Leah Marlene is one of those American Idol contestants we’re going to remember for years to come. Her effervescent personality and stunning vocals made fans excited to watch her every single week to see what she would perform. Now that the show is over, the second runner-up is ready to hit the ground running when it comes to her music.
HollywoodLife spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Leah about her plans post-Idol, including new music and moving out of Illinois. For all the Team Green fans out there, Leah stressed that there is lots of “Leah and Fritz [Hager] content” on the way, so buckle up. Read our full Q&A below:
The Idol finale was Sunday and that was such a whirlwind. How are you feeling about the results and just this whole journey of the show?
Leah Marlene: Oh my god. Well, this show has been the absolute best, most beautiful experience of my entire life. Going into the finale on Sunday, I was just going in to celebrate. I think me, Hunter[Girl], and Noah [Thompson] all kind of had that mindset at that point. The numbers didn’t matter at all. It was just like, let’s just enjoy every last moment of this because it’s about to be over. We were running so hard the two weeks before so it was hard to even process any of it. Of course, for me, it all freaking hit me literally the minute before the show started. When I walked on stage, I was just an emotional mess for the first hour and a half of the show because this has been our lives for so long. It’s been so, so amazing so it was just really hard because it was the last show. I’m just so proud of myself and so proud of Noah and Hunter and everybody else. It was just so many emotions going into it. But as far as results go, at this point, it’s not about the numbers. Everything is such a celebration, and I couldn’t be more grateful for how things ended up. I’m just shocked that I even made it as far as I did. I have no regrets. Everything just unfolded exactly how it’s meant to, and it’s just been the most beautiful journey.
Not going to lie, when you performed “Flowers” and started crying at the end, I was tearing up, too.
Leah Marlene: I’m not a crier, but during the past two weeks of the show I was just crying every day because there was just so much. But it’s amazing because crying is really healthy for you. There’s a lot that you have to process, so that release was really great. I’m kind of really glad that I was really emotional on that because that song comes from a very vulnerable place in my heart. It’s my life, and I think the fact that I was able to actually get deeply in touch with the heart of the song when playing it on national television for so many people, I’m really really glad that that happened. That was a really special, beautiful moment. I think a lot of people were able to deeply connect with me being really raw and vulnerable in that moment.
I feel like this whole journey has been a double win for you in getting your voice out there but also getting these lifelong friendships. Does it feel that way to you?
Leah Marlene: There’s not one thing about this journey that hasn’t been the best thing ever. The fellow contestants are all my best friends for life, and we’re going to be making music together for the rest of our lives and supporting each other and throwing each other opportunities and playing shows. We’re going to be best friends forever because we went through a very intense experience, and there’s nothing that can replace that bond. And then, of course, getting your music out there, getting your voice, getting your name out that is so important in this industry. Just through the experience, I have grown in every single way as a human being and as a musician, just in my knowledge of different aspects of the industry. Reality TV is a whole different world. I feel like coming out of this I can take on the world. American Idol is pretty much the peak of all the scary things that you could be afraid to do in the industry, like playing for millions of people on national television, the quick turnaround, and just doing so many things. It’s a lot and terrifying to actually think about it on paper. I just feel like I’ve done those things. I’m so proud of myself and feel like I can do anything.
Your style evolution on Idol was amazing. You’ve inspired me with the pantsuits. How did that come about?
Leah Marlene: This was a grand old time. It was definitely a collaborative effort. When I first came into the show, I hadn’t really been out in public for two years because it was COVID, and I was going through mental health stuff. I dropped out of college, and I was living at home. I didn’t have a lot of clothes. I literally wore the same thing every day, so it was seriously such an evolution from when you first saw my audition that happened in November. Once we got to the studio and we were doing the show with a wardrobe department, that’s when things started to really change because things had to be formal. My style, even though I was coming into my own style, just in the day-to-day a lot more, it didn’t translate very well to the American Idol stage because it had to be so much dressier than I was used to. It was such a team effort for the wardrobe team to figure out how to take what my style was and make it formal. We definitely came into it together. After a few shows, we were rolling. I absolutely adore the wardrobe team. They’re some of my favorite people that I got to meet. They listened to my vision, and they brought their own vision into it. I loved it.
You also performed “Firework” with Katy Perry during the finale. You two created some beautiful music. What was that like for you?
Leah Marlene: It was really freaking awesome. I had just flown back from my hometown visit, and then we came to the studio straight from the airport. That’s when I got to rehearse with Katy. It was just so special. When we first ran the song, we were just turned around looking at the screen, which had my video that started the song off on Sunday when I was like 9 years old singing the song in my local talent show. Now I’m here on the American Idol stage, literally the biggest talent show of all time, standing next to Katy Perry. It was so special I feel for both of us because she knew how full circle the moment that was for me. I’m just standing next to her watching this video, and then 30 seconds later I’m staring at her in the eyes singing with the voice of my childhood. It was the coolest and my dad was playing guitar on the side. “Firework” was one of the first songs I ever played live, and it was just everything full circle at once. It was one of my favorite experiences of the whole Idol experience.
