Sparks, Jordin 1989–

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Jordin Sparks 1989–


In 2007 Jordin Sparks, a seventeen-year-old high school junior, became the youngest winner of the American Idol television program, a widely viewed program that has served as an important incubator of new vocal talent. Sparks's run in the elimination rounds leading up to the final competition made for compelling television, for she was an underdog whose talents evolved during the course of the competition. With a large, athletic build, she was also hailed as a role model for girls who were not naturally slender. “I'm really comfortable in my own skin,” she told Monica Rizzo of People magazine. “I learned that I'm not ever going to be a size 2. I would look so weird as a size 2. Somebody would blow and I would fall right over. It just wouldn't be healthy.”

Sparks inherited her body type from her father, Phillippi Sparks, a former professional football cornerback. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, on December 22, 1989, and raised in suburban Glendale with her brother, P.J., Sparks is biracial; her father is African American, and her mother, Jodi, a real estate agent, is white. She showed musical impulses at age two, when she started to sing along with a household CD by gospel star Kirk Franklin, and as a child she was so full of music that she would sing to herself in class. She liked music and acting from the start, and she also participated enthusiastically in sports.

By the time she was in second grade, Sparks was big enough to be admitted to amusement park rides. But, in her own eyes, her height turned into a liability by the time she was in junior high school. At five-foot-ten she wore size twelve clothes, and when she and her friends went to a shopping mall, she sometimes was embarrassed when stores did not have clothes in her size. “I stood out everywhere,” she recalled to Rizzo, and she began to wear baggy clothes and to adopt a hunched posture despite her parents' attempts to instill a positive self-image.

Sparks was twelve years old when American Idol made its debut on the FOX television network in 2002, and she quickly became absorbed in the show. “I watched it and was hooked on it since season 1,” she told Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly. “I was like, ‘Kelly! [first season winner Kelly Clarkson]’ I voted for her.” Expressing to her family the dream of appearing on the show herself, Sparks took the next step by getting serious about her singing. In 2004 she appeared on the television program America's Most Talented Kid.

The following year Sparks landed a role in a gospel musical presented at Grace Chapel, a megachurch in Franklin, Tennessee. She moved there temporarily and was home-schooled while she was appearing on stage. But equally important to her development as a musician was a modeling contract she won with Torrid, a magazine aimed at plus-sized young women. Sparks also appeared in an ad in Seventeen magazine. “I think it really helped boost her self-esteem and made her realize she's beautiful as she is,” her grandmother Pam Weidmann told Rizzo. In Tennessee Sparks thought about trying to make a career for herself in country music, and she had some negotiations with a Nashville management company. Even back in Arizona she had recorded a vanity disc called Live at Mr. Lucky's, a local country nightspot.

By early 2007 Sparks felt she was ready to try out for American Idol. Her Nashville contacts, she recalled to Chris Hansen Orf of the Mesa, Arizona, Tribune, “were like, ‘OK, get it out of your system and go try out for it.’” Sparks went to Los Angeles to audition, but she was eliminated in the first round—she was not chosen to appear before the show's judges in the round of auditions that would give her a chance to appear on the program. Undiscouraged, Sparks traveled to Seattle and signed up to audition there. This time she was picked for the judges' round, and she impressed them with her rendition of Canadian superstar Celine Dion's “Because You Loved Me.” The notoriously critical Simon Cowell, however, dissented: “Sometimes I like to put one sugar in my coffee, to make it slightly sweeter. That was the equivalent of putting 11 spoonfuls in,” Karger quoted him as saying. Nevertheless, Sparks was selected to appear on the 2007 American Idol season.

Troubled by the drug and alcohol overdose of a high school friend, Sparks headed for Hollywood in February of 2007 for the weekly tapings of American Idol. Few preseason observers gave her much of a chance, but her fellow contestants liked her personality and nicknamed her Sparkles. As the show proceeded, Sparks avoided elimination and seemed to come out of her shell, wearing sleeveless dresses and taking chances on unusual material. On an American Idol week devoted to country music, Sparks delivered a perfect performance of the technically and emotionally difficult Martina McBride country hit “A Broken Wing.” Cowell was won over. “This is the first time since we have met,” he said to Sparks, as reported by Karger, “where I actually believe, based on that performance, you could win American Idol. It was that good.”

Sparks reprised her triumph the following week with a strong performance of “You'll Never Walk Alone.” Asked by host Ryan Seacrest what she thought she had learned about herself during American Idol, Sparks, as Karger reported, answered, “Um, I guess it would be that I can handle a lot more than I thought I could?” She outlasted other female contestants and came into the final round in May matched with Washington State's Blake Lewis. Sparks demonstrated her superior vocal chops on the year's songwriting contest winner, “This Is My Now,” whereas Lewis was thought to have the edge in overall entertainer skills. With seventy-four million viewer votes, Sparks emerged as the winner of American Idol's main prizes: a new red Ford Mustang and a recording contract with the Jive label (the latter also awarded to runner-up Lewis).

Sparks's debut recording, titled simply Jordin Sparks, was issued at the end of 2007 after the vocalist completed several months of cross-country touring. She was steered away from country and in the direction of rhythm and blues, but within that field the album showed considerable variety, with several top producers lending their talents. “I didn't want [people] to think that I was just going to put out an album full of ballads,” Sparks told Joey Guerra of the Houston Chronicle. “I'm still growing and I'm still learning in my artistry.” With a powerhouse voice, praise from superstars such as Smokey Robinson and Barry Gibb, and the added advantage of having some perspective on fame thanks to her upbringing in an NFL household, Sparks seemed a strong candidate to follow several earlier American Idol winners to the top levels of the entertainment industry.

At a Glance …

Born on December 22, 1989, in Phoenix, AZ; daughter of Phillippi Dwaine and Jodi Sparks.

Career: Appeared on television program America's Most Talented Kid, 2004; won Torrid magazine contest and modeling contract, 2006; signed to Jive label, 2007; released debut album, Jordin Sparks, 2007.

Awards: American Idol, winner, 2007.

Addresses: Web—

Selected discography

Jordin Sparks, Jive, 2007.



Billboard, November 24, 2007, p. 56.

Entertainment Weekly, June 2007, p. 10.

Houston Chronicle, December 6, 2007.

Jet, June 11, 2007, p. 60.

People, May 30, 2007; June 11, 2007, p. 120.

Tribune (Mesa, AZ), November 18, 2007.


“Jordin Sparks,” Biography Resource Center, (accessed January 4, 2008).

—James M. Manheim