As members of the Church, we are urged to improve upon our natural talents, as well as develop new ones--striving for excellence is just part of who we are. Is it any wonder, then, that America's most popular televised competitions are saturated with young LDS men and women who excel in their art form?
In 2003, seventeen-year-old Carmen Rasmusen made history by becoming the fi rst member of the Church to land a spot on the wildly popular singing competition American Idol. This past season, the show was especially exciting since there were not one, but two LDS performers in the top five--David Archuleta and Brooke White, with David making it all the way to the finale.
This May, twenty-six million people were glued to their televisions as they watched seventeen-year-old David Archuleta battle twenty-five-year-old David Cook for the title of "American Idol." With three stunning and fl awless performances, judge Simon Cowell called the teen's effort "a knock-out." Despite his best efforts, however, David Cook won the competition--but the younger David has had an impact on the show that can't even begin to be measured. "I've received emails about David from as far away as Israel and Ireland," says Dean Kaelin, David's voice coach. According to Dean, David's goals on the show were to compete against himself, not others, and to bring people happiness through music. In fact, David consistently chose to sing uplifting songs with positive messages. One of the most memorable performances of the season was David's rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" back in February. Eyebrows raised when he began the iconic song with the third verse--a move Dean says was absolutely intentional. "David chose to skip the first verse of the song because of the phrase 'no religion too.' He felt strongly that he wanted to do the most positive verse, which talked about 'the brotherhood of man.' He really believes in that line," Dean says. He continues, "When David sang 'Imagine,' everyone was taken by it. The next day I called to congratulate him on his magical performance. He told me, 'My goal wasn't to be technically perfect. My goal was to help people feel the Spirit when I sang.' Obviously they did, because as I went back to review the comments from the show, people said they had chills and were brought to tears--they felt things that they hadn't felt before." Speaking of this performance, Billboard magazine's Fred Bronson told the National Ledger, "His rendition of John Lennon's 'Imagine' is the second-best vocal ever on the show." He went on to say, "David fills a spot where there's a void. He has innocence and humility." But while praised by some, his humility would also be criticized by the press--skeptics thought it was an act. Immediately, David's friends and his voice coach came to his defense. "People just didn't understand how David could be shocked when the judges complimented him," says Dean. "What they didn't realize is that his voice is still changing, so he was singing in front of millions of people and not feeling very comfortable with his voice. People thought, 'How could he not know how good he was?' Not only does David have a beautiful voice, he is just a good, good kid. That was a shock to America. People couldn't accept that he was just a humble kid." David's father, Jeff, says that despite the instant fame, his son has remained just as grounded as he was before the show. "I'm most proud of David because throughout this entire experience, he has kept the proper perspective," he says. "None of this has changed him in any way. He's never let any of the hype go to his head." Jeff also says his son understands the importance of using his talent wisely. "He wants to use his talent to lift people up. Music can be such a powerful influence for good--I think he gets that." So, how did David handle it when he found out he was the runnerup, and not the new American Idol? Just fine. "He had a feeling it would be David Cook, and he was at peace with it," says Jeff. "We had a talk Tuesday morning before the final show. I made sure he knew that he didn't have to prove anything to me. He had already succeeded one hundred percent. David just went out to give his all and show appreciation to all the people who helped him get into the finale. It was a very emotional and spiritual experience for him. The result didn't matter." Even without winning the competition, David still has a brilliant future ahead of him. While on the show, Dean says David was offered a part in High School Musical 3, which he turned down. And the night of the finale, David signed a recording contract; he's already begun work on his new album.
The other LDS contestant this season, the blonde and beautiful twenty-four-year-old Brooke White, made a lasting impression on the American Idol judges right from the start. During her audition, they asked her to tell them something unique about herself; she said that she'd never seen an R-rated movie or drunk alcohol. Judge Simon Cowell joked that he could bring her to the dark side. Later in the season, when Simon appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he named Brooke as one of his four favorite contestants, along with David Archuleta, David Cook, and Michael Johns. A talented musician who played both guitar and piano on the show, Brooke was eliminated after making the top five. "With David and Brooke both on the show, I think it's obvious that people find their standards refreshing," Dean says. While in the competition, Brooke and David shared a common challenge--finding ways to attend church. "We actually went to church twice with Brooke and her husband," Jeff recalls. "After that, there really wasn't an opportunity, but we made sure we had the sacrament every Sunday." Brooke's husband was also able to help Jeff give David a priesthood blessing when he was ill. Since appearing on the show, Brooke's 2005 debut album, Songs from the Attic, has gained new popularity, surging to number eighteen on iTunes.
