How Maddie Poppe became the darling of 'American Idol'
CLARKSVILLE, Ia. — Maddie Poppe held her face in shock as she took the stage at the Butler County Fairgrounds this week, flabbergasted by the crowd of thousands that spilled out from the bleachers to the infield to the mud embankments behind the stage to view the darling of "American Idol."
Just a few years ago, Poppe was a stagehand helping set up for the musicians playing the grandstand. Now, she is the main event.
“I literally can’t believe this,” Poppe told the Des Moines Register. “I have just been singing into a camera and I know people are watching, but this, this is incredible.”
The Tuesday evening concert marked a new high point in the 20-year-old singer’s nascent career.
Despite owning the stage with ease, Poppe’s journey has been anything but for the Clarksville native. She had many failures along the way, Poppe said from the stage, and spent quite a few days “straight-up depressed.”
But she has always been buoyed by her tight-knit family, those who know her said, and her capacity to unabashedly be herself.
She’s the same quirky, talented kid with the thousand-watt smile she's always been, said kindergarten teacher Barb Brunsma.
"Her heart is so generous and giving and huge that she isn’t faking that she loves everybody," Brunsma said. "She really does love everybody.”
Poppe’s nighttime performance, which featured some of her most famous “Idol" numbers, will be aired Sunday when the top three finalists — Poppe, Gabby Barrett and Caleb Lee Hutchinson — take the stage one last time.
The winner of this season of “American Idol” will be crowned on Monday’s results show.
And a Poppe win would fulfill the purest promise of “American Idol”: That someone from a small town of modest means but big dreams could ride their talent to stardom.
A 'bubbly, happy little girl'
Even though Poppe didn’t start performing publicly until middle school — much later than her fellow “Idol” contestants — she was predisposed to love music.
Her father spent much of her childhood in a band, and he made her and her sisters record Christmas songs as an annual gift to their grandparents. Her family knew about Poppe's talent, said her mom, Tonya Poppe, but all of her performances took place within the four walls of their house.
Similarly, in her early school days, Poppe wasn’t known as a performer, but as an adventurer.
“I remember this bubbly, happy little girl, who pretty much had a smile on her face all the time and really wasn’t afraid to try anything,” said Brunsma.
But when her sister Hannah begged Poppe to sing a duet with her on Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” at a town festival, the then-14-year-old begrudgingly agreed. By the time the number finished, Poppe officially had caught the performance bug.
“People heard her and they just stopped walking, like stopped dead in their tracks,” said Poppe's friend Emily Mennega, 21. “No one knew Maddie could sing.”
It was a turning point, said Tonya. From then on, Poppe got serious about music.
But music was just about all she got serious about, those who know Poppe said. She just wants to have fun, Mennega said, and she’s not someone who lets the world get to her.
“I remember this one time Maddie was talking like Elmo in class and the teacher said, 'Stop talking like Elmo,' and Maddie said in the Elmo voice, 'Elmo says he’s sorry,'" Mennega recounted. "We all just burst out laughing."
In high school, Poppe played basketball, ran track and joined choir and band, said Principal Eric Eckerman. She once single-handedly put together a haunted house, and as student body president, she organized her peers to write notes of appreciation to staff and teachers.
Her talents and friends are so wide and varied, it’s hard to categorize her in any traditional high school clique, he said. She was just Maddie, and she just had it — that elusive X-factor.
"We always knew she was going to become someone famous," said Kayla Jacobs, 20, a classmate of Poppe's and a junior at University of Northern Iowa. "We just didn't know it was going to be this soon."
On stage and in heels
After her “Landslide” performance, Poppe started venturing out of the basement for gigs.
She signed up for the Bill Riley Talent Show at the Butler County Fair, where she planned to sing “Born to Fly” by Sara Evans in one of her first public solo performances ever.
“The lyrics flew out of my head and I started bawling,” Poppe said.
The next year she won the local branch of the talent show, but went to finals at the Iowa State Fair and flopped again.
Those early years were hard, Poppe admitted while in town for “Idol." There were days that she didn’t want to get up.
But she found ways to keep lightness in her life in the midst of all the rejection.
“When she was a senior, she worked with my kindergartners every day for that whole year,” Brunsma said. “She’d come down in the mornings and help them with the alphabet or letter sounds or she’d bring her ukulele down and sing ‘This Land is Your Land.’ We all just loved that time of day; Maddie, too.”
As graduation inched closer, Poppe wanted to dedicate herself to her music. Her family supported that decision — with the caveat that she go to college for at least one year.
Poppe decided on Iowa Central Community College. And before she stepped foot on campus, Teresa Jackson, the director of the theater program, saw her musical talents on YouTube and gave her a scholarship, which came with the condition that she appear in the fall play and the spring musical.
For the fall play, “Lend me a Tenor,” Poppe was cast as Diana, a sexy starlet who had to flirt with the main character.
“If you have seen her on 'American Idol,' you know she wears tennis shoes and is this down-home, sweet, humble girl," Jackson said. "Here she had to be this sexy femme fatale in high heels and a dress and makeup and it was so not her.”
But Poppe didn't shy from the challenge, Jackson said, and she “worked and worked and worked” to get the performance right.
“I saw her grow in confidence and poise, and she had to transfer that poise to different styles and she did that seamlessly," Jackson said. "But I think her time at Central mostly solidified for her what she really wanted to do with music.”
After that year, Poppe told Jackson that she wouldn’t be happy if she didn’t try to make it in music her way.
“I said, 'If nothing else will make you happy, if this is truly your dream, you got to go and try it because you don’t want to look back and think, What if,'" Jackson said.
Go, go, go
Since trying out for “Idol” in August, Poppe’s life has been nothing but “go, go, go,” said her sister Hannah.
“She doesn’t get a lot of sleep, but she says, ‘It’s worth it because as soon as I step on stage, it’s the best feeling,’” Hannah said.
Even as Hannah celebrates her sister, she can also feel the family dynamics shifting as Poppe picks up fame.
“I miss her a lot,” Hannah said. “I kind of feel like she’s slipping away from me. She’s been gone the last few months, and I miss coming home on the weekends and she was just there and we would hang out.”
Her mom, Tonya, is less worried, though.
Despite the craziness of “Idol” rehearsals and tapings, Poppe managed to carve out time to go to dinner with just her mom last week.
Tonya raised her daughter to be grounded, residents said. So even as Poppe’s life changes, most in town seemed assured she won’t forget where she came from, her friends or her community.
“She’s going to be OK, and she’s going to have a future in this business,” Tonya said. “So we are feeling like she’s already won the competition.”
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How to watch
The two-part "American Idol" finale will air at 7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday on ABC. On Sunday the Top 3 will perform and on Monday the winner will be revealed.
Reporter Courtney Crowder will be tweeting the entire show. Chat with her at @courtneycare.