When Brianna Sanchez steps on stage, a light inside her switches on. The bubbly 16-year-old from Dove Creek is a little shy and awkward - but a microphone in her hand changes all of that.
Earning attention and recognition, Sanchez left the audience of the final Cortez American Idol screaming for more as she belted through three songs with dramatic and precise flair Wednesday evening.
"I'm a little nervous," Sanchez said timidly, as she prepared to open the show.
Being nervous must be a good thing. Even battling a four-day-old cold, Sanchez blew away the competition and claimed the title of the first-ever Cortez American Idol.
Her final song, "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," a Pat Benatar classic, pumped up the crowd and left everyone hoarse from cheering. Host P.A. Jackson proclaimed, "that's how you end American Idol."
In front of more than 100 screaming, cheering and envious people at Blondie's Pub and Grub, Sanchez accepted the grand prize - $300 in cash, a 40-inch flat screen television and the opportunity to sing on local radio station KKDC 93.3 The Crow.
She was also surprised when she was told as winner she would have an opportunity to sing the National Anthem at an annual all-night softball charity event called Braiden's Angels, put on by Billy McCoy from the Dolores Fire Department.
After receiving her prizes Sanchez made a speech to the crowd, then in true Idol fashion, performed one last song, "The Climb" by Miley Cyrus. A most fitting choice.
"The best part about winning was not the prizes," she said. "What amazed me were these little girls who asked if they could hug me and kiss me on the cheek. They made me feel like a celebrity or someone they looked up to because I'm not afraid to chase my dream."
When Idol began on Jan. 2, none of the final contestants could imagine being in the top three. There were 55 locals who turned up to audition over a two week period. Every Wednesday eliminations were made and feelings were hurt as the judges' decisions became more and more difficult. The final night saw Marla Sitton, Pepper Noyes and Brianna Sanchez fight for first place.
Sitton had a rough time with remembering her songs that evening but she gracefully recovered as best she could, taking third place. Noyes, second place winner, had a wonderful night getting thunderous applause for each performance. But that wasn't enough for the talented young girl who turned every head in the restaurant.
When the competition started six weeks ago, Sanchez never thought she would be referred to as Cortez's Idol when the final note faded away.
It was her mother, Mandi Sanchez, who helped Brianna believe in herself. Convincing her daughter to audition wasn't difficult. Brianna first stepped onto a stage at 11 years old for a talent show in North Richmond Hills, Texas. Several talent shows later and a move back to Cortez, Brianna entered Blondie's the second night of auditions, accompanied by her mother, to try her luck. That same night the top 15 were picked to advance to the next round. It was lucky they came when they did.
Brianna was picked for the top 15 and but wasn't sure what to expect next.
"I am not competitive. I didn't think I would make it past the auditions. I sang a very slow and boring song," Brianna said. "It amazed me how many people kept showing up. I thought it would be a bar with a bunch of drunks."
Thankfully, the audience was sober enough to see that this Dove Creek teenager was talented. Equally impressed were the four judges and the DJ who have watched Brianna morph into an explosive force throughout the competition.
J.R. Stafford is the DJ for Star Mobile DJ and Karaoke and he had a hand in creating the Cortez Idol concept. Every week he emailed the lyrics and an audio track to the contestants of the song they would be singing.
Surprisingly, Brianna did not ask for any songs to be emailed the final week of the competition. She relied on her own skills.
"What is amazing about her is, there could be 10 different versions of any karaoke song. The contestants had me send them whichever version I would be playing so they had the best chance possible to sound good," Stafford explained. "Not Brianna. She sang to whatever version I put up there. I was pretty proud. That's incredible."
Brianna practiced with the Spotify app from her phone that contains karaoke versions for millions of songs. The versions she sang to at the competition were definitely but Brianna was not fazed.
"They were way different," Brianna stressed. "But I had spent the week memorizing the lyrics and listening to the song melodies."
However, being a little under the weather left her unable to practice vocally for two days prior to the competition. When the day came, Brianna sang completely from memory of the music and lyrics she had studied whole-heartedly. She may have surprised Stafford in the end with her final's performance but he only vaguely remembers her audition.
"I don't remember her from the first week to the top 15, but she got better and better. Now everyone knows her name," Stafford said.
Young kids lined the staging area as the contestants waited for the results. When Brianna's name was called, they leapt forward, swarming Brianna with affection as balloons and confetti rained down.
Nikki Calhoon filled in as one of the judges for Blondie's owner Patty Simmons, the night of the finals. She also saw Brianna improve as the competition progressed. That included watching the teen overcome her nervousness. Even with the early nerves, Brianna's performances were consistent over the six weeks. Calhoon said her personality completely changes on stage.
"She went up against two grown women and she really held her own," Calhoon said. "That says a lot about her."
The two other finalists made for a highly competitive final night.
Third-place finisher Sitton has been the choir teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School for almost 20 years and Noyes, the runner-up was a charismatic force with a big voice who engaged the crowd with jokes and friendly banter.
Competing against those women, Brianna was naturally worried.
"Pepper made me jealous," Brianna said chuckling. "She's older and knows so many people. She's very popular. She pulled me aside at intermission and said if I won she would be so proud of me."
Once Brianna's name was called as the winner, it was clear who stole the show. The audience vote determined the winner, and although Brianna had a huge crowd of fans, the applause that followed each of her three songs was universal.
Mandi said her daughter has the ability to make everyone around her happy.
Brianna graciously accepted all compliments that came her way with a grin and seemed to be giggling with joy all night long.
"She's my tornado," Mandi said about Brianna. "She's your typical teen but when she really loves something she fights for it. Every little girl's dreams of being a singer."
But the entire experience has not gone to her head. She plans to drop by Blondie's on Wednesday night for karaoke to see her fellow Idol competitors.
She hopes that this well-earned title will open a few other doors for her.
Maybe even the biggest door that every young singer dreams of opening - the real "American Idol."
This summer she plans to join the ranks of other hopefuls at the national American Idol auditions in either Texas or California.
After the last six weeks and her Cortez Idol crown, her confidence is soaring.
In the meantime, Brianna will continue to be a typical teen.
And no matter where her future takes her, she will always be the first Cortez American Idol.