HIGH STANDARDS: Nia Renée performs for the judges on the season premiere of "American Idol." courtesy DGE Press

On New Year’s Day 2021, Tania Kelley let go of a secret that had been excruciatingly hard to keep. Kelley, who performs as Nia Renée, could finally let friends and family know that she’d be appearing on the premiere episode of “American Idol,” to air 7 p.m., Feb. 14 on ABC. 

Nia’s 17 now, a senior at Central High School, undecided about what college she’ll attend but certain she’ll focus on vocal performance. “Singing is what I do,” she told me. Wherever she ends up, she’ll take with her an already robust list of stage experiences. She’s filmed videos for two original singles — “High Standards” and “All Lost On Love,” both available on streaming platforms far and wide. She was crowned Miss Heritage Outstanding Teen in 2020, a preliminary competition under the Miss Arkansas pageant umbrella. She’s the president of Central High’s theater department, where she played the lead in Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s one-act musical “Once on This Island.” She’s performed in youth productions like “Willy Wonka, Jr.” at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and with Opera in the Rock. And she’s got the range to tackle daunting repertoire — hits from the likes of Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. She put this together for Juneteenth last year, complete with a tribute to the late Betty Wright: 


So maybe it’s a little ironic that after gracing some of the state’s most historic stages, Nia’s big break “American Idol” audition happened in the comfort of her own Little Rock bedroom, over Zoom. “It was so comfortable since I got to do it from home,” she told us over the phone today. “It was so well put together. They gave me a link, and I logged in on Zoom, and we all just waited in the waiting room and waved at each other. ‘Cause we were all looking at each other!”  


Nia’s been watching “American Idol” since she was very young (too young to recall much about the Kris Allen era), so when an “Idol” exec informed Nia and her mother, Tamara Kelley, (also over Zoom) that Nia would be advancing to L.A. for the next round of auditions, they were “ecstatic. My mom was right there the whole time, and we were just so emotional, and just — I always dreamed for this to happen. All the emotions.” The comforts of Nia’s bedroom — a stuffed Central High tiger mascot, her pageant and talent competition trophies, her Miss Heritage crown — had helped assuage her pre-performance butterflies a little, she said, but she was still nervous. 

2020’s virtual preliminaries were a first for “Idol,” which typically shepherds aspiring contestants through long lines and into bustling waiting rooms in cities across the country as singers vie for a trip to L.A. to meet the “Idol” celebs in person. This year, that roster includes judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan; in-house mentor (and fellow Arkansan) Bobby Bones; and host Ryan Seacrest. The ultimate goal, of course, is to land a “yes” from all three judges, thereby securing the “golden ticket” that lands them on the show. Meeting the celebrity panel, Nia said, “was the best. To be able to sit in front of them and sing was unbelievable.”

courtesy DEG Press
‘SINGING IS WHAT I DO’: Nia Renée hails from Little Rock, and is president of the theater department at Central High.

Of course, TV disclosure rules being what they are, Nia couldn’t tell us the good stuff: what she sang, what the hell Lionel Ritchie is doing in these photos, whether she made the cut and, therefore, whether we can plan on seeing more of her this “Idol” season. Surely ABC could drum up a big Arkansas viewership if she advances, but we have a feeling Nia will be just fine either way.