Carly Smithson may have snagged a big-time record deal as a teen, but her co-workers at an Irish pub in San Diego didn’t even know the raven-haired, tattooed chanteuse could sing.
Dublin-bred Smithson, 24, worked five days a week as a waitress and then as a bartender at the Field for almost three years, up until her stint as a finalist on Fox’s “American Idol.”
“Carly, one day, told us, ‘I can sing.’ Then she sang, and she didn’t stop. That was New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2006,” the pub’s chef, Thomas Beatty, 31, said.
Smithson also co-owns 1-year-old San Diego tattoo shop Nothing Sacred with her tattoo artist-husband, Todd Smithson, whose face is covered in ink art.
“She’s very modest, hardworking, polite, nice,” Beatty said. “Did we realize she was as good as what she was? No.”
After that New Year’s Eve performance, Smithson — born Carly Hennessy — started singing at the pub every Saturday night, Beatty said.
She would work a shift, go home for a couple of hours, then return to belt out everything from U2 to Johnny Cash.
“I was shocked at the range of her voice,” the Irish chef said. “She always sang this one song ‘Black Is the Color,’ a Scottish song. It would make everyone silent. Everybody would just be in awe of her.”
As for her 2001 MCA Records debut, “Ultimate High,” which flopped, Beatty said the pub’s staff never knew about it.
“She never talked about having a record deal,” he said.
Kevin Dickinson, 25, a tattoo artist at Nothing Sacred and a friend of the Smithsons, said Carly Smithson invested a lot of her own money in the album. He said lackluster sales could have been due to the album coming out soon after Sept. 11, 2001.
As for her heavily tatted-up hubby, Smithson met him at Los Angeles International Airport when a friend sent her to pick him up. After a friendship and phone romance that included Smithson traveling between California and Ireland, the pair married about three and a half years ago, Dickinson said.
“She had a tattoo before she met Todd, but they got tattooed together in Orlando. And he did her knuckle tattoo,” Dickinson said.
Smithson’s upbeat nature, evident on “Idol” during her popular version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” and a comeback to judge Simon Cowell after he criticized her take on the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” was apparent early on.
No longer a major label artist after her record failed, and then rejected from “Idol” auditions in 2005, she continued to sing.
“Carly is always really positive about everything. She never dwelled on the fact that she didn’t make it before,” Dickinson said. “Making ‘Idol’ this time was more an emotional relief because she’s been trying for so long. When they said ‘Welcome to Hollywood,’ that was the bomb.”
For Smithson, Hollywood may agree with her the second time around.
At 15, she moved with her father, Luke Hennessy, to Los Angeles with “only a demo in hand, hoping to spark label interest,” according to an MCA Records online bio.
Smithson had already enjoyed some success as a young model, actress and singer in her native Ireland.
Her mother “was a top Irish fashion model,” according to the bio, and at age 9, Smithson beat out 2,000 hopefuls for the role of Little Cosette in the musical “Les Miserables.”
She appeared with Julie Christie and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the film “Fools of Fortune.” At 10, she recorded her debut album, “Carly’s Christmas Album,” a collection of holiday tunes. A few years later, Smithson landed a print ad campaign as the face of Denny Sausage.
“I always wanted to be a singer,” Smithson, then 17, said in the bio. “I listened to Chrissie Hynde, Diana Ross, Madonna, Whitney Houston, everyone. I never took voice lessons.”
Controversy swirled around Smithson at the start of the “Idol” season because of her commercial past, but other semifinalists also cut previous deals, including Kristy Lee Cook with Arista Nashville.
After moving to L.A., Smithson and her booming voice caught the attention of longtime composer Steve Dorff, father of actor Stephen Dorff.
“I discovered her,” Steve Dorff told the AP. “I heard a CD that my manager sent. I called him back and wanted to meet with her. I assumed she was 25, 26.”
Dorff said he was impressed by the “absolutely motivated” and “very cute, young, tiny and bubbly, fun kid” with curly hair.
He recorded some demos with Smithson, who had taken leave from high school, and introduced her to then MCA President Jay Boberg, who “flipped out” and signed her, Dorff said. Dorff was also parental, taking Smithson to Disneyland for the first time, along with his kids.
However, Smithson’s “Ultimate High” was fraught with contentiousness. Dorff said he had creative differences with her and left the project. MCA spent $2 million trying to sell it, reported The Wall Street Journal in a 2002 story on Smithson.
“I thought she was more of a pop singer and better suited to that niche than rock. That was the direction she wanted to go. I didn’t feel that was the direction I could serve her,” Dorff said. “I let her do her thing and she did. ... It was not the album I would have made.”
That album included the bouncy track “I’m Gonna Blow Your Mind” and a 2002 slot opening for Bryan Adams in Dublin, playing to more than 100,000 people. Photos on MCA’s site feature Smithson in rock ’n’ roll sleek belly baring tops, leather pants and wind-blown hair.
Dorff, who has worked with Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand, among others, did note that he had no regrets. For Smithson, he said, “it just wasn’t the right time.”