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Diana DeGarmo Prepares For a Toxic Shock

The young star talks about starring in Off-Broadway's The Toxic Avenger, her recording career, and life on and after American Idol.

Diana DeGarmo
Diana DeGarmo first entered America's consciousness on Season 3 of Fox's American Idol, when she ended up as the show's first runner-up (losing the crown to Fantasia).Since then, the now 22-year-old performer has had an impressive recording career and worked steadily in musical theater. On August 14, she joins the cast of the hit Off-Broadway musical The Toxic Avenger at New World Stages as Sarah, the somewhat slutty blind librarian with a heart of gold. TheaterMania sat down with DeGarmo after a rehearsal to talk about the show, her career, and life on Idol.

THEATERMANIA: So how did being part of The Toxic Avenger come about?
DIANA DE GARMO: I stumbled across an email asking me about it -- I had heard of the movie and had been keeping a small pulse on what was happening in the City even though I hadn't been living here so I knew about the show -- but then I finally got the music and I came up to New York and saw the show, and I was like, "oh my gosh this is hysterical." My sides hurt after watching it. And I liked the fact that it was in a smaller house. Even though it's great to perform in huge houses, you kind of lose people there, and I love that here the fourth wall does not exist for 98 percent of the show.

TM: Are you finding similarities between Penny Pingleton, who you played in the Broadway production of Hairspray, and this character?
DD: It's funny because the more I get into this show, the more I think Sarah is a lot like Penny -- minus the blind part, which is completely new and a little terrifying. But she is different! One reason I wanted to do this show is because it's the first female lead role I've had where I'm not playing a young girl or someone super-duper sweet, which is what everybody expects from me. I call Sarah the lady on the street but a freak in the bedroom -- she's that kind of girl and I like it.

TM: You've performed in New York before -- and you recently did Back to Bacharach and David in Los Angeles and then Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Oklahoma City . Do you find the audiences to be different in each place?
DD: In L.A, I think the audiences weren't always as responsive as we expected, but we got great reviews and great feedback, especially from Mr. Bacharach and Mr. David, who came to see the show. Oklahoma was great because people were so appreciative. They just loved every second of us being there. And New York's always cool, because people come to the theater all the time and it's a part of life here.

TM: What has it been like in this short period of time to go from the music of Burt Bacharach to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber to the music of The Toxic Avenger?
DD: Well, everything that I've done has always been completely different from the next. I like that -- I'm a Gemini, so I've got multiple personalities. I even have a sort of bi-polar life as a person, because I live in Nashville and I sing country music on my own time. And when I'm there, I can go back and I can wipe off whatever character I was playing and I can just have my accent back and be who I was when I was a kid. I always loved playing dress-up as a kid, and acting is just a glorified version of dress-up.

TM: Speaking of dress-up, did you consider dyeing your hair blonde for this part?
DD: No! But when I'm in the blonde wig, it's just like I go back to American Idol Diana -- which is kind of trippy. As a blonde, all of a sudden I look like the very All-American girl next door and it just cracks me up. So I like that I can take the wig off at the end of the night ad go back to being my exotic self -- my evil twin.

TM: It's been six years since you were on Idol: Did you find any of the judges' advice useful then?
DD: I always found Paula Abdul's advice to be the most uplifting. Even though she might not have liked your performance or agreed with what you did or what you wore, you never felt like you had a huge wound when you walked off stage. Randy Jackson sometimes left you going, "huh?" And Simon Cowell left you like, "oh, you just socked me in the stomach when all I should have gotten was a flick." I saw them all when I went back this past season for one of the episodes, and Paula was the only one who came up and gave me a huge hug and talked to me.

TM: The interesting thing to me is that you were only 16 when you did the show. Was that weird for you?
DD: When I was there this year, I got to speak with Allison Iraheta, who was this year's young contestant, and she said, "oh my gosh, you paved the way for us". At first, I was just like, "oh, thank you," and then the more I thought about it, I realized they do treat the young ones completely differently now than during my season. It's true; I got so much flack from the judges just for being that young. In the end, though, it made me a stronger person because auditions can be so harsh, but now I can take anything because I've heard it all.

TM: Let's talk a little about your career as a songwriter and recording artist. What inspires your songwriting?
DD: Most of the time it's the life of a 21-22 year old, even if it's not something that's directly happened to me. I write country music because it tells stories. I wish that I could be a great pop writer, but I can't -- because pop just doesn't have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, I co-write everything. One is because I don't trust myself enough to write by myself; and, second, because I don't play an instrument so I have to have somebody with me. And I always like to work with a male partner, because we always give totally different ideas on the same subject, which is really cool.

TM: So what's more important to you, winning the Tony Award or the Grammy Award?
DD: That's like asking which kid you like best. I definitely appreciate the Grammys. I've been an NARAS member since I was 13, and I love what they do to support the recording industry. But when you are out on stage, there's no auto-tune; there's no let's do it one more time, there's no second chance - it's what you see is what you get. Only God knows how many times a recording might have been tweaked. But just give me one nomination -- for either award -- and I would be like "yes!"