Carmen Rasmusen made it to the top six on the 2003 season of American Idol. During the show, her modest dress standards repeatedly put her at odds with the show's wardrobe stylists, who choose the costumes for the contestants. In fact, a stylist was quoted in Us magazine as saying, "She has a fantastic figure, so [her religious guidelines] are restricting." But Carmen stood her ground every time--an impressive feat for a teen in a high-pressure showbiz environment. "I really think I found strength beyond my own," Carmen says. "I wanted to do what was right. I wanted to dress modestly. I was taught to stay true to my values and stay true to myself--even after I went out into the world." "For Carmen, it was really important to her to set a good example by dressing modestly," recalls Dean Kaelin, who also served as Carmen's voice coach. "David wanted his lyrics to be uplifting. They both have consciously made an effort to make a positive impact." As with Brooke and David, Carmen struggled to find time to attend church. "It was difficult to get away, but I was able to get to sacrament meeting a few times," she says. "While on tour, I ended up taking a taxi to attend a sacrament meeting." Carmen was also able to share some of her beliefs with the other contestants by passing out For the Strength of Youth pamphlets and watching general conference with several of the contestants. So what lesson did Carmen learn from her time on the show? "You don't have to compromise your standards," she says. "You may have to take the hard road, but there is always a way to do what's right. I've never regretted making the right decision." Soon after her American Idol experience, Carmen landed a recording contract and released her first full-length album, Nothing Like the Summer, in 2007; she is currently working on her second album. Carmen married Bradley Herbert in 2005, and they are expecting their first child in December.
Thirty-year-old Charley Jenkins was among 45,000 hopefuls who auditioned for this season of Nashville Star--country music's answer to American Idol. He was chosen as one of twelve finalists, but his time on the show was short-lived--he was the first to get eliminated. Even so, Charley recognizes the great accomplishment of winning a spot on the television show in the first place. "It's hard being the first one off, but I'm okay with it," he says. "I feel good that I was able to be on [the show] and do the best I could do." But even harder than leaving the competition was leaving his fellow contestants. "I'll have lifelong friends from this experience," Charley says. "We are all from different walks of life, but we all have a love of music, and it was a unique experience to bond with them." And even though he built strong friendships, Charley says he didn't let his religion define his identity. "I don't think any of the contestants knew I was LDS. I wanted to earn their respect first. I wanted them to get to know me without any preconceived ideas." According to Charley, people shouldn't be surprised that there are so many LDS people in these competitions not only because of the level of talent, but also because of their standards. "These shows conduct extensive background checks to see if there is anything in the contestant's past that would tarnish the image of the show. Being LDS, all of those roadblocks are removed." Since appearing on Nashville Star, sales have skyrocketed for Charley's previously released albums, Round Here (2005) and Ridin' (2007). He hopes to release another album some time next year. Charley served a mission in Chicago, Illinois. He and his wife, Brooke, have a two-year-old daughter named Preslee.
So You Think You Can Dance
In 2006, LDS dancers Benji Schwimmer, Heidi Groskreutz, Allison Holker, and Jaymz Tuaileva dominated this highly rated dance competition, with Benji taking home the $100,000 prize and the title of "America's Favorite Dancer." His younger sister, Lacey, made it to the fi nal four the following year, and this season Chelsea Hightower of Orem, Utah, is among the top twenty dancers competing on the show each week.
Fresh off his mission in Oaxaca, Mexico, Benji and his long-time dance partner and cousin, Heidi Groskreutz, teamed up to win fi rst place in the Showcase Division of the 2005 U.S. Swing Dance Open Championships. Soon after, they each auditioned for the second season of So You Think You Can Dance. "I wondered if I should pursue dance as a career," Benji recalls. "But I fasted and prayed a lot, and I knew this was where I was supposed to be." Once on the show, Benji knew he stood out for more than his amazing talent. "I don't think there was a day that went by without someone mentioning that I was doing something different than the rest of the group," he says. But Benji is perfectly comfortable with being different. "I wasn't raised around a lot of members of the Church--all my life I've been 'the LDS guy.'" As was the case with the American Idol contestants, Benji found it nearly impossible to attend church during the competition. "Sometimes I would have to sneak past security to go to sacrament meeting," he recalls. While on the show, Benji consistently won the praise of the judges, even as he performed various styles of dance he was not as familiar with, like hip-hop and modern dance. He also consistently won the hearts of the viewers with his versatility and fun-loving personality. Benji made it to the fi nal four, along with his cousin, Heidi. And when he was fi nally announced as the winner, it brought him to tears. Since the competition, Benji's life has been a whirlwind. "I've been traveling the world," he says. "I now choreograph for various shows, and I just produced a movie. I'm doing everything that I've ever wanted to do and more--it's been amazing." And even though Benji is usually in a different city every week, he says he almost always makes it to church. In addition to teaching, choreographing, and producing, Benji spends time building his nonprofi t charity organization, Dancers Everywhere Making a Needed Difference (D.E.M.A.N.D.). The charity assists the less fortunate around the world and provides healthcare for people suffering from various illnesses. He is also a coowner of 5678 Dance Studio in Redlands, California. Regarding the LDS people who are in the public eye, Benji says, "I think members at times expect us to be perfect cookie-cutter people, but we're not. I hope they can just support us. We all go through problems, and we're all trying to do our best to progress."
