Portia Bills wants to be a professional singer some day, and she may be well on her way toward that career.
For the second straight year, Miss Bills won the 5-11 age group yesterday in the Erie Street Idol competition, modeled after the popular American Idol television show. She made the finals singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" a capella, then won top honors with a rendition of Whitney Houston's "I'll Always Love You" that may have fooled those in the Erie Street Market at about 1:30 p.m. yesterday who weren't watching the stage.
Miss Bills, 11, of Toledo acknowledged that she was showing off her vocal range a little when she extended the word "brave" at the end of the U.S. national anthem, which had been her prize-winner last year. But she was all kid when she said what she'd do if she won first prize again: "Go home, bounce on the bed, and turn the music up real loud."
The fourth grader at McKinley School won $250 for her effort. The $100 second prize went to Kaleigh Gray, 11, of Waterville, while Maria Connelly, 8, also of Waterville, won the $50 third prize.
Nine children entered the competition yesterday. A second round, for singers ages 12 through 17, will be held at the Erie Street Market at noon next Sunday, while those 18 and over will compete March 12, also at noon.
Absent from the entries yesterday was anyone playing the role of American Idol singer William Hung, so tone-deaf that he has become famous for being bad. While there were a few missed notes and dropped words, the event's organizers and its panel of three judges all praised the talent they heard.
"The contest is terrific - it really showcases the talent in Toledo," said Connie Hoffman, an executive assistant at Toledo's CitiFest who once ran a local talent and modeling agency. "They just need that little edge. One step further, and they're fantastic."
"We had more talent this year than last year," said Melody Garber, event coordinator for the Erie Street Market. "Last year, it was more cut-and-dried. This year, it's tough. I can't get over how good this group is."
Parents were quick to agree.
"When she gets up there and starts singing, you don't hear it [butterflies] in her voice," said Wendy Gray, mother of second-prize winner Kaleigh Gray, who like many others recorded her daughter's performance with a video camera.
Young Connelly, who is home-schooled, was confident enough of making the finals that she brought a change of costumes for her two numbers, "Little Mermaid" and "Born to Entertain." Afterward, she said she simply feels comfortable on stage: She has acting experience that includes a current role as Woodstock in a production of Snoopy at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian.
Rory McLin, the only boy in the group yesterday, said he too had to overcome some stage fright, though he has sung before as many as 300 in the past. He made it to the finals yesterday but won no prize.
Jean Holden, Miss Bills' voice instructor, said she's not particularly fond of having competitions like Erie Street Idol for children, because they can be discouraging to those who don't win "unless they're very strong.
"They're all so precious just to get up there," Ms. Holden said. "I wouldn't want to do it."
But does her Erie Street Idol pupil think she's ready to move up to the next age group and sing against the bigger kids?
"Oh yeah, I think so," Miss Bills said, nodding her head.