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“American Idol” audition contestant number “94882” might be a familiar face to Centreville and Fairfax high school students.

At 17 years old, Centreville High School senior Maddie Assel has big hair, big eyes and bigger dreams. The teen, who is also enrolled in a theatre and acting course at Fairfax Academy (located at Fairfax High School), is living her biggest dream to be in the limelight as she competes on season 12 of Fox’s popular “American Idol,” a nationally-broadcasted vocal talent contest.

“I’ve watched ‘American Idol’ my whole life,” Maddie said. “It’s something you see as the dream, but you never think you’ll get the golden ticket to go.”

Maddie could not talk about how the competition is going so far because of nondisclosure agreements required by the show. However, she could report that she had flown to Hollywood for the show and met the contest’s big name judges, including song siren Mariah Carey, producer Randy Jackson, country music star Keith Urban and neon-wearing rapper Nicki Minaj.

While Maddie’s Idol experience will be broadcast into millions of homes, her audition-process started on the hush hush.

“I didn’t actually audition. I was nominated. My friend [Centreville senior Kara Perdue] and grandmother sent in a [YouTube] tape of me singing,” Maddie said. Out of hundreds of thousands of entries submitted nationwide, Maddie said her video was one of seven selected.

Still, the teen had no idea she was even competing.

A well-timed visit to New Orleans on the pretext of visiting her grandmother Sylvia Assel and checking out Louisiana State University brought Maddie within about 80 miles of American Idol’s audition in Baton Rouge.

“It was kind of a vacation for me, until the American Idol thing,” Maddie said.

Her grandmother Sylvia explained, “They [her parents and the Idol organizers] needed a reason to get her to New Orleans. And I said, just tell her she needs to audition for college. They flew her in on Thursday. We entertained her in the afternoon then took her to Cafe Du Monde [a coffee-style cafe famous for its beignets]. I told Maddie [over dinner] don’t order dessert because we’re going to go for beignets. She loves those things.”

Idol organizers and Maddie’s parents and grandmother had already set the stage to showcase the unknowing teen’s talent.

“The band started playing and the band leader said ‘We need someone to help us sing,’” Sylvia explained. “The cafe was full of people, but no one really knew what was going on.”

Maddie volunteered to sing Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay.”

“So, I went and sang with them and then I heard [Randy Jackson] say my name,” Maddie said. “I turned around. I was totally confused... He told me I would be singing in front of Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban, Mariah Carey and him the next day... I started crying.”

The next day, around noon, Maddie auditioned using the The Beatles “Oh! Darling.” This same song was sung by Maddie’s favorite Idol contestant Haley Reinhart, a season 10 contestant, during her audition.

“Haley Reinhart, she is absolutely the most amazing talent,” Maddie said. “She’s just a big influence because we kind of sound the same.”

Maddie entered her Baton Rouge audition as a kind of wild-card candidate. She exited with one of Idol’s coveted golden tickets to Hollywood, the next level of competition, which was filmed in December.

“People are excited [for Maddie],” said Perdue, 18, who helped submit Maddie’s audition video to “American Idol.” “The teachers and students are all talking about it and are supportive... It’s so weird. I knew she was doing it obviously, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a five-minute [televised segment] bio on her and all that.

“I’m definitely trying to rally support for her.”

“American Idol” viewers can vote for their vocal favorites, eliminating those from the competition whose voices fall on deaf ears.

“Going through this has made me more prepared for life,” said Maddie, who wants to be a pop or jazz recording artist. “[Judges] said they loved my confidence and youngness. Mariah [Carey] said I was one of her favorites and I really stood out.”

Having praise from American music idols like Carey, Maddie said, is both humbling and inspiring.

“Their careers are so established,” she said. “It’s so amazing that they are taking the time to hear us and give us advice.”

In school, Maddie said friends have jokingly asked for her autograph.

Fairfax Academy’s Director of the Music Theatre Actors Studio Michael Replogle said students in the academy program share a seriousness about performing careers, but what sets Maddie apart is her understanding of her vocal strengths.

“When it comes to her voice, she can take a song and work on it for a couple of hours and bring it back with different rhythms, different notes... She really makes it her own,” Replogle said. “She’s got kind of a Bonnie Raitt sound. It’s older than her, if you know what I’m saying... She doesn’t have an ego. She knows the kind of music she likes, but she doesn’t try to sound [or mimic] them.”

Having students selected for competitions like “American Idol” helps to raise the level of play among those in the academy, he said.

“They’re saying ‘This is my colleague. This is my peer. We were working on the same thing. If she can do it, why can’t I?’” Replogle said.

“American Idol” airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com