Seacrest and Jonas secretly teamed up one early morning during a radio interview with Rodriguez. Together, the three called Karol at home for a huge surprise and the best wake-up call of her teenage life.
Jonas serenaded Karol with his hit song, “When I Look You in the Eyes,” prompting teary squeals of delight all around.
Rodriguez declared to her sister Karol, “I did it for you…I am so glad I made your dream come true.”
Now, weeks later, Rodriguez is still ecstatic.
“It’s the only thing I want to do, to make people happy,” she said, describing her plans to buy her family a home, and to make use of the new opportunities “Idol” has provided. “More than anything.”