Lauren Alaina is growing up quickly.
The 16-year-old "American Idol" runner-up has spent the past four months since the show's season finale performing in arenas across the country, doing interviews, music video and photo shoots, and recording her debut album, "Wildflower," released last week.
The former high school cheerleader is hoping the effort will help solidify her in the country music world, because she realizes the stakes are high.
"I feel like this first album is kind of make-it-or-break-it for me, because I just got off national television. So people know who I am, but they don't know who I am as an artist," said Lauren in a recent interview. "I just feel like this album is my way of kind of putting myself out there and showing them exactly who I am."
Billboard's associate director of charts, Keith Caulfield, believes Lauren is off to a good start. Her first single, "Like My Mother Does," is in the top 40.
"Even though she has 'Idol' as this great platform to launch her, she's still a developing artist. You usually don't see 'Idol' winners with their first single on the country charts fly to No. 1," he said.
"I think both her and (winner) Scotty (McCreery) are both in a really good position right now, because they're both young and they're both singing country music," he added, noting that the success of Taylor Swift has opened doors for young performers in the genre.
The 12 songs Lauren chose for "Wildflower" reveal experiences she's gone through or stories she relates to on a personal level. She co-wrote one track, called "Funny Thing About Love," with Nashville songwriting talents Luke Laird and Brett James.
"I guess when people hear the songs, they're going to know if I've had my heart broken or if I've had my first love or all that kind of stuff," she said. "I just think it's cool that I can share that with all of (my fans) the way that Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert or someone would."
Lauren cut a song Underwood co-wrote, called "Eighteen Inches." As a former "American Idol" winner, Underwood has provided meaningful support to Lauren. The two exchanged phone numbers, and Lauren asks her for advice when she gets upset. Recently, the Georgia native was feeling particularly homesick and reached out to Underwood.
"I just said, 'How do you deal with being away from your family for so long and just being gone all the time?' And she said, 'You have to think about all the positive stuff that's going on, because you have so much going for you right now. Your family will always be there.' Just hearing that from her, knowing that she had been through what I'm going through, just made me feel 10 times better," said Lauren.
The respect is mutual.
"She is a breath of fresh air in country music today," said Underwood in an email. "I can't wait to see what she'll do in the future!"
Lauren has performed on the Grand Ole Opry, presented at the CMT Music Awards, and sang with Martina McBride in front of over 60,000 people during CMA Music Fest. She has impressed more than her fair share of industry veterans.
"I think she's really talented and she's such a sweet girl," said McBride in an interview. "I just really hope that she goes far."
Lauren's short journey has not been without challenges. The biggest obstacle she has faced so far has been with herself.
Lauren, who has a frame most would consider typical of a teen girl, said she never struggled with her weight until arriving in Hollywood.
"As a girl, a teenage girl, without even wanting to, you constantly compare yourself to other girls. It's like I was in this competition with all these beautiful girls," said Lauren. "Sometimes it would swallow me up. I would compare myself to those other girls to the point where it would make me sick, because I'm not like heavy, heavy, but I'm not the skinniest girl in the world."
Lauren said she had to learn to cut herself some slack and keep her motivations in check.
"I'm actually working out right now. for me. That's the biggest thing, you have to do it for yourself," she said. "During the show I thought, 'These people aren't going to like me if I look this way.' But that's not true, because then I started realizing that my fan base was growing and I was getting further along in the competition, and I was thinking, 'I haven't changed anything.'"
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