Idol vet Melissa McGhee re-emerges in Tampa Bay’s music scene

By : Zach Caruso
Comments: 0

St. Petersburg – If you see Melissa McGhee walking down the street, and swear you’ve seen her somewhere before, you’re not alone.

“I get a lot of, ‘You look so familiar,’” she says with a laugh.“I’m not the boastful type so I usually just end up saying ‘Oh yeah, I don’t know why,’ but then I have friends that will start yelling, ‘She was on Idol!’ Leave it to a friend to call you out.”

The 29-year-old has the voice, the looks, and the charisma to knock anyone’s socks off, and in 2005 she did just that when she appeared on Fox’s mega-hit reality singing series American Idol.

While her success on that season gave her many opportunities—she finished 12th—she took time off and re-emerged in Tampa’s music scene last year. Many have been surprised to learn that she is gay.

Since her return to the world of music, McGhee has been active in supporting Tampa Bay’s gay community, having performed at various events for 2014’s Pride celebration. While she has never sought to hide her sexuality and who she is, she admits her time in the spotlight put a degree of strain on her personal life.

“I didn’t come out until after Idol,” she says. “It was not a very accepted thing, so it was very hard. I had a manager at the time who basically said they didn’t want anyone to know. I’ll never forget, I had a gig down in Key West, and I’m going to be in Key West for a week so of course I want my girlfriend there with me, and my manager had told me no, that I need to appear available.

“Even when I did come out it wasn’t widely known because of everything going on around me telling me ‘No, you can’t do that, you can’t be that person.’ I had producers when I was in Alabama, and I was talking to them about doing albums and such, and their answer was basically I had to choose either my lifestyle or my career. It was hard to deal with, and obviously things have evolved a lot since then, but eight years ago it was not nearly as accepted.”

As far as her music career goes, McGhee began long before she was discovered on Idol.

“I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember,” says the Tampa native. “I did pageants when I was little and my favorite part was always the talent portion because I got to sing, and I did that for a while and I spent a lot of my high school career going to Orlando, Nashville, places like that, doing showcases.”

While McGhee ended up as a top-12 finisher in the 2005 season of American Idol, few know that she already had a bit of Idol experience. She tried out for season two.

“I went to Miami for the audition, just packed up my Mustang and headed down that way. I only had one night booked at a hotel because I figured I could get a little sleep then audition the next day.”

But Idol wasn’t built in a day.

“That’s not how it works at all,” she says with a laugh. “I was in line forever, and what I didn’t know was, what we were waiting in line for was actually to get a wristband to come back again the following day for the audition.”

McGhee didn’t advance beyond the early rounds, and when she returned home, she decided to take some time to reevaluate.

“I was honestly getting burnt out with singing because I had been doing it for so long with the pageants and showcases and all,” she says. “So I took a break.”

But two years later, she would find herself maneuvering the Idol audition process once again after a gentle nudge from her mother.

“My mom convinced me to try again,” says McGhee.

“She said ‘Why don’t you give it a shot? I’ll buy you the plane ticket, I’ll fly you to Denver, you can stay with family out there, and you can go audition.’ So I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

McGhee’s impressive pipes advanced her further and further through the audition rounds.

“The way it works, at least when I was on, was that you didn’t see the main judges until the third round. You go through associate producers, then the executive producers, and then if you make it through to the third round that’s when you were in front of Simon, Paula, and Randy.”

She admits that her nerves almost got the best of her, but the judges saw star potential.

“I was a nervous wreck,” she says. “I almost blew it, I was so nervous, but Randy and Paula actually pushed me through.”

And from there, the contestants hit the ground running, a fact McGhee admits she wasn’t totally prepared for.

“You don’t think it’s going to be as exhausting as it is,” she says. “You know it’s going to be a lot of work, but you’re going through days of singing for 14-16 hours, rehearsals, commercials, it’s an on-going process and you don’t get a lot of rest. But we got to stay in this amazing Beverly Hills hotel for a month or so, things like that. It really was a once in a lifetime experience.”

McGhee continued to wow the judges and audiences of the 2005-2006 Idol season, and ended up the 12th place finalist, an honor that brought a slew of opportunities her way.

“The top-12 are all featured on the American Idol album that they record,” she says.

“I toured a lot, did a lot of charity work, I spent about three years on the road.”

When things slowed down and she returned to Tampa Bay, McGhee decided to take a breather and, as she had in 2003, reevaluate things. However this time, she was thrown a curveball.

“I unfortunately had to have vocal cord surgery,” she explains.

“I had papilloma, or vocal nodules, on my vocal cords. They were able to laser it off, and everything was fine, but I had to relearn how to sing and I ended up having a completely different voice. After the surgery, combined with fact that I had been on the road so much, I took a break for about four years.”

It wasn’t until she walked back onto a stage last year at a music festival in Kenwood that she felt the spark to perform once again.

“I sang a few songs and it worked out and gelled and I realized ‘You know what, this is what I want to do,’ so it really re-lit that fire in me. When I first got back into it, I was approaching it as more of a part-time thing, I just missed getting out there and signing. And the minute I started singing again I thought ‘Nope, I don’t want this to just be part-time.’”

McGhee has been hard at work assembling a new band and writing new music.

“I’ve been writing with the goal of producing an EP, and then getting out there and traveling a bit,” she says. “My goal right now is really straightforward; to write good music and record an EP and hopefully down the line end up getting signed.”

Now McGhee says she is back in full swing and feeling better than ever about her music, her life, and her path. She currently performs regularly at Enigma in downtown St. Petersburg and hosts a weekly singing contest at the new bar every Tuesday at 9 p.m.

“The community, my friends, family, everyone has been so unbelievably supportive, it’s what’s really pushed me to start signing again,” she says.

“I never hid who I was, but now not having that pressure on me about it, it makes it so much easier to just be who I am.”

Share this story: