Watch now: ‘Idol’ finalist Leah Marlene soaks in the love at her alma maters | Local News

NORMAL — Greeted by yellow streamers, balloons, posters and even handmade bucket hats, Leah Marlene’s smile could not grow wider when she arrived at Prairieland Elementary School to students screaming and chanting her name.

From a limousine, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter made stops at her alma maters Tuesday afternoon, including Parkside Junior High and Normal West High School, as part of her “American Idol” hometown visit. 

Leah Marlene waves to students on Tuesday during a quick visit to Prairieland Elementary School in Normal, which she once attended. 

Marlene was set to take part in a parade in uptown Normal, where Mayor Chris Koos would officially declare May 17, 2022 as Leah Marlene Day before a free concert later in the evening.

The hometown visit is a tradition for “Idol” finalists. Footage will be shown during the finale episode on Sunday, when Marlene competes against Noah Thompson and HunterGirl for the top spot. 


Students are excited to see Leah Marlene on Tuesday at Prairieland Elementary School.

The students at Prairieland lined the bus lane and swarmed the limo, passing her handmade posters when they had a chance.

“I’m really happy,” said Arabella Grazar, a first grader at Prairieland. “I’ve actually seen her before in real life; I just didn’t know she was going to be on American Idol.”

Having considered becoming a singer herself, Grazar said Marlene “encouraged me a lot.”


Leah Marlene speaks to the crowd during a pep rally at Normal West High School. 

It was a fitting return for the 2019 Normal West graduate, who grew up in a musical household and was performing in uptown Normal as a child. Marlene is the daughter of Deanna and Derry Grehan, who is lead guitarist for the Canadian rock band Honeymoon Suite. 

Throughout her youth and early adulthood, Marlene performed at local events like the Sugar Creek Arts Festival and Sweet Corn Circus. She went on to study songwriting at Belmont University in Nashville for two years. She released her third album, “Many Colors,” in March. 


Prairieland Elementary School show support for Leah Marlene, a former student who is now in the top three on “American Idol.” 

Marlene expressed several times in recent weeks, both in comments on her social media and on the show itself, how much she wanted to make it to the final round so that she could bring the “Idol” cameras home. On Tuesday afternoon during a pep rally at Normal West, she walked out to the football field with the marching band as students cheered from the stands. 

Characterizing the situation as surreal, Marlene told the students that she was “still so confused, but I’m so grateful.”

Leah jacket

Leah Marlene wears a jacket with references to her hometown of Normal during a pep rally at Normal West High School on Tuesday. 

The experience of being on the show “has changed everything about my life,” she told the students. “I’m living inside a literal dream right now. I was literally just in your shoes. … Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

During the pep rally, her former social studies teacher John Bierbaum presented two gifts: a Wildcat Idol pass, “for when you come back to see us” and a yellow quilted jacket.

“It’s almost like a senior quilt into a jacket,” Bierbaum said of the jacket made by former Spanish teacher Jama Lindahl and former musical director Ellie Marvin. 

A flower covers the back of the jacket with cut T-shirts and other quilted items that symbolize her time in Normal schools, acting in musicals and even playing goalie as a hockey player.

“She is a really, really easy person to love,” Bierbaum said of his former student. “Everywhere she goes, she has a contagious laugh and people just want to be around her; they want to root for her, and when she’s performing, it’s just her. That has just carried her the entire way and it’s going to carry her the rest of the way.”

Prairieland Elementary Principal Scott Peters said he wasn’t at the school during Marlene’s time as a student, but she was widely known as a talent, even then. 

“People who have known her growing up have said, what you see is what you get with Leah,” Peters said. “She was that way when she was here — that outgoing, bubbly, kind of quirky kiddo.

“And that’s what everybody has loved about her and that’s what she is. She’s genuine to what you see.”

Third grade teacher Suzie Schertz remembered her former student as having an extroverted personality, much the same as she appears on “Idol.” 

“Her style choices were very similar to what they are now. She had a fedora that she wore a lot in third grade,” Schertz said.

And when it was time for the third grade talent show, she brought in a guitar and “just wowed us,” Schertz said. 

“You know when a kid comes in and puts a clamp on their guitar at 8 years old and she’s changing keys and things like that — OK, she’s got some serious talent,” she said. “Things like that kind of clued us in that something bigger was in the future for her.” 

Marlene’s former kindergarten teacher, Amy Lucas, is set to retire at the end of this month. A visit from her now-famous former student was a great end to her teaching career, she said.  


Hours before her concert in uptown Normal on Tuesday evening, Leah Marlene paid a visit to her former schools. 

“It’s gonna make me cry,” Lucas said. “We’re just so proud of her because she’s done this ever since she came here; she’s always been so musically inclined and to watch her grow and turn into what she’s turned into is just, it’s wonderful. I’m so proud.” 

Marlene’s ascent has also given her students an example to follow. Lucas, who now teaches first grade, said she has used Marlene’s experience as a way to inspire the children. 

“Don’t think that you can’t do something and be famous or do something and do very well,” she told them, “because when Leah was here, she wasn’t thinking about being famous.

“But you can do it; look at what happened to her. It’s quite the honor.”

Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.

Add Comment