In December 2008, an article in the Neirad, Darien High School's student paper, was published about Elizabeth Leimkuhler, then a sophomore at DHS. The article's title, "A Potentially Famous Face in the Halls," now sounds almost eerily accurate. Even Leimkuhler (DHS '11) could not have predicted that by the end of her freshman year of college, she would have been selected by Lionel Richie to sing on national television.
Last December, Leimkuhler's a capella group, Key Change, was asked to sing at a Harvard Foundation awards ceremony at which Richie was recognized for his humanitarian efforts. In one of the songs, Leimkuhler was featured as a soloist.
"Lionel heard me sing and he was really, really impressed. A month later I got a call from his people saying he really liked me and wanted to work with me in some way," Leimkuhler said. "I got super excited -- there were calls from all these managers, and all this paperwork."
Then, just as she had all her tickets booked, ready to embark on this amazing opportunity, she got another phone call.
"Three days before I was supposed to fly to L.A., I got a call that Lionel dropped out (of the ABC show "Duets") for personal reasons," she said. Since she was all set to go, however, the show invited her to sing for John Legend instead, who was to take the place of Richie on "Duets."
She flew out on a red-eye flight, and sang for Legend the next morning.
"He didn't really like me. I don't know why, but I'm actually kind of happy," she said. "I just wanted to go back to school, to all my friends -- I was missing a lot of fun.
"I realized it's not the path I want to follow. Reality TV is not about music, it's about making entertainment, which is not my thing. I know now that what I really want to do is play music, get a jazz combo, play at bars and just do music."
Although Leimkuhler didn't watch the episode when it first aired, she eventually saw it online, experiencing that strange sensation of seeing herself filmed, edited and pieced together, almost packaged into a caricature.
"It was pretty strange -- they definitely cut it to make me look like a nerd -- I said `I want to study pandas' and then they cut to me laughing weirdly and I'm like, `thanks, guys.' "
Later, she found reviews online, few of them mentioning her by name, instead calling her "the panda doctor" instead or a "tiny, dorky white girl." Sometimes she was the "cute nerd" and other times, the "awkward nerd."
Leimkuhler has her own theories about why the show did not choose her.
"They probably thought oh, privileged white girl from Harvard, most people are going to hate her. It's all demographics."
She recalls her not-so-glamorous experience of the TV world.
"I was put in a room and basically sent granola bars for a couple hours, led to a room to sing for like two minutes, and none of the contestants were allowed to talk to each other," she said. "It's not like they really wanted to get to know me at all."
Hannah Caldwell, a senior at DHS, is proud of her friend for making it as far as she did.
"Elizabeth actually told me herself a while back before everything was even set in stone. She said that there was a possibility of her going out to L.A. and being on a singing show and I honestly wasn't surprised at all. Anyone who has seen Elizabeth perform can attest to the fact that she is an amazing performer," Caldwell said. "She lights up the stage and her voice can silence a room."
The rest of the Darien community started to have an inkling about Leimkuhler's involvement when they saw her familiar face on a "Duets" TV spot that started airing about a week before the show premiered.
"I started getting texts from people who saw me on the commercial," she said. "Every time it ran, I knew the commercial was on because I'd get like 12 texts saying `I saw you on TV!' "
All in all, Leimkuhler was glad to go home and back to her life in Cambridge, Mass.
"Everybody here is extremely motivated and extremely talented," she said of Harvard. "You meet kids that are so smart. I know this one kid, he's 16, in my class, and he writes crossword puzzles for The New York Times and I'm like, `Hi, I'm Elizabeth, I got good grades in high school.' "
In a way it's kind of good because you need to be able to judge your own work based on your own work. ... You learn to accept imperfections because you're literally with the best of the best."