Suburban festival singer becomes Radio Disney star
Bartlett girl's career takes off after Ellen DeGeneres show
Words spoken by a stranger during the 2008 Elk Grove Idol competition brought tears to Carol Voitl's eyes.
Her 10-year-old daughter, Shealeigh, had just finished singing onstage when Voitl overheard someone behind her say, "I think I just watched someone who's going to be famous."
Shealeigh's upcoming performances
Ÿ 1 p.m. Sunday, June 10, singing the national anthem at the Chicago White Sox game
Ÿ Noon Sunday, July 1, at Taste of Joliet
Ÿ 11:30 a.m. Saturday, July 14, at the Petrillo Music Shell at Taste of Chicago, opening for Roshon Fegan
The words turned out to be true.
Shealeigh Voitl, now 14, of Bartlett — the young girl who won or placed in "Idol" singing contests in Lombard, Elk Grove, Mundelein, Bartlett, the DuPage County Fair and Naperville's Sing at the Fling — is now the "Next Big Thing" in teen pop music.
After being discovered on YouTube by Ellen DeGeneres in 2010, Shealeigh Voitl's singing career took off. Her songs have become YouTube sensations (her "What Can I Say" video has nearly 1.4 million hits), and she was just named Radio Disney's "Next Big Thing," a competition that also aired on the Disney Channel.
That means her songs — all of which she wrote herself — play on the popular radio station along with hits by fellow teen stars Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez.
Last month, Shealeigh (she goes by her first name only for showbiz) filmed the video for her new single, "Strangely Beautiful," at the Portage Theater in Chicago, featuring a few friends from Eastview Middle School in Bartlett as extras.
It's all been a surreal, whirlwind ride for the soon-to-be Bartlett High School freshman who's now getting recognized in public.
"About six months ago, I was at (Stratford Square) mall with my friends. We just came from watching a movie, and this little girl came up to me and said, 'Are you Shealeigh from the Disney Channel?' and I was so shocked. I think I was more excited than she was. I remember hugging her really tight and taking a picture with my own phone," Shealeigh says.
Shealeigh will perform a few shows in the Chicago area this summer, and will sing the national anthem at the Chicago White Sox game June 10, which is Kids Day at the ballpark.
It all started in the suburbs.
Shealeigh was barely out of kindergarten when she sang "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" at a Schaumburg talent show.
"I could see her little nerves. She wore a little tiara," her mom, Carol, recalls. "After that, she was like, 'When can I do that again?'"
Shealeigh continued to sing in festivals across the suburbs, and perform the national anthem everywhere from the Naperville City Council to Schaumburg Flyers games.
She often posted her performances on YouTube so her grandparents in Australia could watch.
Whenever she entered singing competitions, her mom instructed her to focus on the experience, not the outcome, so she'd always enjoy performing.
"She took that to heart," Carol Voitl said. "She won all of those 'Idols.' She just couldn't wait to sing her new favorite song. She didn't treat it as a contest. It was just, 'This is what I want to do.'"
The Voitl family never reached out to anyone in showbiz, so when they got an email from the producers of the popular NBC daytime talk show "Ellen" in 2010, they were skeptical.
"I was thinking we were being punked or something. I thought, 'Maybe I'll call tomorrow.' When I finally called back, I got an answering machine saying the show was on hiatus, and I thought, O.K. ... but then the producer called me right back," Carol Voitl said.
Shealeigh appeared on "Ellen" in October 2010 — an experience that changed her life.
"It was the moment when my dreams started coming true," Shealeigh said. "I had performed at these little competitions locally, and when I was on the 'Ellen' show, it hit me that this is genuinely what I want to do. I remember I just kept saying 'Thank you so much!' It was so, so cool."
Her mom agreed it was a pivotal moment in her daughter's life.
"You had that feeling, like, why her? How did they see her? It's surreal, wondering how those things happened," Carol Voitl said.
YouTube, Ellen and Radio Disney have made her a star, but Shealeigh is staying put in Bartlett for now, where she spends what little free time she has hanging out with friends, writing poetry and reading.
Thanks to her mom, she's focused on the journey, not the destination.
"Radio Disney gave her the chance of a lifetime, and we are so grateful to watch her do something she loves," Carol Voitl said. "If it falls apart at some point, we'll know she got to do something that not a lot of people get to do. "
But Shealeigh sees this as the start of her music career.
"I would love to write my own album and share it with everyone, and go on a tour. I have so many dreams musically," she said. "I would love to win a Grammy as well."
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people in showbiz. If you know of someone, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com.
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