The senior superlative in Emily Hunter’s yearbook said she was “most likely to get a ‘yes’ from Simon Cowell.” The American Idol judge is long gone, but Emily ’13, ’09 LS still got that “yes” to advance to Hollywood Week in the show’s current season.
“I have wanted to be on the show since I was a kid,” says Emily, who attended Santa Catalina School from kindergarten to grade 12. “I used to watch it all the time with my parents and call in and vote. I even went to audition in San Francisco with my mom when I was 15 or 16.”
Emily stood in an endless line for that first audition, but for the show’s 21st season she was scouted on Instagram, where she regularly posts videos of herself singing and playing guitar. After a couple of rounds of Zoom auditions, she was flown to New Orleans to sing in front of the judges, performing “High” by Miley Cyrus.
“You go into the room, you introduce your song, you sing, and then they give you feedback before letting you know if you're making it to the next round,” Emily says about the process. “Honestly the feedback was probably one of the most valuable parts of the whole process. Just being able to learn from three professional, famous musicians was really cool.”
Emily describes feeling a mix of shock and excitement when she was told she would advance. “It’s kind of a cliché, but truly you black out in that room,” she says. The moment was also incredibly meaningful. Her father died when she was a teenager, and she recently lost her mother to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Auditioning for Idol “made me feel really connected to them through a show that we used to love together,” says Emily, who was also grateful to have her sister, who helped care for her, by her side in New Orleans. “I felt like my mom was with me in that room and I could hear her voice cheering me on in my head.”
Getting the golden ticket to Hollywood meant Emily was among the top 150 performers out of tens of thousands of people who auditioned. Once again in front of the judges, she performed Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.” But this time, she was eliminated in the first round. Still, she values the experience and the people she met, and she intends to continue collaborating with some of them.
Music has always been a big part of Emily’s life. In sixth grade at Santa Catalina, she performed one of her original songs—her first time playing for a public audience—at the Middle School talent show. In the Upper School, she sang a cappella with ecco!, was a co-head of Reverb, and appeared in every theatre production. When she was cast as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, she recalls Music Director Mark Purcell teaching her how to sing in mixed voice, a technique she uses to this day, including in the Idol auditions. Mr. Purcell was one of the first people she called when she found out she advanced to Hollywood.
Emily minored in songwriting at the University of Southern California, and is now in a modern roots rock band called The Grins, who are in the process of recording their second single. “I always knew that I wanted to do songwriting, but I don’t think I ever really pushed myself to try and pursue it, either as a career or a side career,” says Emily, whose day job is as the executive assistant for a film and TV producer in Los Angeles. “I think American Idol finally gave me that confidence I needed to actually do it.”
Emily credits Santa Catalina with setting off a chain reaction that led to the audition room. When her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s her senior year, the school’s supportive community rallied around her to ensure she could still attend USC, her dream school. From there, countless doors opened up for her. “I'm very grateful for all the opportunities I received, not only while I was at school but even after,” she says. “People didn't have to be that kind. They really helped me start a future.”