Katy is quintessentially Katy. I feel the same way about you every time I hear you sing. I know it’s you. What’s the best advice Katy gave you throughout this journey?
Leah Marlene: I’ve been asked what’s the best advice I’ve gotten from the judges, and it’s hard because nothing specific comes to mind. I feel like the best advice and encouragement I got from them was just from the get-go they did not try to change a single thing about me. They embraced the fullness and uniqueness of who I was from the very start and pushed me to dig into that. I feel like that’s the most valuable thing that I could have gotten from these legends that are cheering me on for exactly who I am. I will forever take that with me in the future, that encouragement and validation from people that just have done it all in their own respective careers. Katy was a huge role model for that. When you talk to her, she’s funny and weird. It’s just so cool to have that role model in front of me. I never was planning on changing who I was, but it’s cool to know that that’s a path that’s already been set up.
Are you working on new music? Have you written some new songs? What are your next steps with music?
Leah Marlene: That’s a great question. So it’s really interesting being on the show because about the last 8 months of my life that’s all you think about. You can’t plan your life beyond it because you don’t know when it’s going to end and what’s going to come out of it. And then contractually, once you get to a certain point, you really just can’t plan a lot. I don’t have an elaborate plan set in stone, but I’ve been starting to pick up the pieces the last few days. What I’m doing this week is just really planning out the next steps. I’m already writing. I’m just ready to work my booty off. I’m just ready to work freaking hard. I think some people coming out of this experience just need a break because it’s a lot, and I’m so surprised by how rejuvenated I feel. I feel like so ready to just go out and do all the things and chase this down in the real world. More specifically to answer the question though, the next things for me are really just going to be assembling a team around me that can help me take it to the next level, and then hopefully I will definitely be releasing new music as soon as I possibly can. I’m already writing and going to be writing a lot of songs.
You live in a small town in Illinois. Are you thinking about moving? Is that something that you would consider down the road?
Leah Marlene: Oh yeah, I’m definitely moving as soon as I get the chance to. I did spend a few years in Nashville when I went to school there, and I’m honestly at a crossroads. I’m not sure if I’m going to move out to LA or Nashville. I think right now, as soon as I get back home, I’ve got to settle things a little bit. But I’m probably going to spend some time with friends in Nashville for a few weeks, so I can just be doing things while the dust settles. I don’t want to sit around at home and just wait for things to come to me. I’m ready to go do the work. I think I’m going to go to Nashville for a bit until I figure out where I’m actually going to sign a lease and what’s going to make the most sense for me in the long term as far as location. But I’ll definitely be splitting my time pretty equally between the two cities, regardless of where I end up.
I’m a big fan of duets on the show. I’ve listened to your “Locked Out Of Heaven” duet with Fritz more times than I care to admit. We have to get a duet going here.
Leah Marlene: Oh my god, that will come. So we actually tried to release the full version of that duet right after the episode aired, but then the legal team shot it down. We had it ready to go and whatever, but we have so many ideas for stuff to do together. Ideally, we really want to put a tour together with us too and that’ll be much more songs written on the road and stuff. You’ll definitely be hearing from the duo of Leah and Fritz. There’s lots more in the future to come. We’re both just trying to figure out the next steps for us retrospectively right now, but there will be Leah and Fritz content. Lots of it.
I think with American Idol fans have seen Gabby [Barrett] and Cade [Foehner], as well as Maddie [Poppe] and Caleb [Hutchinson], and want to see a romance happen. How did you react when you saw the dating rumors about you and Fritz?
Leah Marlene: Well, we knew that was coming when we film Hollywood Week. Already the producers were putting us together for all the interviews. As soon as we became duet partners, they saw the chemistry. I think it’s great. I mean, he’s like a brother to me. We very much know where we stand with each other, and that’s not anything that’s ever going to happen between us. But the more people are talking about us, I’ll take it. It’s funny because people have caught on a lot more to the fact that we are just best friends and like siblings. In the comments, half the people are like “you guys should date,” and then other people are like “no, they’re just best friends.” People are now standing up for our friendship, and it’s so funny.
You had so many amazing performances on Idol that varied in terms of style. Would you put yourself in a particular genre at all with your music, or would you want to dabble in everything?
Leah Marlene: This is kind of the journey that I am on right now. I’ve always loved to do everything. In this industry, to a certain extent, you have put yourself in a niche. I will never allow myself to be boxed into anything, but I do think the next record that I make is going to have a particular sound to it, and it’s not going to be every sound under the planet. I think that’s kind of my goal in the next month or two of writing, to really narrow into what I want the sound of this next record cycle to be. I will always make music. That is everything to me. I just love writing whatever my heart feels like it needs to write. Whatever sound that be is awesome. It’s going to be a journey to figure out exactly what my next record is going to sound like, but it will all sound like me at the end of the day.