The year after Benji won the competition, it was Lacey's turn to shine. She auditioned for the third season of So You Think You Can Dance, making it into the top twenty. During the competition, Lacey says she was "put in a position where I had roommates that didn't share my values--I was forced to adapt quickly. At times it was hard." Although it was difficult, Lacey seized the opportunity to dispel misperceptions about the LDS faith. She says, "Now I think a lot more people are accepting the fact that Mormons can be cool people too. They know that they don't have to do drugs and do all these different things in order to have fun." Remarkably, Lacey made it to the final four, just as her brother and cousin had done the year before. She didn't win, but she says, "It was the best experience of my life--I learned a lot."
Dancing with the Stars Dancing with the Stars premiered on ABC in 2005, and LDS dancers have been an integral part of the show since the beginning--both as professional dancers and as celebrities.
LDS dancer Ashley DelGrosso appeared on the first three seasons of the show as a professional dancer. She was paired with celebrities Joey McIntyre, Harry Hamlin, and rap artist Master P, respectively. Ashley describes her experience on the show with one word-- "incredible." "I actually met my husband on the show, and I was able to introduce him to the Church," she recalls. "He was baptized in October 2005, and we got married exactly a year later in the Los Angeles Temple. Now I have a little boy named Ammon, and I'm extremely grateful." Ashley was also able to share her beliefs with her dance partners. She even brought Master P to Salt Lake City to see Temple Square. "He and I are both very religious," she says. "I had an opportunity to pray with him in his dressing room. He actually had a tear coming from his eye after we were done."
Professional dancer Julianne Hough appeared on the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons of the show, winning back-to-back titles with Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno in season four and Indy 500 racecar driver Helio Castroneves in season five. Her brother, Derek, danced with actress Jennifer Garth in season five--the same season fanfavorite Marie Osmond won third place. Julianne recently landed a recording contract with Mercury Nashville Records, releasing her selftitled debut album in May. According to Ashley, being a member of the Church is integral to her own success, as well as the success of many other rising stars. "Within the Church, I think it's the discipline, love, and support of our families that allow us to achieve and be one of the top when it comes to talent," she says. "The standards of the Church help give us a sense of discipline. I think that's what helps us rise to the level of talent that we do. And as we stay on the right path and stay focused, we can achieve those goals that Heavenly Father wants us to achieve. The Next Food
Singing and dancing aren't the only ways members of the Church are strutting their stuff. One amazing chef--BYU graduate Kelsey Nixon--is showcasing her culinary chops and sparkling personality on a new cooking competition, The Next Food Network Star. On June 1 Food Network premiered the fourth season of the show, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. It features ten contestants from across the country that compete in challenges to test their culinary knowledge and skills. The winner will star in his or her own six-episode show on Food Network. Kelsey, age twenty-three, says the opportunity is a dream come true, and came with every ounce of perseverance and preparation you'd expect. "I've tried out all four years, first as a sophomore," she says. When the show first started, Nixon saw an advertisement and sent in a video submission, then did the same the next year. "Thank goodness they didn't pick me then because I wasn't ready." After the first try, she thought, "Well, if they don't want me, I'm just going to do my own show." So she did. Over the next two years, Kelsey produced and hosted one hundred episodes of Kelsey's Kitchen. During this time she also interned for Martha Stewart Living, trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and tried out for the third season of The Next Food Network Star. After graduating from BYU in broadcast journalism, Kelsey attended the Kitchen Academy in Hollywood where she earned her professional culinary arts degree. For the fourth season, the show held open call auditions in Los Angeles. Kelsey was in town and showed up. After a twomonth wait, the network told her she had made it to the semi-finals in New York City. The next step in the audition was a culinary exam, which was perfect timing, she says. "It was good for me because I had just fi nished the degree at Kitchen Academy and had everything still fresh in my head." Nixon passed the exam and moved on to the next hurdle--three ninety-minute interviews. After that, the network gave her a fully stocked kitchen and said, "You have twenty minutes. Make us all lunch." There were twenty of them. After a three-week wait, the network told Kelsey she'd made the show. So far, she has impressed the judges. At press time, she had survivied the first three rounds of eliminations.