A viral TikTok video and powerful voice landed Amara Valerio ’24 in front of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie on the “American Idol” stage, where she left with a reaffirmed passion for music and a golden ticket to Hollywood.
Valerio, an American studies major in the College of Arts and Sciences, was selected to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” at her high school graduation when she was only a junior. The event went awry when a senior forcibly took the microphone from Valerio and sang the national anthem instead. In July 2022, Valerio shared a video of the incident on TikTok, which led to over 10.1 million views and an Instagram message from an “American Idol” producer encouraging her to audition for the show.
“I posted the video mostly as a joke,” said Valerio, who occasionally shares singing videos on social media. “Singing is a huge passion of mine, so it was surreal getting asked to audition. I was equal parts shocked and excited.”
Valerio, from Yonkers, New York, used to watch “American Idol” as a child and had even auditioned for the show back in 2020. After a successful online audition for the show last summer, Valerio was flown out to Las Vegas in the fall and performed “Bust Your Windows” by Jasmine Sullivan for the celebrity judges.
Receiving a “yes” from all three judges, Valerio will soon compete against other golden-ticket recipients in the Hollywood rounds.
“Before I walked in the room, I was really, really nervous. But once I walked in, I realized that this is such an amazing opportunity, no matter what the outcome is,” Valerio said. “I get to do something I love in front of three icons. This is something I’ve dreamt about since I was a little girl, and something I’ve worked towards for such a long time.”
Valerio, who grew up listening to rhythm and blues and soul artists, said she chose to sing “Bust Your Windows” because of the song’s attitude and confidence. When the audition aired last Sunday, Valerio’s family, friends and hometown neighbors gathered to support her performance.
“My mom was going crazy,” Valerio said. “Even though I’m not [back home], everyone that lived on my block hosted a watch party at the bar from where I live.”
Valerio also described an outpouring of support from the Cornell community, with students stopping her across campus to share their congratulations. When Valerio rode the TCAT last week, she overheard two girls talking about her audition a few rows ahead, an experience she described as equally funny and exciting.
“It’s so cool to see all the communities in my life come together to celebrate this,” Valerio said. “It’s made this experience even more special for me.”
Valerio, who started singing at her local church choir as a child, expressed a deep passion for music. She said she listened to her mother’s favorite soul songs growing up, citing Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Sam Cooke as her biggest musical inspirations.
“There’s nothing else in my life that I’m as passionate about — it sounds corny, but it’s the truth,” Valerio said. “When I’m at Cornell and stressing out, I’ll go to Lincoln [Hall], play the piano, sing and feel grounded again.”
Besides being a reality show contestant, Valerio sings for Nothing But Treble, works at the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives and serves as a security student leader at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. She is a Meinig Family Cornell National Scholar and juggles leadership positions at the Dominican Students Association and pre-law fraternity Kappa Alpha Pi.
“There haven’t been a lot of people that go to an academically-rigorous school like this and are still pursuing the arts — you just don’t see it as much,” said Valerio, who was drawn to the interdisciplinary possibilities at Cornell. “What I remember telling myself [back then] is, even if I’m not going to school for music, that doesn’t mean that door is closed for me.”
With minors in inequality studies, law and society and performing and media arts, Valerio said she is interested in pursuing entertainment law. Last summer, she conducted research with Prof. Bruce Levitt, performing and media arts, on the rehabilitative effects of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group, which was founded by incarcerees at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Valerio plans to write a senior thesis about the intersection of arts and incarceration.
“[My work] put into perspective for me what art and music is like when it’s taken away from you,” Valerio said. “[At Cornell], I’ve been able to combine my love for music and arts with my legal, American-focused major. It all connects.”
Valerio does not yet know the dates for the next steps of her “American Idol” journey, but she expressed excitement for what is to come.
“I couldn’t even wrap my head around the fact that I got the opportunity, out of thousands of people. I’m so blessed and grateful,” Valerio said. “I would say it’s definitely one of the coolest things I’ve done so far.”