Saturday, October 01, 2005

Cambodian survivor of Cleveland School tragedy makes impression on 'American Idol'

By Emil Guillermo
Record Staff Writer
Published Sunday, February 6, 2005

STOCKTON -- A Southeast Asian refugee whose family survived Cambodia's "Killing Fields" as well as Stockton's infamous 1989 Cleveland School yard massacre has advanced through the first round in one of television's hottest reality shows.

Elizabeth Pha, 24, a Stagg High graduate whose parents live in Stockton, got through the first major cut in "American Idol," the Fox network talent show known for its intense competition.

She will next appear in the show's Hollywood round, where nearly 200 contestants compete. That show airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KXTL-TV 40.

"They always say, 'What a big voice for such a little girl,' " said Pha, who stands 5 feet, 1 inch and stunned viewers last week when she won over the show's toughest judge, Simon Cowell.

And while previews of the upcoming week's program show Pha crying and saying how unfair the competition is, she already knows she's some kind of winner.

Pha's family survived the "Killing Fields" of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979.

The Communist regime assassinated intellectuals and skilled workers, and under its leader, Pol Pot, an estimated 1.5 million people died.

When the regime fell, the Pha family found themselves in a refugee camp, where Elizabeth was born.

A year later, as Pha was held close to her mother's bosom, the family crossed the border to another camp in Thailand. Ultimately, they relocated to the Philippines, and then to America.

The Phas made their way to Lincoln, Nebraska, then Washington state. They discovered Stockton in 1985 and stayed.

And then came Jan. 17, 1989.

Pha, just 8 and in second grade, was in the school yard playing during recess at Cleveland Elementary School as gunfire shattered the mid-morning calm.

Patrick Purdy, a loner, took an AK-47 style weapon and opened fire at the school he had attended as a child. He sprayed the playground with 106 rounds, killing five children and wounding 30. And then Purdy took his own life.

Pha was on the school grounds and saw it all.

She watched Rathanar Or, 9, die a few feet away from her. And she's never forgotten it.

"It's pretty sad and scary when someone dies in front of you," said Pha at her parent's home in Stockton. "It's really traumatizing."

"She's a Cleveland survivor. That's a big deal," said Dianne Barth, SUSD spokeswoman.

A contractual agreement with Fox limits Pha from talking about her experience on "Idol."

Stagg High counselor Beverly Nagai said she was like a mom to Pha during her high school years.

"Cleveland is something she thinks about everyday," said Nagai, 55. "And I think it makes her more sensitive."

But not so sensitive she would shrink from the scrutiny of "American Idol."

Her closest Stockton friends are still buzzing about her last appearance.

"They all say, 'Did you see, Liz?' " said Nagai, who has kept in touch with Pha since the former Stagg student left for Hollywood to pursue her showbiz dreams.

"She's called me ever since she tried out," said Nagai, who watched Wednesday night, when Pha went before the American Idol judges for the first time.

That show was the highest rated show on television that night with 23 percent of homes using television in the nation tuned in, nearly triple the number that tuned in for President Bush's State of the Union Address.

Since it started its new season last month, "American Idol" has been drawing between 26 and 30 million viewers an episode.

Wednesday night was also "Idol's" final mass audition.

"She sings way better than that," said Nagai, who first saw Pha captivate a full school assembly at Stagg in her senior year.

"The whole student body was quiet when she sang," recalled Nagai.

"You got chills hearing her sing. We were just all amazed. It was like 'Wow, she's a talent.' "

Nagai described Pha as an "honor roll student" and a "sweet, down home" person, who went to University of the Pacific for two years before she left to attend school in Los Angeles.

But on the show last week, Pha was dressed in an unusually provocative outfit: a fishnet-web like dress over a tube top and miniskirt.

"Hideous," said Simon Cowell, notorious among the "Idol" judges for being brutally frank and honest.

The dress revealed a prudish sense among the normally jaded judges.

"I wasn't naked," said Pha, who liked the netting that made up the dress. Her hair she described as bushy. And very conspicuously, she placed a dot on her forehead, a bindi. It was Pha's a salute to India's Bollywood.

"It was just for fashion," said Pha. "I didn't expect all the comment it got. Honest to God. I just wanted people to think it was sexy. Respectable sexy."

"I think it's good for people so they can admire her," said her mother, Erica Pha, with a laugh. "She's a brave Asian girl."

But Pha's friends were stunned too.

"It didn't look like her," said Nagai.

"She looked like, well, a hooker," said Tony Washington, producer of the local "Apollo Nights" program. Washington remembered Pha as shy and classy when she was among the top winners in the 2003 "Apollo Night" program.

For that, Pha wore a formal gown and sang the love song "My Heart Will Go On," from the movie, "Titanic."

But he's still proud of his Apollo graduate.

"That's showbiz," Washington said. "Several (Apollo night contestants) have auditioned for 'American Idol,' but no one has made it this far. She's the first."

Pha nearly didn't make it to the next round of "Idol."

Judges Randy Jackson and Brandy were quick to say no, still baffled by Pha's fishnet/sex alien look.

"Inappropriate," said one.

Paula Abdul, a singer-dancer who has performed provocative numbers in the past, was taken aback, but was impressed with Pha's big voice.

She gave her the thumbs up.

That left it up to the notorious Simon Cowell, who had already made a comment about Pha's attention-seeking get-up.

"You want attention," said Cowell.

"I want to be a big star," she said.

But Cowell found himself impressed by Pha's big voice when she began singing a portion of the Whitney Houston song, "I Have Nothing," from the film, "The Body Guard."

Was it big enough to send Pha to the Hollywood round?

"Yes," Cowell said.

"We were so happy for her," said Nagai, who got the call from Pha to watch the show. "The school is really proud of her. It does a lot for everybody's self-esteem."

Her friends say Pha's background, as a refugee, as a survivor at Cleveland school, gives her an emotional edge.

Does it make her a better singer?

"Her voice is beautiful as it is," said Nagai. "The emotion definitely comes out."

Nagai added Pha's life experience and what she's already overcome makes her seem more determined to reach her showbiz goals.

"She's determined, yes," Nagai said.

"But she's quiet. She doesn't step on other people."

Does Pha have what it takes to make it all the way to the finals?

"Yes, she does," said Nagai. "She's gone through a lot, and she can put things in perspective. She'll just keep trying if she doesn't survive 'American Idol.' "


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7:23 AM  

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