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Diana DeGarmo performs on "American Idol."
updated 5/25/2004 11:30:51 AM ET 2004-05-25T15:30:51

Diana DeGarmo was preparing for stardom long before anyone heard of “American Idol.”

The 16-year-old jokes that when born, she “came out singing” — which is only a slight exaggeration.

In kindergarten, she impressed audiences enough to perform on a CNN talk show. By age 9, she was honing her skills at local restaurants on karaoke nights.

“People would think they were playing the CD or radio,” said Alicia Stephens, a good friends of DeGarmo’s mother, Brenda. “People would come out of the back room of the restaurant and they couldn’t believe this little girl was standing there singing.”

DeGarmo’s reputation quickly spread, and soon she was singing the national anthem at Atlanta Braves and Thrashers games. She even earned the nickname “the national anthem girl.”

“I remember when we opened our football stadium, she was only in the fifth grade but she came over and sang,” said Nancy Fowler, community school director at Shiloh High School, where DeGarmo now is a junior.

Earlier this season, “Idol” judge Simon Cowell accused DeGarmo of being too young to compete on the show — but DeGarmo may have more experience in front of judges than the older contestants.

Last year, she was a finalist on the NBC show “America’s Most Talented Kid,” and she held the crown of Miss Teen Georgia 2002. She also has appeared in numerous other beauty contests, commercials and modeling gigs.

DeGarmo finally won over Cowell last week. She was praised by all the “Idol” judges during a disco week that earned her a spot as one of three finalists. DeGarmo survived another week and has reached the finla, with the winner of the Fox TV show to be chosen May 26.

“I’m gonna take that back,” a smiling Cowell said of his previous criticism after DeGarmo’s performance.

“Now he’s kind of seeing that I can hold my own,” DeGarmo said.

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Her previous experience before judges and TV cameras gave DeGarmo time to sharpen her skills in diplomacy. She is adept at sidestepping leading questions by reporters about Cowell or other contestants and instead spends more time bragging about her Southern roots.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., DeGarmo has spent all her school years in Snellville, an Atlanta suburb that has long advertised its motto: “Snellville: Where everybody is somebody.”

When she returned to Snellville for a welcome-home celebration and was presented the key to the city by the mayor, DeGarmo said, “I miss sweet tea and Snellville and southern talk. ... Southern people are the best people out there.”

Snellville mayor Jerry Oberholtzer is relishing the publicity.

“It’s been really exciting,” he said. “It has just exploded. The way she talks up the city, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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